My Fundamentalist EducationA Memoir of a Divine Girlhood
PublicAffairsCopyright © 2005 Christine Rosen
All right reserved.ISBN: 1-58648-258-0
I. Sunshine State.....................................1II. Darlings of Divine Providence.....................16III. Sword of the Spirit..............................31IV. Jesus Loves Me This I Know........................52V. Amateur Messiahs...................................64VI. Heresies..........................................93VII. Here Comes the Son...............................109VIII. Dribbling for Jesus.............................133IX. Jehovah Jireh.....................................146X. Full Immersion.....................................166XI. Harlots and Menstealers...........................178XII. Virtue and Vice..................................206XIII. The Hereafter...................................221Acknowledgments.......................................230
Chapter One Sunshine State
"In God We Trust" FLORIDA STATE MOTTO
My first encounter with the Almighty did not go as planned. I was three months old in the fall of 1973 when Mom squeezed me into the same white christening gown she'd dressed my sister, Cathy, in a year earlier. After putting on a white cap-sleeve dress and twisting her dark hair into a stylish twist, she helped Cathy tug on some lace tights and a dress decorated with colored ribbons. Dad donned a polyester maroon suit and smoothed down his sideburns, and the four of us piled into the car for the brief trip to Pasadena Community Church. A local Methodist congregation, the church was well known in St. Petersburg for its lush outdoor "garden sanctuary" filled with fountains, palm trees, hibiscus, and bottlebrush. The minister welcomed random infants for blessing as long as the child's parents, like mine, were presentable and vaguely Protestant.
The ceremony was brief-a few Bible verses, a little water dribbled on my forehead, and a quick prayer-nothing arduous, but enough to guarantee an ounce of eternal protection for my infant soul. I didn't cry, but Mom and Dad found it trying, and probably argued, because in the post-baptismal photograph that was supposed to mark my early admittance into the land of the redeemed, Cathy, a year and a half old, eyes them both nervously. Dad's jaw is clenched, and Mom, rigid and unsmiling, holds me inattentively. There is little to suggest spiritual celebration. Rather, the feeling is of grim determination. Two and a half years of marriage and two kids in rapid succession had frayed Mom's nerves, and Dad must have gotten on her last one pretty soon thereafter, because she left. Walked out. Packed her bags, turned her back on her husband and two young children, and started over, moving in with a guy named Chuck whose house was furnished entirely with bean-bag chairs. I have no idea if she said, "That's it, I'm leaving!" and stormed out of the house, or if she wept or yelled or cursed. Dad didn't tell us how she left, or why, or what he thought about it, and we were too young to ask. She was there one day and gone the next, and whatever memory or longing we felt for her was overwhelmed by the knowledge that she hadn't wanted to take us with her.
There was no more church after that. Grandma and Grandpa came to help Dad take care of us, which meant that whatever spoiling we'd been given before came to a swift end. Grandma subscribed to a tough-love school of child rearing that included frequent and stern warnings about the dangers of lying, overindulging in chocolate, and talking back. She was fanatical about toilet training, and spoke often of the importance of being "responsible little girls." She bustled around the house, tucking mothballs into the sheets and towels and making us grilled-cheese sandwiches with thick slabs of Velveeta and, if we behaved, apple fritters we ate fresh from the frying pan and dusted with confectioner's sugar. Grandma drove us to Montessori preschool classes every day, and in the afternoon fed us snacks and let us tag around after Grandpa. On weekends, Dad took us to the Aquatarium on St. Petersburg Beach, where we would devour Popsicles and watch the porpoises perform jumping tricks and the seals waddle up the steps of white stools, touch their flippers together, and pretend to pray. Sometimes Dad fed quarters to the "Mold-a-Rama" machine, which combined hot plastic with great groaning noises to produce instant colorful rhinoceros and hippopotamus molds that felt warm and sticky to the touch. At night, I would open my eyes to find Cathy standing by my bed, watching me worriedly to make sure I was sleeping.
A certain fierce independence-or pushy bullheadedness, depending on your perspective-had long marked this branch of the family tree. My great-grandfather had come to the United States from Bohemia at the end of the nineteenth century, his wife and two young daughters in tow, and opened a tavern in Lorain, Ohio, where he was known for his boisterous good humor and his fish fries. Initially slight and thin, with a drooping dark mustache, as he prospered he grew portly and took to wearing a heavy gold pocket watch and smoking fine cigars. He was a merciless teaser and joke teller, and believed strongly in the redemptive properties of alcohol. "Look here," he once told my father, then seven years old, "if you drop a worm into a glass of water, it lives. But put it in some beer, and he doesn't stand a chance. So you see, if you don't want worms in your belly, drink beer!" Dad's earliest memories were of Great-grandpa standing behind his shiny wooden bar, laughing and shaking salt into his glass of beer.
Grandpa was the only son in the family. Born and raised in Lorain, he became a milk-delivery man, getting up before dawn, wearing a pressed white dairyman's uniform and banded cap, and trundling a horse-drawn wagon full of milk and cream around town. He married a feisty Polish girl (a Catholic, much to the horror of Great-grandpa) and had three children. He wasn't outgoing like his father, but he had a broad smile and was the only member of the family who appeared to possess any patience. Grandma and Grandpa eventually fled Lake Erie's chill and set up house in Miami, until they were summoned to St. Petersburg to help care for me and Cathy, an unenviable task, evidently. "Gramps! Tell those kids to quiet down!" Grandma frequently hollered, since even as toddlers Cathy and I, like an afternoon thunderstorm, were capable of generating extraordinary noise and minor chaos as we ran around the house. Grandpa was more tolerant, seeing us as an opportunity for impromptu entertainment rather than stress. "Hand me a couple of those nuts, will you kid?" he'd say, gesturing to a nearby can of salted cashews. The spring-coiled cloth snake that launched directly into my face when I loosened the lid of the trick can left me twitchy for the rest of the day, but Grandpa would laugh so hard tears formed in his eyes.
Grandma and Grandpa weren't religious, and Dad and Cathy and I easily conformed to their laid-back approach to weekly church attendance. During the prime praying hour of 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, you were likely to find us not sitting devoutly in a house of God, but lounging outside in aluminum lawn chairs in Grandma and Grandpa's backyard in the nearby burg of Gulfport, the adults nursing Bloody Marys and Cathy and me, with inflatable water wings strapped to our chubby limbs, swimming in the small kidney-shaped pool until our fingertips puckered and our hair turned green from overexposure to the chlorinated water. The only conversion going on in Grandma and Grandpa's house was Dad's transformation of their two-car garage into a fantastic billiard room, complete with faux-stained-glass pendant lighting, do-it-yourself wood paneling, maroon shag carpeting, and a regulation-size pool table. After eating, and before we were allowed to swim again ("You'll get cramps and drown if you do," Grandma would say), Cathy and I stretched out underneath the table, in the cool darkness, listening to the click of cue against ball and the thump of ball hitting pocket, as Grandpa and Dad played game after game in companionable silence.
Sometimes, when Grandma and Grandpa were busy, Pam watched us. Pam was "from your Daddy's office," Grandma told us the first time she came over. I loved her. She was petite and dark-haired and quiet and reassuring and lent an air of calm to a household usually giddy with noise. She had a fun streak, too, and told us stories about how she'd been a drum majorette in high school, all sequined leotards and knee-high white boots and flaming batons. She started coming over more often. Then Dad started missing dinner and when we asked, Grandma said, "He's working late." Pursed lips. Or, "Out with Pam." I was three when she married Dad, at the home of his boss. Cathy and I, in brand-new blue dresses with bell sleeves, spent most of the evening in an upstairs bedroom with a distracted baby-sitter and a group of kids we'd never met. We were brought downstairs for a picture, and I stood proudly, wreathed in grins, in front of Pam, holding a bell that I insisted on ringing in celebration. Nothing seemed to make more sense than Dad in his ruffled tuxedo and Pam in her pretty pink dress. Cathy stood in front of Dad, clutching his legs and looking slightly less enthusiastic but nevertheless stoical. Cindy, our little sister, was born a year later.
We moved to a neighborhood called Jungle Terrace, into a split-level ranch house on Jungle Avenue a block away from Boca Ciega Bay, where two Spanish explorers, Pánfilo de Narváez and Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, had landed in 1528. At the dark and overgrown site, amid vines, saw palmetto, and weeds, stood a marker that commemorated Pánfilo de Narváez, who perished in Florida along with many of his fellow conquistadors. Neighborhood lore also included stories about the nearby Jungle Prada building, which was constructed in 1924 as a nightclub and still boasts the state's first terrazzo floors. Duke Ellington and Count Basie played at the club when it was called the Gangplank, and Babe Ruth got married there. Dad told us stories of Al Capone, who in the 1920s was partial owner of the Prada and spent a lot of time there; so did local bootleggers, who dug tunnels beneath the building to reach the bay, where they smuggled their liquor in by boat. Dad also told us about the large Indian burial mound beneath the Prada, and how, during construction, workers unearthed hundreds and hundreds of skeletons that they never reburied, prompting Cathy's and my fears that we might one day stumble across bones or a desiccated corpse in the tangle of weeds and grass behind the building.
Then again, stories of conquistadores, Indian burial mounds, and rum running are commonplace in Florida. The Sunshine State survives on tourists and weather, two notoriously fickle beasts, and St. Petersburg was a town that did its best to capitalize on both. It is best known for its shuffleboard courts, beaches, condominiums, and early-bird specials at restaurants where everything served is deep-fried and accompanied by a "house salad" of iceberg lettuce and mealy tomatoes. It has long been a haven for so-called snowbirds fleeing northern winters and retirees seeking a sun-drenched senescence. The city got its name from a dissolute Russian aristocrat named Peter Demens, who named it after his birthplace. It has a handful of buildings built in the grand 1920s style-pink palaces like the Vinoy and the DonCesar hotels, and the Mediterranean-inspired Coliseum ballroom downtown. But it is a city that also has no compunction about demolishing elegant structures to satisfy the most fleeting demands of development. St. Petersburg's city council once approved the dynamiting of a gorgeous 1920s-era hotel, the Soreno, as part of the penultimate scene in the Mel Gibson action movie Lethal Weapon 3.
Florida in general nurtures a professional nostalgia industry, and postcards depicting by-now-bulldozed monuments of the "Old Florida" can be found at gas stations and convenience stores. The state's prize possession lies just a few hours north of St. Petersburg, and not long after Cindy was born, we took the first of what would become our nearly annual family pilgrimages to Walt Disney World, in Orlando. My anticipation of this trip bordered on the ecstatic, since even at a young age I was familiar with Mickey and Minnie and Goofy. After a seemingly endless car ride and a long line to purchase tickets, we were there. We checked into the Contemporary Resort Hotel, which Cathy and I judged immediately to be the most glamorous and futuristic place we'd ever seen, since it was shaped like a gigantic letter A and the Disney monorails whooshed right through the lobby. Within the hour I was running up and down the theme park's creepily antiseptic Main Street USA, which was meant to evoke a simpler time in the nation's past, with flag-waving, costumed Disney employees milling around and a sleeve-gartered man in a bandbox hat playing "The Entertainer" on a piano in the fake saloon. There was something thrilling about being outside that first night, among strangers, long past our bedtime, watching the Electrical Light Parade wind its way down Main Street USA, the excitement tinged briefly with terror when a smoke-spewing dragon made of thousands of tiny green and white lights roared by. The fireworks were far more lavish than the bottle rockets and sparklers we set off in our backyard every Fourth of July.
The next day, Cathy and I exhausted ourselves racing to get a place in line for every ride, and Dad took us on Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Mad Hatter's Teacups, It's a Small World, and through the claustrophobic terror of the Haunted Mansion. We ate ice-cream bars shaped liked the head of Mickey Mouse and clamored to meet the oversize Goofy and Minnie and Donald Duck characters that we had been stalking through the park all day so that we could have our picture taken with them. And in the intense heat of the afternoon, we filed into the coolly air-conditioned Carousel of Progress, where the audience rotates around a stage that depicts a series of dioramas tracking the technological transformation of the interior of one family's home from 1900 to the present. I fell asleep with the show's theme song, set to strumming banjo music, repeating in my head, "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, shining at the end of every day. There's a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a dream away."
Florida is also a place that encourages a thoughtless aping of sophistication, a place where your experience of beauty and glamour is likely to be an imitation-linoleum floor made to look like a simulacrum of fine Mexican tile; plastic, glue-on veneers meant to suggest pink marble; walls encased in fake-wood paneling. I admired a beautiful ancient sculpture in a neighbor's front lawn until the day I touched it; instead of smooth stone, it was scratchy fiberglass, and it tumbled over when I gave it a tiny push. Floridians' mimicry is well intentioned, but it offers a subtle reminder that souvenirs, not originals, are the real currency. Novelty stores flourish in most malls (which are themselves one of the most enduring features of the landscape), their aisles packed with remote-control cars, disco balls, lava lamps, and sexually suggestive ballpoint pens featuring smiling women who shed their clothing when you turn the pen upside down. Nearby are the souvenirs-T-shirts, key chains, commemorative spoons, refrigerator magnets, combs, and "canned Florida sunshine"-objects as important to the cultural zeitgeist of the state as citrus is to its economy. At Spencer's novelty store in our local mall, we bought fake rubber cockroaches and plastic dog excrement for pulling practical jokes and Halloween masks for trick-or-treating.
Pam and Dad didn't take us to that other purely Florida place-the beach. Neither one of them fished or enjoyed the intense heat and sand and potential hazard of our stepping on broken glass or sharp shells or a stingray. At Grandma and Grandpa's we could play outside and swim to our heart's content, all the while safely penned in by a fence. But on our regular errands we'd drive near the beach, and I would see determined visitors slathered in white sunscreen walking in that awkward, trudging way people do through sand in the burning sun. Tourists imagine pristine beaches, but our shores were more like a morgue-the carcasses of horseshoe crabs, mullet, and jellyfish were scattered amid the slimy, dark brown seaweed, broken shells, and discarded soda-can tabs. And what was true of the beach was true of the rest of St. Petersburg, where even the names of common vegetation suggested unrelenting struggle with the natural environment: saw palmetto, scrub palmetto, slash and loblolly pines, stagger bush, snapdragons, alligator weed, lizard's tail, Ilex vomitoria, poison ivy, poison oak, and strangler fig. Florida is home to numerous bromeliads, or "air plants," which require no soil and affix themselves to tree branches and walls. The staghorn ferns Pam grew on our backyard fence lived off the moisture in the air and the stray bugs that fell onto their leaves. Some people claim that the plants could survive in Florida merely on the nitrogen generated by frequent lightning strikes.