No girl can live forever on blood-soaked heroism and fivecard draw, and I still had to train for my relatively peaceful future.
I was at the age when compassion and excess go hand in hand, and I had cried so hard and long over Gone with the Wind (not its casualty lists, but Rhett's exit) that my tears had alarmed my mother, then annoyed her. Staggering from Herman Wouk's war stories to the tamer domestic pastures of his Marjorie Morningstar, I responded to the exotic constraints of Marjorie's Jewishness by giving up bacon for a monthand, considering my naive day trips into other people's religions, I probably gave it up for Lent. The heroines who seized my heart belonged to the sophisticated urban settings of Wouk's Youngblood Hawke and Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Joy in the Morning; if precocious girls elsewhere, poised on the verge of puberty, were reading Austen or the Brontës, I didn't know it and I doubt I would have cared. I was enflamed by the purpler stories that captured the young women of modern America, hoping that, like the field manuals that had given me my father's war, they could teach me how to grasp my lifehow to grab hold and ride it to victory. At a time when television had only a tentative foothold as cultural authority, such moral and practical guidance still belonged to the word, be it secular or scriptural. We learned how to get where we were going by the stories we heard, whether we found them in the classroom, the sanctuary, or the closet with a flashlight. So we listened to tales in the schoolyard about the fates awaiting the craven and depraved, or we plotted our getaways by memorizing the escape routes of Calico Kate or Pioneer Polly.
More pious girls, no doubt, absorbed these life lessons from the Good Book itself"How should we then live?" Ezekiel was taught to askand yet the educational merits of Scripture eluded me throughout my childhood. When my parents gave me an inscribed Bible one Christmas, my heart sank with disappointment, then guilt at my ingratitude.
This religious drift was not for lack of access: As the product of a long line of Calvinist preachers and congregants, I had inherited their severity but not their devotion. My mother's hangover from her Southern Baptist upbringing still made her frown upon the idea of cards on Sunday, though none of us, especially my dad, could take her disdain seriously. Instead of the terrifying strictures of a fire-and-brimstone world, my own spiritual domicile held a kind watercolor Jesus with pale blue eyesa beneficent image I had met in the paintings that adorned the walls of our Sunday-school classroom, where I doodled away the hour and assumed I had a place in His tender flock. My parents had abandoned their strict religious backgrounds when they married, eventually joining a moderate Presbyterian congregation. Each Sunday we were lulled into a nondenominational oblivion by the church's soporific organ music, and it was here, in the light-filled, stained-glass chapel of the Westminister Presbyterian Church, that I discovered something far more commanding than the gist of any sermon. Singing from the hymnal and reading aloud from the liturgical responses, I fell in love with the meter of Protestantism rather than its substance. I took to humming the doxology"Praise / God / from / whom / all / blessings / flow"around the house; I startled my mother by reciting, at odd times and without warning, the Apostles' Creed. I was about nine when these epiphanies struck, too young to be considered pious, so she learned to ignore me. "He ascended into heaven," I would solemnly intone, "and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead."
Excerpted from A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell Copyright © 2006 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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