In which I repeat myself

Here, look: A re-run. "Classic" Spark and Foam from March of 2005. We'll pretend this is a treat.


Thanksgiving, when I was a little girl, consisted of a family gathering at my grandparents' house in Massachusetts, the adults milling around and the kids playing the board games my youngest uncle had left in the attic: Mouse Trap, with several missing parts; Cooties; and a game comprising wooden skewers stuck into a tall plastic cylinder to form a barrier, which was then piled with marbles--the object was to remove the skewers one by one without letting the marbles fall. I've forgotten its name.

There were always cocktails around, and on one particular Thanksgiving when I was four or five years old, I amused myself by eating the maraschino cherries out of the glasses recently emptied of Manhattans. No one thought anything of it until a few hours later when I complained that my legs ached, and when investigated, it was discovered that I was covered with spots--bleeding beneath the skin.

My parents called the hospital, half an hour away in Boston, and were told to bring me in immediately. My mother, for some reason, felt that it was inappropriate for me to arrive at the hospital without proper attire, so they wasted an hour or so taking me home to get pajamas and a change of clothing. When I finally arrived, several hospital staff ran out to meet us, frantic--they'd called every area hospital, to see if I'd been admitted there. They recognized from my mother's description that my condition was dicey, and that I needed immediate care.

The condition I had, as it turns out, was called "SCH0NLE1N-HEN0CHS pur pura," and I haven't thought of it in a long time. I'm surprised I remembered the name, and when I just typed it into Google, I found that I didn't know how to spell it. The three results I got were in German, or maybe Danish, so I can't give any information other than to offer that this disorder, caused by an allergy to the dye in the cherries, nearly killed me.

It didn't occur to me that way at the time, of course. I mainly remember an unpleasant ride in my parents' VW bug, the taste of the vomit in my throat (even now I can recall its specific acidic taste), and several dark and lonely nights in the children's ward.

Obviously, I recovered and went home, in my new pajamas, carrying the new toy zoo my best friend's parents had given me as a get-well present. Very shortly thereafter, red dye no. 2 was banned. Life was back to normal, except for one thing: in their anxiety that I would die from my ailment, my parents had Found Religion.

I was too young to perceive the change too acutely; much of what I know about their conversion is what I've been told. As far as I can see, my father's new-found religion didn't cause him to quit drinking or lying or cheating on my mother, but it did imbue him with a self-righteous air and an altered vocabulary. As an example of this, I'll point to the day he and I had a frustrating argument over my attempt to prevent him from cutting the word "impossible" out of our dictionary. He felt it was an affront to God to imply that, with sufficient faith, all things were not possible. My central argument, as I recall it, centered around the simple idea that cutting the word "impossible" from the dictionary would make it impossible to look up the word "impossible." When my father professed that the word should be stricken altogether from the language, I argued that cutting the word out would render it impossible to read the definition of the word printed on the opposite side of the page, but logic had no power over my father.

My parents' new faith, combined with their old, dysfunctional behavior and stubbornness, made life complicated for me as soon as I was old enough to question their beliefs. Before you think I was a snotty kid, rebelling against religion as a pose, let me just explain that I would have fit in just fine at the Flanders' house, on The Simpsons. I was so inured to crazy religious statements; my parents' eerie, judgmental friends; and the parade of misfits my parents hoped to reform through Christ's love, that it took quite a lot for me to question the sanity of anything I witnessed. What finally caused me to feel doubt was my father's bizarre insistence that God spoke directly to him.

God spoke to him a lot, using little pictures that my father had to decipher--like the rebus puzzles found inside the caps of Haffenreffer beer, I guess--to unravel the messages. One such message concerned my father's curiosity about my mother's pronunciation of the word "aunt." My mother, who is from the West Coast, pronounced the word "ant," whereas my father pronounced it to rhyme with "gaunt." It's a relatively simple matter, attributable to regional differences, but for some reason, my father considered it a mystery of the ages, worthy of direct communication with his close friend, God. As he (my father) explained it to me, he had asked God, "Oh, God... Why does Martha pronounce 'aunt' like 'ant'?" and God, in his infinite wisdom, had sent a series of pictures to appear in my father's head: several ants; a bicycle wheel in motion; and an arrow, pointing in the direction of the motion of the bicycle wheel. These things my father interpreted as a series of words:

Ants Spoke That Way

And this, as he understood it, was God's way of telling him that my mother pronounced the word "aunt" as "ant" because when she was growing up, her own aunts (represented by the ants) pronounced the word that way.


He was so pleased with this communication. He told everyone about it. It was just one of many Magic Jesus Rebuses over the years, answers to questions he asked God--some involving foods he shouldn't eat, or women he wasn't supposed to sleep with. He even asked one time, "God... why do you send me these pictures?" and as he told it, with annoying false humility, God whispered in his head, "Because you don't listen to words."

There is something in that statement that seems plausible, but it changed my father's behavior not a bit.

I don't know what my father believes in these days. He took off from my family with a nasty, bitter woman he worked with, and I'm happy to have not spoken to him in ten years. The last I knew, he had rejected the idea of God, favoring the company of ghosts and UFOs. Once, near the end of my dealings with him, we drove past a truck on which was painted the name of a business, which had some kind of Christian meaning. My father pointed at the truck as we drove by, and spat, "Swaggartwords! Swaggartwords!" He said "Swaggartwords" as one word, but he was trying to express that the Christian reference painted on the truck was some kind of catchphrase used by hypocrite extraordinaire Jimmy Swaggart and his ilk. He'd gone from being God's little buddy to extreme religious paranoiac from outer space. I'd long since lost any talent for indulgence, so I didn't comment, just sighed. Hearing me sigh, he asked, "What? What?" defensively, daring me to take issue with his bold condemnation of religious fundamentalism.

There was no energy left in me to tell him that I no longer looked to him for guidance, and that the words he was sputtering were like so many little doodles lined up inside a discarded bottlecap. Even if I deciphered them, I wouldn't learn a goddamn thing.

Star of the day. . .Cate Blanchett
posted @ 2:56 p.m. on November 11, 2008 before | after


She lay awake all night,