As it’s Christmas Week, it seems fitting to tell as much as I understand about my parents’ changing relationship to Jesus or Christianity or religion in general. It’s an unusual odyssey.
They were both raised as Protestants, my mother from a long line of Methodists who brought their somewhat dour practices from Maine through Illinois into pre-Civil War Kansas. My father’s people were more fundamental in their beliefs, foreshadowing today’s evangelicals. They were poor white southerners the rigors of whose trek from 18th century Georgia to early 20th century Texas were ameliorated by a more demonstrative, Bible-centered belief.
When they married, my father followed my mother’s Methodism and when I was born, albeit somewhat problematically and in a Roman Catholic hospital at that, it was into Methodism that I was baptized. I grew up, then, in a church-going family; we went together to Sunday morning services, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer meetings. I spent even more time at the church, whatever town we were in, at Methodist Youth Fellowship.
In Shreveport, Louisiana, we attended Mangum Memorial Methodist Church and my father served on the Board of Stewards there when I entered high school. My mother taught adult Sunday School there and much of our social life revolved around relationships formed there. In my senior year of high school, however, my parents left Methodism.
I had already decided I was an atheist but my parents were not interested in my arguments about the existence of God. Theirs was a social problem, a very real social problem. Sometime in 1957, two Black families appeared at the church to worship. They asked to enter and to join the membership of the congregation. This was still the Jim Crow South and our church was made up of white, mostly lower middle class and working class strivers, men and women unsure of their own place in a changing America. The Board of Stewards met and denied the Black families’ request and added a section to the church’s bylaws that not only set down a rule of segregation but suggested in its rhetoric that African Americans were not fit for God’s love.
My father was angered by this and resigned. My mother was less incensed (she had voted for Strom Thurmond on the Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, but that sort of political and racial myopia was pretty much in her past by 1957; she had resisted efforts by the local White Citizens’ Council to organize teacher resistance to desegregation in the school for the deaf where she was, at that time, an uncredentialed but skilled teacher) but she supported my father’s decision even though it sundered almost all of their social ties in the neighborhood.
They had other friends, however, John Wray and Margaret Mary Young in particular, who supported them. John Wray was the director of the local little theater group to which my mother had dragged my father two years previously as she rehearsed a small role she had got. As it turned out, they both became stalwarts of the theater and acted in almost every production for John Wray. They also became quite close to the Youngs and when Dad told John Wray and Margaret about his decision to leave Mangum Church, they, Roman Catholics, invited my parents to come to church with them. Before long, my parents began to take instruction in the Church and formally converted just after I graduated from high school. Their respective families were surprised and disappointed. My maternal grandmother told my mother’s siblings that my mother had “turned” Catholic.
They remained in the Church for many years, as their fortunes ebbed and flowed. My father loved the ritual and the physical beauty of the church but my mother was only lukewarm. The reason, I have come to believe, was that the church was too institutional and too much focus was on the priest, not enough on my mother. I know that sounds like a harsh evaluation, but subsequent religious events may support my sense of things.
Many years passed and one year, when my parents were almost desperately poor and caring for my mentally ill aunt in Denver, my father decided to go up into the Rockies with some Jesuits for a retreat to seek guidance, to make a novena, a specifically targeted series of nine prayer regimens. When he returned, he had no precise plan but felt God had heard his request. My mother assured him that indeed He had and she knew just what was to be done. While he was gone, she had met a woman who introduced her to Buddhism and in a few short, intense days she had decided that their lives would change if they embraced Buddhism. That, she convinced my father, was God’s plan.
My parents remained practicing Buddhists until their deaths. I told them that I hoped this would be their last conversion because the only step left was some sort of pure evanescence, some translation of selves into essential smoke. My mother did not think that was funny; in fact, she was quite angry with any of us (me, wife, children) who would not follow her into the Lotus Sutra and she would cry and express her sense of filial betrayal when I would refuse to teach my children her beliefs or let her do so. I know she did so despite my disapproval.
My sense of my mother’s religious practice was its centeredness on her presence. Somehow she appropriated every part of the ceremony and it was her performance of it that was crucial to its authenticity. Every refusal to participate was not a loss to the reluctant one but a betrayal of her; if you did not accept her offering of this treasure, then she was diminished, invalidated. She was trapped and yet owned her own trap.
My father, I came to see, took the path of least resistance, as he often did, and practiced with her, celebrating her excesses of piety but shrugging ruefully to me on my visits home when I asked if he were happy in his belief. So when he came to die, I was not surprised that my father asked me to see to it that he had a Roman Catholic death—priest, last rites, a funeral mass. He missed the Church, he told me, had never lost his affection for it, and had tried to make my mother happy by following the forms she set for their Buddhism but at heart, at 84 he was the Roman Catholic he had become at 39. He told me he had told her this just that day and I promised I would talk to her about it.
My mother assured me she understood my father’s feelings and so I left Kansas and returned to New York. A week later he was dead. I returned to Kansas with my family and found, of course, that there were no priests, there had been no last rites, and there was to be no funeral mass. She had no intention, my mother told me, of letting a priest anywhere near my father.
I confess that I did not make an issue out of any of it. After all, as an atheist, I realized there were no consequences to any of these decisions. As my father was dead, he most certainly was not disappointed and the Buddhist ceremony was no more exploitive by my mother than many other of her religious impositions on us all. As for the competition among the gods for my dead father’s soul? It already belonged to my mother.
Too grim, so let me say that I enjoy Christmas, enjoy the memories of crèches and carols and trees and I do not feel conflicted about having those memories.