Do you know what’s worse than seeing your mother when you look in the mirror?
Seeing your father.
That’s what happens when I leave my hair soaked in conditioner and slicked back like a seal. Only my hair is not black like a seal’s any more than my father’s hair was black. His moved from fair to grey. Mine also began fair. Now it’s anything but.
In his old age my father took to letting his hair grow long and wild, as young folks did in the sixties and seventies. He let it grow long, he said in protest against all those years when he was forced to trot into the city in a suit and tie.
He wore his hair long and Jesus-like as a mark of freedom, once he had given up the alcohol that swallowed up most of his child-rearing days. Long flowing hair that left him looking like an ageing hippie. A Fritz Perls look-a-like. A man who tried to make up for the lost years by building doll’s houses for his granddaughters, and selecting wood off-cuts to create picture frames.
He once gave me one, a framed rooster in browns and red. He took the image from a magazine, a shiny print of someone else’s painting that looked sad, when exposed years later, after the frame fell apart.
In the days of dolls houses and picture frames, my father turned back to religion. He joined a bible study class with my mother and together the two joined others from Our Lady of Assumption parish to explore the hidden meanings of the bible.
At his funeral, a group of women from this group took up the best part of a pew towards the back of the church. As my brothers carried the coffin out from the church down the long aisle these women sang wildly and flung around tambourines in a folkie rendition of Turn turn turn. Someone whispered to me they were charismatics, those devout folks who reckoned they could speak in tongues. I recognised the tune. Not the babble of a direct line to God. Maybe that came later.
My father’s life was over, and these women celebrated his life, a life of which they had little idea, as they only met him in his final years after he had turned the corner of his crippling behaviour and found God. Again.
My father grew up with God. In his childhood, the story goes, he was baptised in multiple religions, the Dutch Reformed church, among others and wound up with the Mormons. Perhaps it was the Mormons who gave him the idea it was okay to have more than one wife. That gave him the idea he could take on any woman, including his daughters, as his own to possess sexually.
Perhaps he read it somewhere in the bible in contrast to the injunction ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’. Somewhere he read the fundamentalist clap trap that reckons women belong to their husbands, the stuff that enables the more fundamentalist among us to consider it okay to coerce their wives into submission. Perhaps.
Catholicism seemed a safe religion to enter, especially as it enabled him to marry my mother in the days when mixed marriages were frowned upon. In the days where sameness and silos of like-minded souls in fundamentalist religions, each of which argued theirs was the one true faith, prevailed.
During the war when he was a captain in the Dutch army my father shared a tent at one time with a chaplain, or so my muddled memory reminds me. He spent much of his time negotiating with God to keep him alive, along with his fellow soldiers. It must have been a tough time. Like so many other veterans of war, my father rarely spoke about it and certainly not to his daughters.
My youngest brother told me that towards the end of his life our father sometimes regaled him with stories of war, but mostly he would not even let the TV series Combat flicker on our television screen for more than the shorts before the order came to turn it off.
I write in long sentences. My sentences too long in these days of the quick grab. The quick bite. The ease of communication. I write clause after clause. Too many, too fast. And cringe at the thought that future generations will lament. The tediousness of my generation’s love of too many words. Sentences that go on forever.
The past is a foreign country, a bad neighbourhood as Anne Lamott writes of her mind, one she tries not to visit too often.
The past is my playground. I visit often. More often these days when so much is behind me now. So much to pluck from the stirrings of memory. The smell of a flower, the hint of autumn in the air, the first stirrings of blossom buds on the trees.
I walk past a child in a pram, look back to see the face of the child flanked by the four walks of their mobile bed and look for that newness of smile, that promise of a life ahead. That sense that rushes at me from my own first memories. A time when everything was new and filled with the ecstasy of the sublime.
I did not ascribe this to Jesus until I went to school and the angels took over as the owners of everything beautiful. The angels and saints as god’s ambassadors. But before then, the word ‘nature’ crept into my vocabulary. It was nature, my sister told me, that left me with a sense of awe at the greenness of the grass, the black centre of a sun yellow daisy whose hairy stalk we plucked and spilt carefully with our fingernails. A wide enough slit to allow us to thread another daisy stem through in the creation of a daisy chain, you could perch on top of your head for as long as the stalks held firm.
And the sad thing when I think back to those days when the awe of religion crept into my experience, my father had abandoned his.
I’m glad that he did. If he had remined devout throughout his life, I might not have seen that there were other ways to view the majesty of life outside the fragile frame of religion, a frame so fragile like a daisy chair in crumbles under pressure
And my father’s hair hung in loose waves down the sides of his face, his beard a place where birds might once have nested were he such a man who might let other vulnerable creatures come so close. But he was not. And when I see him in my own face in the mirror I am in awe that my whole being rests on the existence of this man who is no more of this earth beyond the soil in which he lies buried.
One thought on “The fragile frame of religion”
My father was in the navy during the war. One of the few photos of him as a young man is in dress uniform with two mates on either side. All his killing was done at a distance (he maintained the big guns) so he didn’t mind telling war stories although I don’t recall any battle stories. He was in Australia at one point, Adelaide rings a bell, and said held been standing on one side of a street bone dry while it’d been bucketing down on the other. Mostly he served on destroyers and he told me that once he got transferred and the next day his old ship got blown out of the water. That’s about all I remember. It didn’t really interest me and I certainly never saw my dad as a war hero, just a guy who, like most of his peers, got called up, did his bit and somehow survived. We watched the whole series of World at War together when it was first broadcast and he never turned off any war film. But he never grew long hair or went a day in his life without a shave. He’d hate how I look now with my full beard and ponytail. Hate it. I haven’t had a haircut since before the first lockdown and was just curious to see what it’d look like. I have mixed feelings.
He never liked Catholics much or at all really. He had a book on them which tore the religion to pieces and wouldn’t be swayed. He was like that, intractable. The only good thing he ever said about any Catholic was to compliment the guy at the end of our street who, hail, rain or shine never missed chapel. He respected his commitment even though he believed he was wrong.
Unlike you the past is not my playground. I go there mostly for your sake nowadays and do my best to dredge up something to add to the conversation. It’s not horrible.