There was a lot of tension in the tiny, makeshift school house.
“Lisa, why didn’t you do all of your homework?” I asked. Lisa didn’t answer.
I leaned in closer.
“Lisa, you will never learn unless you do what I say. So, do what I say! I will call your parents this afternoon.”
Still no answer. I scooped up the paper from Lisa’s desk and put it on my desk to send home later. She was in deep trouble.
I turned back to the chalkboard in the front of the room and began to instruct my students while writing on the rough surface. I wrote my name in my best handwriting on the board then wrote the titles of two stories from my 3rd grade literature book.
“I want you to read these two stories and then do your spelling,” I instructed. I paused dramatically. “Then do 100 math problems.”
I could see my breath as I spoke, puffs of steam in the frigid air.
I turned to my students who, as usual, had nothing to say. Lisa’s blue, glass eyes stared back at me blankly from her porcelain face. Thumper’s black bunny eyes were fixed on the shovel in the corner of the room and Baby Alive was still slumped over in her chair, with one eye partially closed and her legs in the air.
I gathered all of their papers from the cardboard box desks in front of them and began to mark them with my red crayon. I had just begun to make a large “X” on Lisa’s paper when I heard my mother calling me:
“Karen Denise! Do you hear me? Come eat!”
I sighed and surveyed my “classroom”, where light filtered in through ancient, broken pine boards onto the dirt floor which I had swept clean. I decided my “students” could stay outside in the shed for the night.
I slammed the framed, chicken-wire door shut and walked back to the pink house that sat low beneath the cluster of tall pine trees, which lined up shoulder to shoulder like soldiers guarding our home. I could see the marshy area that lined our yard though the trees, and the pungent, damp smell greeted me in spite of the cold. There was a narrow, winding, black-top road that disappeared into the trees to the left and eventually led to the Hoke’s house; to the right the road led to a dead-end just past the Robinson’s house.
My siblings and I had become close to the Hoke family, a devout, charismatic Christian family who lived about a mile down the road. The Hokes had two children, Shannon and Gerald, who were about my age and frequently came to play. My sister Norma traveled to church with the Hokes often, and sometimes my brother and I went with her. Norma loved going to church more than anyone I knew, something that really irritated my father. She not only rode to church on Sunday mornings and evenings and to youth meetings on Wednesdays, but she also journeyed across the county to camp meetings and “brush arbor” meetings with the Hokes. I sometimes went to the camp meetings with them. Camp meetings were held in the summer under a tent on the side of the road or in a pasture, and featured lively music and hell-fire and brimstone preaching. I looked forward to attending these meetings, the positive and exciting atmosphere was such a stark contrast to the darkness I felt at home.
On rare occasions Mama would come with us to camp meetings and she absolutely loved the music. She was astonishingly tone-deaf and would sing very loudly and with such joy in a high, falsetto voice in church, especially when they played her favorite hymns, “Jesus Hold My Hand” or “I’ll Fly Away”. She clapped her hands with delight in time with the music, her plump arms jiggling and her tiny feet tapping. During the service, I would help her mark her large white bible with notes from the sermon and loved to read the family milestones she documented in the family section. Sometimes those meetings lasted for hours, so I would sleep in Mama’s lap until alter time came and someone “got the Holy Ghost”; their shouting always jolted me from my sleep.
Norma’s love for Jesus and for going to church was always a point of contention in our house.
However, that cold, grey, January day when I walked into the house to eat supper I could hear a serious argument brewing between my father and Norma. This one was much more heated than usual.
I had not even closed the front door when I heard my father’s raised voice.
“Brain-washed! Those people are just brain-washing you. You ain’t comin’ in here with all that religious crap and preachin’ to me! AND you will not be going back to church with those people. I told you there ain’t no such thing as no Holy Ghost! You will never learn!” My father was sitting in his recliner, shaking my sister’s bible at her. He was livid. It reminded me of a previous argument they had a few months before when we lived in Livingston. In that argument, Norma read scripture to my father about the Holy Ghost and as a result he chased her around the yard with the wrench he had been using to work on his car. The entire time he yelled at her about how “God ain’t real” and Norma rebutted with the appropriate scripture.
This time, Norma was angry–angrier than I had seen her. She pointed to her bible in my father’s hands and said: “In the book of Acts it speaks of how ‘all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues’ and how the Holy Ghost gives us power to—“
“I said there ain’t no Holy Ghost! This bible is just a book written by somebody, it’s nothin’ special. And you are DONE sitting around here reading that mess all the time, I will just be keeping this book or maybe I will throw it away. You ain’t going to church either and you won’t be talking to those holy-rollers. AND you can start wearing pants again, we ain’t religious nuts around here.” My father pointed to Mama. “Go get me a pair of her pants.”
Norma continued to argue. “Daddy, I don’t care what you say—the bible and God are real. He takes care of us and He answers our prayers. The Holy Ghost is real. You need to read that bible and you will see—“
Mama returned with the pants, and my father held them out to my sister. “Get out of that skirt and put these on right now, right here. I want to see you do it.”
Norma shook her head and was crying. She changed out of the long denim skirt, one of many she had begun to wear in the past few months. She believed at the time (like many at the Hokes’ church) that women should only wear skirts, out of modesty. I had even tried to wear only skirts for a few weeks, out of adoration for my sister. That endeavor ended the day I tried to put my jeans back on again and they were too tight. I thought being that devout made you eat too much. Someone once told me that there are lots of overweight Pentecostals because gluttony is the only sin they will tolerate. They also told me that there is nothing else to do but eat when you don’t watch television.
Norma put on the pair of jeans my father held out to her, stripping down in front of the entire family. I was so embarrassed for her.
“Now you git to your room and stay there. You will NOT be able to come out unless you are cleaning the house or going to school. You will NOT go to church or read this Bible again,” my father commanded.
Norma began to make her way to her bedroom, but then turned to my father and said: “You can stop me from going to church, make me stay in my room and wear pants but you can’t stop me from praying!”
I heard the door slam to Norma’s bedroom. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Silence filled the room like the cigarette smoke that curled from my father’s nose as he sat in his recliner. He threw Norma’s Bible on the floor and turned up the television. Mama went back to the kitchen to serve up the Hamburger Helper, which had begun to cool in the iron skillet.
I crept down the dark, cold crooked hallway to my sister’s room and could hear the soft sounds of “The Hinson’s Greatest Gospel Hits” playing on Norma’s record player. She was still crying when I opened the door, and I crawled up on the bed next to her. I stared at the ceiling for a while and watched my breath blow out above me in the frigid bedroom. There was one gas heater in the very drafty house and it was in the living room. We all piled blankets on at night to stay warm. Some nights when I slept in Norma’s room, she told me to lay on her side first to warm her spot until she got into bed. I would do so, then scoot to my side while Norma warmed me with her body and taught me to pray.
“Norma, do you want me to warm your spot for you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. After a few moments, I realized she was praying. It seemed she didn’t stop praying for the next few weeks while she was banished to her room. I thought it would never end, my father was so stubborn. Someone once said that sometimes, the most stubborn people learn the most painful lessons in the harshest of ways. As it turned out, it was only death that would distract my father from punishing my sister any further.