We left behind gangs and sexual predators when we moved to the country. After city living, settling our family on a small farm seemed like coming to the Promised Land. Even the weather was welcoming as we made more and more repairs to the house we could barely afford. No matter. We hiked through the woods and crouched by the pond, watching frogs, fish, and goggle-eyed insects with a sense of gratitude that felt as solid as a good decision.
Then we got to know our neighbors.
Though we’d moved less than an hour away it seemed we’d crossed an unmarked border. Lovely pastoral stillness was regularly broken by target shooting, 4-wheelers careening around pastures, and barking from what sounded like a dog breeding operation. Some neighbors chose to burn garbage rather than pay the requisite fee for trash pickup, which explained the toxic stench of burnt plastic that sometimes hung in the air. And we quickly learned that some neighbors didn’t talk to other neighbors due to longstanding feuds. Allegedly these conflicts had escalated to bodily harm, lawsuits, and the biggest threat — eternal damnation.
This was the most overtly foreign to us, religion right out front as a beacon or bludgeon. Religious paraphernalia was evident everywhere; on bumper stickers, yard signs, and lapel pins. “Where do you go to church?” was the question people typically asked upon meeting us, right after “Where are you from?”
Realizing the only correct answer would be the exact denomination of the questioner, I gave vague relies. If pressed I said truthfully that we headed back north each Sunday to go to our old church before spending the afternoon visiting relatives. Then I quickly changed the subject. This conversational maneuver seemed to leave my new neighbors unsure of whether to save my soul or shun me. Left in the dreaded middle ground, many of them parted with helpful advice about sins I should take care to avoid.
“Don’t vote for the library levy, because you know the library is an agent of Satan. It has that Internet thing.”
“Don’t celebrate Halloween. That pleases the devil’s minions.”
But we couldn’t remain anonymous for long. Our children ventured down the street to scout out playmates. They returned quickly. Apparently the neighborhood children posed a single-question quiz before agreeing to make friends with newcomers. When our children didn’t know the answer to “Are you born again?” they weren’t allowed to stay.
Soon after we arrived, I was invited by a neighbor to her home. I brought muffins. She nodded as I handed them to her, saying, “God told me not to bake.” While ranging around her kitchen swatting flies and yelling at her children, this woman crisply explained why those who didn’t ascribe to her exact version of Christianity were destined for hell. With joyous fervor she started listing houses on the street by the sins of the occupants, from her next door neighbor (“She’s a Catholic, you know, one of those so-called Christians.”) to the woman who lived at the end of the street (“Don’t talk to her, she uses a hyphenated name. Probably a feminist.”)
I demurred, saying something about seeing the light in each person. She swiveled her full attention in my direction, fly swatter in hand, and asked me where I went to church. No middle ground left, I told her that I attended a Unitarian Universalist fellowship.
She was shocked.
“Oh, you people believe anything goes,” she gasped.
“Not intolerance,” I said.
She kicked me out of her house.
It seemed that my admission branded me, and not in the correct tattoo-for-Christ way. Word spread quickly. A man who lived a few doors down called soon after. When I answered the phone he asked to speak to my husband.
“Let your wife know she shouldn’t be hiking in the woods,” he said before adding gruffly, “I target shoot there and I don’t look first.”
I hoped school presented better possibilities.
Our children were assigned to two different rural elementary schools, miles apart. I picked our kindergartner up every day at lunchtime. Other parents also waited in the school hallway. It was immediately apparent that two factions leaned against opposite walls. This presented a difficult choice. If I spoke to the woman with frosted lipstick and tight shirt who stood on the less populated side, the woman with the heavy necklace and shag haircut on the other side would glare at me. And vice versa.
Frosted Lipstick talked to me more often. She told me about her well-muscled prayer partner and how she felt called to meet with him alone even though this made her husband jealous. She told me that Jesus gave her too many challenges. She told me I would be cuter if I wore lipstick.
Shag Haircut was more interesting, or maybe I just enjoyed her sardonic commentary. One day Shag Haircut told me what was behind the hallway glaring. A group of mothers were trying to remove Frosted Lipstick from membership in the school’s parent/teacher organization over a dispute concerning craft supplies. Ribbon and scissors worth something like $36 had not been returned. Shag Haircut and her cohorts considered Frosted Lipstick a thief.
I made what I hoped were reasonable suggestions to solve the problem. No luck.
I’ve taught conflict resolution for years but apparently peace wasn’t nearly as enticing as the entertainment value of scandal. A few weeks later the superintendent acted. Weary of the dispute, he threatened to eliminate the entire parent/teacher organization. Both sides of the hallway were deliciously shocked.
Frantically, Frosted Lipstick asked me to babysit after kindergarten so she could meet with him and solve the problem. I was relieved that she seemed to be taking my advice about talking the issue over, finding common ground, and healing the breach. I agreed to babysit, but explained that I needed to pick up my third-grader at the other school by three-thirty for a dentist appointment.
I assumed that she would drop off her kindergartner to play with my child. I was wrong. She appeared at my door with three additional boys. When she saw my surprise she said, “Everyone knows I operate a home daycare business.”
Everyone but the newcomer.
She went back to her minivan and returned with a woman she called Grandma. This woman was not her relative. Frosted Lipstick was branching out in the daycare business and had taken in an elderly confused person who needed supervision. Frosted Lipstick left quickly after I reminded her I needed to leave at three sharp. I made additional places at the table and invited these guests to lunch.
It became apparent that the boys were not accustomed to eating while sitting or eating without throwing food. They also used God’s name in vain frequently, surely a habit they didn’t indulge in while in the care of a woman who talked so much about her prayer life. I gave up the silly idea of showing them how to make sandwich shapes with cookies cutters and simply tried to impose order. It wasn’t working well.
Grandma wouldn’t sit. She smelled as if she might have damp undergarments but her waistband was fastened with some kind of dementia-proof catch. I couldn’t figure the thing out.
The afternoon deteriorated rapidly. My five-year-old normally enjoyed eating while I read to him, then he played Legos after lunch, but these boys were only amused by diversions such as hitting each other and slamming themselves into furniture. Grandma sidled along the walls with her hands up touching everything as if she read a form of Braille expressed in window frames and light switches. At one point she nearly escaped through the locked front door. Like hostages, my son and I exchanged repeated sympathy glances at each other as the home invasion dragged on.
Despite the chaos around me I was cheered by the knowledge that a greater good was being served — the conflict was being talked out at the superintendent’s office. In fact I was beginning to feel a sense of peace about the whole ordeal. Three o’clock was approaching. Frosted Lipstick would ring the doorbell and then I’d be free to retrieve my third grader. By now my son had retreated completely from the boys, who were bouncing around in a frenzy like ping pong balls. I couldn’t imagine the inner clamor their behavior was expressing. I also felt a generous amount of sorrow for Grandma, left here with strangers when she’d already lost so much.
Three o’clock got closer and closer. Frosted Lipstick still didn’t arrive. My smug sense of peace was evaporating. A few minutes after three, she called. Her tone was casual. She said she couldn’t get to my house but had made other arrangements. I was to drop off the kids and Grandma at the school’s aftercare program, she knew everyone there.
I had no time to express my indignation. I loaded the boys and Grandma in the van, checked seat belts, and turned onto the road. In moments the boys had taken off their seat belts and were beginning to crawl over the seats. That did it. I pulled over, trucks hurtling past, and told the boys to get their seat belts on using the slow dispassionate voice that my own children know indicates true rage. As I merged back into traffic I realized my vindictive thoughts were an indicator of how far I had to go before calling myself a pacifist.
In moments I was hurrying across the school parking lot holding many hands at once. We crammed into the tiny school office. I stood at the counter assuring the secretary that arrangements had been made for the boys to stay in the aftercare program. She seemed entirely unaware of such arrangements. Then I uttered Frosted Lipstick’s name. The school secretary’s face slackened into disgust. I leaned over the counter, trying to hear her response but the boys were arguing and shoving the hard-backed chairs back and forth on the linoleum. Grandma was running her hands along the corporate-sponsored posters on the walls. Clearly none of us wanted to be in this office but my own child was waiting miles away and I needed to assert some control over the situation. A chair tipped over, one boy slapped another.
I turned to the boys, hissing furiously over the din, “Stop it right now or I’ll tie you to those chairs!” Unfortunately just at that moment the principal came through the door with what appeared to be a new family. Upon seeing her, the boys stopped their noise immediately. Sudden silence turned my threat into a broadcast. Grandma strolled right into the principal, her upraised hands roaming across the guests’ bodies, along the door hinge, and onto the next wall. I’d been in the township less than two months and now was heard threatening to use restraints on a confused woman and three disorderly little boys.
The secretary said there was no protocol for leaving the boys without parental consent slips, and of course the elderly woman whose name I didn’t know could not stay. Trying to keep from hyperventilating, I asked the secretary to call the other school about my child, now surely left in the office. She tried. She told me no one was answering, Her tone assured everyone in the room that I was indeed a bad mother.
I did what I had to do. I subdued my hysteria, gathered my charges, and walked down the hall to the aftercare program. Both women working there said they knew the boys and the Grandma, as most people in the township seem to know everyone else. I informed them that Frosted Lipstick had told me to leave them for just a few minutes till she got back.
“Even the old lady?” asked one of the aides.
I nodded, wishing I had never stopped in the school office.
“Okay,” said the other aide. The first woman looked skeptical, but the moment the word “okay” left the mouth of a human being able to watch these four I took my son’s hand and ran from the building—past a janitor, several parents, and a blur of faces in the school office. I wondered if I abandonment charges were possible.
We pulled out of the parking lot and almost immediately found ourselves behind a line of traffic on the way to the other school. Cars, vans, trucks, and at the front, a school bus. It takes a single school bus to clog a rural road for miles. Worse, directly in front of us was a tractor pulling a manure spreader. Dark clumps fell onto the road and the heavy odor drifted in through our closed windows.
That drawn-out stinky scene wasn’t the final act of our little drama. Nor was it the sight of my third grader waiting for me in front of his school building, his face confident but his backpack sagging. No, it was the phone call from Frosted Lipstick later that evening. At the sound of her voice I was confident I would hear that the day’s calamities had been for a good cause.
“So did you resolve your differences?” I asked her.
“I went there to serve them with papers,” she said. “I’m suing the superintendent, the school, and the officers of the parent/teacher organization. God told me to seek vengeance.”