Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.4]

I woke up the next morning to the smell of blueberry pancakes. I sat at the table in the place she’d set for me.

“Want yours silver-dollared?” Grandma asked as she spread more butter on the griddle.

“Yes, please.”

“Look out that window there. There was a huge squirrel and a blue jay in those bushes a minute ago.”

The squirrel was still there, munching a small corncob Grandma had set out for him. The bush and squirrel seemed too large for the trailer window and for a moment it felt like we were little dolls in a dollhouse being peered in at by a squirrel-giant.

“Am I going to church with you today, Grandma?”

“Sure are. We’ll leave in about an hour. I’ll drop you off at home afterwards, so get your bag ready.”

We arrived at church early and sat near the middle of the enormous room. Grandma sat quietly with her hands in her lap, nodding at a few people as they quietly shuffled by. Looking around at the walls of the church made me uneasy; all the people and all the animals, mostly lambs, looked so utterly forlorn. Still, I was thankful this church didn’t have the huge pitiful Jesus mannequin nailed to the cross like my other Grandma’s church did.

“They must be doing a baptism today,” Grandma whispered. “See that big tank up on the right?”

The clear glass tank was full of water.

She reached into the slot in front of her and pulled out a program. “Oh, it’s Brian Daily, Charlene and Bob’s son,” she said.

“Are they going to put their baby in that?” I asked, remembering the baptism I saw at Grandma Schultz’s Catholic church. The parents had held a tiny new baby that screamed while the priest sprinkled and rubbed water on his face.

“Well, in this church, babies don’t get baptized. You only get baptized when you’re old enough to decide for yourself whether you’re a true believer.”

“In God?”

“Yes,” Grandma said. “Now, do you want to go up for the children’s reading later?”

“Yes. You tell me when?”

“I will. Afterwards, they take the children down to the basement for Sunday school.”

“Okay. Will it be fun?”

“Yes. There’s a playroom and Joan’s granddaughter will be there. You remember her, don’t you?” She patted me on the leg, which was my cue to be silent.

The preacher bopped in wearing a brown suit, a dark green tie, and a huge smile and welcomed everyone. He spoke about trusting God’s plan for us and then he made a few people with illnesses stand up while we prayed for them. We sang a few songs and shook hands with our neighbors. When it was time for the baptism, Brian Dailey emerged at the side of the tank fully clothed and wrapped in a long purple robe. He looked to be around my parents’ age. The preacher said some words I couldn’t make out, then dunked Brian backwards three times and held him under the water for so long on the last dunk I got a little concerned.

Brian came up wide-eyed and euphoric, though, dissolving my worry. Afterwards we all sang a song while four men in suits carrying waiter trays passed out two tiny plastic cups to everyone. One cup contained “blood” and the other a crouton-sized square of “flesh.”

“It’s communion Sunday,” Grandma said.

I was never allowed to take communion at Grandma Shultz’s church. In fact, she always left me sitting by myself among strangers for what seemed like forever while the line moved her slowly closer and closer to the priest. “This is the Blood and Flesh of the Lord,” that priest had said, over and over. I had watched him wipe off the rim of a silver goblet, like you would for a toddler, in between putting the cup up to each person’s mouth. When it had been Grandma’s turn, I could almost feel the thick blood in my own throat as I saw her swallow her gulp.

It was mesmerizing to watch so many adults quietly and obediently perform the exact same behaviors, one after another. Grandma Shultz would close her eyes and open her mouth so the priest could place something on her tongue. If it tasted bad, she didn’t show it. When she’d return to the bench next to me, she’d open her mouth so I could look at the round white disk dissolving on her tongue. “The Lord must be huge,” I’d thought, if he could spare so much flesh and blood.

As Grandma Trailer handed me my cups, I shook my head. “I’m not allowed to.”

“It’s grape juice and bread. And you are allowed to here. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“Grape juice and bread? I thought it was blood and flesh.”

“You can’t really get those things, so these are what they call ‘symbols’ for those things. We’re just pretending.”

“Oh!” I took a minuscule sip of the grape juice and a microscopic nibble of the crouton. The juice was bitter and the bread was stale and dissolved rapidly in my mouth. I put the cups in the little circulating cardboard trash box and Grandma told me it was time for the children’s reading. The reading was about a little boy who lied to his parents and felt terrible until he told the truth.

At study time, a nice lady gave us Nilla Wafers and talked about the Ten Commandments, which was something they had done in the other Sunday school. I suppose some things could be the same and different. I got very excited on the way home, remembering that Dad and Mom would be back from Chicago.

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