Threshold - III
My mother enters the military hospital in Vicenza. (III of V)
My mother was admitted to the military hospital in Vicenza where the United States maintains a NATO airbase. It was like going through a space time warp. The military gates were a science-fiction portal.
A step past the checkpoint gate, and it seemed I’d walked onto a movie set of America. The roofs were normal like they were supposed to be. They weren’t built from red upside-down gutters back and forth that looked like poor people’s homes. They were straight and neat and trim and grey. Everything was square. They had yards like normal yards and chopper style banana-seat bicycles in driveways – they had driveways — and swing sets and American toys scattered on lawns. The trees were American.
Stores sold Twinkies and Life cereal and Lucky Charms. They had American movie theaters and white chalk outlines for baseball fields and popcorn in red and white tapered boxes, and in the little American town center everybody spoke English — American — without strange accents, without always apologizing and hunting for their English words when they seemed to know them already.
I could have moved onto that Air Force base and been safe and happy forever in the land of Apollo. I’d never stayed in a happier place in my life. There wasn’t an element of life there that I didn’t love. While we stayed there, we were taken to a movie. It was about handsome, brave astronauts landing on Mars. They might as well have been landing on heaven.
This movie wasn’t like La Strada that we watched in a darkened Bergamo library where Italian children sat near us on the floor, where the boys were curious about us, then mocking, then mean, and we had no idea what they were saying, and the sad, round-faced girl in the film was humiliated and trapped.
The airbase was relief from everything. If I’d ever confessed that to my mother, she might have cracked.
“So this is fear, and I am afraid.”
While my mother was in the military hospital, a family on the base took in my brother and me. They were a family of devout Christians, and they were deeply generous with the two of us.
They took us to their church, and there was a free Good News condensed Bible with only the Gospels. It was there for the taking – they wanted you to take it for free — and when I had confirmed this with an adult, I took the Bible home, and I immediately set to reading my free book, in Gospel order, front to back, like a machine, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
Done. Done. Done. Done.
I was proud of the accomplishment and the pace of it, and there were supportive smiles and satisfied glances between the adults hovering about me. I was doing something special and independently of my family.
In my family I did not have the sense of being special or breaking my own ground. This could be the thirst of any younger child, but it might have been more than that. I still don’t know. Not feeling special enough is my blind spot. (Maybe it is everybody’s.) This vulnerability remains as obscured from me as the back of my own neck.
My Good News Bible was much easier to read than my mother’s bedside King James Bible with its micro-thin, gilded pages and its floppy, ancient leather cover and strange capitalizations and random italics. I didn’t like her Bible’s coagulated typeface and strange words.
My Bible had a clean white cover with close-ups from people from all over the world in small framed boxes. They had different noses and hats and skin colors and countries and hair and teeth, both crooked and straight. The cover itself was good news. The people were intentionally all different, and they were all content and welcoming, pleasant and smiling. This resonated at the center of my seven-year-old egalitarian heart. Those faces were everyone and everything. They were faces for me, and all of it was easy, simple and good.
This was a Bible for a little brother that wasn’t as smart as everybody else in the family, the brother only included in superlatives about “the boys” out of bald diplomacy, a maneuver I was shrewd enough to distrust.
Jesus walked on the water in my Bible, and there was a miracle of fishes and the loaves that he performed on the hill while everyone waited. There were stick figure illustrations of what was happening in the parables, and its language was as accessible as reading a newspaper. It said that very thing on the back cover.
But Jesus wasn’t the point of my Bible, and I believe he would have understood.
I must have carried it with me, because my mother saw my Bible when we visited her at the hospital. She made a comment that she didn’t like this particular kind of Bible. Not that it was expressly bad, but it wasn’t the right kind of Bible. She said something to the effect that the beauty had been stripped out of it, and that I’d be missing something reading it. In her criticism I sensed a “less than.”
But I did like it, and it was not less than anything. My mother was wrong about my Bible. So, I held onto it and kept reading it anyway, and with the approval of the host family and my breakaway religious world opening up, there was a crack of tunnel light. I was now a convert hiding in somebody’s attic. This was an early shot of spiritual independence, something curious that would become a pattern through childhood. I liked my Bible, yes, but I also liked the “this is my Bible, not your Bible” feeling, and I liked the people connected to my Bible. They weren’t less than. If anything, they were more than.
Here, too, was a world I might trade my family in for and disappear forever.
You don’t need to be Maria Montessori to recognize the heat of a seven-year-old‘s flaming imagination.
The full serialized text here:
Feel something. Twice a week
Not nearly enough of you clicked on the link to the picture of the Princeton Montessori the school my mother founded. It’s pretty incredible actually when I see what it has grown into, and you have to imagine a giant dirt field in this spot when my mother stood here and explained to me where the first buildings would be.
File this video under “Gail Westgate: Meaningful Life”: