I'm so high, I swear I could fly... (25)
Lucky for me, my sister left some t-shirts in her room that Grandma allowed me to wear until we could go to town. My pants and underwear I washed every night and hung out on the line to dry. Grandma and Grandpa’s clothes wouldn’t fit me. I was 5’6” and 90lbs wet.
Grandpa took us into Muskogee and dropped Grandma and me off at her favorite store, Name Brand Clothing. This was a little vacation for Grandpa because he could head over to the tool store and be blissfully alone. Name Brand sold clothes that were slightly damaged, severely damaged, or overstocked. A lot of the clothes there were high end, or at least I viewed them that way. They were things you’d find in Dillards, which was Neiman Marcus to me. This was fancy town.
Usually, I wore all black, but that was no longer on the menu. I picked out some overalls covered in ink stains; Grandma taught me how to get them out with hairspray and some elbow grease. Some sort of anti-theft ink explosion happened on them, but otherwise, they were perfect and made by Guess. I grabbed several t-shirts, some with small stains, and a lot of jeans that Grandma could sew up and fix for me. We got the rest of what I needed at Wal-Mart. Going to Wal-Mart was a treat. I loved it there. We didn’t have one near us in Arizona, just a Sams Club, so it was incredibly cool to get just about everything you need in one place.
My Grandfather took me to the library and told me to pick out enough books for the summer. So, I grabbed all of the books in the Dune series, thinking that could get me by for a while. I spent summers with my grandparents before, and I knew they were long and mostly uneventful. My fast-paced life of hanging out with friends, blowing up mailboxes, and skating downhills was over. I had a pile of books, and that was about it.
During the day, I was expected to help clean the house, prep veggies for canning, or working out in the garden with Grandpa. We would break for lunch and dinner, and after dinner, I washed all of the dishes, and then it was my time to do whatever I wanted. Oddly, I didn’t have a time I had to go to bed, only a time I was expected to wake up. For retired people, they sure did work a lot. It felt like they worked harder in retirement than they did as teachers, which I never understood. If Grandpa wasn’t gardening, he was building something.
Grandpa had a fantasy that everyone in the family would come and stay with him at some point, so he collected spaces with beds. He loved to tell people how many beds he had at the house. In the main house, we had four across three bedrooms, but in the converted garage to a gaming room, we had two bunk beds. So, eight beds. That wasn’t enough for him; he needed more, so he built a two-story garage next door and added two more bedrooms on the upper floor that I believe nobody ever used a single time. This gave him ten beds. I guess the storm shelter had two bunks as well, so 14 beds? Having beds seemed to make him feel safe.
My grandparents saved their whole lives for this retirement home, and by our family’s standards, this place was opulent. The previous owners were VHS pirates. They had a swimming pool, but when the house was seized, we were told that it was filled with copied VHS tapes of popular “just released” films. The swimming pool was indoors too, which was a whole other level of elegance.
My days were lonely. There wasn’t much to talk to my grandparents about, and I was also afraid they’d bring up the whole AIDs thing again. I put a pin in that, deciding I’d have to do my research when I could. When I wasn’t working out in the garden, I was cooking, and if I wasn’t cooking, I was cleaning, so by the time the day was done, I was exhausted, and I’d watch late-night television until I passed out. I didn’t have any friends my age yet, and none of the neighbors had kids.
Grandpa must have picked up on my loneliness because he called one of the local churches and asked them to come to pick me up for Sunday School. Before this church, my mother took us to so many churches that I started to lose track of what different people believed. There was the Lutheran church, Catholic, my step-father is Muslim, and then there was the Mormon church where I was baptized in Flagstaff. This church was Southern Baptist, which had no meaning for me. I just knew that all churches have snacks and sometimes, if you are lucky and not Mormon, coffee. My mother tried on religion like fashion, and it seemed to change with the seasons. I’m not sure if she was on a spiritual quest or if she was searching for childcare.
So, on Sunday, I would get up before my grandparents did, and I would find $1 on the kitchen table that I was supposed to put in the donation basket when they passed it around. I kept the dollar and instead hid it in my room when I’d get home. At church, I made a few friends, and I’m not going to lie, it was fun to socialize with, well, anyone. I also loved drinking coffee. I would pour myself a giant cup of it and put in tons of sugar. I came home from church bouncing and looking enlightened by my experience, which probably made my grandparents think I was really into it. I wasn’t, but I’d take whatever I could get.
One Sunday, the pastor asked me if I’d ever been baptized. I told him that I was officially a member of the Mormon church and did the deed a year or so prior. He furrowed his brow, looked pensive, and then got excited.
“You will be the first Mormon we ever have baptized. We’ll get the Mormon out of you”!
He then made the rounds around the church and let everyone know the exciting news. He would do the baptism and everyone should come watch the Mormon get washed away.
Because of television, I had this vision that we were heading to a lake or river, but it wasn’t anything like that. They dumped water on my head in front of a podium while singing and praying. My hair was drenched, and so were my clothes. The Mormons had me get dressed in a special outfit, and then they took me to something that looked like a tomb, opened the lid, and had me thoroughly dunked inside of it. I was drenched from head to toe. I’m not sure if pouring water on my head did the job, but it was fun to go along with the routine. I found it all entertaining and bizarre. Grownups were so weird. Was I supposed to believe all of this stuff? I haven’t told you about the mental process I went through when I found out Santa wasn’t real, but this was along those veins. I didn’t think adults could be trusted when they believed in strange things like washing away what might have been my beliefs or talking to invisible make-believe friends.
After the baptism, I was invited to go to church camp for a whole week. I went home and begged my grandparents to go. A full week of freedom sounded excellent, and I couldn’t wait to get away from the routine we had. Much to my surprise, they agreed to let me go.
When the time came, all of the kids at the church piled into a bus. We drove for hours to a camp where they set us up in log cabins segregated by gender. I was on a lower bunk bed near the kitchen, which was great because I could sneak in there and grab snacks whenever I wanted. During the day, we’d attend classes where we chatted about the bible, and then my favorite part was “free time,” where we could wander around or make arts and crafts. I used this time to meet, you guessed it, boys. I met an incredibly nice boy who was kind of gothic, and we’d walk around camp together and talk. He was a few years older than me and from an actual city, Tulsa, which I found fascinating and wanted to know everything about. I know I landed there when I arrived by plane, but other than that, I didn’t know much about it. This boy tried to hold my hand, and I refused to let him, finally confessing to him that my Grandpa believed I had AIDs. He laughed,
“Based on what”?
“Well, I held a boy’s hands. I still don’t know where it happened”.
“I’ll take my chances.”
I still refused his hands and any contact and instead asked for his address, promising to write.
Towards the end of our week, our pastor asked me to get up on behalf of our church and sing a song to everyone in the big congregation tent. This camp was a gathering of several regional Baptist churches, so the tent had about 500 attendees, maybe more. The thought of getting up and singing in front of them was so terrifying. I asked what I should sing, and he responded,
“Something beautiful and religious that you know well like Amazing Grace.”
Some beautiful songs that I knew by heart that I felt were religious were songs that Oliver sang in Oliver Twist. I played Oliver when I lived back in Fort Defiance, so I knew every word. Plus, God could be a woman, and when Oliver was singing about a mother that he didn’t have, I often thought that maybe he could be singing about God. Once I had my heart set on what song to sing, I figured I’d blow my pastor away by not singing one but three songs! I ran up to him and told him.
“I have three songs I want to sing! One is called ‘Who will buy,’ which is about amazing feelings, then there’s ‘Food glorious food’ which I think relates to Jesus and when he gave people food and then ‘Where is love’ which is about searching for God”.
“Sounds great! I’ll let them know. So excited you thought of three”!
So, in my spare time, I practiced with my friend that I made so I’d be ready for the big day. When that day came, I mustered up all of my courage, put on a pretty dress, and got in front of everyone. I delivered my best Oliver in the sweetest little voice I could, and when I was done, I opened my eyes to no applause, just stunned faces and silence. Was I good enough that they were stunned? I know I sounded good because I’d practiced these songs and performed them before, so it had to be that they loved it. I waited a little longer and surveyed the crowd, and when chairs started to creak with an uncomfortable silence, I excused myself from the stage and ran out of the building back to my bunk bed, where I hid for the rest of the day.
My pastor came in to see me towards dinner time.
“That was some beautiful singing, and I have never heard those hymns before. Where were those from? Are they Mormon songs”.
I peaked out from the blanket.