Few events in my young life showed the depths of the emotional abuse my stepfather inflicted upon me as the night after I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
I grew up in an interesting cross section of faiths. On my stepfather’s side I had a grandfather I held a lot of respect and admiration for. He was strong willed pine tree of a man, willing to fight for the things he believed in but often not needing to due to stature alone. He often told a tale about how he witnessed “Brother Owen” bring an infant child back from the dead just by holding the child while praying, and he strived to have that sort of power in his faith. He was a man who knew his American Constitution and open-carried a 6 shot revolver (I do forget the make and model) that was given to him after his time as a sheriff’s deputy in California. He’d often instill in me the wisdom of his faith, such as the importance of getting to the highest level of heaven so I could be reunited with all my other family members. Also, the importance of not mingling with The Blacks because they have The Mark of Cain and can’t be trusted. I was at the county fair with him once, and a black man was with a white woman and he spat that “their union” was “disgusting” and “I don’t ever want to see my family mingling with cattle like that.” So uh, great man, clearly flawed and marked by the times. Don’t get me started on his obscure beliefs about the Jews and their relation to the Seven Seals.
On my mother’s side I had a grandfather who was once a Bishop in a “ward” (an area supporting a church) of a suburb of Salt Lake City. He was a hard working man, but when he was with family, family was the most important thing. He loved to joke in a modest way. He had a passion for his model trains and loved showing them to his grandchildren. His faith was important to him, I am sure, but he lived it more than preached it. Looking back on my time with him, I must admit I can’t remember a time he spoke ill of an individual, either for race or creed. Then again, he wouldn’t have to – that was his wife’s job, ah ha. My grandmother, whom I love very much, was a shrill woman who got what she asked for, because she didn’t ask.
In the middle of all this, there was some question about where I would fall as far as faith was concerned. My mother and stepfather made some attempt to go to church, until some disagreement caused them to break away from the faith (but they would then insist my brother and I join a Methodist Baptist church nearby, even as they never went themselves.) As I became old enough to be baptized (8 years of age per Mormon custom), my mother loved the idea of me being baptized by her father, and he was already fighting cancer at that time so there was concerns of his health. At some point, the stars aligned, and I would be baptized just outside of Salt Lake City and my grandfather would be the one to attempt to drown me to death.
I kid. Kind of. Baptism is a rebirth of sorts, and it isn’t like people are held under water for very long.
I believe we stayed at a large house my aunt owned. Understand, housing in Salt Lake City is expensive (it still was in the 90’s), and this house had multiple bedrooms and two stories, so she was doing something right. I remember she owned a franchise of some sort of bakery, but I must admit 28 years later I can’t remember what it was (edit: found out the name of the bakery, and its so popular I can’t name it without potentially identifying her!) Her husband at the time had money as well, although all I remember of him was he had a saxophone and I wasn’t allowed to touch it (and I got into a lot of trouble when I did.)
It’s worth noting that my stepfather hates Salt Lake City. He did then, he did 7 years later when my grandfather on my mother’s side would pass away, and I’m sure if I could get a hold of him he’d tell me he still does today. I don’t blame him, per se – the area we were in had so many houses that all looked the same with an almost crass combination of gray and brown –
The baptism itself was really uneventful. Outside of my family, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone there, and even a lot of my family were people I only knew of and didn’t have a connection with. I was asked to pick a hymn they would play, and I literally just picked one at random – I couldn’t tell you what it was today, but I remember singing it like I thought I knew what it was. The actual drowning was a lot quicker than I thought it would be – I thought that I might be held under water until I passed out or something. Turns out, that’s not how baptisms worked. After the event, we ate a pot luck in the gym with fold up card tables, and everyone kind of talked amongst themselves. Outside of a few chauffeured visits, I was to be seen and not heard.
Later, as we drove home, and I lay in the back of the pickup my stepfather drove (which had a topper, but like that matters as far as how we drove around back then) I knew I had some deep thoughts about how my life had changed, and what the event meant to me. What kid wouldn’t? It’s a lot to take it, kind of a moment where one comes of age.
I don’t remember much about falling asleep, but I remember the next morning way too well. I had been sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag in the same room assigned to my brother (and I think my family besides, but they weren’t there.) My stepfather was enraged about something. I don’t remember what it was. Did I eat something I shouldn’t have? Did I get up too late? To be honest, there were so many times I yelled, threatened, and physically assaulted me over these small things they all kind of bleed together. I’m reasonably sure it was not waking up on time, coupled with something else.
What I do remember, as he stood there in the doorway, illuminated by the light of the hallway, in a room that only had the light of an LED clock, was his words. His filthy fucking words, which at the time had so much control over me but these days just serve to disappoint me (we’re way past the anger phase.)
“Wasn’t getting baptized supposed to purify you?”
“Well a lot of fucking good that did.”
I can’t explain to you, in words, how much those words crushed me as a human being. I was supposed to be special. I was supposed to be on a path to being a better person spiritually, mentally. I was filled with a higher power that would protect me and help guide me. And not even that Holy Spirit could protect me from making the choices that would anger my stepfather, that would make me worthless in his eyes.
♫ I like to look for rainbows whenever there is rain
and ponder on the beauty of an earth made clean again
I want my life to be as clean as earth right after rain.
I want to be the best I can… ♫
I would return to Salt Lake City 7 years later, for my grandfather’s funeral, in an event that would set off my parent’s divorce. I’ve had some layovers there since. I sometimes think about having a bit of a pilgrimage there, although I wouldn’t even know where to go! I’d likely get lost in the city’s weird clash of one way streets and houses that look just different enough to confuse a person but the same enough to be hard to distinguish.