I grew up in a church, but to me it was just a house.
A house with a two-story vaulted ceiling, gothic arches and an eighteen-foot-tall, stained-glass window; but a house none-the-less.
The man who built it was a lunatic with his own cult which, apparently, didn’t believe in nails or proper carpentry. There were upside-down doors, odd angles everywhere and the whole building was held together by wishful thinking.
The chapel attached to the side of the main building wasn't a chapel to me and my older brother, Duncan. We knew it as the TV room. To us the central step leading up to the stage wasn’t a notch designed to fit a pulpit, it simply offered the comfiest place to curl up when it was time for the Bionic Woman.
It wasn’t just that we lived in a church. It was that we, of all people, lived in a church.
“Aren’t you guys Jews?” my friend Aaron asked one evening, as the setting sun glowed through the stained glass window.
“…and atheists?” he added, gazing up at the glass depiction of a dove in a garden with an olive branch in its beak. The window had some sort of symbolic, God-related meaning that didn’t interest me. But it seemed to mean something to our friends and neighbors.
These features alone were enough to qualify the man who built our house as a nutcase, but there was more too it than that.
When we invited people over for dinner, we tried with varying degrees of success to warn them that our house was difficult to find for many reasons.
Our front door faced our street and mailing address. But the driveway and practical entrance were situated on an entirely different street at the back of the house. Nor was it a simple matter to drive around the block to reach the driveway because our neighborhood streets were not composed of blocks. The community was webbed by narrow, dead-ending lanes such that the trip from our front door to our driveway was a good half mile by car and could only be reached in one direction.
If you wanted to skip the complicated drive and park in front of our house, so that you might walk up to the front door, you had two problems to conquer first.
One: There was no parking in front of our house because:
Two: The house was built into the side of a cliff.
The upshot of which was that in order to traverse the path from the street to the front door, you had to bring your own climbing gear.
Most people opted for the half-mile trip from the front door to the driveway. This involved following a set of instructions guiding you along numerous, identically-named streets. If you took a wrong turn, you might never be seen again.
Your attempt to find the back of our house would be further hampered by the fact that the front and back of the residence bore no similarity to each other. From the impenetrable cliff side, the house resembled a castle. But viewed from the driveway and true entrance, the building resembled a log cabin.
Once, when my mother summoned the police, she was interrupted by the dispatcher, who didn’t want to hear any silly directions.
“Ma’am, we’re the police. If we can’t find you no one can.”
When they arrived three-and-a-half hours later they were cranky. But we learned an important lesson which was that we may as well have been homesteading in Montana.
We were an isolated family. But to blame our isolation on the fact that we were living in a freaky church that no one could find was to miss the point. My mother chose the house on purpose. We were hermits by nature and a house on a cliff hidden in the woods suited us.
Part of the dynamic was also that my parents were talented cooks. So much so that most of our friends were reluctant to invite us to their houses for fear that we would judge them mercilessly.
“You’re all chefs,” they’d moan. “How can I cook for you?”
We intimidated people.
Eating in general and cooking in particular were our family passions. When I invited my friend Aaron over for dinner, he was baffled by our behavior and schedule. We spent four hours cooking and in that time we drank and argued. We also reminisced about meals we enjoyed, and planned future meals we wanted to prepare. Aaron grew increasingly restless as the evening wore on.
Noticing this, my father turned to him and asked:
“So Aaron, perhaps you’d like a beer?”
My mother scowled at him.
“You don’t offer a twelve-year-old a beer.”
He considered this for a moment before he amended his query.
“How about a glass of wine?”
We finally sat down at 9:30 – pretty early for a school night. Aaron may have fallen asleep at the table.
Our décor was startling to the uninitiated as well. The interiors of our neighbors’ houses were appointed with an eye towards subtlety and minimalism. White and off-white were the dominant colors and a single piece of art was sufficient for a family of four, thank you very much.
My parents, on the other hand, had crammed our home with exotic objects. Odd pieces of furniture from both their families littered the landscape. Mismatched cabinets, hutches and shelves from Italy, Hong Kong and everywhere in between in every corner. Bright, stunning colors everywhere.
Hopi katchina dolls, a Japanese Samurai in a small glass case, a wood carving from New Zealand, a psychedelic fish painting and a wicker peacock chair all in one corner of one room. Our neighbors’ homes were oases of Zen-like calm, while we had an entire wall devoted to masks. Many of our guests were too unnerved to sit near the wall of staring, foreign faces. Eyes and tongues and frowns and still more eyes, staring. Staring.
One of my other friends house's around dinner time was equally bewildering to me.(I'll call him Gordon.)
Gordon's mother banished us from the kitchen while she performed her duties. He and I watched TV with his father but I couldn't concentrate on the show. I strained to hear every sound coming from the kitchen as I tried to unravel the mystery of what she was up to in there. I was in the wrong room but there was nothing I could do about it.
I was used to dinner at 10:30 on a school night. At my friend's we sat down at 6:00.
They all bowed their heads to say grace as the sun shone through the dining room window. I tried not to laugh. I had never seen anyone say grace before, except on TV.
Dinner when the sun’s still out? Saying Grace? Am I on another planet?
They were lovely people but their house was seventeen shades of beige and there wasn’t nearly enough shouting and drinking for my tastes. The gentle banter around their table was pleasant and loving but I couldn’t relate to it. I was used to unexpected whoops of laughter as something finished simmering on the stove. Everyone in the kitchen bumping into each other as eight pairs of hands crushed garlic, stole scraps of roasted meat, prepared salad, adjusted seasonings or simply fluttered in the air to punctuate a verbal point.
We sat down to a beige dinner in a beige house. Boneless chicken in a light, creamy-salty sauce, canned green beans and pale, soft dinner rolls. The sun blazed through the windows making our white surroundings almost painful to look at.
Pleasant chatter about sports and insurance dominated the table. I had already expressed a desire to help prepare dinner. (What a strange, little boy.) If I admitted I knew nothing about sports, it would have been all over. Best to keep my mouth shut.
This was nothing like my home with its constant clink of wine glasses as we came up with excuse after excuse to toast our good fortune.
Even the parents drank milk.
Thanksgiving came a few weeks after I met my husband in 1994 and for the first time he was thrust into the middle of our rollicking horde. It wasn’t a test exactly, but I was curious to see how he would fare.
Brent was raised Southern Baptist in the middle of Oklahoma.
His childhood home was beige and dotted with early American furniture. His family were the people who stayed put back when the dust bowl devastated the land. They survived the depression, feared God and worried about tornadoes.
For his people food was a chore.
A distasteful chore.
It was necessary to eat in order to survive but there was something... decadent, suspect about deriving pleasure from the process.
Visiting his mother in Oklahoma, I watched in horror as she placed three steaks into her skillet where they sizzled mercilessly for forty minutes. In that time, they lost all their moisture and more than half their volume. Chewing and swallowing that leathery dinner was hard work and I took a break to suggest:
“Perhaps we could take you out to dinner tomorrow, our treat? So you don’t have exhaust yourself cooking?”
She was instantly tense at the suggestion.
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I ate out once for fried chicken and I don’t know who prepared that food. But I got so sick. I just kept vomitin’ and vomitin.’”
“Okay then,” I said, my jaw aching as I returned to my chore. The visual image I held in mind offering much-needed contrast to my off-white surroundings.
In this strange world food was more than a chore. It was the enemy.
Cooking wasn’t something one did for fun, to express love. It was a process whereby poison was neutralized.
She hadn’t cooked for us. She saved our lives by blasting our steaks with her deadly shrink-ray gun.
As my family bustled around my parents’ kitchen the first Thanksgiving after I met Brent, I pulled some roast turkey liver from the oven. Basted with herbs, garlic and salt. Baked just long enough to retain its creamy center while the outside was perfectly glazed and crunchy.
We always pounced on the liver like a pack of wild dogs, but I sensed that my new boyfriend was too bashful to wade into the frenzy. So I reserved a choice bit for him and without preamble, popped it into his mouth.
“Mmm.” His eyes twinkled as he savored the creamy, roasted morsel, and I watched him as his gaze swept the loud bustle of our Thanksgiving preparations.
The crazy, gaudy art and weird furniture. My father was pouring three different chardonnays that he insisted we all taste and evaluate using paperwork he designed. My big brother stood by the second sink where he peeled russets in preparation for his sour cream mashed potatoes. My mother returned the turkey to one of the ovens then shifted her attention to the stove as she added pan juices to her red wine sauce.
I watched Brent as I stood at the counter peeling shrimp. His bewildered, happy smile suited him. Once I sautéed the shrimp in garlic butter we would all dive into the pan, filling our plates and dipping pieces of bread into the nectar. Brent continued to smile while my father opened a second bottle of champagne and we drank a toast to my new boyfriend.
We still gather for dinner as often as we can.
It is our version of saying grace.