My stepfather died a few weeks ago. I never lived with him; my mother married him shortly after I moved in with my dad who lived a thousand miles away. I was never really close with my stepfather. I did respect the hell out of him, and loved him. He made my mother smile in a way I’d never seen. He had a lot of health issues. Specifically a form of Parkinson’s called ‘progressive supranuclear palsy’ likely caused or aggravated by post-polio syndrome. Sounds pretty scary, and it kind of was. There’s a lot of very private stepfamily drama attached to his declining health, which summed up is that my mother stayed in her home while my stepfather was placed in a nursing home 1500 miles away. She got a call that he was ill, and my heart sank. The next day she answered the phone and almost immediately started crying uncontrollably. I got up, poured a shot of whiskey, and drank it.
More stepfamily drama meant my mother wasn’t able to attend his funeral. She never got to hold his ashes. She started going to grief counseling within a week, something I never did after my father died. I don’t like discussing the details of my private life to strangers (an odd statement from someone writing a public internet blog). I’d called mom’s Lutheran church as soon as I could to see if someone could come and speak with her. You don’t have to follow a religion to have respect for its followers.
One of the church pastors helped set up a memorial service here for my stepfather, to be held at the neighborhood’s clubhouse. I wasn’t aware that it was to be a religiously themed memorial until I showed up to see a lectern in front of a few rows of chairs, and one of the pastors in attendance. And here I was with my pentacle tattoo, pentacle necklace, pentacle bracelet … I’m a big believer in interfaith cooperation and support, so aside from quietly feeling a little out of place I told it in stride. I put up with being patted, hugged, given what was intended to be a comforting shoulder squeeze, and the general physical contact folks do when they’re being sympathetic. As my mom’s caregiver I get to live in a retirement community, so I just put up with it when I have to.
The service was very nice. The pastor, a woman with an EXCELLENT speaking voice, gave a wonderful sermon. She talked about the wizard of Oz, and how Dorothy would never have been able to succeed at her journey without the aid of the tin man, scarecrow, and cowardly lion. In the analogy he was Dorothy and we at the memorial were the ones helping him navigate the yellow brick road.
It’s during this sermon that I come to the point of this post title.
As she was speaking she of course brought up Glinda, the Good Witch, and talked about her role in helping Dorothy realize her strength and capability. I don’t know who said it, and seated in the front row with my mother I never turned my head to look. At the first mention of the ‘Good Witch’ someone behind me said, in a nasty tone full of disgust, ‘There’s no such thing.’
I wanted to stop the sermon. I wanted to turn around and confront this unknown woman who had, probably unintentionally, insulted me and effectively everyone in my religion. I wanted to ask her if she thought I was evil, if driving my mother to church when her usual ride wasn’t able to was evil, if going grocery shopping and cooking for her was evil, if taking her to get coffee when i wanted to stay home and curl up in bed and pretend the world didn’t exist was evil. I’ve only ever said no to her once, and followed it with a promise of going the next day. Was that the evil?
I wanted to stand up and leave, feeling like a thousand spotlights were on me with a neon sign over my head pointing down and blinking EVIL. I no longer felt like I belonged, didn’t feel welcome, didn’t feel wanted. How could someone be so callous, so cruel, as to say that in the middle of a sermon? Sanctified ground it wasn’t but I felt the sacredness of the service pop like a soap bubble. Way to ruin it, semi-anonymous lady.
I wanted to turn and confront her about the inappropriateness of speaking during a sermon. Your disgust with witches has a time and a place, and maybe it’s not where a bunch of grieving people can hear you, the wrinkled peanut gallery, mutter your opinion in a not as quiet as you think you were voice. I wanted to turn and see whose face looked most out of place, dripping with contempt and loathing.
Instead of doing any of these, I kept my mouth shut. I kept my eyes on the pastor, who had to have heard and didn’t miss a beat. I didn’t see her with any notes. She was dignified, prepared, and knew what she was going to say by heart, if maybe not word for word. I raised my psychic wall of Lego blocks (I’ll talk about that some time) to block out the probably unintentional hate and listened to the lesson. That each one of us helped my stepfather, in whatever way and however direct or indirect, and that he couldn’t have done it without each and every one of us.
I spoke to a few folks afterward who came up to me. I was offered many condolences, and told a few times that I as a very good person for helping out my mother. I told them the truth, that I wouldn’t be much of a decent human being if I refused. I didn’t recognize any of the voices as the one that spoke earlier. One woman who I did talk to about what I’d heard helped me remember not to let it bother me, and my internal voice turned to say to me ‘Don’t let the bully win.’
Folks stayed for a bit afterward, then filtered out. I thanked the pastor for the eloquent sermon, in a much less eloquent manner than I’m writing this post because in person I’m a verbal disaster when it comes to social situations. Mom and I went home, feeling a little better about our feelings of grief. I told her about what I heard much later that day, when we were a bit less emotionally raw and drained.
There are times and places to have discussions about faith. There are times and places to confront people about their unintentional bigotry. I doubt that woman really knows that Wicca is a federally recognized religion in our country, that the symbol of our faith is allowed on headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, that there’s a section about it in the military chaplain’s handbook. Or that I’m one. Three pentacles aside, they can be easy to miss. My tattoo is on the inside of my wrist, the necklace is on the same chain with two other pendants, and I wear a collection of woven and beaded bracelets. If you don’t look closely, they sort of blend together into something vague and unremarkable.
Moreover, it wasn’t really worth the fight. It’s unlikely I’d change the woman’s mind about Wicca or open her mind to the idea that maybe there’s good in everyone, even me. My time would be wasted and my already high anxiety levels would have gone through the roof. In the immediacy of the moment I wouldn’t have been able to present a decent, respectable argument for my cause. So, like I said, I kept my mouth shut.