By Joanna Brooks
At dinnertime, three-year-old Ella sits strapped in her blue booster seat at our vintage yellow Formica-top kitchen table.
"Who would like to say the prayer?" my husband David asks.
Ella volunteers. She presses her palms beatifically together, fingers closed and fully extended, hands at a precise 45-degree angle. She tucks in her chin: "Shabbat Shalom. Shabbat Shalom. I love you very much." Ella lifts her head and smiles, hands still pressed together.
Those hands! The sight of those hands! Those Albrecht Durer, now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep hands! The sight of those hands disturbs me.
Mormons like me do not pray with palms pressed beatifically together, fingers closed and fully extended, hands at a precise 45-degree angle. We clasp, fingers interlaced, hands on bed or table or in lap, head hung down, face sometimes buried.
Jews like my husband do not pray with palms pressed beatifically together, fingers fully extended, hands at a precise 45-degree angle. Jews sit, stand, or daven, hands hanging at sides, or holding a prayerbook, or a piece of challah, or a glass of wine.
Those hands are not Jewish or Mormon hands. They are respectable, genteel mainline Christian hands, Lutheran hands! Not my kind of hands at all!
"Who taught you to pray like that?" I ask.
"It's my prayer!" Ella smiles.
"Yes, I like your words. Who taught you to hold your hands that way?"
In the perverse and wayward quadrants of my mind, I flashback to some magazine article I perused years ago in a doctor's office, which advised that if your lover suddenly comes up with a new set of maneuvers in bed, you might have reason to suspect he or she is sleeping around. Which leads me to wonder, in this case, is Ella praying around? Where did she learn this non-Mormon, non-Jewish trick with the hands? Who else has she been praying with?
"The Teddy Bear," she answers.
"The Teddy Bear?"
"The Teddy Bear."
Suddenly, I remember the lines of the jump rope rhyme: "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, go upstairs / Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, say your prayers . . . "
We sing together: "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, turn out the light / Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, say goodnight."
"Where did you learn that song?"
"Barbara taught it to me."
Barbara is Ella's beloved teacher at the Jewish preschool. So, at last, the truth comes out: Ella has been praying around with Barbara the Jewish preschool teacher acting out the part of the goyische Teddy Bear with the Albrecht Durer genteel Lutheran hands, which she then brings home to our crypto-Mormon-Jewish-Buddhist-Quaker kitchen table.
Here's the hard part: Ella is not my apprentice. I wish she were my apprentice. I would take her far away from here, from the vibrant mélange of her actual happy life, to the great handcart desert, where I would dedicate her early years to inculcating in her the ways of my Mormon people: their histories and teachings, their ancient folklore and customs, my learnings, my private revelations.
But Ella is not my apprentice. She's my daughter. She is a body I am bound to feed and a soul I am bound to protect and guide for a while, as she takes her own first finding steps on her own long walk with God. Or without.
Religion takes root in our bodies, the poise of a pair of hands, the sway of hips, the sudden dip of a knee. I see Ella pump both fists in the air to sing "Shabbat Shalom: HEY!" I delight in their small force and righteous vigor. I see her run down the sidewalk, her dark hair swinging over her shoulders. I discover her in the backyard praying over ants in the cracks of the patio: "I pray. I pray. I pray," she says. It utterly thrills me that she is playing at prayer, exploring its pleasures, on her own, in her backyard. With the ants.
I take her plump little hands in mine. I can't help but hope that when the time comes she'll remember how to clasp them together: just so, just like she saw her mama do.
Joanna Brooks is an author, professor, mother, and poet.