In La Canada California, God and church were not a negotiable choice for its young citizens; it was your duty to go to church every Sunday with your family. What church you went to was determined solely by what church your mom and dad went to. See, in La Canada, you “were” whatever religion your parents were and that was the end of it. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t have to go to church, or anyone who went to a church that their parents didn’t. Every family attended one of the “Big Four”: La Canada Presbyterian, St. Bede the Venerable, The Mormon Church and, what we affectionately referred to as “The Church of the Holy Touch-down”. I think they were Methodist, but I honestly don’t know. There was a rather large and imposing statue of Jesus Christ on top of the church – His arms raised as if he were a referee and the Christians had just scored the winning play.
My family was Presbyterian. To this day I have no idea what differentiates a Presbyterian from a Methodist, from a Lutheran, but that’s what we were. I knew we were not Catholic because I never had to go to Church on Saturday or go to confession. And I didn’t know any Jewish people. (As far as I knew Jewish people all lived in New York on Television.) I guess it was a basic run of the mill Christian denomination. There was God, and Jesus and stained glass windows in the sanctuary. We had a Reverend that said a sermon, a choir of horribly off key old white people, and a congregation of well to do Republicans.
My Sunday morning ritual was not unlike other children’s I suspect. Mom, at the crack of dawn, awaked us. We ate breakfast together and then put on our “Sunday Clothes” after which, we all piled in the station wagon and drove yawning and paten leathered to LCPC. My brother and I walked respectively to our Sunday school rooms while my parents joined the other adults in “Big Church”. Big Church is where all of the parents went to sing songs, give money and sleep.
In Sunday School we sang snappy, up beat songs about God. There was a lot of clapping and shimmying involved and sometimes, rather intricate choreography. These songs were always accompanied by someone in their mid twenties on guitar. It was almost like the church went out looking for wayward 20-somethings who could play guitar. This gave La Canada Presbyterian Church (LCPC for those in the know) the illusion of “cool”. These guitar wielding youth group leaders would come visit us at school during lunch to “hang” with us. It worked. I felt cooler having older people who played guitar wanting to hang out with me in the quad – sneaky recruiting. But, that was later. When I was little I wanted more than anything to be a Mormon.
Sarah Broberg was a Mormon and my best friend. She and I lived near each other and did absolutely everything together. We took gymnastics together in matching pink leotards and pink sweat pants that my mom made for us. We were in the same Brownie Troop, Blue Bird Troop, and we played at each other’s houses almost everyday. And I loved going to play at Sarah’s house! She lived in a mansion. She had too – she had eight brothers and sisters. She also had a pool and a pool house, intercoms and “wings”. When at the Brobergs house it was not unusual to hear Mrs. Broberg say something like, “Girls, go see if you can find Emily – She on the south side.”
The Broberg house also held a certain amount of mystery for me. Aside from it being the biggest house I had ever been in, it had strange things in it. The Broberg house had a clear plastic carpet runner that ran straight through from front door to kitchen – then picked back up again in the “wreck room”. (A room that in our home was called the T.V. Room.) We were also never allowed to go in the parent’s room, or the boy’s rooms. Their kitchen didn’t have a big container of candy like ours did, and no soda pop either.
When the Broberg kids got older, they got to go “on missions”. Now, for a kid raised on TV and movies like I was, hearing that you got sent on a mission was about the coolest thing since Underoos. In my church we didn’t get to go anywhere. All I could think about was being old enough to get sent on a Mission. I knew they went for a year, but I never knew where. I often fantasized that my mission would be in a tropical forest, and I would have to capture the secret documents from the Soviets. (Don’t ask me why the Soviets were in a Tropical forest. It was the 80’s and I watched A LOT of television) My mom told me that the missions were not “secret missions” like on TV – but missions for church. And that none of them included shoe phones.
I found all of this intriguing, so I asked my mother more about these mysterious and strange people that didn’t drink Pepsi. Looking back on it, my mother told me a very diplomatic version of the truth, which is best when talking to your eight-year-old daughter about her best friend. She said, “Mormon’s believe in God the same way that we do, and they read the Bible just like us.”
“Yeah, but why can’t they have Pepsi? The Bible doesn’t say anything about Pepsi.”
“Well, they have a second book they believe in that has some different rules than our church – like the caffeine thing.”
“Rules like not messing up the carpet and not eating candy and having a really big house?”
At this point, I believe that my mother reached exasperation for the subject. “Mormon’s believe that all of these things give them Brownie Points with God. Having kids, being healthy and going on Missions – all of it. It’s to try to look good for God. Ok?” I figured she was right. I mean, if a little kid like me thought they were super cool, then God must find the Broberg’s amazing.
One Halloween Sarah’s family invited me to go to their church Halloween Party. I remember begging my mother to let me go. I was dying to see what their church looked like and what they did for Halloween. My mother finally agreed, and I got to be a Mormon for one evening.
The party sucked. No one was dressed up as anything cool and there was nothing scary in the church except for a few of the parents. And they were not in costume. They just stood there – smiling. I stuck close to Sarah and her mom and Dad. I wondered if this was normal for Mormon’s. I mean, my family always SAID “Happy Halloween” but we never actually tried to make Halloween a happy time. At our house it was always a time for skeletons, Styrofoam gravestones, ghosts hanging from invisible wire and plastic vampire teeth. It seemed to me that the Mormon kids got kind of gypped on Halloween. There were about a dozen princesses, some black cats and a few cheerleaders. The boy’s were pirates and soldiers. Nobody had missing limbs or oozing blood.
Near the end of the party I noticed a long folding table on which sat about 16 different homemade Halloween cakes. There were cakes in the shape of pumpkins with orange frosting, cat shaped cakes, and plain cakes with black and orange frosting. “Mrs. Broberg?” I said tugging at her sleeve. “Whats all the cakes for? Do we get to eat them?”
Mrs. Broberg smiled that kind smile she always had and said words I had never heard before. “They are for the Cake Walk, Alicia. Would you like to play?”
I had no idea what it was, but it involved cake so I was all for it. It turned out to be like musical chairs, but instead of chairs you held cakes. I don’t think I need to tell you that I held on to my cake like it was the last cake in the known world. It was a Jack-o-lantern cake about as big as my head, and it was mine. When that music stopped, I was already three steps ahead. Screw the bag of candy corns – I was taking home a Mormon cake.
And I did. When the final note was played, I was the last kid standing. I won the cakewalk. I had the choice of either taking my cake home, or put it back on the table to share with the other kids at the party. And, being brought up as a good Christian, I took my cake home. It wasn’t long after the cake coup that my fascination with the Mormon’s stopped. Sure, they were nice, but what’s so great about that? Lot’s of folks that went to church were nice and they got to have Pepsi and be Vampire’s at Halloween.
As I grew older I slowly started to see past the carefully crafted veneer of not just the Mormon religion, but all of them. I started asking a lot of questions and getting unsatisfactory answers. It was then that I came to understand the one thing that all religions really do have in common…
Don’t rock the boat kid. Just sit back, enjoy the ride and have a piece of cake.