Every time there is an opportunity for me to rejoice in a birthday celebration with someone, whether a child of my own or another, an adult co-worker, a longtime close friend or even a new acquaintance, I experience the same excitement and happiness exactly the way I remember my very first.
This first was not as one may assume, in any traditional manner. No, it was very far from that. It was not with any candy clown topped cream filled cupcakes, passed around a classroom and shared with the school office administrators. It was not with any ice cream or cake and balloons with little gifts. It was not even with a song, sounded out off-key by little voices accompanied by sticky little clapping hands. The sad fact is that I never actually witnessed any of these events as a child. I did however hear them, and clearly so as I stood abandoned outside the heavy oak classroom door with a beautifully engraved antique oval brass doorknob, which separated me (as requested by my parents) from the pagan ritual ensuing on the other side.
That huge wooden door also kept me close to my parents' god, who supposedly stood with me in the asbestos-covered pipelined hallway, where all of Jehovah's little people proclaimed their detestation of "worldly" practices. But there was one terrible problem with that. It was that I just didn't detest what I heard or smelled as an aluminum foil covered tray passed by me, held by giggling little girls wearing new, shiny patent leather shoes. They glanced sideways at me, alone, feeling not quite there, dusty in my appearance and poor in my attire.
I didn't feel Jehovah's spirit upon me as promised. It did not uplift me as it did his blind faithful followers, whom I knew personally from all the endless Bible readings required of me. If three men could walk smiling among the flames of a furnace heated far beyond its capacity, and a fourth man, a mystery to all who saw him, would appear with them after they had been thrown into this torture by King Nebuchadnezzar who was outraged at their refusal to bow down to him, where was my salvation for loyally obeying the same "true god" of these men of old who emerged unsinged? It surely wasn't to be found under the dim, huge, bulbous hallway lights of P.S. 23. Nor did I see it in the occasional strange classroom that I was afforded shelter in, surrounded by unrelenting stares from non-believers, for the fifteen minutes it took my teacher and classmates to perform this act of apostasy.
This agonizing alienation didn't come close to ending with cake and ice cream. No, I endured it on a continuous daily schedule. It began right on time, at 8:45 a.m., every day when that huge, round, silver colored bell, mounted high on the wall of my classroom, rang. We all stood, straight and tall behind the chair pushed in under each of our desks. We then prepared for the nationalistic propaganda and brainwashing to immediately follow the entrance of three gawky third graders, proudly displaying the color guard sashes worn diagonally across their white shirts. The middle child always entered wielding the American Flag, so much bigger than he, and staggering off-balance by its height. It was then that everyone (except me) raised a small right hand and placed it over the left side of his or her chest and began reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance," words which held no real meaning for anyone, all the while forcing themselves to keep a stoic gaze upon the Stars and Stripes. I never understood what a "witch it stand" was, or what "liver-tea" would taste like. I didn't know what any of these words meant. I only knew that they were bad and that I was forbidden to say them. I must stand respectful but silent.
Those words were equally as bad as the fun lyrical songs and festive laden smells of Christmas crafts and projects that I was also forbidden to sing or create. My allegiance was only to Jehovah's heavenly sovereign rule, not to any earthly political government.
There were no Easter Eggs to blow the yolk out of with a straw in order to dye, no white paper doilies to cut into gorgeous romantic Valentine's Day cards with bright red heart-shaped pieces of construction paper centers to bring home and hang on my refrigerator. Not one fluffy pink and yellow tissue paper flower with a green pipe-cleaner stem for my Mom on Mother's Day, with hand-made cards that said "I love you Mom" and a sloppily-written poem about how wonderful she was. I could only watch far apart from them all while I breathed in deep the scent of crayons and glitter, branding deep the scar of longing upon my lonely heart.
There was not another like me at P.S. 23 in 1965. I alone was fashion-less, Beatle-illiterate, unpierced and unpolished. Thanksgiving came and went with no family anecdotes to share with the class the next day, as if anyone would have been interested in the experiences of the child of fanatical religious parents who handed out expired copies of "Watchtower" and "Awake" magazines to hyperactive candy-fueled trick-or-treaters at Halloween. No, all I was really known for was the perpetual "FREE KITTENS" sign, which hung on our rickety fence out front. I was often seen weekly by my classmates early on a Saturday or Sunday morning while they watched cartoon programs and waited for breakfast. I could see them laughing, as they peered around from behind the legs of their father, who stood annoyed at the front door of his castle, with the glorious smell of pancakes and bacon wafting out, making me dizzy, while my own father announced the impending doom and destruction momentarily due to obliterate this "evil system of things" and all who did not heed Jehovah's people who were announcing the installation of his Righteous Kingdom.
That was so very long ago, and yet was really only a moment ago. I can still hear and smell all those holiday demons, who jeered at a despondent little eight-year-old girl who was an unwilling volunteer of martyrdom. Now that I am an adult and have children of my own who relish in these pagan celebrations uninhibited, these demons are now welcome guests of our home. Their presence is often requested, adorned with metallic-looking pointy party hats and noisemakers. They bring scary Jack-O-Lanterns with candlelit eyes and silent screams. They help me decorate a more heavily ornamented Christmas tree year after year, sometimes impossible for me to strip away its beauty until it has become time to scrape away artificial snow from our windows and replace it with pink, white and red hearts and angels.
Once I sinfully allowed even poor Cupid to fade from February to March and metamorphose into some huge green four-leafed shamrocks and troll-faced Leprechauns before laying the tree to rest upon the burn pile out back near the barn. My precious little revelers who eat more Christmas cookie dough than shape it will never know the hollowness and isolation of my own cultist upbringing. My solitude now is received only when I seek it with a perfect cup of tea in one hand and a great novel in the other. I will never completely rid my heart of those dark years, a prisoner of a spiritual war which was not my own.
But those years have actually made me more appreciative and fulfilled now when I listen to the wind softly rustling some dry leaves as I sip and savor my tea. I am truly amazed and grateful that I am still present to witness each year passing the deadline for Armageddon. Forty-one such years have passed now and I welcome the freedom from those chains as I welcome the integration into this unpredictable fantastic "worldly" life.
Debra Ann Romano, Olivebridge NY
NOTE: Debra Wilson of MAD TV recorded this for the author on audio
|This message has been edited by Supportsman007 on Sep 11, 2002 10:07 PM|