At the diner

At a diner in Branson, Missouri, we’d been seated in the corner, and at the nearest long table, a youth group held a Bible study. I was 23, at breakfast with my mother and grandmother, and wondered if any of the teens was embarrassed to be public with their reverence the way I had always been when my father prayed before restaurant meals, all of us holding hands, the waitress standing awkwardly with our drink order, her face a confusion of pity and tenderness. Or maybe that was my own face. Anything I had to say to god was just for god, not for the breakfast crowd, not even for my family.

I watched the youth group for a minute, the young man leading them earnest and bearded in the usual way. Nobody spoke loudly enough to be heard from our table, and nobody looked uncomfortable. I envied them their faith. Mine was gone; its place all taken up with anger. Soon, they packed up their Bibles and quietly left and the waitress came round after the door closed behind them and asked if we’d enjoyed our Sunday sermon.

For a moment, I stared up at her.

My mother and grandmother had startled looks, and my mother said, “Well, my husband is a minister, so I didn’t mind at all.”

The waitress startled as we had, and said, “Isn’t that nice?” And raced off again.

My grandmother said, “Being a Christian sure isn’t popular.”

And I felt terrible things. In the first, they weren’t bothering anyone with their quiet study. To mock them afterward to presumed allies was cruel. But why had my mother deflected her own outrage onto my father? Why wasn’t it enough to say, “I’m a Christian, so I didn’t mind at all.”

And my grandmother’s response was at the heart of my trouble with the evangelicals. What does popularity have to do with it? You believe or you don’t. All this talk of being god-fearing while bellowing your beliefs at everyone nearby and bristling at any resistance. Shouldn’t humility be at the center of devotion to god? Do your work, love your neighbor, be honorable. Repeat.

I go back and forth about my mother’s response. About whether or not it was brave. Her face had grown white and tense in a moment and she had defied Southern culture and a lifetime of her mother’s instruction and decided not to hold her tongue. I think it was brave. I wish it had been braver. A wish at odds with my argument. She was only saying she didn’t mind. Giving voice to exactly what I’d felt. They aren’t bothering us. Let them alone.

A plea for tolerance. And that’s why I find myself, 15 years later, so focused on the exchange. Why am I so much less deserving of tolerance than a table of strangers?

Posted in Writing | 6 Comments

6 Responses to At the diner

  1. Beckie says:

    I just read this blog and I do not ordinarily comment on such things I just wanted to say thank you, it is something that I have struggled with. Bravery, it must have been hard for mother to have done even that little bit. Makes me thankful for all the people everyday who have been brave and daring so that we have what freedoms we do have and the acceptance that is now so much more apparent than it used to be.

  2. Shelly says:

    I don’t know if I’ve just gotten a little too cynical about this, but sometimes I think humans are too complex for tolerance. There is always “us” — who are “normal” and have an experience that we can understand, whatever that is — and “them.” I think this is a key driving factor for humans, particularly so in religion. I don’t think your mother was expressing tolerance; she was talking about her tribe. And the “them” of queer supersedes the “us” of family, in your case, which is fucking heartbreaking. But I think the complicated psychology (fears, prejudices, insecurities, etc) and tribal biology will always be an obstacle for real understanding. Or even love.

    Tolerance is the ideal. The thing for which we should all be fighting, all the time. But it’s not really an external battle; it’s mostly an internal one. And how do you fight someone else’s demons?

  3. Jill says:

    So, Shelly, your comment came at an interesting time during my thinking, and the first thing I want to say, before I go on thinking, is that I feel like Eudora Welty’s description here is parallel to our conversation:

    “Even as we grew up, my mother could not help imposing herself between her children and whatever it was they might take it in mind to reach out for in the world. For she would get it for them, if it was good enough for them—she would have to be very sure—and give it to them at whatever cost to herself: valiance was in her very fibre. She stood always prepared in herself to challenge the world in our place. She did indeed tend to make the world look dangerous, and so it had been to her. A way had to be found around her love sometimes, without challenging that, and at the same time cherishing it in its unassailable strength. Each of us children did, sooner or later, in part at least, solve this in a different, respectful, complicated way.

    “But I think she was relieved when I chose to be a writer of stories, for she thought writing was safe.”

    (from One Writer’s Beginnings)

  4. Jill says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about tribes. We all resort to them in one way or another. And you may be right that all she did was align herself with her faith tribe. Maybe it isn’t a story about her at all; maybe it’s a story about me. I don’t believe in god or in religion, but I don’t mind anyone else believing in either so long as they aren’t hateful. I understand that people’s beliefs are a private matter. And they are welcome to those beliefs, even when I disagree. Is that tolerance? I believe it’s just humanity. I recognize theirs because I recognize my own.

    Or, to be entirely simplistic, your morality doesn’t have anything to do with me. Your morality governs your behavior, it doesn’t govern mine. And this is my issue with the militantly religious. They are attempting to make all of us line up with their way of thinking, which is contemptible. Morality is self determined. Like faith. And love.

  5. Shelly says:

    First off, that writing is lovely. On its surface, such a simple, personal thing, but she made it beautiful, and strangely transcendent. That’s just clean and gorgeous and makes me want to dwell in it.

    And tribes. Yes. I think about them a lot as well, more so as I get older. What draws us to other people? Is this something we think about more because we are gay? Do we think about or understand alliances and tolerance in a different way? I think a lot of that is true. I don’t mean to say that that our community is nobler, or god forbid, somehow more tolerant. Only, that maybe we have the experience to see love differently. Perhaps we take acceptance for granted just little less.

    I do think that of course this is about you. I believe that what we think of other people is always about ourselves, and is perhaps even the inherent issue with your mother. You’ve become (in her mind; I’m hypothesizing, here) entirely at odds with her sense of self and that could only be compounded by the fact that she raised you. You are hers. Welty’s mother wasn’t protecting her children; she was protecting herself.

    The shitty and true thing is we internalize other people’s intolerance. And then we run the risk of understanding it even less.

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