Who Are These People?
I WAS a Methodist for a year in 1956, when I was about 12.
Ostentatiously dressing for church and then slamming the door on my mother, who was sleeping-in over in the corner of our furnished one-room garden apartment, I’d take the bus to the impressively massive corner edifice of the Methodist church on West 13th Street. It was right across from St. Vincent’s hospital, where I’d been treated for severe tonsillitis the year before—the very hospital that had saved the life of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s uncle, shortly before her birth in 1892. This miraculous event was the inspiration for Edna’s unforgettable middle name).
A conservative doctor elected not to remove my tonsils, an unusual decision at the time. Good man. Mostly I remember sharp pain and a lot of ice cream.
For me the main attraction of the neighboring Methodist house of worship, however, had nothing to do with God, medical miracles or poetry, but was centered on the new minister. Tall, lanky and sporting a crew-cut, he was an Anthony Perkins look-alike who played basketball on Saturdays with the “youth group.” My friend Judy Long had urged me to check him out, and I did.
Bingo, instant Methodist. Surely, no conversion had ever been so effortless.
My second motivation was basically to annoy my mother, a darkly beautiful lapsed Catholic from Omaha, Nebraska who had been educated by convent nuns and escaped to New York by the time she was 20. A Bohemian in spite of herself, she had given birth to two out-of-wedlock (quaint term) children fathered by a married photographer before she reached her early twenties, and then had 3 more children by two different fathers, one of whom she married (mine). Five kids (one set of twins), three dads. Somehow, I was a middle child with absentee upper and lower half-siblings; essentially an only child. How could this happen?
My older brother and sister I hardly knew, as they were shipped off to boarding schools; my two younger sisters were fraternal twins, born 5 years after my own parents had divorced when my mother was 40 and I was 7. They never knew their own father, who died before they were born. These sweet girls grew up in the foster care system of New York City; by the time they were toddlers my mother, an aspiring screenwriter with little patience, simply couldn’t cope with anything more than herself and me. We visited them when we could, taking the train upstate to the town where they lived, parting painfully at the end of the awkward Saturdays spent at the local movie theater or ice cream parlor.
Although my mother and father had divorced when I was 2, he faithfully paid child support to her and lived near us in Greenwich Village, an anchor for me when my mother flailed in the waters of an era that did not in any way encourage combining urban life, motherhood and the writing career she never stopped pursuing.
At 12, on the cusp of young womanhood, I desperately needed to demonstrate to my mother that someone in our family could be “respectable.” Other adolescents were flocking to the folk musicians in Washington Square from New Jersey and Westchester; for one year I was hell-bent on becoming pious. Go figure. (Surely it was the one action of which she might disapprove.)
Months passed and I earned my perfect attendance pin; finally the gold one-year award bypassed the copper emblem of 3 months and the silver pin of six. A whole year of wholesome Sunday mornings, the sleeping mother (and sometimes boyfriend) left behind! Out of sight, out of mind, unwelcome images erased by the scents of candle wax and fresh flowers at the altar.
Finally, as I was beginning to feel I had proved my point and was getting restless, the subject of evolution raised its hoary head. I was on my way to becoming a scientist and a lifelong Darwin groupie at that point. (And yes, there may have been a charismatic biology teacher named Mr. Cohen in the background. We all loved him, boys and girls alike wowed by his absolute faith in the new world that seemed to explode all around us with the launching of Sputnik. Every single boy in my class aspired to go into engineering; the girls….well, girls weren’t supposed to be too ambitious.)
I confronted my Sunday School teacher. “How can you believe some guy with a beard created this planet and all the animals….and human beings….in 6 days?” I actually felt embarrassed for her as I waited for her response. (Secretly, I hoped she’d demolish me.)
Her answer, “Think of a day as hundreds of millions of years—the Bible is all a metaphor, really…” brought the whole religious edifice crashing down on my head.
I didn’t want metaphor. I wanted truth and beauty and certainty and accountability. That was the last day of my impeccable tenure as a Methodist. It was a wrenching disappointment. Darwin 1, God 0—but it was a Pyrrhic victory.
Lately it has occurred to me that in some way, that church-going year gave rise to this memoir you are now reading: my very own hand-crafted family myths, my “Bible” stories, the only creation tales I have to try to explain my inexplicable family and how I became who I am. The images in these tales have flickered again and again in my head, and now they are taking shape on the page.
Make of them what you will. Perhaps you can unravel the mystery of these lives.
I offer herewith some breadcrumbs, some clues, for your journey along the wandering cowpaths of Greenwich Village. Settle in.