Once, we went to Hershey Park.
I think I was about nine that summer. That theme park is a few hours from my grandparents house in Maryland, a good place for a day trip. She’d decided to take us all to the park that day. I said I didn’t want to go because I don’t like noise and overstimulation, but my father had taken me aside and chided me for whining. Granny was generous. She got tickets for the whole family because she wanted to treat us and spend time with us. I loved my granny, so I perked up and smiled, and I went. Early in the morning, Granny packed a picnic of meatloaf sandwiches in a giant cooler. We all crammed into my aunt’s sixteen-passenger van, with most of us in seatbelts and some sitting on a mattress in the far back, and we left. And most of the trip was fun.
I enjoyed the big old fashioned carousel and the bumper cars. I had a great time going through Chocolate World, the tour of the chocolate factory. Granny fretted at prices and wouldn’t let us buy treats at the snack stands, reminding us again and again to eat those meat loaf sandwiches, but the Chocolate World tour ended with free candy bars, so I was happy and sticky. I loved spending time with Granny and Grandpa and my cousins.
My mother, my uncle, and two of my aunts were also there– not the nurse and not the one I’ve called “Aunt Tyrant,” but a third aunt, the one whose nickname was Sister B. Sister B and my mother decided that the whole family would go on the Ferris wheel together– all of us except for my grandpa, who didn’t like rides.
The Ferris wheel at Hershey park is no ordinary Ferris wheel. It’s gigantic. It towers over the rest of the park. You have to sit in a carriage big enough for at least four people which dangles precariously from a slim metal wheel 100 feet in the air, rocking and tipping as the wheel moves. And the whole family knew I was terrified of heights; it’s something I was famous for. I lost my head entirely every time I had to be near a high place. I didn’t climb trees. I didn’t climb ladders. If I climbed too far on the playground structure I would get a dizzy spell, cling to the pressure-treated logs and scream until my father lifted me down.
I would rather be tied to a wheel and tortured like Saint Catherine than be tortured by riding in a Ferris wheel.
“I don’t want to go on the Ferris wheel,” I said. “I’ll wait down here with Grandpa.”
“No, you’re going,” said Aunt Sister B. “And it’ll stir up all of the candy you’ve been eating.”
“No,” I said. “I’m going to stay here with Grandpa.”
“No, you’re going,” Sister B and my mother said calmly, refusing to make eye contact. This is how they acted when I said “no” to anything. “No” meant no eye contact and hold your ground. They both shoved me into the long line for the Ferris wheel.
“NO!” I screamed. “NO! I DON’T WANT TO GO! I’M SCARED OF HEIGHTS!”
They were used to my meltdowns. They kept shoving and tugging me along with all the cousins, forward and forward to the front of the line and my doom. I tried to go limp, but they were too strong for me.
“Come on,” they said. “It’s too late to turn back now. Look, they’ve already opened the gate for us to get on. You can’t get out. It’s too late.”
“I can let her out right now if she wants,” said the ride attendant.
My aunt and mother stopped pushing when they realized they were being watched.
Without waiting for permission, I fled out the gate he opened for me and went to stand with my grandpa, still shaking.
My aunt and mother didn’t want to make a scene, any more than they already had. They boarded the horrible wheel, herding on the other children.
Grandpa waited until they were safely high up in the air, and then bought ice cream.
I was thinking about that story today, when I had a flashback at Mass.
I shouldn’t have gone to Mass at all. I was too tired to drive all the way to Pittsburgh and I won’t be in Columbus until later in the month, so I went to a church in this diocese, against my better judgement. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t go to Mass in the Dioceses of Steubenville or Wheeling-Charleston ever again because this always happens. They hurt too much. But I was scared to death I’d go to hell if I stayed home on a Sunday, so I went to placate the Catholic Guilt. I got through the Gospel and the homily, and that was all I could take. I heard or saw or smelled something that made me think of when I was pregnant with Adrienne and the birth rape. I felt the hands again, right where they’d been almost eleven years ago. Church in Steubenville always makes me think of that.
I walked out as calmly as I could; I’m proud to say I didn’t freak out until I got to the steps. And then I sat, clutching my purse like a child clutching a teddy bear, and I melted down.
I imagined my Grandpa, the lapsed Catholic who terrified Granny because she was sure all who didn’t practice Catholicism just right would go to hell. He was the only relative who seemed to like me as I was, instead of wishing I were somebody else. He was the only one I could imagine standing beside me in spirit, looking at me and really seeing me, instead of refusing to look and tugging and pushing me to go back into the church and be tortured.
Why had I felt such a need to go into the church and be tortured?
I am supposed to be seeking the God Who is Light. I’m trying to find the God who wouldn’t hurt me. I am deconstructing the horrible religious practice of my childhood in the Charismatic Renewal. I promised myself I wouldn’t go back to church unless I actually wanted to. I had come to the conclusion again and again that a God who would send me to hell for that isn’t worthy of my time. Only a God of Love is worthy.
A God of Love would walk out of church with me and sit here on the steps.
A God of Love would not coldly push and shove me into a torturous situation. A God of Love would open the gate to let me off the Ferris wheel, and help me run away, and when all the danger had passed he would buy ice cream.
Perhaps I’ve been imagining too much of my mother and aunts into God, because they are the part of the family that’s Catholic. Perhaps I can make a rule of thumb that if the God I imagine sounds too much like my mother or Aunt Nurse or Aunt Tyrant or Aunt Sister B, I should abandon that god and think of other examples: of my grandpa, and the ride attendant, and the people at The Friendship Room and my witch friend in Columbus.
I sat there, scrolling on my phone, taking shaky breaths, listening to the cicadas in the warm late summer air.
A year ago I would have gone back inside as soon as possible and tried to steel myself to receive Communion, but I stayed outside with the ghost of my grandfather.
I don’t know what I’m doing next Sunday or any other Sunday.
We’ll see where we go from here.
image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.