Form: Creative Nonfiction
Written: Spring 2012
Recognized by: The Conference on Christianity and Literature’s Student Writing Contest 2012 (2nd place)
I remember the scaffold and the unfinished wood that formed its structure. Jesus stood there weeping, bloodied on his body and on his once white robe. He looked upward, to heaven or to the happy spring sun I had dreamt above him. I wonder what my mom was thinking that night when I came shuffling into her bedroom, Binky in hand, to tell her that Jesus was dying in my dream.
“It’s okay, Lauren,” my mother consoled. “Jesus is already dead.”
Mommy didn’t go to church with us. Every Sunday Daddy took my older sister Samantha and me to Emmanuel Lutheran, while she stayed home. I learned very young that my mom was different from my dad, sister, and me: she was Jewish.
When we got home from church one Sunday in the early afternoon, I ran to the couch where Mom was lying down, reading. I jumped up onto her stomach and showed her the picture I had drawn. I exclaimed, “In Sunday school I learned that God died on the cross and Jesus raised him from the dead!”
“I think you have those two mixed up,” she taught me.
I held in my hand a rock. It was the size of my palm—heavy, grey, round, smooth but unpolished. “Put your favorite name of God on the rock. Or put a Bible verse,” the children’s pastor said. She started passing markers around to the few dozen other kids holding rocks like mine.
I was in fourth or fifth grade, getting a little too old for children’s church. Most kids were seven or eight, like my stepbrother Ryan who sat next to me. When Ryan got a marker, he wrote a Bible verse, probably an abridged version like the ones we were taught at our new church, about building your house on the rocks or about God as the Rock of Salvation. The younger kids illegibly wrote J-E-S-U-S.
When I got the marker, I stared at my rock for a bit. I liked the way it looked untouched. I thought about what to write. A Bible verse? I didn’t know any. Jesus? I didn’t like the name because it seemed too exclusive. I decided on the most generic word I could think of: God.
God was a safe word. Everyone believes in God, I figured. Movie stars hold their Oscars and thank God for winning. My mom, she believes in God—Jews believe in God. Even as a ten-year-old with a rock, I was careful not to offend Mom with the one name that separated our two faiths: Jesus.
“We would like to invite the Sawyer family to the front,” said Pastor Fred to the congregation.
Samantha and I were caught off guard. I threw her a look only best friends and sisters can decipher: What’s going on? Her brow furrowed; she crossed her arms. Reluctantly, we followed Dad, our stepmom Kelli, and Ryan to the front altar.
“The Sawyer family decided to become members of church today.” We had? I don’t remember being asked—if that’s even something parents and pastors ask eleven-year-olds. I wouldn’t have objected anyway. But Samantha?
“Let’s pray for them,” my pastor said. And they did. We went back to our seats as the congregation clapped. The ushers began passing out Communion, but my sister and I didn’t take it, because Samantha had left the sanctuary crying. I followed her. I didn’t understand it at the time, but she did: When you become a member of a church, you have to buy into what it believes.
“They say Mom’s going to hell,” she told me outside.
I remembered learning something like that in Sunday school, about how only Christians make it to heaven. But unlike my middle-school-aged sister, I didn’t take the time to know what that meant exactly. It meant Mom—my beautiful, brown-haired, tennis-playing, hugger, cuddler, dinner-fixing, ouch-kissing mother—was going to hell.
“I want to go back to Emmanuel,” Samantha said.
We’d been going to the nondenominational Northeast Christian for a few years now because our stepmom Kelli hadn’t liked our Lutheran church. The nice part about the Lutheran church, at least to Samantha, was its unaggressive nature. The new church preached the Great Commission and holiness every week; our Lutheran church had preached grace and loving others.
Samantha told our mom what our church said about her, that she was going to hell.
Mom later told me that was the hardest part about raising two Christian girls—feeling like an outcast in her own family.
Mom’s parents never went to temple with her. Her mother, Della, had wanted to raise her kids Jewish just as my father had wanted to raise my sister and me Christian. But unlike my dad, Della had sent her children to temple and Jewish Sunday school without joining them.
Mom’s older brother Steve became an atheist around middle school age. When Steve died when Mom was ten and he was fifteen, Mom became an atheist too, to honor her brother somehow. But she gave up on that after a short time and went back to temple. There was something about the Jewish faith that was so beautiful, she said. Mom kept going until she was fourteen or fifteen, but it was hard being Jewish without her mother’s direct support. She didn’t enjoy going to temple alone, and Jews were made fun of at her school. Mom said she felt different from everyone else.
When Samantha came home that one Sunday to tell her what our church had said about Jews, Mom felt like an outcast all over again.
“You can’t have that as your email address.”
Mom and I were sitting on my bed; I held a pillow over my chest, trying not to cry. Twenty minutes earlier I had sent an email out to all my contacts, telling them of my new address: IAmADemonHunter@hotmail.com.
“You’ll attract crazies.”
I didn’t want to explain it. Oh, she didn’t even believe in demons, let alone the need for hunting them. It was around that time my best friend Ashley and I were going to burn our Harry Potter books and, if she’d let me, Mom’s old Ouija board. I decided not to ask about the Ouija board. Instead I cried and thought about how I was letting the demons win.
“How much for one pound of brisket?”
“That’ll be forty dollars,” the butcher said with the meat on the scale and me, looking at him in disgust.
“How about half of that?”
The butcher wrapped up the meat with paper, taped it secure, and handed it to me. Twenty dollars. I will never again spend so much money on meat. Good thing Mom said she’d pay for food. I didn’t have a job—I was only fifteen—but I wanted to create a most authentic Passover experience. I’d been intrigued by the Last Supper, and I wanted to reenact it with my church small group. So I had planned a menu and spent all day preparing it.
I cooked brisket stuffed with garlic cloves, covered in a yeast-free breading. I made a spinach salad, green beans, Matzo, and chocolate macaroons for dessert. I bought a bottle of red sparkling grape juice for Communion, and set the table with candles and dimmed the lighting. Perfect.
About six girls from my small group came and filed politely into the dining room. We prayed as we took Communion, thanking Christ for the cross and for the resurrection. After we said amen, I went back to the kitchen to grab the first course. I served my friends one course at a time, while my mom, quietly, without disturbing us, sat in the kitchen eating my Jewish Passover feast alone with her husband. I was most comfortable with her there, not with us.
“I know you want to help people, but can’t you do something safer?”
“But Mom—” I stopped myself. Yes, I could do something safer than, say, travel to the second most dangerous country in the world to help sick children—I could, but I didn’t want to.
Unlike my college friends, I couldn’t use the Jesus-defense on her. I couldn’t tell Mom that I felt called to go. I couldn’t tell her that I’d been praying about it, or how I knew that God would keep me safe. So I used every other defense I had: my good grades, my good behavior, my knowledge of the Middle East conflict and history. Those held little weight either. What convinced my mom to let me go to Iraq for a summer internship were other people talking to her. And, though I’d never tell her, a lot of prayer.
“Did you want to celebrate Christmas as a little girl?” I asked.
I had called to interview my mom for an article I was writing for the school newspaper about Hanukkah. I went to a small Christian university; I was one of the only Jews at the school—a technical Jew, that is—I couldn’t call myself a practicing Jew—and I wanted to share that perspective with my peers. It was going to be an 800-word feature about celebrating the eight nights of Hanukkah, but it turned into a 2,500-word, two-page spread.
Mom answered yes, she had always wanted to celebrate Christmas as a girl. But she was conflicted: she knew better than to sing songs about baby Jesus in choir, but she still wanted a Christmas tree like the other boys and girls in her class.
For my article I spent each night of Hanukkah either learning about the holiday or celebrating. The first night I bought menorah candles with my boyfriend, which were difficult to find in Small Town U.S.A. Another night I made a Hanukkah feast, and another I researched the story of the first Hanukkah. My ignorance frustrated me the most. I called myself a Messianic Jew though I was hardly one. Many of my Christian friends knew more about the Jewish faith than I did. All I had learned from my family was how to make a good Matzo ball soup and maybe a few Yiddish words here and there.
“Do you remember that—that dream?” I ask my Mom on the phone. It’s been eighteen years since I scurried into her room, telling her of Jesus’ second death. It’s been so long, but I still remember the image of Christ on that scaffold. He’s crying, cut, bloody, and bruised.
“No, I don’t remember that at all.”
Mom and I don’t talk about our faiths much. I tell her sometimes about my attempts at practicing Judaism, but even that doesn’t seem to impress her.
“It’s just kind of funny that you said what you did,” I tell her. I go on to explain the irony of her response to the dream, as if it were lost on her. I’m not sure if it was or not.
“I don’t remember the dream,” she repeated. “But I know if that happened again, I’d say the same thing. It worked, didn’t it? You went back to sleep.”