MY FIRST CONVERSION took place when I was five years old on a heaven-reaching swing in my cousin’s back yard. It was a bright summer day and we had just returned from vacation Bible school at the Baptist church. Red cherry Kool-Aid stained our lips. Kristy was giving me an underdog—and I was swinging high enough to see the waving hayfield that surrounded my house across the road. At the highest point, just before the swing started its backward journey, my heart seemed to leap from my chest, hanging suspended in the air. Of course, I could not see it, only felt it playfully and momentarily absent, before I began my descent and we were reunited.
Suddenly, Kristy grabbed the swing’s ropes, holding on until I swayed to a complete stop. Between the whines of a distant chainsaw, a white-throated sparrow was singing in the petunia beds nearby. Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. I pictured its pure white throat and dark bill, its black and white striped head with patches of yellow between its eyes. Once I’d found a sparrow’s nest near the creek. It was in the root of an old maple tree, cleverly disguised with pine needles and woodchips, but not cleverly enough. Something had broken all of the tiny blue eggs except one. A gray slime had dried on the broken shells. I lifted the one untouched egg with reddish-brown specks and let it rest in my palm, as light as the ghost of a blown kiss. I knew the mother bird would not return now that the nest had been disturbed, so I carefully carried the egg home and kept it in a tiny white dish on my dresser, dreaming that a chick would someday appear, even though my mother had said the chick would simply evaporate without the love of its mother.
When my cousins or friends visited, it was the thing they went to first. Some simply hovered over the tiny blue egg and some rolled it delicately about in the dish, but to my surprise, no one ever broke the sparrow’s shell. It was as if they knew the promise of life had once lived within, and I suppose, like the empty tomb of Christ, it still held a promise. To this day it is wrapped in a Kleenex and sealed in a jelly jar, stashed in the red wooden trunk that holds my childhood belongings.
On the day of my salvation, Kristy stood in front of me, clinging tightly to the ropes of the swing, her cherry breath sweet on my face. Her eyes blue and freckled like the perfect sparrow egg, her thick strawberry-blonde hair cropped short, she was so opposite of me that I was madly in love with everything about her. I loved her house which was newer and I thought nicer than ours. We lived in the rambling old homestead that my father’s English grandparents had built. I loved Kristy’s mother, Ruth, who sat in the kitchen rocking chair in the evenings after all her motherly and household duties were finished, smoking and reading novels, scolding anyone who interrupted her. I loved that there was always a frosted cake under a glass dome on their kitchen counter, my favorite being a chocolate one Aunt Ruth made with Miracle Whip. It felt like silk in my mouth. I loved Kristy’s little sisters, Nancy and Lisa, and her big sisters and big brothers, eleven in all. I was from a family of only seven children, and so in another way Kristy had more than I did. Yet we were also united, all from the same great Corey clan whose brother-fathers were our living myths, so strong and indestructible-appearing that it never occurred to us that they would someday give way to age and disease. When my father was dying, he said he never once thought of being old when he was young. I was too busy working and roaming through the woods.
Kristy’s father, Uncle Fraser, was a man who constantly grinned and literally talked out of the side of his mouth, patting children’s heads when they passed. He was a man with stories he could barely contain, his body round, his face round and red as if it might explode from his tales, though some of the redness was no doubt from the benders he sometimes took, for the Corey men played as hard as they worked and once in a great while even cried as hard as they laughed.
I loved the huge weeping willows in Kristy’s yard, willows that she would eventually be married beneath. I loved the cascading flowerboxes on the sun porch windows and the erupting vegetable gardens beyond the large lawn, and the little outbuildings, one a playhouse with old furniture, big-people furniture where we, the children of the neighborhood, relived our families’ private lives: dying grandmothers, storytelling dads, a smoking mother, a religious mother, mean brothers, weeping sisters, new babies being born, doctor visits, stillborn lambs, election suppers, bridal showers, shotgun weddings, shivarees, drunken brawls, tent meetings, baptisms, hymn-sings, and quiet, absolute quiet. Stillness. Sometimes we just sat back on the old sofa in the playhouse, looking up at the rafters, cradled in a village, lulled by the songbirds, and tucked by the hills like untouched eggs in a nest in the root of a tree. The playhouse had once been a chicken coop, and on occasion a tiny white feather floated down from its rafters. Watching its descent, we thought we were receiving a message from God.
I loved Kristy even though she made fun of me for not speaking clearly. Lying in the ditch by my mailbox, I often called to her—Kitty, can you come or’wer—only to have her put her hands on her hips and say, “Geez, Debbie, when are you going to stop talking like a baby? You talk stupid.”
I didn’t understand Kristy’s criticism, nor the way she often cast me off for my crooked words. My parents had waited years for me to say something decipherable and were thrilled when I finally did. But that day on the swing, the day that Kristy pulled the ropes to a halt, she studied my face closely as if I were the most important thing in the world to her, as if I were the promise held in an empty tomb. “Do you want to get saved?” she asked.
I gnawed at my bottom lip, picturing the men and women who fell on the church altar at Sunday night services. Some of them were very poor, and one bedraggled young woman named Missy went every time she was invited, sobbing as if the wooden altar she sprawled on was a body she’d been searching for forever. After, standing and smiling, her eyes would be glassy like those of a child who had glimpsed a wild thing sleeping beneath a bush. They held both excitement and fear.
“Yes,” I said. “I do want to get saved.” If Kristy had it or was peddling it, I wanted it. Just as I wanted her huge house and yard, her sparrow-laden petunia garden, her short shorts and belly shirts and her boy haircut, her playhouse with the old unplugged fridge, and her heaven-reaching swing that could momentarily pluck my very heart away.
“Then bow your head,” she said.
I did, staring down at her yellow flip-flops and hot-pink, sloppily painted toenails.
“Close your eyes.” She told me what to say.
And I did. She prayed a quick prayer for Jesus to wipe my soul clean, and I pictured his hand like my teacher’s wiping chalk from the blackboard, all my sins wiped away as quickly as a lesson already learned.
I opened my eyes and Kristy’s were as blue as the sky beyond, checking mine. “Good,” she said, as if something in my eyes revealed my newfound salvation, as if she saw the wild beast sleeping there. I sat as still on the swing as before Kristy started praying, but something inside had been lifted, not the way my heart had lifted away while swinging, but now it felt secure yet also suspended, like a helium balloon that had floated to the ceiling and would always, always stay there. Plump as a plum. Instantly, the elation propelled me off the swing and I ran as fast as I could, home, hollering for my mother long before I’d even crossed the road without looking, my puffed-up heart hovering over me like a parachute.
“Mama,” I called, throwing back the screen door, which whined open and then closed, snapping like the cover of a slammed box. “Mama, Kitty saved me.”
Mother was at the stove preparing lunch, and her face was without expression, as if wiped of all thoughts and feeling, as if she were simply a blank blackboard.
Touching her stirring hand that held the wooden spoon and breathing short breathy breaths, I said, “I’m, ha, a, ha, a Christian, ha, now, eh-ha, eh-ha, eh-ha.” Running home, I had run the play of the rapture over in my head with me as one of its many stars. I’d heard that a person’s life passed before them when they died, so I figured maybe my future could pass before me when I was born again. Maybe one of the star rapture roles had been waiting just for me.
I cannot remember what Mother was making for lunch. I wish I could. Maybe it would signify something and let me build an understanding from metaphor—my own seven loaves and fishes—my water to wine—but I only remember the swirling navy pattern of her dress like a raging sea and her white starched apron strings pulled tightly at her curving waist. “Kitty saved me,” I said again, searching Mother’s eyes which seemed held in a dream.
“Kristy can’t save you,” she finally said. “Jesus has to.” Her words were soft sounding, but they crashed like thundering waves. Within them, my breath was sucked away and my buoyant heart went with it, washed away instantly, just as my sins had been a few minutes earlier. For several moments, I could not feel my heart’s whereabouts. My chest felt vacant and my face felt as if it had fallen vacant, too. The face of an Amish doll’s not yet drawn. My features had evaporated like a chick in an abandoned egg. And then my face became hard, feeling like porcelain, like something that might break as easily as a shell from the weight of a mother bird, and my jaw stiffened.
This is my first memory of feeling featureless and the strongest memory of my heart as a palpable thing, subject to atmospheric change. The cleansing winds of salvation had made it swell and float toward the heavens, and my mother’s proclamation had punctured it beyond its soaring abilities. Her proclamation dripped over me, dank and chilling. That was the first of the headaches that would find me in years to come, always beginning with searing tension held in my clenched jaw. That was the moment my heart insisted that I acknowledge its potential to capsize under its own weight. It was not a balloon to play with. It was something to be managed and hidden. If not, one might simply lose it and then be destined to damnation.
I went out to the verandah and sat down on the long white bench. My father would be coming home for lunch soon, his shiny car rising over the knoll by the Baptist church and racing toward us. The sun was still shining, the sparrows still singing, but the heat was now oppressive. I knew I had been saved on the swing, felt the rise of it. I didn’t know who caused it, Kristy or Jesus, and it didn’t matter. I did not want my heart earthbound and mired, buried beneath the waves of judgment. I touched my lips and they were sore as if someone had punched me in the mouth, or perhaps my testimony had pounded them on the way out. Words that now blew like smoke rings over the hayfield before me. As an adult, I would recall it as a blurry hinterland. I watched the smoke rings go, considering them a precursor to something worse. To hell. They came from the ashes of my first smoldering headache.
Who knows how many loads of laundry my mother had done that morning, how many rooms had been picked up and beds she had made. Who knows how many phone calls she had dealt with or prayer chains she had committed to or how many of her children had already been comforted or encouraged or taught. Just the day before, she had spent a long time listening to me read from the front page of the Daily Gleaner, helping me with the words and encouraging me. We were sitting on the verandah and when I overcame a particularly hard word, enunciating it clearly, she patted my head.
Perhaps my mother was tired or perhaps she had been standing at the stove questioning God’s very existence or even longing for her young girl life or maybe she simply feared a daughter’s conversion which she had not witnessed. Only later would I learn of her mother’s tragic fall in a Pentecostal church, after being encouraged to speak in tongues by a zealous young preacher, encouraged to convert from her Baptist ways. Only later would I picture that ladder-back chair, placed near the front of the church for my grandmother to stand on like a sacrifice, before she fell and hit her head on the edge of the altar—dying a week later in a sanatorium, leaving her husband alone and her six children motherless. The young preacher drove my unconscious grandmother to the sanatorium, telling the staff, She’s had a fit. Never did he mention her fall. What rabid animal lived under the bush of him? What cruel convictions taunted it? And why had he pretended to know God?
Perhaps when it came to the godly, my mother feared for my safety. Maybe she did not want me climbing up someone else’s ladder toward heaven, or flying high on another’s swing, in case I were to fall and hit my head. Years later, she told me the story of her father requesting that her mother’s body be returned to their home. She said it was common practice then to have a loved one’s body displayed in the living room, which in itself is a curious thing, returning the beloved dead to the living room. Instantly, I pictured the children lined up, my two-year-old mother cradled by one of her older sisters, staring at the face she knew best, no doubt chewing the side of her thumb, which she continued to do in times of anxiety for the rest of her life.
Before my dead grandmother lay in her coffin in the living room, my grandfather laid her on their bed and removed her clothes, washing and turning and studying her lifeless body, fearing she had been beaten to death at the sanatorium. He was a police officer and aware of such things. Restraint as an excuse for murder. His tears washed every inch of our mother’s body, the siblings often said. After her funeral, their father heard from a neighbor what had happened to his wife that fateful night in the Pentecostal church. Immediately, he walked to the church and retrieved the ladder-back chair, hanging it in his bedroom on a hook, the way a Shaker would.
My gentle grandfather died two months later while cutting firewood in the forest. Like his wife, he was only forty-nine years old. They said he died from a broken heart, a condition recently medically proven to be an occasional physical response to sudden loss. The heart sagging sideways like a burst balloon.
Before my mother and her siblings were divided up like candy and sent to live with family and neighbors, they burned the ladder-back chair in the woodstove. Not for revenge, of course, for they, like their parents, were pacifists, but because they had no father to gather wood. My mother said to them it was an unfamiliar chair, unlike the ones around their kitchen table that represented family. Family.
Family, the word floating down from my mother’s lips like a feather from the playhouse rafters. Like a message from God.
At five years old, though, I did not know these stories, and Mother’s reaction to my conversion left me utterly confused. I thought she would be so happy. I thought my being saved might have been one of the miracles she was expecting as she sped to church with me in the back seat, my palms out the window catching the wind. What lines of destiny was the breeze printing on them? What did my future hold?
I thought Mother might congratulate me the way she did the other newly saved after the altar calls. Even Missy’s renewed proclamations and wild eyes warranted her hugs. I thought Mother might predict what role I’d be given in the rapture. Surely a mother who worshipped and prayed on her knees daily must have an inside track to God’s plan. But instead, this day would not only be the beginning of my headaches, but the beginning of me attaching to my sleek black dog of a father, to his playfulness and loving ways and humor, and it would also be the beginning of my inwardness. Even though I was just beginning to speak clearly—while practicing reading the newspaper—I would speak less. I would be careful of rushing forward with exciting news in case of a disappointing response. I would live in fear of being erased, of my lips feeling bruised, of my forehead bursting with pain. Instead, I would be still, lying in the hayfields and watching the changing skies, listening to the birds. I likened the hideous cawing crow to my mother’s scolding of improper ways. Sometimes I wandered to the edge of the field where the big old maple tree and raspberries grew, and an old wire fence lay collapsed and twisted among the alders. Sometimes I ate the raspberries or scratched words on the maple trunk with a rusty nail, clustering words together as if they had been shaken in my hands and thrown against the tree like dice. Sometimes I closed my eyes and touched them as if they were Braille. Sometimes I licked them, nubby and indented on my tongue just like raspberries. Scratched on the tree, the words did not scare me. They were like wild animals suddenly awake and tamed. They were my pets. A dancing menagerie. A traveling show of mean and vicious words: Mommy in a crow suit. Pissant. Stink-face….
A few days ago I saw a black Lab tied outside of town hall in my village. He had a tattered floppy doll in his jaws and was sitting up straight, holding it proudly, yet his leash was tied so tightly to the lamp post that he could barely move. He was not free to play with his prized possession, to shake his head and run and toss it in the air. Instantly, I came to see that doll as salvation and the tight leash as his religion, and I remembered my mother and loved her more than ever. If at the heart of truth is love, as some say, then what difference does it make how we discover it or feel God’s love for the first time? What difference does it make how we run and toss it in the air or let it fill our hearts?
After running home that day, I wished for Mother to take me in her arms, into her clothing of wild sea. Then I would have stayed at her side. I would have touched and noted the broken eggshells and smelled the omelet cooking, watching the cheddar cheese melt as she slid the spatula around the edges, releasing it from the heat.
Surely the story of her mother’s death and the legalism of her chosen church must have sometimes confused her, too. Surely, it was difficult to abide by every rule. And what if she didn’t? What would happen to her? What would happen to her children? Was her faith sealed with superstition? Still, my mother often glowed with God’s light. This I remember. Maybe not on that day, but I can’t dispute her powerful life-long example, her prayer knees broadened from years of wear, her orphan testimony, her love for family.
I, like my father, learned to be most comfortable beneath a healing tree. There I created my own myths and monsters. There I scratched words. Terrible mean words that could have grown inside of me, crowding my heart for good, pushing it sideways. Instead, I released them on the tree, and the tree absorbed them just as the cross absorbs sin.
I recently read that if a person wants to redeem confusing times, she has to approach the world with charity. The key is charity. At the heart of truth is love, and if we attempt to explicate or witness truth without charity, we betray it.
This statement took me aback. The article advised that the way to lubricate a confusing encounter is not by backing away and turning it into some kind of private cultural myth, as I had done beneath my tree, but to come to it with charity, respect, and love.
For years in remembering that day, I remembered it without charity. I pictured it as an overexposed photo, something which had gone terribly wrong, but seeing the tied black dog began to change that. I began to see how very disciplined my mother was, staying so faithful within the perimeter of her faith and legalism and domesticity and marriage and family. Surely she sometimes dreamed of being rescued, be it by a redeemer or a renegade.
My mother’s reaction to my first conversion sent me on a journey of scratching words on a tree, and perhaps by doing so she more than anyone sent me into the presence of the sacred. How I listened to the cursing crows as I carved my first words into that tree. How I hated my mother that day.
Why, why did I hate my mother?
Because she wasn’t perfect.
Today, I do not know the splatter of paint on canvas or the digging of ditches or the hauling of boats. I do not know the business of healing or building or finance. I do not know what it is to wash the dead body of a loved one as my grandfather did. I only know the scratching of words, and I am suddenly wondering if the habit I started so long ago at the foot of that tree was the beginning of my way to the sacred: scratching at the dark rough bark with the rusty nail until the soft cream of its interior revealed itself, veined and living like the palm of a hand, waiting to be taken.
There, over time, I released the mean and hateful words from within me, and as I carved them on the tree, I smelled living wood, and clear sap was released. It trickled down over the words like sticky medicine. Sometimes, I put my tongue to the sap and it was as sweet tasting as communion, and as perfect as my mother’s love and intentions always were for me.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.