Mary’s Multiplication Tables

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     I still think of church every time I blow a candle out. The smells of candle smoke drifting across a room or old carpet; the sound of a piano, light through colored glass, podiums of oak…I took to spirituality like it was my own special magic. This was in part because it was never forced upon me the way it was so many of my friends. My parents, progressive hippies that they were, let me choose our church. It took me nearly a week.

I liked the Easter service at the Episcopal Church but I was pretty sure that was just because I got to dress up and wear white gloves. People made a fuss over me and afterward I got to eat chocolate.

I liked the kneelers at the Catholic Church and the wet sponges and candles but I didn’t understand a word the priest was saying. All that up and down was like calisthenics. It was hard not to laugh at the altar boys, our family friends, in white robes, acting holy.

The Baptist Church was out of the question. When I asked about the little building on the hill with an old van parked in front of it that read,

“Jesus is the Reason!” in bright blue my mom and dad gave each other worried glances and then muttered something about people handling snakes. My dad leaned over and said, “it’s a far drive out there, honey, and I don’t think you know any kids that go to that church. It doesn’t look like fun to me.” When I said, “ ok,” both of my parents breathed a sigh of relief.

The Presbyterian Church had an after school program that the new minister was starting called Terrific Tuesdays. At my parents newspaper, The All Alcona Almanac, I overheard the staff reporter, Dennis, saying that he thought that the new minister (a lady!) was going to be black and liberal. He found this very funny. But in my nine-year-old brain it was revolutionary. A black lady minister! Now that’s my kind of entertainment. You see, our tiny town had about five people of color, and I can tell you all of their names. I thought meeting someone who was different would be beyond amazing.

I wanted to be the first kid in line to meet this black lady minister and try out her crazy liberal after school program. Much to my disappointment, Rev. Jan did not turn out to be black, although she was a lady. The first day of our Terrific Tuesday meetings she greeted us, emptied a big sack of sports balls out onto the field behind the church and let us all go at them. We kicked and threw and volleyed all of those until we fell in the grass, laughing. Afterward we listened to some songs, said a prayer and ate cookies. That was how I came to have a church.

Jan became the first not-black lady that I ever idolized.

This new not-black lady minister loved to play games and the guitar. She did have a black Labrador, named Caleb, and an amazing affinity for sweets. This made visiting old sick people a real joy for me. I’ve always been afraid of elderly people. My grandparents died when I was very young so the elderly struck me as made of bone China, too delicate too touch, too hard to appreciate. They were as foreign as giraffes standing on our lakeshore. This was a surmountable terror, though, since the old ladies loved to bake. Jan would talk to an old lady for nearly an hour while I was buried deep in the best pumpkin pie I’ve ever had. (I still dream of that pie.) In fact, I think Jan was really in it for the deserts, too. She’s still the only person I know that can put down a pound cake in one sitting.

Rev. Jan (like it said on her license plate) had what I considered in those days to be an enormous house with six whole rooms all to herself. I remember thinking that this house was the ultimate in sophistication with built-in bookshelves and plastic fake brick wallpaper. Sometimes Jan would let me come over and spend the night. The curiosities never ended. She slept with the windows open, the breeze floating down the hallway to the guestroom. When it was snowing I’d awaken to see my breath forming a cloud above my nose and squint at the Big Bird alarm clock on the nightstand. A familiar sound echoed down the hallway. It was late Saturday night so naturally Jan was typing her sermon for the next morning.

Sometimes, as cool as I thought Jan was, I just couldn’t concentrate during the sermon. My young mind would wander and that’s how I found the eye. I was staring up at the vaulted ceiling of the Presbyterian Church in pure boredom when I first saw a dark watermark in the center of the white drywall. It was oblong and curved toward points at each end and at the age of 9 I was convinced that this was God’s peephole into our church. I would often worry that he could see me not paying attention and I would talk to him in my head. “Please don’t pick me to be the next virgin mother. Please, please, please. I’ll pay attention I really will. See, I heard what she said-‘turn your hymnals to page 374,’ I’m singing. I’m singing.”

It was amazing that even as a little kid with awful teeth and a frizzy crimped mullet tied back with Christmas ribbon that I thought I was special enough to be chosen by God, like the mother Mary. I had no lack of confidence that if there were another Jesus born I would certainly be the vessel that would carry Him into this world. AND NOONE WOULD BELIEVE ME. They would all be like, “oh, sure, we saw you looking at that cute boy in math class.”

Soon this frightening scenario became my distraction during sermons that ran long. There I would be with some guy in a Volvo rushing me to the hospital, my nearly 10-year-old belly hanging between my thighs and he’d be saying, “Really, Katrina, you can tell me who you slept with. I won’t even be mad” and I’d insist, “I’m telling you, Calvin, it was God. This is God’s baby.”

Now this is the kind of thought that you don’t relay much when you speak of religion to strangers but as soon as I voiced my fear to my parents it became a household joke for decades. My mom would lean across Dad’s breakfast of crumb cake and warily point a finger at my math paper. “It seems the virgin can’t cross multiply, dear.”

Thunder would erupt and lightning streak the sky and my Aunt would retort, “better hide, dear.”

The Christmas play would be in full swing when Dad would chuckle and say, “ready for act two?”

Although their teasing at the time annoyed me, I now have the best go-to religion story for cocktail parties. So, when I blow out a candle and it takes me to that nostalgic place, those stained-glass memories on 2nd Street. The place where I met a lifelong friend, tasted the best pumpkin pie ever made, learned to knit, and got over my fear of the elderly I get down on my knees to pray and thank God for the reprieve. And I can almost hear Him chuckle.

P.S. I married a Baptist and he’s never held a snake.

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