Fall on the rock

My grandfathers were both dead before I was born, but my grandmothers lived 90+ years each, and I knew them well. To avoid confusion, we called my mom’s mom ‘Grandma G’ and my dad’s mom ‘Grandma H’, the initials of their last names.

Grandma G was a classic grandmother. She dispensed wisdom and hugs and snacks and occasional wisecracks, gently scolded us kids when we got out of line, and talked often about the good old days. She was a delightful old dame, and I loved her, and that’s all I have to say about Grandma G.

But Grandma H was frickin’ nuts.

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Mom and Dad had three kids the old-fashioned way, and three more kids they adopted, and we’re all within four years of each other. Having so many kids so suddenly was overwhelming, so when their sixth child was born — me — my parents invited Grandma H to move in. She lived in the corner bedroom for the next thirty years.

It must’ve been great for my mom and dad to have Grandma H as a live-in babysitter, but she was not your classic grandmother. She slapped the kids if they disobeyed or didn’t obey quickly enough, shouted and screamed, and every night she dispensed discipline in the bathtub — she kept a tally of each child’s misdeeds, and come bathtime she’d hold their heads under the water as punishment. How long she’d push each child's face underwater depended on how naughty they’d been.

I was a toddler, so luckily this is before my memory, but according to family folklore the dunkings ended one night when my sister Hazel, who was five or six years old, absolutely refused to take a bath. She ran around the house screaming "No, no, no!" until our mother heard it from the laundry room, came upstairs, and Hazel ran into her arms. Mom asked, "What is wrong, child?" and Hazel screamed, "I don't want to get dunked!" 

Somehow, Mom hadn’t known about the dunkings, and she was horrified. After that, they switched chores — Grandma H did the laundry, and Mom handled the kids' bathtimes. Thank you, Mom.

But Grandma H still lived in the corner bedroom.

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As I grew older, maybe she mellowed. You never wanted to cross Grandma H — she was strict and quick to holler — but I don’t remember any acts of cruelty that should’ve gotten her arrested. She was strange but lovable, she liked westerns on TV, baked fabulous cookies, drove dangerously, and believed in Jesus very, very, very much. 

If she wasn’t eating or sleeping or watching Bonanza, Grandma H was praying, or singing hymns, or watching televangelists on TV, or talking about God, or reading her Bible. She read 'the good book' front to back many times, memorized verses and whole chapters, and it always had to be the King James Version, not any of the modern 'false translations'.

Grandma H usually prayed like any other Christian. When the spirit moved her, though, she'd slip into a complete frenzy of prayer — lock herself in her room, stop eating, withdraw from everything, and pray non-stop for days at a time, loudly, with wailing and weeping. She must have slept at some point during these prayer frenzies, but her shrieks of sorrow and worry and confession could be heard at all hours, all through the house.

And she didn’t just talk to God; God also talked to her. God gave Grandma H direct instructions in all aspects of life, which she obeyed meticulously. God sometimes revealed the future to her, and she rhapsodically shared those prophesies with me and my brothers and sisters, and those prophesies were reliably wrong.

God was going to bring vengeance upon wicked politicians and charlatan preachers ... but He never got around to it.

A young man from our church was in the Army, at war in Vietnam, and God said he'd return safely ... but he didn't.

When President Richard Nixon was swirling in scandal, God told Grandma H (and she told us) that Nixon would be revealed as an archangel of The Lord … but unless I’m misremembering history, that’s not what happened.

Grandma H had a deathly fear of doctors, and I'll never forget the look of pure joy on her face as she told me: God had promised she would never get sick, never need a doctor, and never die. Instead, she said, the Lord would send a chariot to convey her directly from the corner bedroom to Heaven. … She died years later, in a hospital, of course, with tubes and beeping machinery and all the ordinary accouterments of 20th Century death.

With the exception of the dunkings, Grandma H was never rebuked or challenged. She was the matriarch of the family, more so than my mother. My parents showed her great deference and respect, and I often heard the three adults discussing god-stuff in the kitchen, while I was watching TV in the living room.

I loved Granny H, but as I got older, I began to suspect that she was mentally ill. Her intense and insane flavor of Christianity had a lasting impact on me — it helped make me an atheist.

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My brother Clay had the opposite response. Clay was drawn to Grandma H’s religious ways. He went to her for advice, on anything, everything. They studied their KJV Bibles together, and she taught him her style of extreme prayer, and doing whatever God said to do. Clay became as Christian as Grandma H, and that's really quite Christian.

We had been very close when we were little kids. He wasn’t just my brother, he was one of my best friends, but by his middle-teens, we weren't as close any more. This is the specific moment when my brother and I began drifting apart:

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I was 12 or 13 years old, so Clay would’ve been 16 or 17. He knocked at my bedroom door one afternoon, and in a super-serious tone of voice, he said, “Doug, I need to tell you something, and it’s important.”

This was my big brother. I’d always looked up to him, and he was much more grown-up than me, so when he said it was important, I put my comic book on the table, sat up, and gave him my complete attention.

“You masturbate,” he said. “That’s a sin, and you know it’s a sin. Most importantly, God knows it’s a sin, and He will judge you. 'It is better that you fall on the rock, than that the rock fall on you'.” And then he turned and left.

If you’re not from a family that’s way too religious like mine, that line might need an explanation. “Fall on the rock” is a reference to Matthew 21:44 —

“And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”

That’s God saying, Repent your evil ways, or I will pulverize you. It’s not something you’d expect from an allegedly loving God, but that’s religion for ya.

It’s also not a line you'd expect from your older brother when you’re 12. Clay didn't need a special revelation from God to know that I masturbated — that’s something every boy is doing by that age. I'm sure Clay was masturbating at least as often as me.

But until he knocked on my door, nobody had spoken to me about masturbation. It simply wasn't discussed, not in our family. And what Clay had to say about it was, “It is better that you fall on the rock, than that the rock fall on you.”

Did I say anything in response? Probably not. I was still figuring out that Grandma H was bananas, and now I wondered whether my brother was Chiquita too.

Or were they right? Maybe God was watching me every time I jerked off? Keeping a tally? Maybe eventually He’ll dunk me in the bathtub for all eternity? I wasn’t sure, yet, and honestly, it scared me.

But Clay was sure. After he started Bible-studying with Grandma H, Clay was always sure about God.

God told Clay to talk to me about masturbation, so he did.

A few years later, God told him to go to a Christian college, so he did.

God told him what to major in, and he did.

God told him who to date, and he did, and who to marry, and he did.

I know God told him these things because, like Grandma H, Clay always announced his decisions by saying that he'd prayed and prayed, and God had told him what to do.

God told him to join the military, where he was soon discharged amidst a nervous breakdown, and his wife left him.

When everything went disastrously wrong, Clay didn't question God or renounce his faith. His faith was unshakable. "This is nothing compared to the trials of Job," he said.

For every decision in his life, he continued praying to God, and doing what God told him to do, and like the Biblical book of Job, things turned out well in the end. God led Clay to his second wife, and decades later they’re still happily married.

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Grandma H died mere days before Clay's first child was born, and despite being a boy, the baby was named after her — Grandma H's pre-marriage surname became his middle name. Everyone in the family, except me, thought this was a sweet homage.

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If any of this sounds like I’m being dismissive of my brother, I'm not. I am extraordinarily dismissive of religion, but I respect my brother, and I’m glad that he’s found peace and contentment. He’s a good man, with a great wife and family and home, and I love him. He and his wife raised their children very, very Christian, and I charitably hope that no dunkings were involved.

But after his knock on my bedroom door fifty years ago, I became less open with Clay about whatever was on my mind, and more skeptical of his big-brotherly advice.

It seemed to me then, and still does, that if he’s decided — and warned me — that masturbation is a mortal sin, then he's probably not the best person to talk to about girls, about sex, or about condoms.

As we grew older, and he became more Christian and I became less, there were many other topics I never even considered discussing with Clay. We talk about movies and baseball and family events, but rarely about politics and religion, or sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, or crime and punishment and philosophy, or the meaning of life. We have next-to-no common ground on such matters.

Clay and I have spoken about Grandma H only once since her death, and that conversation did not go well. When I mentioned that she was out of her mind, Clay told me to shut up. The farthest he'll go is to say that Grandma H was 'eccentric', but he's always believed that she was close to God, and he aspires to be as close to God as she was. 

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It was such a little thing — a knock on my bedroom door, and a few words that took less than 30 seconds — but it was a turning point in my life.

After that, my brother Clay walked his path, and I stumbled down mine, and in our separate journeys we’ve each found happiness. But we’ve wandered so far apart.



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  1. Captain HampocketsJuly 10, 2021 at 7:00 AM

    The entire scene with your brother Clay and the masturbation talk is just... It's from an episode of some surreal comedy or something.

    Fucking lunatics, man.

    1. And the family still wonders why I keep my distance.

  2. Gramma H = Jesus H.


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