TRIPPING TOWARD JERUSALEM

(Reprinted from blogspot post – dec. 30, 2011)

Each Sunday when I was small, my Mother and my Grandparents and I would attend services at St. James Episcopal church on Park Avenue in New York City.  To me it seemed like a gigantic church, seating for hundreds of people, and each Sunday hundreds of people filled the seats.  I learned how to read music by following along in the hymnal, figured out for myself that the numbers on the board corresponded to the books in front of me, and I was allowed to place the envelope in the collection plate when it came around.  I felt I was doing good deeds, giving money to poor and starving children around the world.
At a certain point in the service, I would join the other children in a line to the Sunday school room to play with the wooden kitchen set or the dolls.  This room is where I developed such a pathological dislike for the smell of Play-Doh that when I had children of my own I simply could not abide the stuff in my own home.  After Sunday school, I would cross the six lanes of Park Avenue and join my Mother in the coffee shop that faced the massive granite staircase of the church.  There I would eat French toast as she drank coffee and read the Times. 

At some point in a girls life, she begins to reach certain theological and just plain logical milestones.  For one, it was time for me to attend Confirmation classes in readiness for my own confirmation as a young Episcopalian lady.  For another, it became clear that my Mother didn’t stay for services when I went to Sunday school, she left when I did and spent that remaining hour in the coffee shop.  I must have been ten years old though the age is fuzzy to my memory for several reasons.  For one thing, when I was ten I also ended up, through a twist of economic fate, leaving my lovely private all girls school for a coed parochial Catholic school in my neighborhood.  I am sure of that age.  However, that would also be the age that our Confirmation class went on a retreat to some camp in the wilderness. My Confirmation class mates all sneaked out to the woods to smoke pot and drink booze stolen from their parents liquor cabinets.  I was young enough to be appalled rather than feel left out.  After all, this was our religious retreat.  This was an event dedicated to something holy.  How could these other kids be treating the experience with such disrespect?

The weekend ended with a tour of the church, where we were guided through the sanctuary and the art work was explained to us.  When we got to the front of the pews, our instructor pointed skyward to the top of the three story high pillars.  Up there, we were told, the pillars were encrusted in real gold leaf that had to be replaced every two to three years.  “Real gold leaf” was impressed upon us I’m sure to imbue in us a feeling of awe at the beauty of the place.  For me, it caused a crisis of faith.  Into my young mind popped the image of the gold collection plates with their thick burgundy velvet liners at the bottom.  Immediately I wondered if the money I had thrown into that plate every week had been spent not on starving naked children in faraway lands, but rather on the ornamentation of pillars, statues and stained glass.  Not only was I disappointed in my classmates, I was disappointed in my church.  It was devastating.

And then it was time for the parents to pick up their freshly anointed children, full of fresh air and godliness.  One by one the children were hugged, their suitcases packed into taxi cabs or limousines to be whisked back to the comfort of their own beds.  Soon there were only a few of us left, then only two of us, then I stood alone on the steps of St. James church on Park Avenue.  I stood and waited, looking for my Mothers face in the windows of every yellow cab or shiny black sedan.  None of them stopped, after all it was a weekday and no one was going to church.  I finally went inside and begged the reluctant secretary to call my home.  There was no answer, this was in the time before answering machines.  I simply listened to the phone ring, picturing it on my mothers desk in the entry to the apartment, listening to the ringing as it filled that apartment from the kitchen, through the living room, down the hall past my room, into her dressing room, and finally to her bedroom where she had another extension.  No one answered.  The day was turning into evening, and the secretary was closing the office.

I was a ten year old girl with a huge pink paisley suitcase purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I was alone in New York City in the twilight.  I had no money for a cab, and the secretary had declined my request for cab fare (they must have been saving for a new statue of Mary) and I had only a vague direction of home.  With a sense of resolve born of complete hopelessness, I began lugging my suitcase northward up the avenue.  Ten year old girls in New York City are already quite aware of what the implications of being a girl with a suitcase alone in the city could mean.  I was as wary as I was weary.  I had to lean away from the hand holding the suitcase to keep the thing from scraping on the sidewalk.  I had no idea where my Mother was or why she wasn’t picking me up.  Surely she knew when the retreat was over.  Surely she missed me.

I trudged onward, occasionally switching the suitcase from one hand to the other and counterbalancing with my entire body.  I was getting hungry and I had been thirsty almost from the start.  I stopped to search my pockets and my bag for any loose change or bills I might have forgotten having.  I came up with enough money for a medium order of French fries and set my sights on the Burger King at the west end of my street.  When I finally reached the place, I laid out my coins and ordered a medium fries and a large ice water.

I suppose a girl hits an age where business logic becomes apparent as well.

I was told that they could not give me a large water.  The cups, it seems, are directly related to inventory, so I could buy the cup at the regular soda price and they could fill it with ice water, but they couldn’t give it to me for free.  However, they could give me a tiny Dixie cup of water and I could ask for as many refills as I wished to have.  I was close enough to home that I decided that was too ridiculous and trudged on.

I don’t know where my Mother was, or if I ever found out I don’t remember.

I did, when she materialized again, tell her that I was absolutely not intending to be confirmed at that Church or any other church, citing the drinking and smoking of my peers.  She didn’t push the issue.  I don’t think we ever went back to St. James, my grandparents had already passed away and I was aware we had gone to church in the first place to appease my Grandfather.  I know I never saw those kids again and I couldn’t name one of them now if I tried.  I feel certain that revisiting that church would cause me to find it smaller and emptier than the picture memories I hold in my head.  I did miss my Sunday morning French toast breakfasts by the picture window overlooking Park Avenue.

It seems clear now though, that this was my first stumble on what was to be a long road toward faith and toward G*d.  First I had to fall out of those huge ornate doors and down those worn steps.  Before I could find my way, I had to discover that I was lost.

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