“Mama, can you tell me about God?”
This has been coming up lately. Some of Zoë’s second-grade classmates go to Sunday school. She’s been wondering what it’s all about.
“It’s complicated. God means different things to different people.”
“I know, but, to you.”
Not so long ago, I might have grumbled with hostility, “God is a pretend person that some grownups believe in,” and left it at that. My own parents taught me to regard church and God as suspect at best, evil at worst. Ma spoke of religion with discomfort. She had lost faith in the male, white God she’d been raised with, and she was appalled by the atrocities performed regularly in His name. Daddy was much more dramatic. He’d pound his fist on the table. Religion was a set of false precepts used by abusive tyrants to control ignorant people.
Daddy had a beef with God. At least, that’s what I grew up thinking. By the time he was the age I am now, he was legally blind. This was because Daddy had glaucoma, beginning in early childhood. Fluid accumulated in his eyes, causing pressure to build under the membranes and damage his optic nerve. His visual field narrowed, he saw rainbows around lights at night, and his world became more and more distorted. Facing this crisis, his Christian Scientist parents did not take him to an ophthalmologist. My grandparents prayed to the loving, healing Christian God in whom they had placed their trust.
This was a tragic act of love. I see that now. But according to the story I grew up repeating, Daddy’s parents “turned their backs.” They could have saved his eyes “if only they had tried,” but by the time he was financially independent and got himself to a doctor, it was too late, his optic nerve had been irreparably damaged. When I pictured him, slender and handsome and sure — without the coke-bottle glasses, without the white cane — bounding into some doctor’s office full of hope, I, too, filled with outrage. My daddy, weakened by this disease, could have been strong, if only it weren’t for his parents and their God.
I developed a broad distrust of authority, grandparents, and organized religion. When my gum-chewing junior-high girlfriends mentioned their Sunday school, I feigned indifference, but really it was fear and judgment: I had formed a mental association between religion, ignorance, and suffering. I had repeated it to myself until it became true to me, and consequently, I felt very uncomfortable around people who believed in God.
In so many ways, Daddy taught me well. He lined the walls of our house with books, nurturing my love and respect for poetry, literature, history, philosophy, music, and, above all, education. Some of the values he encouraged could even be called Christian. He and Ma together taught my sister and me to revere the planet and treat its inhabitants kindly, no matter what their species or religious affiliation. But the lesson on forgiveness was missing. Daddy never forgave his parents, and he never forgave the Church.
Only once, when I was five years old, did I meet Daddy’s dad, my grandpa. We walked to the Greyhound bus station to meet this oddly familiar stranger, a tall, white-haired man in a long, black overcoat. He looked down at me, where I slunk shyly beside my father’s thigh, and one corner of his mouth turned up in a subtle greeting — a secret greeting, I thought. His eyes had something important to tell, but the rest of him was reserved, covert. The wind blew his overcoat open, and I ducked away from a few drops of water that splashed down from a telephone wire above us. And that’s my entire memory of my paternal grandfather, from start to finish. Only much later did it occur to me to regret never having known him.
Now, though Zoë never even met my dad, his old resentments cause distant tremors in her life as her mama scrambles to answer these questions, trying to scrape together some particle of spirituality. My adult mind circles around my childhood ideas, pulls at them, looking for new angles. I find myself lighting candles every evening at dusk in memory of my parents, and creating a gaudy altar around Ma’s ashes with Zoë for the Day of the Dead. And I pray. On an airplane, going east to spend winter holidays with my in-laws, I am breathless with worry: this plane will fall from the sky, my children will die. Before I know it, I am asking for help. “Please,” I whisper as I breathe in, and when the plane doesn’t crash, I exhale, “Thank you.”
Whom am I thanking? It doesn’t matter. I’m thankful for that breath. Please-in, Thankyou-out, I continue on across the continent. Later that trip, after a perfect evening with old friends, the kids asleep in the back of the car and Patrick’s CD softly playing, I realize with a start that I’m still breathing Thank you-in, Thankyou-out. My inchoate prayer transformed into warm gratitude.
The next day, the kids are in the kitchen with my mother-in-law, Susie, cooking dinner. Christmas dinner, with my Catholic in-laws. A few years ago, this may have strained me, the crèche scene with the baby Jesus may have given me pause. But that old discomfort has been lifted away; I am not judging them. As Cleo and Zoë help their remaining grandma mash potatoes, I hear Susie’s patient-teacher voice, Zoë’s giggle, and Cleo’s wild belly laugh from the kitchen, and I feel rich. My heart suddenly fills to breaking with a sureness, a sweetness. I miss my mom, acutely. But also I’m seeing Susie as if for the first time, her full worth. My children love her, and so do I.
Again I feel the urge to give thanks. It seems improbable that I should have found my way to this happy place through no more than a simple willingness to show up. So, when Zoë asks me, I give her this, my highest idea of what the word “God” might mean:
“Some people think of God as one person, but I don’t. I think it’s something that can happen when a group of people — a family, or people who work together, maybe — joins together, and we wish the very best for each other. It’s like an energy swell. It comes when we really see each other, and listen to each other. It is a powerful good, stronger than any one person alone. That is what I think of as God.”
Zoë nods matter-of-factly. “Yeah. Me, too.”
I smile and shake my head, amazed at how easy it is to instill ideas, even when they’re only partially formed. But really, I wouldn’t be thinking this way if it weren’t for my girls. It was Zoë who suggested the Day of the Dead altar for her Gram. It’s Cleo who wants to stay for dinner with the congregants of the local Unitarian Universalist Church where we attend a family singing group every Thursday. And of course they love their grandparents without reservation. When I head toward pain and confusion, they redirect me, again and again.