I wanted to be outside. It was a beautiful, hot desert day and there were spaces to run and frolic. My vista was framed by church windows — pale, overly polished wood that presented crosses. Daydreaming, I imagined picking the violet flowers near the curb of the parking lot, and then sitting in the grass to examine the petals. Sometimes after church, I would roll down the hill near the back entrance. Watching the world spin as I let gravity take over, and momentum quicken the revolutions. Clouds, ground, clouds, ground… When I got to the bottom after about ten seconds, I ran up to the top of the hill, lay down, and propelled myself to initiate another circular plunge. Laughing when I got too close to a friend or almost collided with someone’s feet — like a parent in the process of fetching multiple children so they could go home.
The minister adjusted his microphone and then the minister’s next to him.
“In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, we ask you to bless our congregation. You are our creator, protector, and the One who will lead us to our heavenly home. We thank thee for thy grace, as we are sinful and weak…”
The prayer lasted for fifteen minutes, and was then translated into Finnish.
“Vuonna Jumalan nimissä, Isä, Poika ja Pyhä Henki, pyydämme sinua siunaamaan seurakunnassamme. Olet meidän luoja, suojelija, ja se, joka johtaa meidät taivaalliseen kotiimme. Kiitämme teitä ..”
After that, we sat through an hour-long sermon about being childlike in our faith. The minister, a man, as there were no women, instructed us to be obedient like sheep. He illustrated this with the story of the shepherd and his flock. I half-listened as I looked around the sanctuary. From the front row, I could see the faces of almost everyone. The adults were listening intently and trying to make sure their children behaved, and sat still. When my friend Kate’s mom wasn’t looking, she made a face at her younger brother, Zach. He punched her, and Kate tattled to her mom. That was when Kate’s mom took Zach out of church for a time-out. Everyone turned and watched them proceed all the way down the aisle, to see what would happen. It was a distraction, and a momentary relief from the boredom. When I checked to see who else was watching Zach’s humiliation, I noticed that my grandfather was looking at me with disdain for not minding my own business. I was taught to respect my elders, and didn’t want to be disobedient, so I went along with what the adults seemed to want me to do. I redirected my attention to the sermon, even though I still wasn’t listening. I just sort of half zoned out on the cross on the pulpit.
After church ended, my grandpa said that I should sit with him and grandma. “That would be lovely,” I said, minding my manners. My grandma was very kind and quiet. She said that I could sit next to her. That’s when my grandpa said that I could have a piece of gum if I sat still. But my grandma would be the one to give it to me. That’s why we called her “Gum Grandma.” I nodded my head, and fixed my Sunday dress. My tights were bunched up around my ankles because they were hand-me-downs from my much-older cousin. They also had a hole in the toe, but that was covered up by my scuffed dress shoes.
Just then, my dad said hello to Grandpa, who invited us to come over for lunch after church. A family friend, Alfred, was standing nearby, so Grandpa invited him to join us. Alfred often had us over for company, and always seemed to be around our family. Dad was always so agreeable, and said that would work, but he needed to round up the kids. He was tired from working overtime, but he was dedicated to his family. So he did, and twenty minutes later, we were piled into the station wagon and on the road. It was fun visiting company after church, so I was excited. Maybe they would have ice cream! Or candy! When we got to our grandpa and grandma’s house, we scrambled out of the station wagon, and raced off, all over their lawn. Their grass was luxurious because it was so well-watered. In the desert, this was prized. Most grass was crunchy, filled with ‘pickers,’ and hurt our feet. So running barefoot was not much fun. But here, we could run free, without worry. They also had a swimming pool, with a slide. Not a care in the world. We were with family, enjoying a day in the fleeting childhood years. Alfred stood at the window, with his hands in his pockets. There he was, just standing. In one place. As the adults prepared the lunch table and a cassette tape with recorded church hymns played in the background. “Tag, you’re it!” I squealed at my two-year old brother, Evan, and ran away from him as fast as I could, dress and blonde hair blowing in the wind, and my soft, little feet kicking up behind me. What bliss for a six-year old, free-spirited little girl who loved life, and could easily lose herself watching birds flit about, or a bumble bee travel from flower to flower in a garden.
“Kids, it’s time to come in for lunch!” mom called, from the back patio door. We ignored her and kept running around the back yard. There was a pigeon pecking around in one of the flower plantars. I loved birds. Whenever I saw one on the ground, I tried to catch it. So I walked up to it slowly, so as not to startle it. I motioned to my brother, Evan, to be quiet. He looked at me with wide eyes and sat down in the grass. I took another step. Then another. Stopped. Waited. The pigeon seemed unconcerned with me, as it hopped up onto the plantar, and strutted along the top of it. I took a step and stopped until I was close enough to reach out and touch the pigeon. But I paused for a few more moments and tried to let the pigeon know that I was not going to hurt it. Very carefully, I extended my hands to the pigeon, and laid them on the plantar in front of it, palms up. I smiled at it, and it hopped onto my hands. How excited I was! But I had to contain myself, so it wouldn’t get startled and fly away. I held the pigeon, and just looked at it. What a pretty bird — different shades of gray, with a shiny green neck. It was silent as it swiveled its head. I knelt down beside Evan and put the pigeon on his lap. “It tickles!” he laughed, wiggling his legs. And with that, the pigeon flew away. We both watched it go. “C’mon, let’s go, Evan.” He grabbed my hand and smiled at me. And we strolled in the direction of our mom, who by this time, was just about to call for us again.
As we had lunch together, our grandparents asked us kids how school was going. I was shy and didn’t always open up easily. So I waited to see if Nicole or Evan would share something. But they didn’t. They were busily munching on the good food our grandparents had prepared: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, string beans, and warm biscuits. So I said it was fine. My dad chimed in with a recent update on my behalf, “Bridget is going to be skipping first grade!” Everyone stopped eating to hear details. My dad continued, “She has been performing beyond the curriculum and seems very bored. The teacher noticed this and talked to the principal. They decided that Bridget should take a placement test, to see if she would be ready for second grade. She was, and even a little more than ready. When she starts second grade next week, she will also be placed into a program they call ‘TAG,’ which stands for ‘talented and gifted.’ Our little Bridgie is so smart.” He beamed, and then patted me on the head. I smiled shyly, and picked up my fork. My parents were proud as peacocks of their children. I felt very loved and special. They seemed perfect. So perfect that Nicole and I mused about whether they had ever sinned. We figured they hadn’t because they didn’t seem capable of doing anything wrong. They were so GOOD. So very good. Pure and kind, gentle and loving, sweet and devoted. We all were glued to them when they were home. And they never seemed to mind. And here my dad was, practically blushing with admiration. It made me feel brave. Like he thought I could do anything, be anything, and never let him or mom down. And if I attempted anything, it wouldn’t disappoint him no matter how it turned out.