It was 1954 and it seemed to me that everyone was talking about building bomb shelters. Rock and Roll was causing quite a stir, and old “I LIKE IKE” buttons were still hanging on Mama and Daddy’s dresser. New Mexico was a Democratic State and Daddy was one of the few Republicans who admitted they were Republicans.
This was Daddy’s second year at this church, and already there was talk of building a new sanctuary with lots of classrooms. Mama had outdone herself in this full-time ministry. The people appreciated her musical abilities as well as her ability to get things done. There were duets, trios, quartets, all-girl-sextets, instrumental groups, and any other type of special music one could imagine. The church members felt Mama was “doing them proud,” and she loved all the attention she was getting.
Janine and I usually seemed to be in trouble for giggling in church and Mama always sat on the back pew during Daddy’s sermons. From that vantage point she could scrutinize not only our behavior, but also the behavior of the entire congregation triokids. She noticed who slept during the sermon, who seemed to be under conviction, who wasn’t in church that day, and other helpful information which would always be given to Daddy over Sunday Dinner.
Mother coughed when we giggled or whispered, coughed when Daddy’s sermon was running over-time, and coughed when Daddy made another grammatical error. Her coughing gave us ample material to fuel the laughter, especially after she recruited us into her trio. Mother thought of it as job security to show the congregation how talented the pastor’s family was.
After the hymns, the announcements, the offertory, and the Doxology, Janine and I knew it was ShowTime for us. It was called “special music,” of course, and wasn’t supposed to show any similarity to show business, but it always seemed like show biz to me. Janine and I would watch Mother rise from her piano bench, and, like Leonard Bernstein posturing before the New York Philharmonic, she’d walk, music in hand, to center stage. My sister and I would obediently follow from the choir loft.
Janine and I would watch in humorous amazement as Mother’s demeanor and posture metamorphosed into that of an opera singer: squared shoulders, tucked pelvis, her ample chest pushed forward, hands held together in front, and chin up. Janine, who sang alto, would stand on Mother’s left. I, who sang the tenor part an octave higher than it was written, would stand on Mother’s right. We knew to wait for Mother to pull herself up to her full 5’9″ height, take a deep breath, and give a cursory glance over the congregation.
Then, as she would look left to cue the substitute pianist, Janine’s eyes and mine would meet, but quickly look away lest we fall into laughter. A hush would fall over the congregation and after pausing just long enough to let the poignancy of the moment settle in, Mother would open her eyes wide, set her mouth with a pleasant professional half-smile, and lift her chin even higher to suggest the utmost in classical decorum. That’s when it would happen.
Janine and I, able to see each other peripherally, would fall helplessly into giggling, which would earn each of us an immediate painful pinch behind the pulpit where no one could see. Mother’s pinches were always painful enough to modify our behavior, and once we composed ourselves, the show would go on.
Once we were safely seated in our middle pew, however, the scenario would be replayed during Daddy’s sermon as I whispered, giggled, imitated Mother, and ignored her incessant coughing from the back pew.
I think the church members must have thought Mother had tuberculosis.
I’m sure no one knew how important laughter was to me. With all of the inconsistencies between my “perfectly happy” public life and my abusive home life, I took every opportunity to act out in a public setting. I knew her Patrician upbringing, and her need for the appearance of perfection would ensure my safety in church; however, it was as though I was always sitting on the jagged edge of the pew – waiting for the inevitable consequences of being bad. The tension was so great inside me, I had to either laugh or go completely insane.
In the summer before the fourth grade, I finally got a friend. We met at church and something just clicked between us. Her name was Patricia Sue Taft, and she was eight months older than I, so she was going into the fifth grade. Patty had long red hair, big jade-green eyes, and a body I wished was mine. Mama wasn’t too crazy about my new friend from the start. Her father was a new convert who used to drink, her mother was in a mental institution, and Patty had the nerve to wear short-shorts and go to movies.
Patty taught me to love horseback riding and mountain climbing. Together, we read every Nancy Drew book published, waited for the Library Van on Saturday, and built our own happy reality through books.
The best thing about Patty was that she never laughed at me like the other kids did, for getting into trouble or being fat. She encouraged me constantly, telling me she’d trade her body for my beautiful face any day of the week. She knew what it was to live with pain at home, and she just accepted me as I was, period. I, in turn, gave her the courage to be more daring: to reach beyond her grasp. She went along with most of my schemes, and we had too much fun to think about our problems. She was a gift from God: a friend born for such a horrifying time as was coming.
[This is an excerpt from God’s Battered Child: Journey from Abuse to Leader, available at http://aprillorier.com and at all online stores.]
(c) April Lorier | Related Articles ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WORLDWIDE
As a pastor’s daughter and a survivor of severe child abuse, April Lorier has an intimate knowledge of child abuse in and out of the church. She founded COPE, Inc, for the retraining of abusive parents. Her testimony before the CA State Legislature helped with the passage of The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA), signed by Ronald Reagan in 1974.