I’ll talk about the spiritual aspect of my home life growing up in just a minute, but I thought I should probably start with a fly over of my family life. My dad worked the night shift as a Sysco Foods driver, a job he started shortly after I was born. He worked well over 40 hours a week and was frequently tired and worn out when he got home. My mom has some mental illness and life with her was very unpredictable. Beyond the mood swings with her, there was verbal abuse and gaslighting that occurred behind closed doors.
My parents were an explosive combination and their disagreements excalated very quickly. I don’t want to call them out on specifics here, I’ll just leave it with this - it was a tense house to grow up in and I spent a large amount of time hiding behind the couch. While I hid from them and their crazy world I always felt like there was someone sitting there with me. I knew I was not alone, and it was probably this knowledge more than anything else that founded my belief in a god in a home where spirituality wasn’t a priority.
For the first 7 years of my life, I had an awareness of Christianity only through the 80’s American culture which I lived in. Each year there were TV specials that came out around Christmas and Easter that gave some general idea of what the holidays were about, though Santa was my first thought at Christmas and not Jesus.
Through my parents’ divorce, my mom moved into some sort of angel worshipping and had angels placed all around that house and pins that I wore on my shirt. She would speak to the figurines and ask them for protection and talk with them on occasion like they had life in them. My sister fell in with a rebellious crowd at school and someone made a remark about the devil in her yearbook and I remember my mom being over the top angry. I first learned about exorcism from this event and not the movie. My mom was convinced that my sister had fallen in with devil worshippers or at least said so dramatically in her arguments with my sister.
There were two bibles in the back corner of my mom’s closet. I frequently came upon them as they resided right next to my mom’s old cowboy boots which I dearly loved and frequently snuck in to wear around when I thought no one was paying attention. They were old and beat up and there was a book labeled “Old testament” and one labeled “new testament”. On occasion, I tried to read them as a very new reader but they were incredibly difficult and were King James Version so even the words I could make out it was all way over my head.
I very distinctly remember standing next to our old Lazy Boy recliner one day when I was only about 4 years old. My parents were having a deep conversation about my uncle and they were both very distraught. I don’t remember what they were saying, I only assume they were talking about my uncle based on the events that followed. My dad left the room when they were done talking and my mom turned to see me standing there. She paused for a moment, I could tell she was torn between anger that I had been there and wanting to scoop me up and hold me close.
She settled on scooping me up. She came down and knelt before me giving me a big hug and when she pulled away she had tears in her eyes and she said to me “We need to pray for your uncle. He and Aunt are getting a divorce.”
I wasn’t sure what she was talking about but she was so serious and insistent with tears in her eyes. I nodded my agreement then hesitantly asking “How do I pray?”
“Nothing to it.” She said and then informed me I need only say “dear God” then ask for what I want and at the end toss in an amen. We said a very simple prayer together “Dear God be with Uncle and help him out, amen.” and that was that.
Being the ever compliant child that I was I took this task very seriously and whenever I found nothing to do I would repeat that prayer with very little variance. Honestly, I probably said it 8 times a day. Then one day I was watching the Andy Griffith show and there was an episode when Opie’s aunt tells him to say his prayers. From watching this episode a few others that followed I gathered that you were supposed to say your prayers before bed and you should be kneeling with your hands in the proper position. I also learned you should bless your family members at the end of your prayer before you say amen. In this form, my prayers changed. “Dear God, Help my uncle out and give him comfort. God bless mom, God bless dad, God bless my sister. Amen.”
A few years later while walking through a craft fair with my mom at the local Catholic church I came across a sign that intrigued me; it read “when I count my blessings I count you twice.” I was very curious about this. Were blessings at the end of my prayers supposed to be counting something? Were they for my benefit or the benefit of those I was blessing?
As my mom and aunt moved forward to the next booth I quickly whispered to the woman “What does that mean? Why would you count someone twice in your blessings?” She smiled at me and said, “Your blessings are all the things you are thankful for, and if you count someone twice you are extra thankful for them.” I quickly caught up with my mom and aunt and contemplated this new information.
It made a difference in my little heart. Once I had digested this information my prayers changed remarkably. They were no longer quick things I said before bed, they took hours! I always had a hard time falling asleep so this new ritual really helped me out, my own form of counting sheep I suppose. I would make my request for the prayer then I would go through a list of EVERYTHING I was thankful for. “God bless my penguin stuffed animal, God bless my pillow, God bless my bedroom, etc.” Then when I got to the people I loved I would go through this process twice.
I am very serious it took about 2 hours to complete each night, if not more. I would frequently fall asleep before I could finish and then I’d be so upset the next day that my pray the previous night had not been heard because I had forgotten the “sign off” with an amen. So I developed a new habit to counteract this, when I started to feel a little sleepy I would say “and God I’m going to say amen now even though I’m not done in case I fall asleep.” Remember I was a child no more than 6 by the time these habits were formed and I had little to NO adult guidance on any of this.
For some years our next-door neighbors were Christians who attended a large church in our home town. They had daughters that were around my age. When they first moved in we were instant friends, however, my older sister had a nightmare one night about the mother. My mom was convinced that my sister’s nightmare was a sign from the angels that this woman was demon-possessed and evil and I was no longer allowed to play directly with them anymore.
Being the persistent kid that I was I always found a way around this, one was to climb the fence between our yards and chat with them from there, but my mom often noticed that and would yell at me not to be “the little pest on the fence”. I discovered a knothole in one of the wood boards which soon served as my means of conversing with the girls.
Eventually, being convinced that the family was somehow evil, my mom made it so uncomfortable for the family to live next to us that they moved, and so went my only source of information. Again I was relegated to TV specials on holidays to gain information about this God that I wanted so desperately to know about.
In this manner, I continued on until I was 12, and then everything changed. That is the background for me to begin my story. Come back next Thursday and I’ll dive into the next part of my story.