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My mom was raised by strict Southern Baptists in small-town Texas and spent her life attempting to escape her intended destiny in one way or another. She was proud of being the first person in her family to go to college and renounced much of the culture she came from. She hated white bread and pimento cheese and plastic table clothes, and she was bitterly dismissive of traditional Christianity, especially adherents of its evangelical and Pentecostal variants. “Holy rollers,” she called them, always accompanying it with an eye-roll and a smirk. Thanks to her, I knew that some Christians practiced snake-handling and spoke in tongues before I was entirely sure what the resurrection was.
Whenever I asked her what she did believe in, Hamlet — her second-favorite Shakespeare play — provided her go-to aphorism: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, and all that.”
So while she made sure I’d think of organized religion as a scam for soft-skulled rubes, she never made fun of me for being scared of the dark or tried to steer me clear of various occult interests. We traded dog-eared Stephen King paperbacks and she stayed up late with me to watch Halloween and Amityville Horror. What’s more, she jumped as high as I did if the floorboards squeaked after the credits rolled and understood completely if I asked to sleep in her bed that night.
My dad is a mathematician and atheist; he regards any talk of the supernatural with thinly veiled impatience. Goblins and God aren’t just mythological, they’re irrelevant. My mom wasn’t a Christian, but she was a believer. Thanks to her, I’m both.
She read somewhere that you could influence a baby’s brain development by reading Shakespeare aloud long before the child could possibly understand it, but it says a lot about both of us that the work she chose to expose me to from birth wasn’t one of the comedies or any of the sonnets but rather Macbeth — famously bloody, filled with witchcraft and madness, a story haunted by ghosts and guilt.
Once I was out of the crib, my mom liked to entertain people with an anecdote from when I wasn’t much more than a toddler. On a camping trip with her, my dad, and my dad’s brother, she was coming back from an evening errand and in the coming gloom, she saw the three of us huddled by the campfire and heard me plea in the urgent squeal familiar to any parent trying to hustle a child to bed, “One more! Tell the one about the zombies again!” (My uncle, a bachelor at the time, told her later that he had quickly run out of your standard fairy tales — which, obviously, aren’t devoid of gore and violence themselves — and decided to just recount the plot of Night of the Living Dead.)
I don’t remember that incident, but I do remember a dozen other camping trips like it and the ritual of adults trying to freak me out as I singed my fingers on s’mores, the smell of woodsmoke and burnt sugar seeping into my skin. I was an only child and usually the only child on these trips. Hearing ghost (or zombie) stories around the campfire would prompt a delicious alertness in me after everyone else was asleep, the adults’ breathing softened into sighs and the tree branches’ scratching at the tent magnified by possibility. I knew the adults were nearby but I was also alone — or was I? I would send my mind out, questing for contact.
The first piece of fiction I ever wrote for an audience was a spin on the classic tale of a young man who dies on the way to meet his beloved. In my version, the apparition that appears on the anniversary of his death is his empty car, whose horn blares the announcement of an arrival that never happened. I called it, “The Midnight Honker,” a title I saw no humor in, though I witnessed my mom giggling helplessly every time she told someone about it.
She died seven years ago this week, and we have our own unfinished business, a collection of unresolved half-truths and curdled resentments that also announce themselves loudly and awkwardly this time of year. We were both so sensitive to each other’s tender places and matching sharp edges, I’m a little surprised that I can think back to her eye-watering amusement at “The Midnight Honker” and not feel a shred of affront. I have nursed other grudges over less. But, first of all, it’s an objectively silly title. It didn’t take me that many years to accept that however hilarious she found it, she was also proud of me. And she loved to tell stories about her weird little girl’s fascination with the supernatural because she shared it.
Around the same time I was writing “The Midnight Honker,” she and my dad were getting divorced and she did take me to the local Unitarian-Universalist church for a short time. It may have been out of a sense of guilt. It may have been to meet people. But it didn’t last long (few commitments in my childhood did). The only things I remember about it were the smell of coffee and donuts in the community room after the service and Shirley assuring me multiple times that just because we were going to church, it didn’t mean I had to agree there was a God, or promise to obey Jesus, or any of that.
She searched for meaning and order in a haphazard but enthusiastic way that I’d later recognize in my own life. She devoured self-help books and spiritualist fads with undiminished (and mostly unexamined) optimism: The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and The Road Less Traveled on the one hand and astrological charts and tarot cards on the other. She had crystals in her bedroom and taught me how to cast runes. She listened to Tony Robbins tapes in the car and self-hypnosis tapes at home. At one point in the late '80s, I’m pretty sure she almost joined a cult — one of those eternally-upsold “motivational seminars” whose practices edge into brainwashing. I liked this particular flavor of leadership flimflam because their tapes included choral covers of uplifting pop songs like "Respect” and “Eye of the Tiger” (I presume they were altered just enough to escape copyright infringement). But then she came home from one weekend workshop and said they had asked her to dress up in a Big Bird outfit and hold signs on the side of the freeway as part of an “ego-destroying” exercise. I suspect this was her breaking point. She may have been eager for direction but she had her dignity. In any case, those tapes disappeared and Tony Robbins was on again.
Her grasping for certainty and self-reliance was at least in part motivated by a post-divorce entry into real estate sales, a trade that made the most of her good taste and ability to put people at ease but continually beat her down with its ruthlessness and quantifiable winners and losers. She loved feeling like she’d helped a family find a home; she was not built to convince people to buy more than they needed. She was constitutionally unable to “hustle,” and was equally baffled by the ability of some of her peers to make their big sales look easy. No wonder she thought success might be a matter of saying the right words in the right order or inviting an otherworldly power into your life. And, to be fair, how could anyone look at the Texas real estate market of the 1980s and think it was governed by purely logical forces?
I retained her deeply instilled suspicion of conventional religion for decades, and quite literally would have gone to my grave without ever deciding if I really believed in God until I quite literally almost went to my grave.
Like Shirley, I am an alcoholic. Like her, my drinking came close to killing me. Like her, I went to rehab.
In fact, we went to the same rehab. Nine months after her cirrhosis got bad enough to make in-patient treatment unavoidable, my bipolar disorder put me in a psych ward, after which I followed my therapists’ long-standing recommendation and followed her to a bucolic former health spa in Pennsylvania.
That treatment center still follows a very traditional 12-step program formula: Higher Power, surrendering, the whole bit. When my mom came to see me one weekend, she suggested we walk to the “butt hut” — more officially, "the smoking gazebo" — and shocked me by asking one of my fellow patients for a light. I hadn’t seen her smoke in 20 years. She shrugged at my stare. “I’m surprised you haven’t started again, too.”
The smoke at least covered the awkward silence as we sat in the early spring sunshine. It stayed quiet long enough I was startled again when, without preamble, she came at me with, “So, the God stuff.” Inhale. “Is it getting to you? Do you do what they say, and ‘hit your knees’ at night?” She said that last bit with the sarcastic, conspiratorial exaggeration. She was inviting me to make fun of the fuddy-duddy soft-skulls but I wasn’t feeling like throwing spitballs.
“I don’t know,” I said, “It hasn’t been the main thing bothering me.” And that was true. I was terrified that I might never get better; I was paralyzed by the fear that without my work I would be nothing; I was convinced that the world would finally see me for the failure I really was. The “God stuff” — other women in my unit talked about it constantly and had debates about it that reminded me unpleasantly of my freshman year of college. But I had what I thought of at the time as bigger concerns.
“You don’t believe it, do you?” She asked, suspicious. “The old man with a beard in the sky?”
“I don’t know,” I said again. And it was still true.
The conversation meandered elsewhere; I don’t remember what else we talked about. I remember hugging her goodbye, the smell of cigarette smoke hanging on her like nostalgia gone sour.
A few days later, I got a care package from her. A few detective novels from the probably inappropriately hedonistic Travis McGee series, some Goldfish crackers, and a set of rune stones along with a book to interpret them.
I wanted to laugh at her hypocrisy — it was the most acute example in my lifetime of her rejecting one “old man in the sky” but apparently accepting another one. But the solitude of rehab made me generous. I didn’t want to make fun of her. I wanted to believe in something, too.