My father's folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians "God's frozen people." My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God--it was like we'd all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father's cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father. I lived for him. He was my first god.
My mother and her twin sister had come over from Liverpool with their mother after their father died, when they were twelve. My mother had a lifelong compassion for immigrants; she used to find people waiting for boats to their homeland or waiting for money to be wired from the East so that they could catch a bus home, and she'd bring them to stay with us until everything was straightened out. She and my aunt Pat had been confirmed as Episcopalians in England--I have their confirmation picture on my mantel, two dark-haired beauties of twelve or so in long white baptismal-style dresses. But that was the last of their religious affiliation. My aunt Pat married a Jew, with a large Jewish family in tow, but they were not really into Moses Jews; they were bagelly Jews. My closest cousin was bar mitzvahed, but other than accusing you of anti-Semitism if you refused second helpings of my uncle Millard's food, they might as well have been Canadians.
None of the adults in our circle believed. Believing meant that you were stupid. Ignorant people believed, uncouth people believed, and we were heavily couth. My dad was a writer, and my parents were intellectuals who went to the Newport Jazz festival every year for their vacation and listened to Monk and Mozart and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Everyone read all the time. Mt. Tamalpais loomed above us, and we hiked her windy trails many weekends, my dad with binoculars hanging around his neck because he was a serious bird-watcher. He worshiped in the church of Allen Ginsberg, at the Roger Tory Peterson Holiness Temple, the Tabernacle of Miles Davis.
We were raised to believe in books and music and nature. My mother played the piano most weekend nights, and all of us kids knew the words to almost every song in the Fireside Book of Folk Songs. When my parents' friends came over on the weekends and everyone had a lot to drink, my mother played piano and everyone sang: English ballads, spirituals, union songs, "The Golden Vanity," "Joe Hill," "Bread and Roses."
Their friends, our family friends, were like us; they read as a vocation, worked for liberal causes, loved Dr. King and nature, smoked, drank a lot, liked jazz and gourmet food. They were fifties Cheever people, with their cocktails and affairs. They thought practicing Catholics insane, ridiculous in their beliefs, and morally wrong to have so many children; also, the non-Italian Catholics were terrible cooks. My mother made curries surrounded by ten kinds of condiments, including chutney she and her friends made every year in our kitchen. I bowed my head in bed and prayed, because I believed--not in Jesus--but in someone listening, someone who heard. I do not understand how that came to be; I just know I always believed and that I did not tell a soul. I did not tell a soul that strange boys rode by on bikes shouting racist insults about my kinky hair, or that we showed our naked bodies to the big boys in exchange for baseball cards, or that the Catholic dad had beat his daughter, because I wanted to be loved, and so I stood around silently, bursting with hope and secrets and fear, all skin and bone and eyes, with a crazy hair crown like that one ridiculous palm.
The Belvedere Lagoon was a body of green water surrounded on all sides by luxurious homes, each with a dock from which you might swim or launch a small Sunfish or rowboat. My best friend from second grade on was named Shelly. She was blonde, pretty, and had a sister one year younger, whose best friend was a girl named Pammy who lived at the other end of the lagoon.
Excerpted from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Copyright© 1999 by Anne Lamott. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, 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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