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Silence and the Stage

By Ronna Russell ~

Preacher Dad decided he needed to be around more. My mom had been a good mother in our early childhood but it was time for him to take over. Her usefulness as a parent had been served and she could step aside, he told her. Thanks, honey. Mom wept a lot. So he took a job as the vice-president of Jackson College of Ministries in Jackson, MS. This small church college was owned and operated by the local UPC pastor, Brother Thomas Craft. If you have ever seen the movie The Apostle with Robert Duval, that’s the man. If Mr. Duval did not study Brother Craft with a microscope in preparation for that movie, I will eat my hat and yours.

We arrived in the Deep South on a pedestal. Big announcements were made, public introductions, etc.; PD went to work and I went to fourth grade. Socializing at school was not allowed. All other kids were sinners from sinner families and had to be kept at arms’ length. I was, however, allowed to witness to them or invite them to church so that they, too, could be saved. Knee length dresses with sleeves were required at all times; my uncut hair hung to my knees. Television and movies were strictly forbidden. There was no secular information of any kind in our home. I lived in Jackson, MS in the mid-1970s and knew nothing of the civil rights movement or of Martin Luther King Jr. A classmate made a diorama of the solar system for their science fair project; I didn’t know what it was. Any acknowledgement offered to me at school was refused on my behalf. Once my teacher chose me to be hall monitor, an honor given to responsible kids. My mother wrote the teacher a note refusing because it would make me too bossy. My personality just wasn’t good enough. To be fair, mom probably did me a favor. When the teacher told the girls in class (me) to leave our little dresses at home and wear blue jeans the next day for field day, mom wrote another letter explaining that because of religious beliefs that wasn’t gonna happen. The music teacher asked who had seen Star Wars and everyone raise their hands. Nope, no idea. I had seen stars outside at night… but that wasn’t what she meant… I kept my nose in a book as much as possible.

Social ostracism deepened as my parents need for control grew. They were strict even by churchy standards. Free time before and after services was to be spent on my knees in the prayer room. Other church girls had sleepovers. I wasn’t old enough. Sunday afternoon playdates between church services? Sometimes. The only place I had any freedom was the college campus, so I hung out with the college kids. I learned titillating things, heard scandalous gossip and wore padded bras and high heels. Made out with 18 year old boys. It was pretty fun. At least there people would talk to me and I learned to kiss. Well.

Social ostracism deepened as my parents need for control grew. They were strict even by churchy standards.Dad’s explosive temper grew; triggered by any little thing. It was always there like a scary movie soundtrack, setting the scene in the background. I remember him yanking my sister off the couch onto her back because he didn’t like her tone of voice. And the shocking smack of his hand on my face in a nothing-held-back slap, again for tone of voice. I just couldn’t see it coming because, I never stepped out of line on purpose. He had a deep, low Slytherin-like way of reaming your ass in a pants-wetting hiss. This was back in the days of 45 records. My sisters had Andy Gibb, Rita Coolidge, Climax, Debbie Boone, John Denver. (Don’t you just remember every word to every song? They’re embedded.) So on a rare outing to the local mall I purchased, for $1, a 45 of the song A Little Bit of Soapby Nigel Olsson. Dad found it and made me play it in front of the entire family, then proceeded to give me a humiliating lecture on the evils of secular music and my personal shortcomings for listening to such unholy crap. When I found the courage to speak up, I pointed out that my sisters had records, too (yes, I sold them out; yes, they were mad). Any perceived rebellion (a breath that sounded like a sigh), sitting when we were told to stand (the man of god told you to stand up), suspicion of promiscuity (being out of sight for a moment), asking a question that put him on the spot (can I go over to so-and-so’s house?), cheeks flushed with humiliation (scrub check for makeup) resulted in his seething anger. Endless lectures on my shortcomings, which I received silently, constant fear of dad’s wrath, disdain and dismissal of my needs and feelings, evolved into my almost complete withdrawal. To be seen and not heard, while never actually put in those terms, was the rule. This did not go well later on.

Scrutiny was the name of the game at church, too, and invisibility at school; hours of primping before Sunday night service and oddball denim skirt-centered frump on the bus left me swinging between two worlds, silence and the stage. It is impossible to underestimate the warped nature of my development during those years. Appearances were paramount; skirt length measured by fractions, hair length was glorified and uneven, uncut split ends were mandatory. Any female whose hair had an even bottom edge had clearly sinned with scissors. (A few years later, I clipped some long bangs around my face in a 15 year old bout of fuck you and was told that I had ruined my dad’s career. The sick thing is, it really was a nail in the coffin. Dad was an asshole but he wasn’t making it up.) Teenage girls rubbed Vaseline onto eyelashes and eyelids in lieu of mascara and eye-shadow. Clear lip gloss was allowed, but not clear nail polish and oddly placed Vaseline was pushing it. The youth pastor’s wife spoke against the use of Vaseline during a girls’ only service. I asked why it was okay to put shiny stuff on your lips but not on your eyelids. She openly mocked me, but didn’t answer. I also asked why we were not allowed to go to baseball games. (A hot new guy came to church and rumor had it he played; thus my interest. I hadn’t heard about Title 9.) Sister Youth Pastor told me not ask dumb questions and never answered. Maybe she didn’t know, but I never found out. Brother Youth Pastor wouldn’t let me get off of the choir bus with everyone else because he could see my bra strap through the cap sleeve of my shirt. He cornered me, placing full blame for my promiscuous clothing choice squarely on my inadequately covered shoulders. I was 14.

Many years later after Dad died, I had a series of nightmares about him that left me terrified. I would wake up shaking, my heart pounding and sick. I do not remember the details of those dreams. Then one night, I stood up to him. I faced him and, with voice quivering and knees buckling, told him what I really thought of him, how I really felt. I never dreamed about him again.