The Older Sister Who Wasn’t

I miss my mother’s best friend’s children.

Does that sound complicated? It doesn’t make a lot of sense when I phrase it that way. What do I have to do with the children of someone my mother spends time with? How could I possibly miss them?

In the world of quiverfull and patriarchal Christianity, in the world of the Message of the Hour, it’s easier to see. In the Message, the village raises its children. You can be a sister and a mother to someone you aren’t related to by blood: you share a deeper, spiritual lineage. You are their sister or brother in Christ. That’s not just a phrase: it’s the way you live.

My mother’s best friend had five children. The eldest was four years my junior, and the rest descended in age by two years until the youngest was just a baby. They were three boys and two girls, in that order.

At around age 12 or 13, I was apprenticed to the family as a “mother’s helper.” This was part of the “Beautiful Girlhood” training program from Vision Forum. Girls were supposed to practice their homemaking skills at all opportunities. Since I didn’t have any younger siblings to practice on, and my mother didn’t actually need any help, I had to be contracted out to fulfill this expectation. The arrangement wasn’t very formal. I was paid for the housework, which mostly involved occupying the children, doing the laundry, cleaning the house and washing the permanent stack of dishes.

The mother was something of a freethinker, so the boys did household chores, played with baby dolls and were actually encouraged in their pursuits of art and writing. My homemaking there was mostly an “all hands on deck!” situation: I was an older daughter who could do more than the younger kids could. When I wasn’t there, the eldest boys bore some responsibility. In that regard, things could have been much worse – many patriarchal Christian families won’t allow boys to even learn to do housework, reasoning that it’s “women’s work.”

I became a sister to those children. I went with the family to shop for groceries and to supervise field trips. I read drafts of the eldest’s writing (he was a good friend in his own right, despite our age gap). I was at their house nearly every week, if not more often. I swam in their pool. I picked eggs from their chicken coop. I didn’t change diapers, but I soothed the young ones when they were hurt and played with them in their imaginary worlds. They fell asleep on my lap. They told me secrets. They rushed toward me every Sunday, smiling, yelling my name.

I loved them like a sister would. And then I left.

Love and abandonment aren’t compatible. What could I tell them? I chose to leave behind a living death, but in doing so I carved them out of my life. “If I hadn’t done so, I would not have made it out alive,” I could say. What would that mean to a child who acutely felt the sting of rejection when I suddenly stopped coming to their house or to church, when I stopped being visible at all? All my words are empty noise. They scream like the siren of an ambulance speeding away from you when you’re dying. “I have to save someone,” they say, “and it isn’t you.”

I know that I can’t save anyone. I can’t even help people unless they want to be helped. Yet I’m haunted by the simple fact that I left them. I am no longer part of their lives, and I hate what that makes me to them.

Will they ever understand why I made the decision to leave the Message? I don’t know. I am writing my story for No Longer Quivering in part out of the hope that one day they’ll contact me and I’ll  be able to show them why I left. I’m not asking for their forgiveness; they owe me nothing. I was not wrong to leave the Message, but there is nothing I can do about the hurt that meant for them.

In the meantime, I just miss them. I wish I could have taken them with me. I weep for the terrible things the Message is teaching them about themselves, their minds and their bodies. I wish I could visit them, take them for ice cream and talk to them.

I hope they find friends who take joy in who they are. I hope they find mentors who encourage them to chart their own courses. I hope they find their way to spiritual freedom, whether that means they take Branham’s words with a grain of salt or go all the way to atheism.

I hope that they have the chance to take their lives in their own hands and to hell with everybody else’s expectations, including mine. I hope we meet again someday, if only so that I can hear them tell me, “I’m fine. I’m happy now. I’m living my life on my own terms,” even if the next thing they say is, “and I never needed you.”

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