It’s odd about the way I came up. I had a very close, tight family but ended up with no real roots. In a lot of ways. All going back to my being a P.K. There’s a couple of things about preacher’s kids. One is that we tend to end up all holy, or totally abandoned to the ways of wickedness.
Another, in most cases, is that we moved around a lot, from one fold to another. In our case, we moved a lot more than most. Probably because my daddy wasn’t very good at it. He was a good man. If all Christians were as Christian as that man, we’d be a better world for it. He was a man who felt sparrows fall, who loved his enemies for real, who wanted nothing in the world more than the coming of the kingdom of the Prince of Peace and a fair, loving God. He just sucked as a preacher.
And more, as a pastor. He had no business looking over flocks, I figured out, because he was a total sheep himself. He had zero idea of finances or protocol, how to butter people up. He was useless as a counselor to the troubled. You come to him with your problems and he’d take them upon himself and outgrieve you. He empathized, he cried and prayed with you. But any advice he gave was pretty sure to be completely worthless, if not nuts. He was a fool for the Lord, is what he was.
So he was continually losing his posts. They’d shrug him off and bring in somebody younger, or stronger, or better-looking, or more aggressive at conversions, or better at raising money. And he’d wander around the South, trying to find another congregation somewhere. He’d go to the Southern Baptist Convention and buttonhole deacons with his zeal to serve. Then he’d end up in some even worse shithole than the last one, and we’d be there with him, being the new PKs for a new batch of resentful rednecked kids.
And when he was between parishes, we’d stay with relatives. Of which we had bucketfuls.
So when I look back on my childhood, at “where I grew up”, it’s this sort of generic, deep South scene with nobody really significant, no real landmarks, nothing to anchor to. And each little patch of it more like the others than different. One church might have been a white clapboard in the piney woods, another one some galvanized hotbox sitting on red clay, another one a storefront in some “old South” city, generally in a neighborhood in the middle of figuring what its ethnic population was going to be. But there was a sameness about it all. The same poverty, the same new-school problems, the same living between expectations and disappointments, the same little pedestals we had to own and occupy, the same beaten-down people whose scuffed souls need more than Daddy could do for them.
Another thing that stayed the same through the change was Family. And I don’t mean the “nuclear” unit. Having to mooch off relatives kept us continually in the center of a large, extended amoeba of cousins and aunt and in-laws whose center was anywhere we went and the fringes were so diffused they might not even have existed. Yea, all men are brothers. And all Southerners seem to be cousins.
My best family relations were with those outside my family unit. It’s where I got to be a tomboy. I might have had mostly sisters, but most of the time I was around a bunch of bigger, blonde guys who were much less holy than we and thought it was great to grab Cousin Cammy and drag her through the mud. Flora Lee and Selah might be home doing hair or snapping peas, but I’d be out there playing hardball with a gaggle of cousins. Or smoking my first cigarette in the alley behind the Winn Dixie, or choking on my first bourbon in the back of some beater car with Coley and Forrest and Bo and their hoodlum pals. And yes, my first kissing and petting, too. But not much more than that. You have a bunch of teenagers asleep on the same floor, and you get a little exploration. I drew lines on that. And had to defend them pretty staunchly with some of those hoodlum buddies I mentioned. I had one uncle that I figured out really early, not in words but just conviction, that I’d better not be alone with or trust. And it turned out I was right, too.
But anyway, I grew up all over, but really nowhere. And with a big old clan that gave me more brothers and parents than I needed, but I’m thankful for them all. I think it’s sad that modern families are “nuclear”. I think you need to be around more people, to grow up with older people and people who are like your parents, but different enough to give you some options, people who can relate to you without feeling they have some say over you, or expect anything out of you other than company.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of our family digs were no picnic, which I’ll get into. But I think it treated me better than being limited to Pow and my sisters and parents. It certainly helped me misbehave. I’m sorry to say I was a grief to my folks until I left home, which is one reason I try to protect them now.
I was way behind Pow for the inside post position in the family Black Sheep run-off. He was a vicious, rotten little punk, is the size of it. Pretending to be all godly and caring around our folks, but mean and spiteful with everybody else. A school bully with a cohort of other creeps that really qualified as a gang, pretty much a serial date-raper, I gathered. I was getting old enough to realize what he was, and scheming on hunting his head, then he went into the Marines. And came home as a man.
I’d never seen anything like it. He was completely changed, even the way he looked. He was trim, poised, polite, straightforward. I was starting to see the USMC as some sort of alien abduction program, but I approved. After I got used to his new way, and he apologized to me for treating us so rotten, I asked him about it. He looked right at me awhile, and I could feel the firmness in his look, instead of the shifty calculating I’d seen before. He said, “A lot of people think it’s esprit de corps, being around “brothers” and not letting each other down. But I’d say it starts before that. It’s not a brotherhood or a loving family, Cams. Suddenly you’re just there body, soul, and ass, in the hands of people who can control you totally, and they really don’t give a shit about you.”
I’ve thought about that lots, and I can’t get a grip on it, but I know what he meant. I found it out myself, in the hands of strangers. What you learn to do, the way you learn to survive and get on top, wouldn’t be required if they loved you.
At college I first ran into the idea of a mechanistic God, or mechanical universe, and it made sense to me. I’d developed distaste for the whole idea of God as some lovey-dovey nanny who follows you around to keep you from falling and swaddling you in comfy if you mess up. It seems to breed believers who are soft-headed, but also rather cruel in their outlook towards others. They don’t understand being unprotected, think they’ve got the Big In.
I’ve never been much of a faller in love. Infatuated at times: less so lately. But I never just fell off my feet over anybody. Never met a man I loved as much as my daddy, for that matter. It’s not something I really crave. I’m okay. My life is all right. Better than a lot of people. I’m not an atheist, and I’m not one of those “Love sucks” types. And who knows what’s around the corner? Romantically or universally?
And I guess if I had the choice between the sweet loving father you pray to when you lose your car keys or land in jail, and the mechanistic Drill Instructor type, I’d go for the latter. I’d rather have somebody trying to shape me up and make me into something than somebody who dotes on me as I am.
You don’t learn to throw breaking pitches by being yourself: it takes somebody drilling you in. Who sees your mistakes and helps hammer them out.
And I guess I’m less comfortable with the idea of a heavenly father, than with a big family and bunch of heavenly aunts and uncles, with some grannies and dogs and some babies squalling to get their diapers changed.