We didn’t go to church very often when I was a kid. My single and tired mom let me bring my dinosaur encyclopedia to look at instead of hymns the few times we did go. I wouldn’t know I had been a technical part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at all if there wasn’t pictorial evidence of chubby baby me after my induction into the religion, drowning in white lace, my deep blue eyes half confused and half pissed.
When Mom married Julio, our lazy-family-bath days turned into tights that pulled two inches below my crotch and dresses with thick tags that itched. Bath day turned into the day that Mom pulled brushes through her screaming daughter’s hair and shoes guaranteed to blister. “Going to church will unite us more as a family” was Julio’s justification.
Weekends with Dad, however, were guaranteed to be church-free. When I was fourteen my dad would drunkenly stumble and snatch an official paper I found in his scrapbook with the letterhead CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS from my hands, a document I can only assume wrote out the reason my dad didn’t go on a mission. It directly followed the pictures of him with a full head of hair, in a suit at the Missionary Training Center, the place where young men and women were taught before leaving their homes for a couple years on “service missions” for their religion. The only times I saw him dressed up, not in a suit but his black working shoes, khakis, dark green button-up shirt and a Homer Simpson tie were the three occasions my sisters and I were baptized, his wedding to Kristi, and the one time I was eight and asked him to take my sisters and me to church.
Right after being baptized, I was high on praise and expecting CTR (Choose the Right) rings and books from adults telling me I was holding the iron rod to heaven. Maybe I had also been excited by the way my dad looked at my baptism—the button-up such a different look from his bald-guy-with-a-motorcycle-tee usual—that I wanted to see the phenomenon again. It was the only time he ever took us.
I was sitting next to him in Sacrament Meeting when the namesake—the tray with the little pieces of bread—finally came our way. The fact that the bread was supposed to be Jesus’ body was always overshadowed by the secular growling of my stomach. My grandma had the tray—then my sister—then my dad would take his piece and hand it to me—
Except my dad didn’t take a piece. He just stiffly took the tray and was tried to hand it off, like he was trying to play hot potato with the best part of church. My tiny body locked.
“Dad,” I whispered in the silent chapel, “why didn’t you take one?”
Dad got his gruff face on, the one that didn’t look me in the eyes. “I’ll tell you later at home,” he grumbled.
He never did. He never told me what was on the paper he ripped out of my hands, either.
The children’s Sunday School was held in the basement of the old brick building and not well-lit. The light from the windows on the far side of the room barely cut through the gray at all. There was just enough for the tubby brunette woman to lecture using the chalkboard. An equally bloated and cheery woman, this one blonde, passed a basket down the row of squinting children. This was it! The little reward I had come to expect and crave! It was a beautiful pencil, painted black with lead like a cherry.
Up on the chalkboard, white lettering reached through the gloom like the Holy Ghost. The woman wrote a series of scriptures down and told us to mark them in our own copies with the red pencils. The basement primary children hunched over and rifled through pages to obey. My eyes filled with panicked tears.
I had scriptures, a brand new set my mom and Julio had rewarded me with for getting baptized with Brittney Skye McDonald in fancy gold scrawl on the cover. I knew how to look up scriptures, although it took me longer than everyone else since my method was flipping through both books of scripture until I found the name I was looking for in the corner. I’d marked scriptures plenty of times before, practicing in colored pencils on the dozens of generic copies of the Book of Mormon lying around my house. It was the act of being told what to mark that shook me to my core as wrong. I learned that I should mark scriptures only when finding them special to me.
“I don’t like this church,” I confidently told my dad, slipping into his large calloused hand when I rejoined him in the light. “My church is way better.” The church building I regularly went to with Julio and Mom had tall white towers and new cookie-cutter carpets and cupboards—Dad’s church building was a square red-brick three-story that creaked in all corners.
It was a few years until I realized both churches were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
“He gave up,” my mom told me one of the dozens of car rides we took together when I was nineteen. I asked her to tell me, flat out saying I wasn’t going to ask him again, why my dad didn’t go on his mission last-minute.
My answer: “He just decided he didn’t want to do it anymore and gave up.”
I looked away from her and out the car window at my valley home flashing by, the spires of church buildings so frequent they could have been keeping the earth pinned to the ground. I didn’t relay the message to her when my gut told me I was giving up, too. What started in that shady basement a decade earlier was only the first of handfuls of disagreements.