16 March 2008

Beast of Burden

For years, my middle brother Patrick slept with a donkey - a fuzzy, grey animal with mohair bangs and beady plastic eyes.

But after years of love, Donkey's head hung upside down, flopping on his shoulders. His seams had been sewn and re-sewn dozens of times, and the fabric was so fragile that it would tear from the needle. Mom had finally taken to mending him with duct tape. So the Christmas before Patrick turned 5 years old, Mom asked Santa to replace the donkey with one who was identical in all ways, except for the worn patches, the broken neck, and the Nebraska grime.

Donkey was placed under the tree, and some time during the night Santa came and made him brand new.


Neither of my parents was what Christians would call "religious." It's not that they were lazy or lapsed...more like agnostic. Both claimed little patience for "the superstitious nature" of religion, but mom (socialized in the Lutheran version) was especially contemptuous, and the religion she saw as the most superstitious was Catholicism. The thing is, Dad was raised in a Catholic Orphanage -- by Nuns. He was still bitter from the years of physical and emotional abuse, so Mom's bigotry didn't really bother him - so much

Given all this, and the potential for conflict, they made a pact. They decided months before I was born that their children would not be baptized in either church. They would let their children decide for themselves. And they stuck to this bargain - till the year Patrick's dying donkey was reborn.

That was the same year Mom caught Dad cheating (an understatement that deserves a chapter of its own.) And in a brilliant stroke of that'll-teach-ya, she decided we would be baptized at a Lutheran church in Lincoln.

The First Baptism

The Minister wore a light grey suit, and an unbelievably white shirt. And he told us to call him, 'Reverend.' He asked us questions about Jesus. We knew very little. We knew Christmas was his birthday, and we'd been told that the little china doll in the school crèche was the baby Jesus. That was pretty much it. He asked us if we knew about Original Sin. Did we know about Adam and Eve? Not a clue.

With anger whitening his eyes, and flaming from his ears, he told us right then about the Evil that was Eve...and how if not for Jesus, we'd all be burning in a place called hell, forever and ever. The only way to save ourselves was to accept Jesus right there and then, in his office, before mom came back and it was too late. We'd be given a clean slate. We'd be brand new. Reborn.

Patrick, who'd brought Donkey along, asked if he could get baptized, too.

No. And hell no. "Beasts don't have souls. They were put here to serve man's needs - as food and beasts of burden."

Patrick said, "If Donkey can't get baptized then I don't wanna get baptized, either." Dwayne and I agreed. What do you mean animals aren't people?

"But if you refuse, you'll burn in hell. And now it will be worse, because now you have heard the word of God. You are no longer ignorant. You have been offered salvation, and are refusing Jesus! You'll burn in hell."

"But what about Donkey? I don't want him to burn in hell."

"He won't burn in hell. He doesn't have a soul! He'll just die. But you will burn in hell. Forever and ever."

An hour in the reverend's office is forever and ever.

We certainly didn't wanna burn, and if Donkey wasn't gonna burn, we told the reverend we would accept this Jesus guy. So right there and then, we received an emergency baptism just in case we should die before Sunday.

The Second Baptism

That Sunday we sat on wooden benches waiting for the big moment. We were starving. Mom said we couldn't eat till after the baptism. We couldn't play. We couldn't talk. We couldn't stand up. It was hell. Everyone was in greys and numbing pastels. Even the building was grey.

Our school clothes weren't good enough, so Mom had bought Dwayne and Patrick brand new slacks. And made Hugh a white baptism gown trimmed with blue piping so people would know for certain that he was a boy. Lucky Hugh, he got to miss the reverend's lecture. For me, she whipped up a frothy lemon dress with a matching hair ribbon. She bought us all new shoes, black for the boys, and white for me - and got me white gloves, to match. Those gloves saved my life. I spent an hour on that bench taking them off, and putting them back on again.

And the moment wasn't so momentous. Except that Hugh screamed bloody murder when he felt the water on his head.

Finally it was over, and we were leaving the church. As we came down its massive steps, the numbing colours of the day sharpened, focusing onto my father - waiting in the parking lot. Sitting on the hood of our station wagon, he didn't take his eyes off Mom. And he didn't blink. Not once.

Apparently Mom forgot to tell Dad about the baptism. She'd scheduled our interview while Dad was TDY, and I'm guessing she didn't expect him to return till long after the accomplished feat.

The Third Baptism

At this point, a well-written narrative would be building to some kind of climax, looking for resolution...for certainly dad's anger and his decision to use the family car as a murder weapon makes for high drama.

But to be perfectly honest, all I can remember clearly of the drive home is the speedometer - 105mph.

And Patrick crying into his donkey.

So. Should I even include this example of narcissistic abuse? Or should I tighten this narrative to the odd mix of ironies and juxtapositions of Jesus, Patrick's Donkey, resurrection, eternity, and hell?

Donkey was resurrected. We saw it. We saw his love-worn body under the tree Christmas Eve, and the new fluffy one, come Christmas morning.

Donkey was Patrick's beast of burden; his savior; his confidant. He met all Patrick's needs. And through the power of faith, (and the intercession of Santa Claus), he was reborn.

A better writer could Should I explore the the bible's teachings and how they've shaped a people to see the world as a resource? - a treasure chest, a toolbox? And how as a result Christians have come to view their culture-hero in much the same way? During the week, they dump on him all of their emotional burdens, and then come Sunday they eat his body and drink his blood.

Because for this day, I can find no climax, no resolution. For what could only have been a 20-minute drive, that seemed to last forever and ever, my father terrorized our entire family. He taunted mom with the idea of killing us all by driving our car into a tree. He snidely assured her that, having been freshly baptized, we were all in a state of grace, and would absolutely go to heaven. Would another writer allude to this journey home as a baptism? Yet a third, in one week? Isn't each new trial we survive a rebirth? What washes over us, exactly? Relief?

I know Patrick's tears washed over Donkey.

And suddenly we were pulling into the driveway. We exited the car, and Dad let us into the house. Mom prepared lunch, and we all sat down to eat.

Donkey sat on Patrick's lap.


ElizT said...

I don't think you needed a better writer; you certainly learned a lot about different types of Hell, and how appropriate that the innocent little companion was a donkey--wouldn't have been the same with a bear.

Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Very well written. Your climax is your last 3 paragraphs:

” know Patrick's tears washed over Donkey.

And suddenly we were pulling into the driveway. We exited the car, and Dad let us into the house. Mom prepared lunch, and we all sat down to eat.

Donkey sat on Patrick's lap.”

A perfect ending.

As for the Lutheran minister, as a Reverend meself, I would like to ram that “Reverend’s” screwed up theology up his damned ass.

Blessings and much love, my friend! (And happy green beer day tomorrow).

Thomas Paine said...

That is some excellent writing, Cat.

Mick said...

Excellent writing, yes ... and the moral of the story, if I understand it all properly is: YOU ALWAYS NEED MORE DUCT TAPE!

TenaciousK said...

Beautiful writing, Cat. I was recently in Lincoln, actually. In fact, I was looking for a gas station in little towns some ways outside of Lincoln (all of which were closed). One of the things I noticed was - every tiny town had a church with a cross in what appeared to be Christmas lights. On one of the churches, the cross was red.

If Christians could only bring themselves to be, well, Christian, there'd be a lot less unhappiness in the world. As it is, so many seem stuck somewhere between trying to prove their moral value to themselves, and everyone else, that they pay scant notice to the impact their actions have on others, or the incongruence with their ostensible faith.

Thanks for the heads-up on your post - it was lovely. I was also a stuffed animal kid. When I was five, it was a large dog (which my older brother, who was I believe embarrassed by it, eventually convinced my mother should be thrown away "for my own good"; the little bastard was seven: my brother, not the dog).

For children, stuffed animals are much more relevant than long-dead philosophers who hang suspended in effigy from pieces of wood.

Praise Eyore, say hallelujah, and all that. And sorry about your parents. Kids don't really understand 105 mph, but they sure understand fast and driving into things, and they have a natural instinct for when they're being used as pawns in a fight between two narcissistic parents willing to squander their most precious gifts in the name of spite.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant writing! You have a unique Patrick's Day Catnapping! Whatever the original one is or means .... ;)

dinahmow said...

A fine piece of writing, if a painful reminder of how children are hurt by things beyond their comprehension.
Well done.

Gawpo said...

Oma-gawd, that was so wonderful, Natcapping. What is a creche? What is TDY? I thought I had all the answers. Then I go and read YOU.

I was in Lincoln once. Went to the capitol building. All I remember is a bust of Willa Cather.

I hear so many horror stories about cold and angry priest, nuns and ministers. Reminds me of that story about the journalist who supposedly was interviewing Dr. Ghandi and asked, "What do you believe is the foremost reason why Christianity does not take hold in India," and Ghandi pauses for a moment, looks up, and then answers, "Christians."
Say that out loud with an Indian accent and it's pretty good.

I adore your art.

I simply swoon to the way you write.

And I am going to be driving through Montana in late August.

Please do email me. Go to my profile. Please?

I am on a quest for Flathead Lake and David Shaner. I wonder if he still lives. You sure as heck do. If only I could touch the hem of your garment, Cat.


Gawpo said...

Crap! Almost forgot:


carla said...

The simple image of the eyore-like donkey attracted me, and I thought there would be a sweet story to follow. Instead, you mesmerized me with the memories that donkey evokes for you... and just as the donkey is a vehicle through which to tell your story, you and your siblings were vehicles for your parents' anger. Your writing is rich and compelling - you have a strong voice. I enjoyed reading it on that level, but it pained me to think of what you and your siblings endured. Good thing there was the donkey!


Catnapping said...

elizt: it was some kinda day, i'll tell ya.

nick: thank you. i just really don't know what to do with the ride home, and fit it in to this. the piece seems too long...and i feel like there's too much in it. i find myself tempted to explain stuff, and i know that's a dumb thing to do.

thomas: thank you. thank you. i just hope to get it done right.

mick: duct tape, kosher AND blessed first!

TK: i bet you're right. i remember the dial, and knew that it was a high number (i was ten), and that we'd never driven that fast. and of course we all knew dad was pissed off. And dwayne and I knew what the words 'kill' and 'dead' meant...to some degree.

i'm glad you came by to read this. hope you get to feeling better soon. popsicles are good...cold and wet - great for a fever.

i hope your brother grew out of his jerkness.

anon: thank you. i think st. patty's day is just some funny feriners' excuse to get drunk in the streets. at least that's what it means in butte, montana.

dinah: thank you, hon.

gawpo: i love the father. that was one of his better pieces. i will email. you may kiss my ring. i'm scared to let you near my hem...hehehe

carla: that donkey probably saved patrick from a life of crime. thank you for your kind words.

ValGalArt said...

Amazing story! You have lived and survived my friend! The illustration is so charming and I never expected this tale interlaced with a religious bent! It reminds me of when I was a little girl and the Bible-study people came into my neighbourhood and told me if I didn't except Jesus I would go to hell. How can an adult tell a child something like that? Great work!!!

Archaeopteryx said...

That story is stunning.

If you read P.Z. Myers over at Pharyngula, he often refers to religion as child abuse. It says a lot about religion, and your Mom, that she thought to use it as a cudgel to punish your father.

But I've been right there.

Lori Witzel said...

Kick-a** writing and post. 'Nuff said, least by me.

The OE said...

I've also had multiple baptisms, which were generally during secret missions and under live fire

Ghostings said...

Why don't you post like this on the fray?