11 March 2010

RELIGION - Rex Walls-style

Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, tells the story of her eccentric family, including her atheist father, Rex Walls. (If you want to skip the rest of the review and read about her father's unconventional behavior when accompanying his Catholic wife and children to church, scroll down to the green text at the bottom of this post.)

Jeanette's memoir, which I loved, starts with her first memory as a three-year-old (c. 1963), standing on a chair cooking hot dogs. Her dress caught fire resulting in a long hospital stay and numerous skin grafts for the precocious child who loved the hospital because it was so clean and white, where the sheets were changed even when they weren't dirty.
If you wonder why a three-year-old would be allowed to cook without supervision, that’s exactly what her nurses and doctors asked.
Before Jeannette was released from the hospital, her father gathered her up and ran from the building ---obviously without paying the bill ---in what he referred to as “Rex Walls-style."

This is a prelude to Jeannette's years of growing up with charismatic parents who taught their four children about literature, art, music, history, astronomy, geology, and mathematics, and who encouraged them to be creative, see the world from an optimistic point of view, and stand up for themselves.
At the same time, Rex went from job to job, usually as an electrician at a mining company, rarely holding onto employment for more than six months at a time. He was mostly interested in drinking, gambling, conspiracy theories and creating pie-in-the-sky schemes such as a new way to find gold. He spent years imagining and drawing blueprints for the glass castle he planned to build for the family. He could convince his children that, although other children were told lies about Santa Claus, he could give them whatever star they chose for Christmas, yet he was not above stealing the children’s hard-earned money for alcohol or poker.
Despite a teaching degree, their mother, Rose Mary, preferred painting pictures that no one ever bought rather than work outside the home or make any effort to clean their long series of run-down homes that were infested with rats, roaches, and termites. The children often had to distract employees while their mother shoplifted. During the worst of times, they had no electricity or heat. Despite their miserable existence, Rose Mary encouraged her children to see the positive in every situation.
Jeannette and her siblings searched for food in dumpsters, stole leftovers from classmates' discarded lunch bags, and collected empty bottles to earn enough money to buy something to eat. When bill collectors came after their parents, the family did the skedaddle to another town, Rex Wall-style. Each family member was allowed to choose one item to take to their next home. They lived in various western towns and eventually became the poorest family in Rex's bleak hometown in West Virginia.
The book is a chronicle of parental neglect, told by Jeannette without an ounce of self pity. Life for the Walls children was dismal, yet at times, funny.
In the end, the Walls' story is uplifting, for three of the four children, including Jeannette, used their hard-earned lessons in resourcefulness to escape to New York City to become high-achieving productive adults. The youngest daughter moved to California after spending time in a mental institution. Their parents ended up homeless in New York, by choice, refusing public assistance or help from their children.

Below are two excerpts about religion which reveal the kind of sad, yet humorous, goings-on in the Walls family when Jeannette was nine:
Church was particularly excruciating when Dad came along. Dad had been raised a Baptist, but he didn’t like religion and didn’t believe in God. He believed in science and reason, he said, not superstition and voodoo. But Mom had refused to have children unless Dad agreed to raise them as Catholics and to attend church himself on holy days of obligation.
Dad sat in the pew fuming and shifting around and trying to bite his tongue while the priest carried on about Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead and the communicants filed up to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Finally when Dad was unable to stand it any longer, he’d shout out something to challenge the priest. He didn’t do it to be hostile. He hollered out his point in a friendly tone: “Yo, Padre!” he’d say. The priest usually ignored Dad and tried to go on with his sermon, but Dad persisted. He’d challenge the priest about the scientific impossibility of the miracles, and when the priest continued to ignore him, he’d get mad and yell out something about Pope Alexander VI’s bastard children, or Pope Leo X’s hedonism, or Pope Nicholas III’s simony, or the murders committed in the name of the church during the Spanish Inquisition. But what could you expect, he’d say, from an institution run by celibate men who wore dresses. At that point the ushers would tell us we’d have to leave.

* * * * * * * *
Mom insisted that we celebrate Christmas in the Catholic fashion, getting to the [thrift-shop] gifts only after we’d attended midnight mass. Dad, knowing that all the bars and liquor stores would be closed on Christmas, had stocked up in advance. He’d popped open the first Budweiser before breakfast, and by the time midnight mass rolled around, he was having trouble standing up.
I suggested that maybe this once, Mom should let Dad off the hook about going to mass, but she said stopping by God’s house for a quick hello was especially important at times like this, so Dad staggered and lurched into the church with us. During the sermon, the priest discussed the miracle of Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
“Virgin my ass!” Dad shouted. “Mary was a sweet Jewish broad who got herself knocked up!”
The service came to a dead halt. Everyone was staring. The choir had swiveled around in unison and were gaping openmouthed. Even the priest was speechless.
Dad had a satisfied grin on his face. “And Jesus H. Christ is the world's best-loved bastard!”
The ushers grimly escorted us to the street. On the way home, Dad put his arm around my shoulder for support. “Baby girl, if your boyfriend ever gets into your panties and you find yourself in a family way, swear that it was Immaculate Conception and start mouthing off about miracles,” he said. “Then just pass around the collection plate come Sunday.”

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