I don’t know why my parents thought they could raise my brothers and me without God and religion. They didn’t baptize the three of us nor did they make any effort to introduce us to religion. My parents were honest folk with good morals and values. Other than not “having” a religion, my upbringing was typical in working class, white suburbia in the 60s and 70s. I found out that not having a religion made me different from my peers during the social studies period in second grade. Our teacher went around to each student asking him or her to name his/her religion. “I’m Catholic,” “we go to the Lutheran church,” “I’m Baptist . . .“ and so on. When she came to me, nearly in tears, I sputtered out, “I’m nothing!” Without God, how true that turned out to be.
My mom had a deep resentment toward organized religion. When the topic came up, she’d say with certainty that it was hypocritical and she wanted nothing to do with it. While I don’t know for sure, I think her position was strongly shaped by her father who was a 32nd degree Mason. He was poised to become a 33rd degree, but the family lacked the money to send him to England where he needed to go for the rite. She was also under the persuasion that there was no need to “indoctrinate” children; that we would figure it out for ourselves when and if the time came.
My dad was the son of Russian and Slavic immigrants who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They were Russian Orthodox, but when they settled in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, they changed to Roman Catholic. This was purely pragmatic given the Orthodox churches were too far away and the belief systems were so similar. My dad was baptized Catholic, but he didn’t remember much of his Catholic upbringing. He left home when he was 15 to join the Merchant Marines during WWII, and he never returned to the faith. Peculiarly, during the year before he passed, he started to call me his “angel of mercy” and would use other such Catholic phrases more frequently. His faith was still there.
During my childhood, I had two Catholic girlfriends, who were sisters, and a Mormon best friend. My mom allowed me to go to church with them when I was invited. As such, I attended the Catholic Church maybe a dozen times in my pre-puberty youth. I didn’t exactly listen during Mass as my girlfriends and I giggled and carried on until their mother “shushed” us. However, I found the Church to be beautiful and mysterious with its gorgeous stained glass windows and statues. And, I was awestruck with the kneeling rail and praying, and this thing they called “Holy Communion.” I longed to go to the altar and take the little round host, but their mother always forbade it. After church, I’d probe my friends, “What is it? Does it taste good? Why do you do it?” Their answers were hardly provocative, “It’s hard bread, it doesn’t have any taste, and we do it because we’re confirmed.” “Oh.”
The other bit of information they gave me is that this guy named Jesus watches us all the time. Whenever there was a big spotlight waving through the sky, for example, when a store was having a big sale or a carnival was in town (if you don’t get this, it’s because you’re too young!), they would tell me “that’s Jesus watching us.” Well, I didn’t like this at all! I didn’t want some strange guy watching me, God or not! On these occasions (spotlight in the sky), I would hide in my closet.
Amazingly, from these few experiences, maybe a dozen at the most, I internalized and, throughout my entire life, remembered the “Our Father” prayer. It seemed to be etched onto my heart.
As for my Mormon experiences, I had only two. The first was going to church with Robin, my bestie. This time, I actually listened to the sermon and the man at the pulpit said, “if you’re not baptized Mormon, you’re going to hell.” Well, at the tender age of 9 or 10, I took offense to this proclamation! Who was that guy to tell me that I was going to hell along with my entire family? I was so mad that I never went to church with Robin again.
The second experience was a Mormon funeral when I was eleven. My bestie’s older brother, Richie, died at the tender age of 13 due to a defective heart, with which he was born. It was the first death I had experienced. The casket at the funeral was open and family and friends were kissing and caressing his corpse. “Anne, kiss him, go on . . . go up and kiss him . . .,” they kept prodding me. I was paralyzed. Finally, Robin’s grandmother saw the terror in my eyes and made it clear to all that I didn’t have to. That was the end of my Mormon encounters and that was the extent of my faith formation.