One of my earliest memories of going to church is at the age of seven or eight. I realize how odd that is, because I was raised in church. I have vague memories of being in the nursery room, playing with toys and hearing a preacher’s voice over a speaker in the room (which I later learned was being piped directly from the pulpit); I recall napping in a baby bed in the church nursery, that half-awake awareness and sense of letting go; I recall images of my grandmother sitting with me in a pew, of her giving me cherry-flavored cough drops, of standing in the pew beside her to sing songs as she held the hymnal, of putting my head in her lap and falling asleep when the preacher started preaching.
But those early images aren’t vibrant memories. They blur together.
My earliest true, detailed and haunting memory of churchgoing is of a morning early autumn or early spring (I have a suspicion when*), the sun still low, the heat and humidity rising. Dad had dropped me and my little sister off (I don’t think he stayed for church in those days, or maybe it was Sunday School he skipped, or maybe I'm confused about this part altogether). The children’s Sunday School classes were in a small brick outbuilding behind the main church, and I was supposed to hold my little sister’s hand and walk her to her classroom (she would have been four or five years old at this time) and then go to my classroom a door away in the same building.
Her classroom door was locked. No one answered when I knocked. I tried the door to my classroom and found it locked as well. I tried the nursery door, a rising fear in my chest. Finally I found all four doors were locked. No one answered my knocks. I checked around the corner, where the car had been. The car was gone. I don’t recall if there were other cars in the gravel lot, but it seems like there were.
I didn’t know what to do, and I felt tears well up. I kept hold of my sister’s hand and went to the back door of the church. I didn’t know at the time that this was an entrance to the fellowship hall, which also doubled as a Sunday School classroom for the elderly members. It was locked. No one heard me knocking, and I was afraid to shout.
In fact, I was afraid to walk around the church to the front or look for other doors. I’m not sure if I even understood that I could do that. I was scared to leave the Sunday School building area in case someone showed up to open the classrooms. I was scared to wander, and I can’t claim I was watching out for my sister; my fear was my own, and she appeared merely confused by what I was doing.
So I sat on the little concrete walkway in front of the classrooms and put my back against the red brick. My sister sat down facing me and crossed her legs “Indian-style,” as we said then. She kept asking me where her teacher was and what we were doing. I don’t think she was frightened; I think she may have thought I was being bad or disobeying. I think she may have expected me to get in trouble.
She took a piece of gravel and scratched on the walkway, making light zig-zags on the smooth finish. I picked up a piece of gravel, too. I started scratching on the concrete — and this part of the memory is clearer than anything else about it. I scratched out three words:
“I HATE THIS.”
I was angry by now. I don’t think I actually cried, but I felt like it. I felt lost, betrayed, abandoned. No one was coming, I thought. I began to wonder if Mom or Dad would ever come to get us, or if Grandma would show up with cherry cough drops. I hated being there alone. I hated worrying about what was going to happen next, and yes, even worrying about my little sister. I shouldn’t have to do this. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to go home.
We waited a long time. I don’t know how long. It may have been ten minutes, but it felt like hours. It reminded me of the long days I spent at age four in a daycare center where I was bullied by the older kids and neglected by the staff. I wanted to escape, and I felt truly trapped.
Finally, a woman came out the back door of the church and saw us sitting there. I remember she was tall and slim, at least in my mind’s eye. She wore a bright flowery dress. She had short dark hair. I don’t recall her name, but I knew even then that she was a member of the church. She asked how long we’d been waiting, and I told her I didn’t know, and I tried to shield the words I had scratched onto the concrete.
The panic rose in my throat. I was afraid someone would see. That she would read what I had written and be angry at me. That I would get a spanking from my dad.
If she saw, she didn’t mention it. She took our hands and led us inside and got us a drink from the cold, cold water fountain. She took us to a classroom upstairs, where older kids (teenagers!) were having a lesson. They gave us paper and crayons, and we drew pictures. After, the lady led us to the church sanctuary where Grandma met us.
I never forgot those feelings — the anguish of abandonment, the fear of being punished for expressing my anger. They continued to haunt me throughout my life. When my father and mother split, for instance. When I sat alone on the school bleachers and wrote bad poetry in high school. When I rode a bus to basketball games and not one other member of the team spoke to me. When I realized my few close friends weren’t going to go to university with me. Every time I try to write about real emotion and find myself backing off or tempering my language because I feel the need to find a kinder way to express what I’m experiencing, or to hide my true emotions, or that of the characters in my imagination.
I’m not sure exactly, but I think this is something I learned at church.
* Today I think this must have happened on the morning when everyone set their clocks back an hour — and if my parents forgot to change our clocks at home, then they may have dropped us off at church an hour early. We were at Sunday School at what we thought was 9:30 a.m., and no one was in the church because it was actually only 8:30 a.m. That means we sat outside for about an hour. Still, this doesn’t explain why we were taken to an inside room instead of going to our regular classes. I guess that part will remain a mystery forever.