February 14, 2010
Everybody loved me growing up. That’s how it was. We may have been five girls and five girls was too many; we may have been poor compared to the millionaires next door, but where love was concerned, we had an embarrassment of wealth.
My sisters loved me, and so did my teachers and Sunday School teachers. My grandparents did, too, and my dad—he loved us, all five of us, to pieces. That’s what he used to say all the time, in different ways, of course. Sometimes, he said it while imposing rules (no TV on school nights). Sometimes he said it by taking us on some very creative adventures (for breakfast, to Jones Beach, at sunrise, for example. He kept a frying pan in the trunk of the car. We’d find an isolated sand dune; he’d build a fire and make eggs and bacon. After we finished, he scoured the pan with sand and threw it back in the trunk.
My dad declared his love frequently and urgently. Toward the end of his life, he said “I love you desperately” so often I had to ask him to stop. “I know you love me without your needing to say it,” I told him one morning on the sun porch, looking down over the lawn toward our boathouse. He nodded dolefully, but did not comply. Later that afternoon, as he drove me to the train station in Hudson, NY, for my trip back to New York City, he said it again.
He was charming and handsome and clever but not a respecter of other people’s boundaries; he got away with things. His enormous displays of affection and crushing hugs were just one aspect. Friends were always commenting on them: “My God, you’re so lucky. Your dad loves you so much!” This was embarrassing.
“How would you like your dad crooning songs from Camelot?” I’d ask them.
How to handle a woman?
There’s a way, said the wise old man. The way known to ev’ry woman since the whole rigmarole began.
Do I flatter her? I begged him answer. Do I brood or cajole or plead? Do I play the gay romancer?
Said he smiling, “No, indeed.”
How to handle a woman?
Mark me well, I will tell you, sir: The way to handle a woman, is to love her…simply love her…merely love her…love her…love her.
“He does that?” they’d ask.
Let it be said that my mom loved us too, but it was more ethereal, effortless—the kind of love needing few words. Hers was a counterweight to my dad’s more earthly expressions—the best of all possible worlds, you might say. The thing is, having the best of both possible worlds doesn’t put you on easy street. What you get in childhood has a way of slipping from your grasp the older you get. In the absences, the long stretches where no one fills your mailbox with Valentines Day cards or your heart with desire, you wonder. What is Love, exactly?
I’ve asked myself that many times. Here’s what I’ve come up with today, Valentine’s Day, 2010: Love from whatever source is not something casually distilled or easily stored. Both are fleeting—the human kind certainly is and the divine kind, though steady, can seem an abstraction. Even studying it as a subject, or writing about it as the spinster is trying to do, doesn’t equate to living it, which is the point, is it not?
Now let’s get back to my story:
My mother was the one who taught me, from the tiniest age, that as much as she and my dad loved me, that God loved me most of all. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that my first memory ever is of lying in a crib in the nursery at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Huntington, New York, staring up at a mobile that hung over the bassinet, just beyond my grasp, as things in life so often do.
I may have told you this story already, and for that I apologize. The thing is, that early feeling of security was repeated throughout my childhood and most notably at bedtime, when my dad would make up stories (Jack James, World War II hero!) and then my mom would come in and tell me that I was God’s perfect child, just as I learned in church.
You may think I liked Sunday School. You would be wrong. How could I know that the person I am today would emerge directly from those tedious early lessons learned, sitting at the small round tables in my Mary Janes and smocked dress and trying to make sense out of Bible stories and corresponding passages from the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy?
I liked the idea of God being my father-mother, sure. I liked hearing that he loved me so much that I could never be sick, or sad or scared. I also liked the church, which was small and white and pretty, with azaleas, hyacinths and forsythia that made everything seem like Easter. I loved seeing my dad standing, tall and slim in a tie and jacket, wearing white gloves and a carnation in his lapel, at the door of the foyer, welcoming in the congregation on Sunday mornings. I also loved that my mom was a Sunday School teacher and that my sisters were sitting at the surrounding tables, learning that God is seven synonyms (Mind, Soul, Spirit, Principle, Life, Truth, Love) and not some angry old guy with a white beard sitting on a distant cloud, waiting to punish us when we are bad.
What didn’t I like? Sitting still. Memorization. Did not committing adultery come before or after not stealing in the 10 Commandments? And what did not taking the Lord thy God’s name in vain mean? That it was bad for Daddy to say “Oh God!” or “Jesus!” so often?
Then there were the lessons we were supposed to study every week on different subjects like Ancient and Modern Necromancy, alias Mesmerism and Hypnotism, Denounced and Is the World, Including Man, Evolved by Atomic Force? and my all-time least favorite: Everlasting Punishment. Lest I mislead you, these subjects were no more difficult to understand than those with shorter, merrier titles: Love; Soul; Spirit; God, the Only Cause and Creator. But I digress.
We had no crossword puzzles about Jesus to entertain us in Sunday School, no Easter and Christmas pageants like my friends who went to other churches. We did not have a choir like the Episcopalians or stained glass like the Methodists and nice baptisms and christenings and weddings like—I don’t know. The Presbyterians? We did not have preachers like the Baptists, either. What we had was a simple room downstairs from the auditorium, with the words God is Love painted on the wall, right behind where the Sunday School superintendent stood whenever we were saying the Lord’s Prayer or singing hymns or reciting the Scientific Statement of Being.
For those of you not in the know, the Scientific Statement of Being says that there is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter. That all is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation and that God is all there is. It goes on to say that Spirit is immortal Truth and matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal and matter is the unreal and temporal. Finally, it says that Spirit is God and that man is his image and likeness. Therefore, man is not material. He is Spiritual.
The Scientific Statement of Being happened to be the last thing we repeated before Sunday School was let out, and therefore I had it committed to memory, though I confess to always saying it while standing on one foot. Who knows why. Mortal error? Animal Magnetism? Simple boredom?
I realized early enough that what I was learning in church was totally unlike what my little friends were learning in their houses of worship. Worse was hearing from my Sunday School teacher that the early Romans threw Christian Scientists to the lions—just like Daniel in the lion’s den. I’m quite sure that’s what she said. Why single us out? That’s what I wondered. What had we done to deserve such persecution? Was it the no doctors thing? The fact that we had readers upstairs instead of priests? I asked my mom why we couldn’t be Lutheran like my friend Callie, because they got to draw pictures in Sunday School, or Jewish like my best friend Leslie, because they didn’t go to church at all on Sunday but rather, got to stay home and make pancakes.
One thing I did know was that I didn’t want to be like my friend Annie; her father drank and yelled all the time and her mother beat the kids with a strap. I also wouldn’t want to wear a uniform to West Side elementary school as Annie did, or get taken out of class at regular intervals to go to “relig” (aka religious instruction) at St. Patrick’s church, which was down the street from our church and much, much bigger. If that church made you study The Bible when you were actually supposed to be in school learning about fun stuff—like the pilgrims and the first colonists and whatnot—I wanted nothing to do with it.
In any event, there were many reasons I did not like Sunday School. There was one good thing about it, though, and that was that my parents rewarded us with a stop at the candy store in Cold Spring Harbor on our way home. Afterwards, we stopped in at Louie’s clam bar, a little roadside shack with a rutted dirt parking lot where my dad ate cherrystones right out of the shell and my sisters and mom and I ate hamburgers and fries and watched swans squabbling off the pier. I always wondered how he could eat those vile things, but I figured, well, he’s a dad. He eats raw clams and sings songs from Camelot that no one wants to hear and serves as an usher upstairs at church. That’s what dads do.
There is a point to all of this, and here it is: all this love talk and demonstrations about love—love with a small l and Love with a big L at home and in church really made an impression on me. Between my mother’s reassurances and my dad’s hugs and God being love and everything else, and despite my resistance to studying The Bible and Science and Health, I got the impression that this love business was really, really significant.
This was particularly true when I wasn’t feeling well. At such times, my mother reassured me that God never made sickness since he was Love and Love was all good. She would then read me some story about Jesus saving Jairus’ daughter or God saving the three men in the fiery furnace and we would sing, Feed My Sheep. My dad’s middle name was Sheppard, and I almost always felt that this song was about him even when I knew that it was really about God. You think I sound a bit confused? Well I knew this: When my mother told me that God wouldn’t ever let me be sick, I always believed her. And with that, I fell asleep. I always awoke, well.
Of course, there was a downside. Since I was never sick, I never got to miss school. My friends were always coming down with something and staying home and this seemed very unfair. They got the mumps and were allowed to stay home and sleep. They got to have their tonsils out and stay home and eat ice cream until they recovered. Why couldn’t I be more like that? What did you need tonsils for, anyway?
Finally, though, I got my wish: all my sisters and I came down with the measles and we got to stay home. Mom hovered over us more than usual, praying aloud with my Dad in the room, telling us we were all God’s perfect children and walking from one room to the other, reading to us from The Bible and from Science and Health. As I improved, she even let me play next to the ironing board while she pressed my dad’s shirts and watched The Sons of Hercules on TV. That was really fun.
Did we go to a doctor? No. The doctor, as far as I was concerned, was a sadist who plunged a hypodermic needle in my arm on my second visit ever and then smiled when I was crying. He was also the man who told me to close my eyes when I was very small and just when I anticipated he was going to give me a lollipop, put a band-aid over my mouth. Yes, my mother took us to a pediatrician for shots, but only to oblige state laws. So we suffered through getting jabbed with needles at the doctor and got measles anyway. That never made any sense to me, but that’s what she did.
My mother’s prayers were very effective, by the way, and when she needed extra help, she called a Christian Science practitioner, which is someone who heals through the application of Christian Science prayer and principles. What kind of principles? The same ones Jesus used, my friend! Anyway, within four days, I was back in kindergarten and my sisters back in school, too. I really missed watching those muscular, oily Gladiators driving chariots and beating up bad guys in leather skirts and breast plates while my mom did the ironing, but I also had a big crush on a classmate. So going back to school was, it turned out, not so bad.
It’s true: I was born a romantic, a kindergarten Don Juan. I loved boys the way my dad obviously loved girls—one of those traits that get passed from parent to child like a talent for playing the trumpet or wavy, red hair. I even tried to enlist Mom in helping me write a love note to Jody. I had not yet learned to write; of course she declined. This was devastating: I loved Jody and wanted to marry him, just the way my dad had wanted to marry my namesake when they were both seven.
That crush passed and others followed. Besides a school mate I wanted to marry in the fifth grade, there were infatuations with Ringo Star, Davy Jones and David McCallum from The Man from Uncle. Then there was Jamie Becker, with whom I went steady in the sixth grade. We actually made out in the woods one day after school. Can you believe it? I was this tall, skinny kid with blond hair and he was another tall skinny kid with blond hair and we made out while my friend timed us with a stop watch.
Where is this going? Who the hell knows? I set out to explore love with this blog and it occurred to me that my predilections later in life (Latin men, for one) had deep roots back among the tiger lilies and wild lady slippers of my childhood. All this because I was loved and because I was the youngest of five girls in a household with no boys and because my Dad wanted us to know that no one loved or needed us as much as he did, which my Mom always contradicted by affirming that God loved and needed us even more. And that was that. Not a bad beginning for a spinster, I think.