The Scarlet B
Jennifer Lucas Townsend
Around second grade I began to go to church services at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church on the corner of Weymouth Road in Syracuse. I went almost every Sunday but this wasn’t entirely of my own volition. My sister Diana had done the groundwork for me by finding herself a true believer. I could walk in conflict and doubt under her umbrella of certainty, and no one would see my struggle there. Her conversion was so strong she became an acolyte in the church. It could have been religiously inspirational to see her in her white robes helping the minister, but I only saw a cool girl doing a boy’s job. To me, it spoke more to girl power than God.
I believed my attendance lessened the oversight of my parents in not baptizing us. I also thought I could catch faith by exposure like chicken pox, or pick it up like a second language by watching foreign television. More likely the exposure immunized me instead. At the time, I just thought it was better to be there trying than not. I embraced the rituals, the “also with you’s,” and especially Communion. I memorized the Lord’s Prayer and took its recitation as permission to join in. And how could “Drink from it, all of you” be misinterpreted? Of course, I was included. And I did feel included every time the paper wafer pulped in my mouth and the wine burned the inside of my chest. The nervous thrill of wondering if I was doing wrong never lessened, though. I thought I might be breaking the rules and queue jumping to the good stuff without following protocol. I was pretty sure a few ceremonial rites had been ignored. I just bet I wasn’t supposed to do any of it without being baptized. I was grateful no scene was ever made, and I was always served.
My mom, Sandie, encouraged our interests, though she never seemed taken with organized religion herself and certainly was never heard to ask God for anything. She always intended us to explore religion as we got older, so to support us, she decided to teach Sunday school at our church. Before Sandie, church was great, but after she arrived I was pulled from my people and forced to go to Sunday school. My sister and I were in separate classes because of our age difference, and Sandie taught a class of boys. This whole twist of Sunday school, which I had so far avoided, was unpleasant. I now had to make friends with kids I felt were corny and easily duped. It was a prejudice of mine that Sunday school kids were knee sock wearing goody-goodies who didn’t know how to have a good time. Gradually, the appeal of church waned. I didn’t mind it when I was hanging out drinking and singing with the adults, but when I was shuffled off to a group of my peers, my sin was quickly exposed.
A husband and wife team taught my class. They reminded me of The Captain and Tennille because he had glassy, bug eyes and she had a toothy smile. One Sunday, The Captain enthusiastically suggested we make baptism collages for our parents. There was a clamor of excitement, as all the kids around me seemed irrationally thrilled by the idea. Dates of great importance were neatly marked out on colored construction paper in bold marker. Not only had I no event to celebrate, but I also didn't even have parents to share it with, only Sandie. Dick wasn't at my house. The two things in life I was hiding by omission—my parents' divorce and my sinful soul—collided in one horrendous craft project. While everyone else began their mixed media masterpieces of yarn and macaroni, I began to cry, and I wouldn’t or couldn’t say why.
Later, Sandie tried to comfort me, but it was her fault that I was a sinner, and it was her fault that she butted in, now messing up my good thing. If I had felt less guilty or had been one little bit smoother, I could have just faked it. I could have made up some random date or, in a worst-case scenario, copied someone else. But that wasn’t me. Deep down I knew I couldn’t lie because, if these people were right, the Lord was in that room in the church basement and He would know. In fact, He’d always known. He was just biding his time, letting me drink His blood and swallow Him whole because He knew how to deal with me. He revealed me to my Sunday school class, and I never went back.
My family’s time at St. Andrew’s wobbled irreparably soon after that, and not because of me. A new minister named Fr. Haskell arrived who was too fanatical for Sandie. He had weekly "Jews for Jesus" meetings and modernized the service with what I heard called “happy clappy” hand raising throughout. Sandie and Diana pushed on a bit longer, but what really ended the entire experiment was when Fr. Haskell went through Sandie's checkout line at the drugstore where she worked evenings. Loudly he asked, "Who's watching your children?" Sandie was furious. He was obviously implying she was irresponsible, making reckless choices regarding her children's welfare. Choices like having to work a second job to feed and clothe us. He knew we all lived with our grandmother, so who the hell did he think was looking after us? Mom cut him cold with no response. She rang him up and bagged his crap like he was invisible. She pushed his purchases down the belt behind her, while addressing the next person in line with overabundant pleasantries. I took to calling him the childishly derisive Haskell the Rascal. Even my sister, when she heard, turned in her white robe in an act of solidarity. I was relieved none of us went anymore, but my Scarlet B of shame followed me still.
Being older, Diana went to summer camp before I could. She chose Bible camp because her friend was going too. I was so jealous I could barely talk to her. She and Sandie went shopping with a big list, checking off all the supplies as they got them. Diana had a new sleeping bag, a pretty set of pajamas, tiny shampoo bottles, a plastic collapsible cup, and Sandie even took her to the bookstore and let her pick out her own Bible. The Bible had a flap in the front for your family tree. So now, just like the Waltons, my sister had a family Bible with a page to fill with her future. I suffered in silence. Not really. I whined about injustice and ageism and pushed hard for a little recompense when the ice cream truck was heard heading my way the week she was gone.
Religion was looking good again when you tacked on shopping trips and a week in the Adirondacks. The next summer, when I just finished third grade, I was permitted to join Diana at camp. My year of envy was rewarded with my own Bible and a bookmark with the Lord’s Prayer written in golden Gothic lettering. Once again, I was divinely inspired. It was a new set of people who didn’t know how short I actually fell in comparison to them. It was a second chance.
The camp was mostly fun, but there were weird overtones that could not be ignored. Part of the camping experience is to share ghost stories and the tragic lore of previous campers, but at Sacandaga Bible Conference, scary thrills were upgraded to demons and emergency exorcisms. I would have rather lived in constant fear of the existence of ghosts than to think I might, as others reportedly had, see demons dancing on my playing cards or be forced to host the devil in my body. Back home, the devil rarely came up as subject matter. But here, he had a starring role; he was real and he was close. Did we even need the devil to scare us straight? We weren't kicking puppies or tripping old ladies. We were capturing the flag and racing to see who could find a Bible verse the quickest. The devil shouldn't have been anywhere near us.
I was so glad when Saturday came. I got up early to sit watch in the parking lot for the old, paneled station wagon. My eyes were fixed to the camp entrance. I would have stayed there the rest of the day if I could, but my Sandie-watch was called off when we were told to return to our dormitory. They asked us to wait quietly and reflect on God’s kindness. There were about a dozen of us in our room slung across our stripped bunks in a fatigued funk. I reflected and, after much thought, concluded that God was kind to me in many ways, but he’d be the absolute kindest if he’d let Sandie be the first parent to arrive at pick-up time. I sensed quiet movement in the room and looked up to find we were being called out one at a time to talk to our head counselor. Someone was called out first and in turn returned for the next kid and so on. Nobody was talking, just tapping the shoulder of the next person to go.
When my turn came, I bravely walked down to my counselor’s room. It was private and much smaller than our barracks. When I saw her face look up, I comforted myself with the thought that she was nice enough after all. I mean they all were nice enough in a no-time-for-homesick-babies type of way. So I walked in and closed the door behind me as requested. Thinking I shouldn’t wish to stay here too long, I sat on the very edge of her bed. She sat sideways at a desk facing me with a notebook and pencil in hand. At first, it all seemed very relaxed and informal as she noted down my birthday, address, and such. It was like visiting the school doctor each year. Then BOOM.
"And are you baptized?" she asked. My eyes started to brim, and my throat crushed with tension. So that was it then— a witch hunt. Hadn’t I fit in just fine this week? Wasn’t I Christian in almost every way? I could not believe I was about to be found unholy again.
The counselor’s senses started crackling. She smelled blood and leaned forward with such momentum her long Breck girl hair took on a frightening bounce.
"Not baptized?” she said, considering more than asking before she made her next move. “Well then,” she added, "when did you ask Jesus Christ into your heart?"
What was this now? He’s not my boyfriend, you know. I do like him well enough. Was that what she meant? Jesus and I had a “wait and see” agreement just now. He was waiting while I was seeing. Tears of confusion and exposure heaved out of me. Ruefully, I recognized I was about to become Bible Camp redemption lore. It knocked the Sunday school incident right off the chart of childhood horrors for me.
I was so damn mad and so damn frightened when that woman fell to her knees in front of me and took my hands in hers with feigned affection. Before her moment could be lost, she pleaded with frightening drama, "Ask him in right now. Ask him in!"
I wanted Sandie and I wanted to get out of there. I had no idea that I was living in such a high-risk body. Not having asked Jesus into it was worse than not being baptized. And could it be as easy as asking? Surely we needed a minister to make this official. I was about to be saved, and I didn’t feel a camp counselor in khaki shorts and knee socks had the authority to bear witness.
Moving us along, she tightened her grip on me and implored, "Just Pray to Jesus and ask him in now!"
I closed my eyes, held my breath, and silently saved my sorry little soul. I did it all right, but I had too much pride to be audible about it. She would not get that satisfaction. I thought of Dorothy who had the power all along. It would have been a lot easier and a lot less emotional if the Good Witch had just gone over a list of all the powers the ruby slippers had before anyone got hurt. If I had known I could have cleared up the admin issue of baptism by just asking Jesus into my heart, I would have done it ages ago.
I opened my eyes and nodded, indicating I’d done my part, but I didn’t really know what it meant for me. She had helped save me but had lost immediate interest in my physical presence. She was back at her desk furiously chronicling her good work on the page in her notebook devoted to me. She didn’t even give me a hug of support or a welcome-to-the-club hair tousle as she sent me out. She simply told me who to send in next. I was weary and feeling used as I sniffled back to my room and my sister.
"Oh, I forgot about that. They got me last year," she said snapping her gum, barely raising her eyes from her book. Diana never ceases to slay me.
Apparently, it never dawned on her that I was going to cry at my saving moment, and I think I was embarrassing her. I’m not surprised she was unfazed by the process. She always could ad-lib when she wasn’t sure what was going on. And, I know she didn’t know much more than I did. In fact, looking at her in that moment through tear-swollen eyes and with a Jesus-swollen heart thumping in my ears, I could perfectly picture the scene that took place the year before. When they asked her when she asked Jesus Christ into her heart, she probably flipped her hair with imperceptible defiance, sharpened her eyes at them, and said, "Christmas, 1972.”
What a bitch. If only I could have been half as cool. Moving forward, it was only Girl Scout camp for me.
About the Author: Jennifer Lucas Townsend honed her editing skills while managing Newsweek’s Letters Department in the 1990s. She then moved to London, England to pursue her love of built history and worked for English Heritage. Now, she and her family live in Madison, Wisconsin where she just recently completed a memoir about growing up in upstate New York entitled Chickens on the Niagara Frontier.