Enjoy these two sample essays from my memoir manuscript:
My mom says I didn’t mind going to church on Sunday as a little kid, but as far back as I can remember, I resented it. I mostly had no idea what was going on or why we were there. It seemed like an inhumane waste of my time, like being forced to watch the static fuzz on a TV for an hour.
The readings and homilies were unintelligible; an announcement like, “A letter from St. Paul to the Thessalonians,” was my cue to check out. “Thessalonians” sounded like a Dr. Seuss thing, or space aliens. Colossians? Martians? These people groups had nothing to do with my life in the late 90s, and I wasn’t sure what their letters had to do with anything—I didn’t realize for years these lectors were reading from the Bible.
I survived by flipping through the hymnal and memorizing the verses of my favorite songs. I would need them later on when at last I recovered my blessed solitude, perhaps while walking through the woods in my parents’ backyard, disturbing the quiet with my soft rendition of “Here I Am, Lord.”
I fancied myself a princess given gifts of Beauty and Song as a baby, singing to no one and yet, singing to someone—a Prince wandering through the same woods at the same time, no doubt…
Eventually, I’d be jolted back to reality by the sound of my father yelling my name from the porch, checking to see that I hadn’t fallen into that “damn river.”
My dad never had to go to Mass on Sunday, just me, my little sister, and my mom. My dad can get up at 4am and sit for hours in a deer stand or on a frozen lake, but ask him to sit for an hour of church, and suddenly, he has a medical condition where he can’t sit on hard surfaces, and his knees start bouncing up and down, and he needs a cigarette, pronto.
Every now and then as we passed him in the garage, I couldn’t help but protest.
“Why doesn’t dad have to go?”
“He’s Presbyterian,” my mom would shoot back.
She had me beat. I had no idea what “pressbateerian” meant, but I reasoned that it meant you didn’t have to go to church on Sundays.
Wishing I, too, could be Presbyterian, I would watch my dad wistfully from the backseat as we left. He was usually shirtless, leaning back in an office chair he had found “on the boulevard,” watching TV with his bare feet resting on a table. In a way, he was the paragon of happiness and self-determination; in another, a creature to be pitied, as if, because of his curse words and dirty jokes and easy-to-come-by wrath, he had long ago been pronounced “Irredeemable” and “Unfit” for church. Each week, we gave up on him anew.
My mother, by contrast, is naturally very good, a universally well-liked woman who seems to be constantly serving others.
On those especially wintery North Dakota mornings, when it was hard to get up for school, rather than flip on the lights and rip away our covers, she would put our outfits in the dryer for a few minutes and entice us out of bed with toasty clothes.
If that didn’t work, then her gentle nudgings turned to shrill imperatives. She had to get to work on time, too, after all.
One of my favorite stories of my mom is the time she wanted to quit a volunteer group at church. She was psyching herself up before she left for the meeting, and my sister and I clamored to hear the details when she returned.
“How did it go, mom?”
“Are you finally free?”
“No,” she muttered.
She lowered her head.
“They made me the president.”
My mother defaults to agreeability, which means any malice she does harbor seeps out as passive aggression, like the eye rolls I always prayed my dad wouldn’t see.
It also means she would be hard-pressed to discuss religion with you—it might make you uncomfortable, even offend you, and what would be the point of that? You’ll probably make it to heaven one way or another, doing what you’re already doing. Maybe she doesn’t feel knowledgeable enough to discuss the faith, or maybe she doesn’t believe in it 100% herself. Maybe, like the volunteer group, her heart’s not fully in it, but she shows up anyway.
My mother insisted we pray before meals and attend church, but her own spiritual life was invisible to me. Without having words for it, I longed for her to impart some meaning to all of this.
Whenever I thought to ask why, my questions seemed to stall and die in a brier patch of awkward silence and implicit mother-daughter decorum. I never got a good answer, and the chain of Sunday-morning Mass and Wednesday-night catechism continued on and on.
Maybe there were no answers—at least, that’s what I had to tell myself. If there were, she would have given them to me by now.
Another part of me sensed, however, that for whatever reason, in this most private matter, my mother was keeping me at arm’s length.
7) Miss Honey
Most days, a long, shiny curtain of hair partitioned us, shielding her from distractions as she sat at her table, bent over a stack of correcting. On those days, I would actually do my homework. But today, by some miracle, there was no stack of papers, just a catalog. She had looked up and smiled at each student who had approached her table to sign out from study hall. She was bored! I could tell. Still, my next moves needed to be precise.
Leaving my homework behind, I grabbed the pen, put it to the sign out sheet, and readied myself to deliver an offhand comment about needing to print something in the library; but something in her eye contact told me I could abandon all that today.
“Ça va?” I asked.
“Très bien. Et toi?”
“Moi aussi, très bien. Are you busy?”
I switched back to English since we had only covered the basics so far.
“No, no, not today.”
“Me neither… Want some company?”
Wow. It was early on in the period, too, meaning I had just secured about 45 minutes opposite my favorite person in the entire world: my French teacher.
She was so close. Normally, I viewed her from ten feet away as she paced the front of the classroom, answering our questions with gusto, spinning around suddenly to scrawl some more delightful French knowledge on the white board, her ornate bracelet du jour jangling vigorously as she wrote.
Most of my teachers up to then had been slightly frumpy, older Midwestern women with short hair. But my French teacher was in her mid-30s with long hair and a penchant for striking lipstick. She entered school in the morning wearing a long wool coat and a red scarf, holding a coffee thermos in one hand and a French newspaper in the other. (She might say that’s an exaggeration, but such was the impression she made on me at age 14.) She was tall and thin, beautiful and stylish, she spoke French, and she was brilliant. She was far and away the coolest teacher I had ever had.
And now she was only a foot and a half away from me, even less than that as we leaned in and lost ourselves in conversation. I could see the flecks in her eyes.
I tried to play it cool. I wanted her to think I was trustworthy, mature, and just as interesting. When the bell rang, I walked her to her next class. We talked like two girlfriends, oblivious to the noisy multitudes around us.
Within the first few weeks of freshman year, French became my academic focus. I paid rapt attention in class and performed well on the exams. I even found ways to stay after school and get her to teach me more, just the two of us.
“And then there’s this—now, I didn’t learn this until college, so don’t worry if you don’t get it, but you see, in French, they do this thing where…”
Scribbling several sentence diagrams, she would explain these new concepts until I grasped them a few minutes later. She seemed thrilled to have a student with intrinsic understanding of her subject. I was thrilled to see her light up when I understood.
We knew we had a deep fondness for each other as teacher and student, mentor and mentee. What she didn’t know, what I tried very hard to keep hidden, was just how much I was thinking about her when she wasn’t around.
Maybe even writing poems and songs about her…
Maybe even daydreaming about being adopted by her…
I agonized all summer wondering whether her name or that of the other French teacher would be on my schedule for French II. I got so desperate, I wrote out a long prayer in my journal, pleading with a God I wasn’t sure existed, reasoning with him, bargaining.
He came through. She was mine for at least one more year. I cherished every moment.
That year, for English class, I wrote an essay about her. I showed it to her after school one day, half expecting her to be totally weirded out. But she wasn’t, at all.
She was, like, moved.
“You should be a writer,” she said.