My dad smells like myrrh. My younger sister Madeline and I hide beneath his robes while he shakes parishioners’ hands at the back of the church. We think we’re hidden, but people can see our shiny Mary Janes. And of course, there’s the giggling. Through the heavy cream-colored cloth we can hear dad say, “Thank you for coming!” “Thank you for making it!” “Thanks for being with us today!” Some of the old ladies stop to chat for a moment, complimenting the sermon or making feeble jokes about the next chili cook-off, but most of the parishioners move by fast, headed out through the red double-doors and into the rest of Sunday or down the stairs into the dingy church basement, where donuts and coffee and jugs of purple and orange drink (not juice, drink) await.
But not Madeline and me. We are PK’s, preacher’s kids, and we have the full run of St. James Episcopal Cathedral in South Bend: from the sanctuary to the administrative offices and everywhere in between. At seven and five, we are still young enough for this to be cool.
Most Sundays, we followed dad back to the sacristy, a tiny room accessed through a hidden door behind the altar. A stained-glass window turned the weak Indiana winter sunlight into spangled blue and gold: this was the most magical place that I knew. Golden (not gold, golden) censers filled with frankincense and myrrh hung from chains on one wall. Tall torches were stored upright against the opposite wall. Two closets with sliding doors held only vestments: cassocks (robes), surplices (more robes), chasubles (robes again), stoles (heavy, embroidered scarves), and girdles (ropes made of fancy material that our dad ties around his waist). Dad and the deacon hung their robes up. Underneath his robe my dad wore a white collar, black shirt and pants. He was over six feet tall and had a full beard and mustache. I was proud that he looked like no-one else’s dad.
Someday I would be an acolyte. Then I would get to carry the lit torch down the aisle in the dim light, or be veiled by wisps of smoke rising from the censer as I swung it gently back and forth. When the time came for me to walk towards the giant crucifix suspended above the altar, everyone’s eyes would be on me, even the black, unmoving eyes of the twelve apostles in the stained glass windows that lined the red-carpeted, wood-walled sanctuary.
My parents met at church. My dad was preaching in central Florida, and my mom was visiting his church as a guest. She liked his sermon, and when he shook her hand at the end of the service he liked her smile. They ended up out to dinner together, and they talked about the things they had in common: a Florida upbringing, a strong faith, and an intimate knowledge of hospitals (my mom and my father’s mom were both nurses). I imagine that he made some bad puns to try and make her laugh, and that when she did laugh he admired her dimples. She was in her late twenties, and he was a debonair five years older.
Dad had been engaged once before to a woman who broke the engagement when he decided to become an Episcopal priest. The rigors of being a priest’s wife were unappealing to her: staying late after services and listening to parishioners’ problems in the fluorescent lights of a church basement; playing guitar for the Sunday School classes; joining the women’s prayer group; cooking a dish for every potluck; offering rides to church to the disabled; participating with enthusiasm in every church event from the Strawberry Shortcake Festival to the Christmas Pageant; and raising children solidly in the faith.
Preacher’s wives, like politician’s wives, are first and foremost givers of their time. Their moral standing must also be impeccable: divorce, children from another marriage, jobs outside the “safe” realms of elementary school teacher or nurse, and telling racy jokes are all considered out of bounds for a preacher’s wife. My mom, a devoutly religious woman, thought she was up to the challenge.
Mom sang in the choir, helped in Sunday School, and got us out of bed every Sunday morning. Her most treasured activity was acting as a member of the Order of St. Luke, which meant that after every communion she stood off to one side with a handful of other women in the Order, ready and willing to lay hands on any parishioners who needed prayers. A lot did. My mom and the other women would put their hands on the parishioner’s head or shoulders, close their eyes, and silently pray.
When I was ten I attended Camp Mac, a Christian summer camp, for the first time. I wore my dad’s Florida Gators hat with the raggedy brim and referred to it as my “hole-y hat,” which I thought was hilarious. I was somewhat famous since Dad was the visiting priest for the summer, which meant that he led chapel each morning and evening and for the rest of the day got to stand around with his hands in the pockets of his Dockers and talk to the counselors: adolescent boys with a starry-eyed love of God.
My dad’s first love was God too, and his passion beyond preaching was talking with teens who reminded him of himself at that age: gobsmacked by his love of the Lord and misunderstood by peers who seemed to just want sex and alcohol. As an adolescent in the 60’s, my dad was a Christ-loving Eagle Scout, devoted to his mother. He had never smoked pot or listened to Bob Dylan. When I asked him about the hippies he shook his head and said: “Immature.”
After college and seminary school (grad school for priests), my dad’s first job as a man of the cloth was as youth counselor in a small parish in Florida. He thrived. He became a father figure to a devoted group of idealistic teenagers. Eventually he moved on to be a priest, then Dean of a cathedral, but his heart was always with the teens. He couldn’t wait to raise his own.
“Father!” A pimply counselor yelled. He caught up with us on the path between the chapel in the woods and the picnic tables. “Father, I have a question about the Gospel of John…”
As he spoke with my dad, I walked on the other side, chest puffed out. He might have been everyone else’s Father, but he was my dad.
We shared Dad with the parishioners. He worked six days a week, seven if there was a funeral, wedding or holiday that fell on Saturday, his day off. We never spent Christmas Eve or Christmas morning together as a family because dad had to officiate at the services. And he was on call 24/7: death, disease, divorce, drugs; blessing a newborn, blessing a new house, blessing the sick. When he was not at work, Dad was usually so wiped out that he retreated to the couch in the basement, where he lay on his side and watched spaghetti westerns and reruns of M*A*S*H.
But my parents also shared my sister and me with the parishioners. They were 250 extra family members. They watched us grow up. They tousled our hair and gave us treats when we were good, and they admonished us (or our mom) when we were bad. They knew our birthdays and they asked what we were learning in school. This was nice, but it also meant that five hundred eyes were watching our every move.
Preachers’ families have been the subject of scores of sociological studies, nearly all of which discuss the “fishbowl” effect of the ministry: the family is on constant display as a model of Christian upbringing, and children are expected to behave in accordance with their preacher parent’s high moral standing in the community.
The congregation is always watching us, and, like tabloid readers crowing over Britney Spears’ latest breakdown, they’re just waiting for us to mess up.
There is an expectation for PK’s to be angels, but an assumption (possibly even a secret wish) that we will be devils. Of our famous PK brethren, Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomizes the former, while Tori Amos—whose song “Icicle” is about masturbating while her pastor father conducted a service downstairs—decidedly represents the latter.
“Very little explanation is needed when two PK’s meet; because of their common background, they have almost instant rapport,” writes Douglas F. Campbell in The Clergy Family in Canada: Focus on Adult PK’s. This is true—I feel an instant empathy when I discover that someone is a PK, even though we might not be alike in any other way. When my childhood babysitter, also a PK but a decade older than me, crashed her first car, I cringed: I didn’t know what it meant to crash a car, or even to drive one, but I knew that she would face an onslaught of admonition and advice at church the next Sunday.
Young PK’s are encouraged to repress their budding sexuality, and the expectations encourage extremes: Katie Perry switched from singing Christian pop to kissing girls, and Melrose Foxx revolted completely by becoming a porn star.
A few PK’s manage to break the stereotype and have it all together: Condoleezza Rice (Secretary of State under President George W. Bush) and Woodrow Wilson (28th president of the U.S.A) come to mind. And then there are some of us who may not be all there: Vincent Van Gogh (cut off his ear) and Anne Heche (claimed to have been abducted by aliens).
Our ranks include Jessica Simpson and Marilyn Manson; Jane Austen and the Wright Brothers; even Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote The Antichrist. Marvin Gaye is our cautionary tale: he was fatally shot by his minister father in a family argument.
When I was little, Sunday School meant coloring pictures of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus kneeling on the ground and suffering the children to come unto him. We passed around a ring box with a tiny seed in it and heard the parable of the mustard seed, which was like the Kingdom of God in that it is small, but if you sow it with faith than, lo, ye shall reap. My mom played guitar while we sang “Jesus Loves The Little Children” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
The classes got smaller as I get older, as more and more parents let their kids drop out, and there were fewer games, songs and stories. At age twelve I volunteered in the church nursery one Sunday a month. This was a chance to play games again—puzzles and dolls and make-believe—and a reprieve from the service, which we could hear through an intercom in the nursery without having to be quiet and sit on the hard wooden pews. The toddlers and babies liked me; Adam, a tow-headed two-year-old who always smelled like syrup, was particularly enamored. His family was poor—I once heard my parents talking about how they needed extra support from the church—so I always hugged him as soon as he arrived and saved him his favorite toys.
Confirmation class started the year that I turned thirteen, and we were issued thick King James Bibles with no pictures. We had assignments to read dense verses and write analyses of them (“Abraham begat Isaac begat Jacob begat Joseph…” Who wrote this crap?) To make up for the new lack of fun in our Christian lives, the church hosted Youth Group hang-outs in the dingy basement of an adjacent building, the top floor of which was a halfway house for women. Like casinos or strip clubs, the Sunday School and Youth Group rooms lacked windows.We sat in beanbags, listening to Christian rock (Jars of Clay was a favorite) and talked about what Christ meant in our lives. My mood changed weekly: sometimes I was all in, wanting to belong and believe, and sometime I faked it.
There was more learning going on at home. I was no longer cute. My limbs were gangly and for a terrifying week I was sure that the mismatched lumps growing on my chest were cancer, but I was afraid to ask about it: “breasts” was not a word used in our home. My face was hardwired with braces and glasses. I was also less awed by my Dad largely because I was spending more time with my school friends, who thought parents were “lame,” and I was more exhausted by my duties to be a good representative of the Christian child. After services, I began to retreat into my dad’s office to read while my parents socialized in the church basement for interminable hours and Madeline ran around with the other kids. When I actually became an acolyte, the long-awaited dream, I dreaded waking up extra-early on Sundays to go to church and don my robe, walk down the aisle, and sit through my dad’s sermons. He did not believe the old minister’s adage: “No souls are saved after twenty minutes.” Papa loved to preach.
Around this time we got the Internet at home. It was dial-up of course, but if I closed the study door and put a couch cushion next to the modem then no one upstairs could hear the screech of the computer connecting to the World Wide Web. This was new territory: chat rooms, AIM, and porn. I was thirteen and had yet to kiss a boy or see anything interesting beyond the illustrations in Our Bodies, Ourselves. I was not even allowed to watch MTV. So, one night, when the rest of the family was asleep, I searched AOL for “sex.”
Clicking through the photos, I was deaf and dumb to the rest of the world, and I jumped when I heard the door squeak. It was my dad. Every time I clicked to close the screen something else even filthier popped up. He was standing behind me, and when all the screens were closed I turned around, holding my breath. Maybe he didn’t see?
He looked like he’d just caught me setting fire to puppies. He shook his head slowly back and forth. “I can’t believe…” he trailed off, then started again: “A daughter of mine…” He left the room, and I shut down the computer and followed, but when I found him standing in front of the picture window in the living room, staring out at the dark lawn, I couldn’t go to him. “I’m sorry,” I squeaked, and went upstairs to bed.
We never talked about this again, but the sermon that week was about the Gospel of Matthew’s admonition against lust: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.”
By the time I started high school, my dad and I were at odds nearly every day. I argued with him just as vociferously about the role of women in the Bible as I did about my need for a later curfew. Madeline joined in a few times, chiefly on issues of how we were allowed to dress (everyone else was wearing Abercrombie & Fitch, but Mom said the advertisements for the store were soft-core porn). Dad was increasingly unhappy. His long-awaited teenagers wore jeans that were too tight and our choice of friends was suspect. We also questioned him too often, and we were not engaged enough in the church.
My dad wanted to be the best, which in his job meant being the kindest, gentlest, godliest man in the world, supported by a loving family living solidly in the faith. When he got angry or when we failed him as a super-family he couldn’t go to his friends and complain about it. Like many others in his profession, he didn’t really have friends in that sense—there wasn’t anyone he could be honest about being human with, even himself. When you’re a Voice of God, being human is a failure.
One evening, during a flavorless February in our northern Indiana town, my dad announced, with a slow, aggrieved shake of his head, that he was “tired of living, but scared of dying.” Pointing out that this was actually a line from Old Man River was a good way to start another fight, so I refrained. But it was a strange thing for a man of God to say. What fear of death hath he who belongeth to the Lord?
After the rigors of confirmation were finally over I decided that I no longer wanted to be an acolyte, and, in a surprising twist, Madeline refused to be confirmed at all. Apparently my accounts of the experience were sufficiently awful. Having once, naively, informed us that faith is a choice, my dad accepted these decisions. He shook his head slowly, released a big puff of air from his cheeks, and shuffled wordlessly down to the basement.
My faith was like a grain of sand in a bed. For weeks at a time I didn’t feel it, and I thought it might be gone for good, and then one night I would roll over and there it would be, itching like crazy. At the Easter Vigil mass—where we sit in a dark and silent church the night before Easter, mourning as the apostles mourned before Jesus rose from the dead—I wept. Jesus looked so skinny and sad on the cross. He died for us. For me. It was my fault. Jesus made my heart hurt, which was the way I felt when I thought about the Monkey Twins, two mentally disabled boys with mullets and misshapen faces, who got bullied in the hallway at school. Because He was so weak and vulnerable, Jesus stirred my deepest emotions, and I thought that what I felt was love.
But the one I really loved was Matt, my first real boyfriend and the star goalie on the high school hockey team. My dad hated Matt. He was two years older than me and had a car. He listened to Phish and toured with String Cheese Incident in the summer. He was anti-establishment, so much so that he boycotted his own high school graduation. He was also Jewish. Despite a casual friendship with Rabbi Morley Feinstein (as Rabbi and Priest they would, occasionally, walk into a bar together), Dad the Father was not comfortable with any of this. Matt and I were nothing like the teens he would have chosen to mentor. Nothing at all.
During my junior year of high school, a year into my relationship with Matt (over which my dad and I had mostly stopped fighting out of mutual exhaustion), I decided to throw a party.
Mom and Dad were at a clergy and spouse retreat in Michigan and they wouldn’t be home until Saturday night, so everyone was invited over on Friday. My sister was obligingly sleeping at a friend’s house. A senior named Eric offered his fake ID to get us a keg, and he rolled it through the kitchen door around six. We filled a laundry bin with ice and lodged the keg inside. The first few red Solo cups were half foam, but my girlfriends and I thunked them together and yelled “cheers!” anyway. Another senior, Ryan, had a bag of weed, and he sat down at the kitchen table to pick out the seeds and stems before he packed us a pre-party bowl. At six-thirty, everything seemed easy and free.
By seven, there were a few cars parked out front. Two and three, then eight, then twelve. Each car was full, because not everyone had a car and because most people planned on getting too plastered to drive. Kids from the neighborhood just walked over. The party grew exponentially. Every room was full. An unidentified couple dry-humped on the study couch and Ryan sold joints in my parents’ bedroom. At eight o’clock, I was drunk. At eight-thirty, the police arrived.
There were three of them. We were fish in a barrel. They walked up and down the stairs, collaring panicked teens and yelling: “Whose house is this! C’mon out!” I tried to cram myself into my bedroom closet with five other people, but someone reminded me that we were in my house. Downstairs, the police had detained nineteen kids. Everyone else ran. They lined up the offenders on an antique church pew that was part of our living-room furnishings and administered breathalyzers. Tony, a popular stoner with eyes at perpetual half-mast, was covertly passing out pennies for people to suck. He claimed, sotto voce, that the copper lowers the traces of alcohol on your breath.
I was sucking on a penny and sitting on my hands when my parents came in. From the foyer they could see all of us on the pew in the living room. The police must have called them.
Nineteen drinking tickets. My father was purple. When everyone was gone he screamed at me. I was an embarrassment. I was an abomination. I was a harlot. What will people think?
Later, my mom told me that the call from the police came in the middle of a folk group’s performance of a Christianized version of “If I Had a Million Dollars” by the Barenaked Ladies. She told me that the song, both the original and the Jesus version, was ruined for her now.
A write-up of the bust was in the local news box in the next day’s South Bend Tribune. Even our address was printed. The day after this ran, Sunday, everybody at church knew. Five hundred eyes shamed me throughout the sermon. I sat with my head bowed, praying: “Jesus, remember the Monkey Boys and how sorry I felt for them? Remember how I cried for your death and for your fragile body on the cross? Jesus, please, I am no longer one of the little children but can you still love me enough to get me out of here?”
He didn’t. Mom made me stay downstairs for the reception after church. I ate a jelly-filled donut and stood next to my sister, who scooched away. In private, she intimately understood my plight, but in public, she wanted only to be out of range of the shame rays shooting at me from every direction. Old ladies with pursed lips shook their heads. Young moms whispered to each other and held their babies close, as if I might eat them. The sad-eyed mother of a grown meth addict patted my mom’s hand in commiseration.
Only one person dared to speak to the Antichrist. Little two-year-old syrup-smelling Adam from the nursery was now a seven-year-old. He still had a sweet spot for me. As he walked towards me I felt the glow of impending redemption.
He squinted into my face, then squeaked: “You’re bad.” Then he turned on his patent-leather heel and walked away.
After church I sat down for the first of many punishments, writing letters of apology to the parents of all the kids who had gotten drinking tickets. The sun shone through the dining room window as I wrote in longhand on notecards provided by my mom—I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry—like a self-flagellating medieval monk. My parents passed by but neither of them spoke to me.
In the Gospel of Luke, the prodigal son spent all the money his father gave him on prostitutes. He embarrassed the family. He ran away to distant lands. He ended up working for a pig farmer. He had so little to eat that he began to crave the pigs’ food. Finally he returned home. His father received him with open arms, saying “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Sitting at the dining room table, bearing the silent treatment of my parents and writing out my own guilt on nineteen notecards, I wondered how far away I’d have to go, and for how long, to get that kind of absolution.
First photograph by Trieste Daily Photo.
Third photograph by Brent Bill.