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One of my most prized possessions is a pink sweater that my grandmother knitted for me when I was 3. Her skill with a needle and yarn was known on neighboring farms for miles. She knit clothes for my dolls, too, but this sweater was for me. It was a cardigan with flat pink buttons down the front and a light brown kitten of her own devising on the back. It paired beautifully with the pink pants she’d also knit for me. That’s right: I wore sweater pants. With a sweater. Of the same color.
When she died — in part because a patronizing rural doctor had told her she had a stomachache when instead she had a tumor that was already bigger than a ball of yarn — I worried about her. I mean, I worried after she died. I knew she’d attended church every Sunday, but I’d never heard her talk about God in all of my 11 years, and I wondered if she’d really been committed enough to make the heavenly cut.
You see, I was a committed evangelical fundamentalist Christian. I thought about God hourly. Scratch that: I thought about God by the minute. At church (my family went three times a week), at my Baptist school, reading my Bible — but outside of those activities, too. Did he approve of how I put away laundry? Did he not approve if a boy passed me a note in class? I was a tense, polite, outwardly cheerful little girl who rarely made a spontaneous gesture and usually thought better of giggling. I believed in heaven, but more than that I believed in hell as a literal place, a “lake of fire” filled with flames that would lap and lick at you for an eternity.
I loved my grandmother. How could I not have? She was all softness and hugs and state fair ribbons. She won ribbons every year, it seemed, either for the doll outfits she knit or the gladioli she grew. She was cuddly, yes. But was she hardcore about her commitment to God? No. And you didn’t get to heaven by giving hugs and growing flowers, as far as I knew, so after she died, I was a bit unclear on where she belonged.
What I’m telling you is, if I thought my own grandmother might not have made it, the woman who fashioned a pink sweater with a kitten on it for me, imagine what I thought about the rest of you.
Of course, Christianity includes plenty of worthy teachings. “Love one another” is a pretty good one, for example. I learned more teachings than most, I’d imagine. I say this with all humility, humility being one of the lessons I learned early. I grew up in Iowa — my mom had moved from the farm in eastern Nebraska to a city in eastern Iowa. She moved just one state over, but she went as far as that next state would take her, which was right up to the banks of the Mississippi River in a city called Davenport. She met my dad in the mid-1960s at the aluminum factory where they both worked, and they found themselves swept up in a particular kind of religious fervor.
American fundamentalism may seem plenty established now, but it’s a fairly recent movement that began taking shape in the late 19th century, fueled by concerns about modernism and slipping morals. It gained traction after World War I, went underground after the Scopes trial, and mobilized politically in the 1970s, just in time for my parents to take part. They attended a church with a literalist interpretation of the Bible and a commitment to supporting missionaries around the world. They started listening to the local Christian radio station and guarding against attacks on their faith. And like thousands of other parents, they put their kids in a Christian school and decided that the earth couldn’t possibly be more than a few thousand years old.
In my lessons and conversations about God as a young girl, we talked a lot about God’s love. And I felt the love. On the way home from Sunday evening church, I would sometimes ask if we could sing in the car to extend the glow.
Yet even as we sang about God’s love, we lived in knowledge of his judgment. We’d hear about people who attended church but who still listened to rock ‘n’ roll music, and we’d figure they weren’t real Christians. We’d spend a weekend at a relative’s house who had a liquor cabinet and not go back again, ever, eventually forgetting those cousins’ names altogether.
I knew I would be judged at every step. I have a photo of me wearing the pink pants my grandmother knit for me. My mother took the photo when I was around 3 years old, minutes before I got my first haircut, other than my little-girl bangs. I’m posed on a bright green couch next to a lamp in a department store where the hair salon was located.
Even then, at 3 years old and bedecked in pink, I knew there was no margin for error in our house. My big sister had recently been threatened with a belt merely for asking permission to wear an outfit to church that my father deemed more appropriate for a picnic. And were we going on a picnic? No, we were not going on a picnic. We were going to church. Did she want him to take off his belt? No, she didn’t want that! She backed out of the room in tears, and I was frozen wide-eyed in the corner, getting the message. I’m not sure what I wore to church that night, but I know I chose my outfit carefully.
I preferred to avoid such threats and developed a cheerful, helpful facade that was pervasive throughout my childhood and into adulthood. Maybe this veneer was an exaggerated version of myself. I might have been prone to humming while doing my chores anyway — we’ll never know.
I’m not a churchgoer anymore. Still, I think it’s important to try to understand fundamentalism, even when looking away feels easier. I read the news instead of watching it because I can’t bear to let today’s fundamentalist political-megaphone people feel so close. But I remember how it feels to be wired for judgment. Judging others constantly reinforces the lines around you that you think are keeping you safe. I didn’t think my beliefs made me rigid. I thought they made me right. When you think having a very particular belief system is your salvation, you aren’t likely to find it constricting. You’re likely to find it life-giving. And when you think that a very particular belief system is also the only salvation for everyone else on the earth, you aren’t likely to feel smug while imposing that view on others. You’re likely to feel like a savior.
Life didn’t feel so dire when we visited my grandparents’ farm. We spent more time digging up potatoes and pulling weeds than talking about the Bible. Instead of getting ready for evening church on late Sunday afternoons, I poked through my grandmother’s piles of yarn and jars of buttons. I wish now that I would have asked her to teach me how to knit, even if just a scarf and not something as elaborate as the pink sweater. But I was always busy exploring when I was near her — looking through her supplies or climbing on tractors or wandering out to the weeping willow tree at the edge of the yard.
I know my fundamentalist parents loved me. They wanted what was best for me. Sometimes that meant taking me to the fabric store to pick out a pattern for a new dress, or stocking the freezer with gallon tubs of butter-brickle ice cream from the Schwan’s delivery truck. But always and foremost, that meant doing their part to make sure I would get into heaven. The way to get me into heaven was to make sure I was a serious Christian. The way to make sure I was a serious Christian was to watch for evidence. Evidence of being good, evidence of being bad.
By kindergarten I’d outgrown the sweater, but I decided halfway through the year that if anything scary ever happened while I was at school, I would run over to the closet and put on my winter coat, which was made of a furry brown material that I was sure would turn into a bear if I ever needed a defender. I called it “my bear coat,” although nobody ever asked me why.
Now I think of those pink pants and sweater as a defense my grandmother knit for me. Cloak her in softness, maybe she thought. Let her stay tender in this family that has taken a harsh turn. I’d like to think she laid down a pattern of softness for me, like leaving a thread I could one day pick up again when I found my way back to it.