As I reached my teenage years and my privacy began to be invaded in increasingly traumatic ways, I reached out to friends I had met through our on-again-off-again homeschool group. My parents found out and cut off my contact with them, my lifeline. I plunged into a depression so severe that only my dysfunctional view of God kept me from suicide. I knew that God was on my parents’ side, which meant that he was against me, which meant that I had a one-way ticket to hell waiting for me just on the other side of death. No matter how unbearable my life seemed, it was still preferable to being burned alive for eternity.
Around this time, I started being sent to seminars and camps where I was taught how to debate with anyone who might try to sway me from my parents’ beliefs. My desperate knowitallitude was in danger of growing insufferable, but it was during one of those courses that everything began to change for me. I was fifteen and going through a class that fit the entirety of history into our fundamentalist worldview. I had heard it all before, but something clicked in my head that year and I realized with startling clarity how limited our little group of God’s elect really was. We were so adamant about being the only right ones that we were proudly dooming all other ethnic groups, political opinions, religious affiliations, and even hairstyles throughout all of time to a hell that was already overpopulated with abortionists. It just didn’t make sense anymore, and the most startling thought of my life took hold of my mind: What if God isn’t exactly how we believe?
Within a year, I left home to go away to school. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t do anything to help my siblings at that time, but thinking for myself was still so new that I was feeling my way in complete darkness. There was hope in the darkness, though, and that hope was worth pressing through every doubt and fear to grasp.
Hope that I wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake.
Hope that God loved me.
Hope that God loved other people too, even people with mohawks.
Hope that the pain I had gone through wasn’t my fault.
Hope that doubts wouldn’t destroy or doom me.
Hope that I would be beautiful one day.
Hope that peace and authentic happiness were waiting in my future.
I’m still finding my way, and I probably will be for the rest of my life; formative years are not easily replaced. However, every one of those hopes has proven itself true—and not just true because an opinionated author said so but because I’m living it.
(To be continued…)
From babyhood, I was expected to be perfect. (These are the 49 characteristics of perfection, if you’re interested.) Any mistake was evidence of rebellion in my heart, rebellion was “the sin of witchcraft,” and witchcraft could only be driven away through physical pain. If you’ve ever met a typical two-year-old, you can probably imagine how many hours a day were devoted to driving away my rebellion. It didn’t work, of course; I still hadn’t achieved perfection by age five, or eight, or twelve. I tried though. My eternal salvation was on the line every second of every day, and I was terrified of ending up in hell for failing to be polite enough or understand my math problems or keep my younger siblings from making messes.
We read long stretches of the Old Testament every morning with whipping implements nearby in case anyone squirmed, and I learned in a very tactile way about God’s violence. (I still can’t open the first two-thirds of my Bible without risking a panic attack.) I often had to copy down biblical passages that directly condemned me as additional punishment and then show up to church where my dad was a pastor and put on a show of saintliness. I would have hated God with every breath had I not been so scared.
I had plenty to fear: hell for myself, hell for my younger siblings, demons who could read my thoughts, a vengeful God who could read my thoughts, violence at home, ridicule outside our home, church staff who would fire my dad if we misbehaved, trick-or-treaters who would bring Satan to our own front door, policemen who would take us children away if they spotted us, doctors who would take us away if we ever went to the hospital, the government who would take us away if we got social security numbers, my body that could cause men to stumble, my emotions that betrayed my sinful nature, my mind that questioned what I was told, and my heart that was black with wickedness.
My parents were able to use scare tactics and violence to control my siblings and I unchecked for a few reasons. First, the isolation of homeschooling meant that my parents didn’t need to answer to anyone. They didn’t have to take us for medical check-ups or immunizations, they didn’t need our education levels checked, and we rarely had visitors. Our church could have posed some opposition, but with my dad being a pastor and my siblings and I looking for all the world like a row of docile ducklings, I think people tended to brush away misgivings. My parents had uncontested authority over us, especially my dad as the God-ordained head of the family, and absolute power without any checks or balances has the ability to turn even well-meaning people into monsters.
Second, the methods used on my siblings and I instilled in us a deep, unrelenting shame. Horrible things were done to us, and they were all our faults. We were vile creatures; God saw us as worms. Our needs were laughable. Our bodies belonged to our caretakers to treat as they saw fit. We were expected to submit willingly to abuse and then thank our abusers with joy; it was utterly humiliating. And because every bit of it was God’s will, we had no right to protest. We were silenced by religion, fear, and shame… and despite this, my parents never did feel like they had the control over us that God commanded of them.
(To be continued…)
I should start by acknowledging that this will not be easy, and not just because of the subject material. The net around my childhood was woven from spiritual, physical, intellectual, and psychological components, and I still can’t identify all the hands that helped to create it. A lot of my memories have been repressed or distorted, and I have no desire to unearth every detail. However, I know for certain that in the net’s efforts to guide me, it nearly strangled me… and that my parents were the ones caught in it first.
Early in their marriage, they became involved with a religious group that could accurately be termed a cult. The leader required members to donate all their money, cut off family ties, and accept his every word as divine revelation. I would find it amazing that one man could dupe so many people into mindlessly obeying him except that I know his tactics by heart. All he had to do was quote a few Bible verses out of context—“Lean not on your own understanding,” “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” and “Your ways are not [God’s] ways”—and top it with a few scoops of religious guilt, and sensitive souls were easily convinced that the warnings in their hearts and minds were just part of Satan’s ruse. If you’re not allowed to think for yourself or trust your own instincts, you have no option but blindly following someone who claims to have first dibs on the truth.
While my parents never officially joined the group, it made a deep impression on them. They saw large families of helpful and obedient children with a refreshing disregard for what the rest of the world thought about their uncut hair and homemade jumpers. Women taught their children at home and tended sickness with natural remedies. Men worked the communal farm or crafted artisan furniture. Instead of watching TV in the evenings, everyone would gather to sing and pray. To an impressionable young couple looking in, the group was clearly following the lifestyle that God wanted for his people.
When I was still young, our family moved away from the group and settled in a fairly large city where the cult leader’s absence was filled by teachings from Bill Gothard, Bob Jones Jr., Michael Farris, Mary Pride, Gary Bauer, Jonathan Lindvall, Michael & Debi Pearl, and other Christian fundamentalists. To my parents’ credit, they embraced these teachings because they wanted to do the right thing, and I don’t think they ever once realized the insidious spiritual manipulation happening to them. If God commanded them to throw away the birth control and homeschool their ever-growing brood, who were they to argue? If God wanted them isolated from the world, how could they disobey? If God dangled their children’s souls over open flames and said the only way to save them from hell was to beat them until their wills were broken, what else could they do?
I don’t believe for a second that God really wanted any of those things from them. I’ve struggled for a very long time with how to process God’s involvement in my childhood, and the only answer that brings me peace is knowing that he is not forceful. God did not force those fundamentalist authors to stop writing their propaganda any more than he forced my parents to stop reading it. I think God tried to communicate with my parents the way he does with me now, through intuition and thought-nudges, through the emotions that help us sort out good from bad. Had my parents listened to those, they would have seen our home life for what it truly was—terrifying, heartbreaking, and fraught. However, they had been taught to dismiss both mind and heart as misleading, so my childhood was left to the mercy of religious extremists.
Perhaps I should clarify: There was no mercy.
(To be continued…)
I’ve never considered brainwashing to be a particularly accurate term. Brainwashing implies a cleansing, the junk drawer of thoughts replaced with a sparkling fresh emptiness. In reality, though, it involves cramming someone’s mind so full of a certain perspective that no room is left for any others. It is a form of control. It is a form of abuse. And it is a significant part of my history.
I struggle frequently with how much of my past, if any, I should share on here [ed: in addition to what I already have], and there is no easy answer. The simplest solution is to keep steering clear of the topic. This doesn’t offend anyone, it doesn’t stir up the memories I least want to revisit, and it lets dark secrets continue to sleep in peace. Hiding the ugly truth was ingrained in me a long time ago as a virtue; keeping quiet feels like the right choice. Almost.
It would feel right if I didn’t know how profoundly healing honesty can be… or how damaging silence can be. A long time ago, a loved one nearly died from causes I may have been able to prevent had I just been brave enough to tell someone. Now, an alarming number of my college classmates are starting eagerly into the same lifestyle that I barely managed to limp away from, and I wonder who else is going to speak up for their children. Am I still letting myself be victimized into silence when the truth, however incriminating, could help set others free?
As I see it, my experiences are my property to do with as I please. The things other people have done to me are not their secrets; they are mine. The dubious reward to surviving a childhood like mine is that I now have full claim to it. I have both the right to reveal it and the power to destroy reputations with it.
But that is not my goal. If I decide to bring my past into the spotlight, it would be for the dual purpose of making peace with it (a daily effort for as long as I can remember) and showing others where the trap doors are hidden. I am not interested in causing more pain… but more pain would be inevitable, and it would affect more than just myself. There is nothing fair about a childhood of abuse, and the injustice seems double in adulthood as I’m faced with the minefield of what to do about it now. I never asked for the responsibility of forgiveness, much less the one of honesty, and each requires more of me than I think I have to offer.
Perhaps the only reason I’m even daring to mention this is because of writers like Elizabeth Esther and Hillary McFarland who have been brave enough to tell their stories and whose candor spreads healing and understanding. Their courage inspires a spark of recognition in me, and I begin to think I could actually do it, I could finally give myself a voice and speak up for those who don’t feel they have one. But then the years of brainwashing—or rather, braincramming—do their work and re-convince me that the simplest solution is the right one.
Survival is for Wimps
Let me be clear: This is a tale of survival, and it is not for the faint of heart.
Last Monday, I took myself out for the evening. “Evening” here is a relative term since my husband doesn’t get home from work until 7:15 and the local mall closes at 9 (which the shop owners tend to interpret as 8:45). However, I had a little birthday money to spend, and an hour all my own to try on clothes without small offspring pointing out my anatomy at top volume, suddenly remembering they need to go potty, or throwing open the dressing room door when I am the least… uh, prepared… sounded so relaxing it felt illegal.
I had the house clean and the girls fed when Daniel arrived, but I still felt a little rebellious sashaying out the door alone. (Hey, I was far too cowed to rebel in my teens like a normal human, so I tend to get my taste of insurrection from anomalies in my routine… and let me say, it is delicious.) I rolled the windows down, cranked up the music, and sped off into a glamorous sunset.
One minute away from the mall, I was startled when a small rock sailed through the passenger window and landed with a thud in my lap. There were no cars around, and I was mildly curious what would cause a rock to take such a horizontal trajectory. I slowed down just enough to glance at it… and my spine immediately began clawing at the base of my skull for an exit. The object in my lap was not a rock. It was a bee. An enormous bee. A spiky, hairy, hell-hued beast of a bee.
Allow me to provide visual clarification:
Let’s back up a couple of decades. I liked bugs as much as the next grubby-fingered kid. I remember farming roly-polies in our gravel driveway, coaxing butterflies to land on my nose, and poking beetles simply because… well, antagonizing beetles is one of childhood’s great joys. But then came the fateful morning that a cricket got tangled in my hair. I couldn’t see it. I could only feel it, it’s spindly legs, its bony wings, all the little scrambling bits of sharpness and slime getting increasingly enmeshed in my hair. That morning, a phobia was born, fully-grown.
My little brothers took full advantage of the shift in my psychosis. They chased me with grasshoppers and spiders until I was in hysterics (another of childhood’s great joys), and even though I realized my fear had nothing to do with logic, I couldn’t stop it from pulling me in head-first. At least my reaction these days is a little more refined. When I see something with more than four legs in our house, I simply shut the door to that room and wait until Daniel comes home to take care of it. No more weeping or screaming. Not so loudly, at any rate.
Need I take you through the horror of that moment in the car? If you had been within a hundred meters (and thank goodness no one was), you would have heard a rather eloquent scream followed by the equally eloquent “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD…” If you’re concerned for my salvation, rest assured—not a syllable of it was in vain. I needed God to get rid of the bee nownowNOW before the car and I came to a tragic demise.
I could still feel the weight in my lap and the pricks of its legs sticking through my jeans. God apparently hadn’t heard. “OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD!” I didn’t dare look down. All I could do was keep the car more or less on the road and try not to imagine all the awful ways that bee was going to kill me with its barbs and fangs and beady-eyed horridness. I suppose I do have to give credit to divine powers for getting me into the mall parking lot without panic wresting the steering wheel from me—and believe me, it tried every quarter-second—because I was certainly not in the proper frame of mind to handle heavy machinery just then. Nevertheless, after the longest minute of my life, I managed to park the car. It may have covered three spaces, and I might have forgotten to actually turn the motor off, but we were safely at a standstill when I snuck a second peek at my lap.
Allow me to provide visual clarification:
If you had been in the parking lot (and unfortunately, plenty of people were), you would have seen a crazed woman leap out of her still-running car and start doing the Riverdance while stringing together Shakespearean curses in a helium voice and beating at her own legs with a purse. You would have seen the jumping abruptly replaced with full-body shuddering as she retrieved the contents of her purse from the pavement and barricaded herself in the car (this time remembering to turn it off). Eventually, you would have seen her glance mistrustfully out the window, climb over the console, crawl out of the passenger door, and head into the mall trying to pretend away her jellified ankles and wild eyes.
It may not have been my most dignified public appearance, but survive I did. I even enjoyed the solo shopping experience, gruesome flashbacks notwithstanding, and when I finally returned to the car, the bee was gone. It probably just flew away in search of some new victim, but I like to think that it returned to Hades from whence it came.
Take it away, Beyonce.
I was never one of those girls who lived on paper towels dipped in grape juice, fell asleep doing the splits, and dreamed of Juliard, but ballet was still a big part of my formative years. It was the one form of exercise that my tightly-strung limbs could manage with any degree of competence. I was hopeless at jumping rope. Running knotted my sides with pain. Any sport involving a ball promised certain embarrassment; I had even been known to hit onlookers in the face with foosballs. But the precision of ballet meshed with my Bach-infused brain—Plié, two, three, four, and up, six, seven, eight, relevé, two, three, four, and down, six, seven, eight. When I took my place at the barre, the carefully measured beat inside my chest fell into step beside the practice music, and my life took on a certain… not meaning, exactly, but familiarity.
It was when a hip-hop teacher choreographed one of our performances that I learned beat and rhythm were not the same thing.
“Try slouching,” the teacher instructed me. “Well yes, technically it’s similar to hunching over, but you need to relax. Try bouncing a little. Swing your arms some. Maybe bend your knees? Just try to loosen up, please, so you can move with the music.”
I succeeded in looking as hip as a Puritan schoolmarm with epilepsy.
All this to say that rhythm is not a virtue I inherited. I’ve learned a lot about loosening up since my ballerina days, but simple yoga breathing took me months to master, and no one is going to be hiring me for a Snoop Dogg music video anytime soon. Even more regrettably (though failing to capture Snoop’s attention is tragic), my rhythm deficiency seems to apply to the grand scheme of life. Despite plenty of years to settle into this existence of mine, I have yet to find my daily groove. I still approach my schedule awkward and stiff-jointed with no carefree assurance that I’m moving in the right direction, no flexibility to roll with the changes that pulse in the bassline.
What guides me now, as always, is the plodding beat under my sternum: Status quo, two, three, four, and caution, six, seven, eight, now practicality, two, three, four, and misgiving, six, seven, eight. (Yes, I’m a blast to have at parties.) But what I want is to be swept away in a rip tide of driving beats and compelling sounds. I wish I could move freely through my days, trusting in the power of joy and unconstrained movement to produce a full life, a wildly good life. I would love oh-so-very much to stop studying every minute as the next note in a sonata and just… groove.
This is where I am this spring, taking stock of my life and shaking my head. Try slouching, I tell myself. Except this time, relax. Bounce a little. Swing your arms. Bend your knees. And for heaven’s sake, learn how to drop it like it’s hot before you actually turn into a Puritan schoolmarm.
In two days, we leave for the Alps. The snowboards are out of storage, 4,372,690,114 freshly-baked vacation cookies are cooling on the counter, and, per tradition, my heart is hiding in the tightest part of my esophagus.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in prairie country, but mountains terrify as much as they thrill me. On the drive up, I always imagine our car hitting a pot hole and plunging us down 3,000 feet of sheer rock to perish in a fireball of Die Hard proportions. Once we reach snow, I think about the treacherous ice canyons [probably] gaping under the thin frost on which we stand. Riding the ski lift, I imagine the cable snapping or a gust of wind flipping my chair upside-down over the highest drop. Buckling into my snowboard, I consider the myriad of ways I could die or, at the very least, end up horribly mangled on my way down the mountainside with no effort on my part.
Then I factor in the girls. With stunning internal cinematography, I can see an out-of-control skier lopping off their heads with his pole. I can see the girls tumbling off the edge of a precipice, barreling face-first into a tree, heck, even stumbling on a flat surface and breaking a wrist (which may or may not have actually happened to a certain father of theirs). I imagine fatal icicles, avalanches, surprise blizzards, and death by snowmobile… and they’ve never even been on the slopes yet.
Christina’s post yesterday about mothers’ fear of taking risks set me thinking… or rather, stopped my overly dramatic thinking in its tracks. “What is it about nature,” she asked, “and high places and sharp that seem so terrifying that it’s not even worth the supervised risk?” Well, everything, I thought. Then I began to remember some of my happiest childhood moments—reading on tree branches with leaf shadows dancing across my face and soft air beneath me… jumping from one boulder to another over mysterious, bottomless crevices… sitting on our car windowsill with the wind full in my face as we drove through State Parks… strapping on rollerblades and letting my brothers sling me back and forth across the street with long ropes attached to their bikes… exploring woods alone, wading swift rivers up to my neck, running barefoot through grass… Danger was the big kid on the playground, sure, but he wasn’t an enemy.
I will not be letting my daughters sit halfway out of a moving vehicle anytime soon, but I recognize that my [dramatic and mostly unfounded] fears should not keep them from experiencing the wild joy of nature. So we’re borrowing a sled tonight. We’ll rent a pint-sized snowboard. We’ll save seats for the girls on the cable car and show them the world from snowy peaks. I will make every effort to encourage carpe dieming, to have fun, and to quiet the panic every time one of them peeks down a hill. All the same, don’t be too surprised to find out I’ve stashed a first aid kit and a defibrillator in one my boots.
“The dishes!” I wail, glancing into the kitchen on my way to bed. “Why are there always and forever dishes needing to be washed?”
Daniel replies kindly: “Because we use them.”
On Valentine’s Day, 2004, I kicked my brand new husband out of the house for four hours so I could make Chicken Parmesan as a surprise. To this day, I have no idea how a pile of chicken-topped spaghetti could possibly have taken four hours, but it’s fair to say I had no idea what I was doing. (The consistency of said chicken, which could have better served as packing material, agrees.) However, I so longed to make something beyond our standard fare of Campbell’s and Kraft. Surely, surely, with a little effort and the clucking, grandmotherly help of that red plaid cook book, culinary pleasure could be found in our dining room.
We ate Taco Bell the next day.
A lot changes when one moves to a country without fast food, though. When we first arrived in Italy, I mostly fixed packages of risotto mix and frozen chicken cordon bleu, and we picked up pizza a few times a week. However, I took mental notes each time we were invited to an Italian meal. One friend taught me how to make melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi; another gave me her recipe for amazing oven-roasted potatoes. I learned—thanks to my longsuffering husband—how to make cappuccinos, and I started auditioning new dessert recipes with his co-workers each week. I made a New Year’s resolution to learn how to cook meat so that people would rather eat it than use it as a doorstop. The next year, with a tasty repertoire of brining and braising techniques, I made a New Year’s resolution to make friends with vegetarian fare. I started jotting down menus and grocery lists for the first time in my life.
This year, my attention is drawn more toward my desk than toward the kitchen, but the process of cooking still engages my heart in a way I couldn’t have imagined six years ago. There’s something sacred in the challenge of planning meals to nourish my family’s bodies and souls while guarding our time and finances. There is mindfulness in rubbing fragrant herbs into a pot of soup, serenity in rolling pastry dough. Food preparation is no longer just a means to survival—it is a classroom, a laboratory, and an art studio. A love song. A risk, an exploit, a gathering of the usual five senses plus a few more. A thrice-daily dose of beauty to share and savor.
It is also, as reluctant as I may be to admit this, worth every single always-and-forever-dirty dish.
Yesterday, the resident princess woke up one year older. She bounded out of bed, thrilled as any newly minted five-year-old and radiating enough energy to make her tired mother see stars.
Our pre-breakfast interview went thusly:
Me: “What is today?”
Natalie: “TOMORROW!” ::begins jumping up and down::
Me: “Uhh.. and what is tomorrow?”
Natalie: “My birthday! It’s my birthday! AHHHHHHH! I’m FIVE!” ::throws a balloon over her head repeatedly::
Sophie: “Sophie’s a five.”
Natalie: “And I have one heart balloon and other balloons, and I even got a heart balloon that’s the color green!”
Sophie: “Mine’s a purple.”
Natalie: “I want to do all kind of things today! Mommy, you know, I can look up and down and left and right, and I can do lots of jumps!” ::demonstrates:: “I can jump on one leg! Watch! I can do it with one leg! You know I like pink all the time?”
Sophie: “Orange balloon.”
Natalie: “I can do it so well now, but not when I’m four. Only five-year-olds are good at things. Just now. You like my long legs? My birthday! My birthday! You know? You’re probably right, it is my birthday. Woo-hoo-woo-hoo! You see the heart on my head?”
Sophie: “The color of all balloons!”
Me: “What are your favorite things to play with?”
Natalie: “A colorful piano, the pirate Legos…” ::goes to investigate:: “I can see a monkey, a shark, an alligator, a skeleton, lots of pirates with fish, there’s LOTS of pirates and a mermaid and a king, and I like ballet and my little toys and computer games and Super Mario Brothers.”
Sophie: “And Wii ‘ports!”
Natalie: “Mommy, you know I’m being good? You just know that I’m five now? When I go to sleep, I don’t suck my thumb anymore.”
Sophie: “Sophie’s sucking the thumb.”
Me, trying to stick to the script: “What can you do now that you’re five?”
Natalie: “Play with Barbies and open presents and play with some other toys. Oh, reading! I just know how to look at the pictures on my own, okay, Mommy? I can just look at my pictures. You see? I’m going to look at these pictures. Wow. Look at these letters, wow! Hey look, here’s my number that I turned!” ::points to the page number:: “FIVE!”
Me: ::nods and smiles while backing slowly toward my warm bed::
I was under the weather all day—as in, I couldn’t manage to lift my outlook above the low-lying clouds—but I loved watching her luxuriate in the occasion. It’s not every day a girl gets a custom-made pink layer cake and is finally allowed to use scissors at school. All the same, my mind would only grant that she was twenty-four hours older than she had been the day before, that the date was less worthy of celebration than the girl herself. The difference between five years old and four-plus-364-days wasn’t enough to coax awe, much less jumping jacks, out of me.
However, my stoic perspective lasted only as long as the tissue paper on her second present. It was a ring—a dusky pink jewel set in a gold circlet, misshapen from its former career as my fifth birthday present.
Natalie tried on the ring, admired it for approximately three seconds, and put it back in its scuffed velvet box. Oh, I thought. Knowing the kid’s adoration for all things pink and sparkly, I had assumed she would love my little heirloom… but she was more excited about the 49-cent pencil sharpener in the next package, and I wasn’t offended. I was jolted though. Watching my daughter twirl the ring in the kitchen light reminded me of the day I had gotten the ring. I remembered it. And the true weight of five-years-old landed squarely on my consciousness: She’s crossed the threshold from impression into memory.
The realization hummed in my background the rest of the day. Twenty years from now, would Natalie remember me sitting down to draw princesses with her? Would she remember me leaving the table to clean? Would she remember my frustration over the confounding Disney Wii game? Would she remember me leading her into the pages of Little House in the Big Woods and illuminating mysteries like venison and headcheese? What about me picking up my computer as a respite from several straight hours with the girls? Or me kissing the grumpiest part of her neck until the giggles burst out at bedtime?
It’s a sobering discovery that my parenting from here on out is being archived rather than evaporating with the moment. (Frankly, it’s terrifying, but that may be only because my brain hasn’t taken its Valium yet.) I have about twenty hours’ total experience raising a five-year-old, and I’m guaranteed to botch the job over and over again as I figure it out. Will enough standout parenting moments cancel out the flubs that go on record? Can my core-deep love make up for my core-deep imperfection?
I certainly hope so, because otherwise… ::starts backing slowly toward my warm bed::
A Miracle in Third Gear
The thing about miracles is that they fade over time. The more I run my fingers over the fabric of a perfect memory, wondering at the embroidery, feeling the threadcount of joy, the less color it has to offer until it becomes just another beloved quilt in the bottom of a trunk… and I start to forget that miracles exist. Until a new one falls bright-side-up in my lap.
Yesterday’s miracle started three Octobers ago…
Daniel, Natalie, myself, and my prodigious baby bump had recently moved to Italy (after a summer that gave itself calluses fixing us up with miracles). We had a little apartment near Daniel’s workplace but no car, so on this particular evening, we had taken a bus to the grocery store. We loaded the bottom of Natalie’s stroller with packages of diapers, cartons of milk, and a whole crate of mineral water before slinging as many bags as possible over the handles. My superhero husband shouldered the rest, and Natalie chattered two-year-old pleasantries while we made our way out of the store and up the hill to the bus stop—an endeavor that made me wonder if babies could pop out of their mothers’ straining neck muscles. Getting the loaded stroller and all our purchases onto the bus turned out to be something of a spectator sport, but at last we got ourselves settled in. Hard part over. All we had to do was relax and enjoy the ride home, albeit with the eyes of the entire bus on us crazy Americans and our menagerie of bags.
Two blocks from our stop, the bus took a hard left turn. In one dreadful moment, Natalie’s heavy-laden stroller fell over and our grocery bags flew down the aisle. Everyone on the bus let out a collective gasp and watched with various degrees of shock as Daniel and I scrambled to right the stroller and comfort our terrified toddler. While I tried to balance Natalie on my massively pregnant lap feeling like the worst mother in all of human history, Daniel tracked down peaches and jars of tomato sauce from under people’s seats. Any hope of dignity had fled the scene.
After making it home, checking Natalie over for bumps, and laughing a little ruefully over the whole thing, we came to a decision: We needed a car. Neither our produce nor our self-esteem could handle another bus episode like that (as if our impending Sophie weren’t reason enough), so we forked over €1000 for a rather old, rather used station wagon.
The idea from the beginning was that we would drive the car until it died and then get a better one. The clutch was already going, so it wouldn’t be long, but we expected to have all our legal paperwork and an Italian bank account within six months so we could get ourselves a proper family car. Only… the paperwork was delayed. And delayed. And then lost in a governmental black hole for two years. Meanwhile, our temporary car cheerfully zipped us around town. Okay, so one side-view mirror fell off (twice), and the other had to be held on with duct tape, and the gear shift knob tore off, and the trunk hydraulics broke, and the indoor lights didn’t turn on, and some days the hand brake wouldn’t work, and the battery had to be replaced after a harrowing experience in Rome with Rachelle, and we received dire warnings about the clutch going at a moment’s notice.
However, the car was unswervingly faithful to us and our lifestyle. It took us over ancient cobblestones, up the Dolomites, along the Amalfi Coast, through Austrian Alps, into Welsh fields. It accompanied us on countless day trips, on trains and ferries and country roads, and on our fantastically insane road trip to Ireland and back. We asked more of that car than we had any right to expect, but it always came through.
This brings us to last week when Daniel finally received the document we’ve been waiting on this whole time and opened a local bank account. (Hooray! we say; also, How could that take 2½ years?!) The following afternoon, I was driving the girls home from the grocery store when the clutch started sticking, then growling and nipping and digging in its heels. It abruptly refused to go into gear anymore the moment I pulled up to our driveway. I shook for half an hour afterwards thinking of what could have happened had the car died a moment earlier and felt quite sure a divine power was looking out for us. But the miracle wasn’t quite finished yet.
We found our dream car over the weekend (at an incredible price, thanks to a dealership goof). The salesman agreed to take our old car as a trade-in, and we got the call yesterday that everything was ready for the switch. We arranged for the insurance to be changed over at 6:30; the problem was that Daniel didn’t get home from his business meeting until 7. And that wasn’t the only problem. Possibly more concerning than the lack of insurance was the lack of gas in the car, and more concerning still was the stuck clutch. However, we had to get the thing to the dealership, so Daniel managed to jam the car into third gear and set off into rush hour traffic. Without gas. Without insurance. Without being able to drive in anything but third and neutral.
And then the clutch bottomed out.
When Daniel recounted the story to me later, I had a heart attack at this point. Rush hour traffic is brutal around here, and there are no road shoulders. Even with him talking in front of me, I was sure he had ended up in a mangled heap on some roundabout with the coverless gear shift sticking through an artery. I couldn’t look as he continued telling me how he could no longer take the car out of third or take his foot off the gas, and the engine was fighting for life in the bumper-to-bumper traffic… how he made it through the big roundabout but nearly stalled navigating the U-turn entrance to the dealership… and how the car shuddered to a final stop in the one open parking spot. A miracle.
We took our new adventuremobile out for a family joy ride later, but my thoughts were still with our old car. As I saw it, the timings of the past week could not have been coincidental, and I could feel the residual glow of the supernatural touching an otherwise mundane circumstance. It was a moment for feeling the thanks I couldn’t quite articulate. And with the texture of our experience still palpable and lush in my mind, I wished one thing above all else: that I could see the saleman’s face the moment he tries putting our old car into reverse.
Rest in peace, sweet car. You’ve earned it.
P.S. – Hello, sexy.