The Dreaded VBS
My cousin Bette hated her curly red hair, but her mother and the other females of the family told her that her hair was beautiful and that she’d love it after she grew up, but they lied. Women lie constantly because they think doing so will make their children feel better. My mother was the only one who wasn’t lying. She loved Bette’s impossible hair, but regretted having given birth to my fence-straight bob. The lie didn’t stop Bette from shrieking and whimpering whenever my aunt yanked a comb through her Orphan Annie halo, or whacked her with the hair brush, a stroke of love which was supposed to stop her tears. The result was that Bette’s adult life was wasted in a sad quest to have someone else’s hair.
My cousin’s hair had nothing to do with an unexpected event that changed my life, except that it occurred during our yearly visit to my mother’s relatives. I don’t recall the version of Christianity her family followed out of the thousands of micro brews available. My uncle was a little Scotch bastard, so they may have been Presbyterians. Fortunately for the rest of us, he disappeared on Sundays in his black and red Mercury convertible to play golf. It would have been like him to demand that the family go to church while he drank scotch at the country club bar. My relatives’ place of worship didn’t hand out ‘Get-out-of-Hell-Free’ cards for a weekly donation, and the congregation didn’t stand, kneel, or sing much. In lieu of wine, grape juice was passed through the pews in small paper cups like the ones dentists used to provide, followed by trays of white bread croutons. My mother, who was a fan of high religious frou-frou, was scandalized. How could materials available in any grocery store be expected to turn into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ? From her I learned that if one is dressing God’s play, one had better provide quality props.
My mother was paid to sing at weddings and other church-hosted events before she married my father, a vocation that exposed her to a range of worship styles. Based on this early market research, she chose to ally our family with the Episcopalians, who dressed well and sang the beautiful songs that she liked to sing, plus she got to share coffee and donut holes with exceedingly prosperous people, a ritual that helped her to push aside her childhood poverty for a few minutes. My mother never questioned the church’s edict that women must cover their heads in the sanctuary; poverty and abuse had prepared her to accept shame. She and the other women did subvert the prejudice by turning the ban into a fashion hobby. I liked her multitude of fancy hats, regardless of the complex sociology involved.
“Wear the Donald Duck hat,” I would say when she couldn’t decide which one to wear and we were late. Dad, the engineer, believed that Newton’s laws were as applicable to human psychology as to aircraft design, so instead of wasting energy opposing mother’s inertia, he sat at the kitchen table like a big dog waiting to be taken for a walk. The famous Donald Duck hat was shaped like a pancake with a projection in front that resembled a duck’s bill. My mother adopted my nickname for the hat, which pleased me. Too often she took offhand comments to be criticism. My mother badly needed to lighten up.
I might have developed into an acceptable American had my mother heeded my plea for lenience regarding Vacation Bible School that summer. “School? It’s supposed to be summer vacation.”
“Your cousin Bette is going, so you are going.” My mother had noticed a reluctant streak that appeared whenever I was asked to participate in group activities like Brownie Scouts or school plays. What would be next, a boycott of beauty pageants? The previous year she had shoved me in front of the cameras, and shockingly, I became the local Kiwanis Club’s Miss Peanut. When shown my idiotic picture in the newspaper I seethed with embarrassment: had my parents been aware of such things, they would have recognized that their female child was the reincarnation of a stodgy old Roman whose core directive was gravitas, but they weren’t. The thought that I might fail to socialize in the accepted feminine way caused my mother to push back sporadically, while my father encouraged the trend, probably because she made him wait for everything. My mother recognized that she had given birth to a child that she didn’t like and it made her furious.
Bette’s older sister, who was soon to depart into an embarrassing adult life as the wife of a bigamist Venezuelan deep sea diver, dropped us off at the church, where we were seated with other kids our age at a table set on the lawn. Adult supervisors handed each of us a blue felt board and paper cutouts of Jesus and several loose sheep. Jesus had those spooky Sunday School eyes that look nowhere and everywhere, letting kids know that like Santa Claus, he knows if you’ve been good or bad. The sheep gazed upward with unmistakable religious fervor. It was just too obvious.
The adults instructed us to press the paper figures to the fabric until they stuck. I looked to my cousin and the other children, expecting one of them to ask why we were doing this, but they were busy making decisions: should Jesus float high above the flock or should he take an egalitarian stance among them? I tilted my board to study the symbolic problem. An errant breeze caught the paper cut outs, which fluttered momentarily, then fell onto the grass. Cousin Bette and another girl began to shriek. “Look what you did! You let Jesus touch the ground.”
“Hurry! Hurry! Pick him up.” they screeched, as if the three second rule applied to images of deities.
“Stop shouting,” I told my cousin. “It’s just a piece of paper.”
“No it is not!” she screamed. “It’s Jesus and you let him touch the ground and you are in big trouble!”
“God is gonna punish you,” gasped the other girl, who apparently expected a bolt of lightning or other crude Biblical barbarity to take me out in front of her very eyes.
A bad feeling passed through me, a feeling that would become familiar; a sinking feeling, as if a scary universe had been substituted for the familiar one. In this other universe grape juice and crackers turned into blood and 2000 year-old human flesh was eaten – ordinary people volunteered to be cannibals, and this was supposed to make them happy. The discovery that religion wasn’t a harmless piece of theatre made me question the motives of adults. Everything they presented as absolute truth was suddenly open to discussion. Bette and the other children had been taught that pieces of paper had the power to hurt them. What was worse, they believed that a small girl deserved to be punished because the wind blew a picture of a man onto the ground.