A constant in my childhood was that my Mother was late to things. Like, always late. So late all the time, that she’d earned the nickname, “Late Lynnie.” It embarrassed me, because that meant I was late too, but my Mom is funny and could somehow make our tardiness seem less aggravating with her could-give-a-fuck cheerfulness or a joke. If she couldn’t come up with the perfect thing to say, there would be a sigh followed by an all encompassing “well?” to fit the bill. As in… “well, what can you do?” or “well, now what?” or sometimes just “well?” followed by nothing at all. The affected way she said “well” sounded more like “wail” with an exaggerated southern drawl and it’s a thing I adopted long ago. “Well, shit” (my personal favorite) in that same hillbilly style.
Thinking back on my Mom and that time, I remember her exhausted and usually covered in dirt. She is a florist and landscape designer and when it came to landscaping, she did the majority of the labor herself. She’d spend days in the hot Florida sun, bent over, digging and pulling and planting. It was hard work, but she was good at it and I think enjoyed it. This and other odd jobs is how she made her living to support my sister (eleven years older) and myself. To say she was overworked would be an understatement, and time management was never her forte. Now in her 70s, she still does this hard work. She is also still perpetually late. If promptness is important to you, as it became for me, you’ll tell her an event starts a half hour before it actually does. This has been practiced by friends and family for years, and pretty much everyone knew this trick, except for Mary.
Mary was the housekeeper of a Siesta Key property my mother was landscaping at the time and she had a daughter my age. Thirteen. Together, with our long dark hair, cherubic cheeks and similar smiles, Late Lynnie and I were the very picture of a mother daughter duo. Mary and Joanna, on the other hand, looked nothing alike. Mary was a slight, angular woman with short, wiry ash brown hair and a style that could only be described as hardcore “Mom Jeans.” Joanna was short and plump with long blonde mermaid hair and enormous breasts disproportionate to her frame. I didn’t even know it was possible to have breasts that large at thirteen.
Siesta Key in the 90s had still managed to hold on to its bohemian hippie beach vibe for the most part. Increasing tourism and wealthy transplants looking to tear down bungalows and build stucco McMansions had been slowly chipping away at its charm since the 80s. Of course, there was old money there and some grand homes already, but they were part of the fabric of my cozy beach town. The home of Daniel and Grace McCloud was one of those. It was a sprawling little chunk of Siesta Key with two big white houses on the bay, a pool and a tennis court all hidden away by the lush landscape designed and cared for by my mother. I delighted in exploring those houses by myself. So bright and airy. They were lovely and meticulously put together. A direct reflection of Mrs. McCloud herself. I’d catch a glimpse of her here and there and she fascinated me. She was friendly and beautiful with a full bob of silver hair and pretty smile, but seemed somehow untouchable. Elegant, even in casual wear.
I was used to joining my Mom on her job sites, I’d been doing it my whole life. Perhaps childcare was hard to find or afford or maybe she just wanted me close. Whatever the reason, I’m better for the experience. I remember with fondness, having the freedom to explore the grounds of the many properties while she planted and pruned. Some children may have been bored or lonely, but I have always been happy alone and had no problem entertaining myself. A wild imaginary world constantly swirled in my head. By the time I was a teenager, going to work with my Mom in the summer was just a thing I did. I didn’t yet have a job. Left home alone, I probably would have fallen into a K-hole of television and Nintendo. I didn’t mind spending time at the McClouds. I was in no way helpful and probably should’ve been exploited to rake or pull weeds, but my mom let me daydream while she sweltered away. I would spend hours during the summer of my thirteenth year imagining those comfy leather couches were mine and poking around each room. Lounging and listening to rich white people CD’s. Reading their rich white people magazines. Travel & Leisure and W were my favorites.
Every now and then I’d catch a glimpse of Mary as she cleaned. She talked to herself a lot and prayed aloud all day long. This sort of prayer was miles away from what I had witnessed in my own life. My mother prayed, but at night before she went to bed and quietly to herself. She may have suggested that I do the same, but never pushed it. She’s not one for huge organized churches, her general feeling that they are stuffy and also too focused on “passing the donation plate.”
Joanna was nice enough. We swam together a few times while our mothers worked so hard and the McClouds were off sailing or attending board meetings or doing whatever rich white people do. Our friendship even progressed to a sleepover at her house one night. We ate junk food and compared school stories, but we were very different and I found it hard to connect. She liked Christian pop, was very involved in her church youth group and played sports. There were lots of awards and ribbons on her wall. I was a grunge music loving, introverted, unathletic artist whose hobbies were sleeping a lot and smoking pot with my friends. My only extracurricular activities outside of school were babysitting. I had no ribbons.
Mary and my mother would sometimes chat as they passed each other throughout their day and one day, shortly after our sleepover, I believe Mary had somehow managed to trigger “Bad Mother” guilt. I imagine the conversation went something like this…
“Jenna and Joanna seemed to hit it off! You know, Jo really enjoys the youth group at our church, which church do you attend?”
“Oh, we don’t really belong to a church, but I believe in God! Oh, yes. I pray. Yes, I’m sure it would be nice to try it out. I’ve never really exposed her to a lot of religion, but I’m sure Jenna would love to join Joanna’s youth group.”
And that’s how we found ourselves, one gray and blustery summer evening in 1993, at the Victory Christian Church of Sarasota. We were, of course, late. I was resentful of the whole idea. My religious skepticism formed early. I hated going to church services and being subjected to religious conversations. I found it overwhelming, full of bullshit stories and unreasonable expectations. I tend to shy away from dramatic displays of anything and religion is simply rife with it.
Also, my father didn’t help foster a positive connection with religion. My first memory of attending a service of any kind was around the age of three or four. He had become passionate about some fire and brimstone church. Speaking to my Mom later in life about it, it was obvious that she had been forced to attend. He was an abusive figure in both of our lives and this was just another way to exercise control. I recall a preacher yelling and then what I remember next was sitting on the floor with headphones, a book and cassette player with the story of Black Beauty. My mother, no doubt, my savior.
Even more than the idea of sitting through a church service, I hated the idea of being around a group of religious teenagers that I didn’t know. If I already felt like a black sheep with Joanna, how would it be with a whole flock of teenagers? I was sure that, even though they were “Christians,” they’d be judging me behind their fake Jesus smiles. They were teenagers above all. I was annoyed that my mother had been pressured into going to church, but more so for dragging me with her. Yes, she believes there is a God and I knew that she prayed, but she never made me do it. She just assumed that I believed what she believed and was too stressed by single motherhood to dedicate any time to cultivating my relationship with God. For that, I was grateful. But now! With shallow nervous breath, I was dragging my feet across a gravel parking lot on a stormy evening, to the tiny house dedicated to the youth group adjacent to the enormous church where my mother would be hugely celebrating her intimate relationship with God alongside Mary….who was on time for church.
Victory Christian was a good drive away from the town center or the Key. The grounds were huge, taken up mostly by a parking lot, but there was a scattering of tall palm trees and a rickety swing set. The youth house of worship was a small wooden structure with white siding and a covered porch with a two person bench. It was quaint, but in comparison to the blindingly white concrete church, it seemed dingy and old.
A wave of relief passed through me as I saw that the lights were out in the youth building. Awe shucks, no one’s inside, I decided after zero attempt at making sure. I sat on the porch bench and planned to spend the next hour watching the storm roll in by myself. I was good at that. I love Florida storms and this night was looking to be a good one. The clouds were fat, but moving quickly. The breeze was nice and brought with it that familiar sweet, musty scent of ozone. Slightly metallic. The door opened a few minutes later and I was quietly invited in by a tidy man in slacks and a Polo shirt who I guessed to be in his 30s or 40s. Well, shit, I thought.
Turned out, the lights were off intentionally and I walked in to find all the teenagers standing around the room together in rows. I took my place behind Joanna and the pastor continued the sermon my tardiness had interrupted. I don’t recall the subject matter, as I was paying more attention to the window. The kids were quiet and respectful. Nodding heads in agreement and voicing the occasional Amen. Everything was grey inside with the lights off, exaggerated by the gloomy sky creeping through the blinds.
As he was talking, a group of young men appeared from the periphery and positioned themselves throughout the room. I hadn’t noticed them before, there were six, I think. They didn’t seem to be as old as the pastor. Perhaps in their twenties. I can only presume they had been us in their younger days of worship and had graduated to their current roles. The pastor spoke louder and louder and more impassioned. As if on cue, there was a steady rise of crying from my peers. Encouraged and directed by the pastor and his co-stars. Everyone was talking, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The crying and mumbling got louder and then as if things couldn’t get weirder, in a fever pitch, the kids started dropping like flies. One by one they fell to the ground, being caught by their friends behind them or by the adults supervising the bizarre performance playing out in front of my eyes. Joanna slowly collapsed. I caught her and lowered her to the floor, stood back up and watched her writhe, sob, and frantically babble words I didn’t understand. I would later identify this as speaking in tongues.
A cocktail of feelings pulsed through me as I stood over her. I felt sorry for her. Scared for her. But, also, I wanted to laugh at her. I choked down the tears that were threatening to surface. My heart was pounding and my hands shook as the last of my peers succumbed to this dramatic possession and I was the last one standing. I knew what was coming and I knew I couldn’t stop it.
All of the men surrounded me and put their hands on my newly teenaged body. All over my back, high and low. My chest. I had hands on the top, front, and back of my head. Two of them held my arms out, my body looking like a cross. I wish I’d had the nerve to run away or demand they take their hands off of me, but I was stuck between flashbacks of my childhood molestation and Nice Girl Syndrome. A winning combination working together to ensure you stick around in an abusive situation. They all spoke in tongues while they held me still so their Lord could enter me. I remained standing, briefly escaping out the window. Gray clouds. Even grayer sky. Almost night. Palm fronds swaying. Windy. Still no rain. It was the rocking that brought me back to the room. Back and forth they rocked my body, sometimes completely heel to toe. The pastor leaned in close and spoke in my ear. Cheek to cheek, he began coaching me on how to behave. He was sensual and deliberate. I could feel his breath on my skin while the others continued with tongues. My body being manipulated by grown men. Again.
“When you feel the Lord enter you, He can speak through you. Sometimes it’s a whisper, sometimes a scream. You’ll feel words in your throat and then He makes sounds. Sometimes His love feels so big that it’s hard to stay on your feet.” And with that, he forcefully placed his palm to my forehead and pushed me back. The coaching, as creepy as it was, refocused me and told me what to do to make it stop. I mumbled some shaky sounds to the tune of “blah blah blah” and dropped to the floor where I lay heaving with panic on the verge of vomit as the other children started coming to and slowly rising. I had forgotten they were even there.
When the show was over, the kids regained their footing, wiped their tears and hugged their friends in congratulation. I took advantage of the huddled movement in the darkness and slipped out the front door. I ran to our van, but it was locked. I made my way to the main church instead where I hid in a stall in the Women’s bathroom. There was still some worship remaining, but I wasn’t sure how much. Time was a blur, but the bathroom was a vivid bright white and immaculately clean. It smelled of Comet. My heartbeat slowed as I sat there on the toilet seat rolling over my confusion of what had just happened. The thing that baffled me the most was how blissed out they seemed when it was all over. How did that bring anyone joy? It was terrifying.
I heard the door open followed by my mother’s seeking voice calling my name. I don’t know how long I was in the bathroom, but I suspect longer than necessary by the look on her face when I opened the stall door to a relieved but angry “Jesus Christ, Jenna!” We made our way to the parking lot and were finally leaving. Looking around, I saw that the rain had never come. The clouds just rolled on by and all that was left was a breeze in the night air that I could finally breathe in fully.
I had expected to catch Hell in the car for ditching church, but the ride home was quiet. I didn’t tell her the details of that night until years later. At the time, she just knew that I hated it and didn’t press. As is her way, she found just the right words and with a sigh and a twang said, “Well, I guess we’re done with church!”