Fear. If I try to recall how I felt as a child, I would have to say that I felt the emotion of fear more than any other. It was a boa constrictor that constantly attempted to squeeze the life out of me. I was afraid of adults, afraid of kids I did not know. I remember being afraid of school. In the records of my kindergarten year at Bennett Elementary, it’s recorded that I was so shy my teacher could not get me to play with another child the entire year. I was afraid of the dark, afraid of the Russians, afraid of what we were going to have for dinner (it better not include peas).
One of my biggest fears was going into the garage at night. There were rafters full of boxes filled with everything from Christmas decorations to old dishes and clothes, but I was absolutely sure there was a strange man hiding in one of them as well. He was waiting there…waiting for me to come in the garage at night, cross the cement floor to the other side, shut the side door and turn off the light. Then, he would jump down and strangle me or do who knows what. He was always waiting. And because I was afraid that he was always going to be there, my father made me the keeper of the garage at night.
Once I turned out the light and ran back into the house, fresh from my narrow escape from death, I had a hard time getting to sleep. So I would imagine that Jesus and one of his angels was standing by my closet across the bedroom, keeping watch over me and my sister. I wanted to go to church and find out more about Him, but my parents didn’t attend church and I didn’t know anyone else who did at that time.
When I passed my tenth birthday, I decided to take things into my own hands. I got up one Sunday morning and put on my fancy lavender dress with the white polka dots on the satin ribbon that tied in the back around my waist; the one we usually saved for eating dinner at my great-grandmother’s house. I put on my nicest lace trimmed white socks and my black patent-leather “mary jane” shoes.
“Where do you think you’re going,” my mother asked from behind the Sunday comics.
“I’m going to church,” I answered.
My mother just gave a short laugh and told me she’d see me when I got home.
I walked four blocks up to the big white Presbyterian church on the corner near the edge of the housing tract. I felt very important walking up the steep steps to the double doors. I stepped into the foyer. There was a lot of activity going on, people rushing around, towering over me. No one seemed to notice me at all. A table by the back of the room held carefully placed pamphlets and small Bibles. I walked over and tried to act like I had every right to be there. I picked up one of everything.
I don’t remember much about the service, but I do remember how it made me feel. I wanted to be “good.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, exactly, but I knew I wanted it. Badly. I tried to think of what I shouldn’t be doing. Teasing my younger sister had to stop. What else? Maybe I should always, always believe that Jesus was really standing by my closet? I wasn’t sure if that was enough. The minister had said something about becoming more like Him.
I thought about all this on the walk home, and by the time I arrived at our front door, I had it all figured out. I knew that if I were to be more like Jesus, I was going to have to talk like Him.
“Hello Mother, I said, in the best English accent I could muster. “How is your morning?” I was sure that proper English had to be one of the things God would require if one were to become “good.”
“What?” my mother asked. She looked rather incredulous for some reason.
“Church was simply wonderful,” I said. “The minister was extremely nice. You should really think about coming with me next Sunday morn.”
I left the kitchen and went to my bedroom, determined I should start reading my new Bible right away. Within minutes the “thees” and “thous” had me stumped. Oh well, so much for trying to be “good.” I ran outside to find my sister and didn’t darken the doorway of church of any kind for another five years. And fear continued to motivate most of what I did.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.