Few people knew of my family as well as the denizens of Saranac Lake, our hometown in upstate NY. We were eminently recognizable, especially to our fellow congregants of the First United Methodist Church.
There was no missing us. Every Sunday, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived for services. Unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. We were wont to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address. The choir would be putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and we would make a grand entrance. All nine of us.
Each week, the same usher, an elderly man with a large red mole that sat like a laser pointer on the top of his bald head, would lead us to the nearest empty pew, and each week, Dad would ignore the designated bench and lead the way to one closer to the altar. That way we could parade by the entire congregation. Dad would step deliberately, serenely, looking neither to the right nor to the left, fixing his gaze on the cross and squinting his eyes in pious prayer. His children would follow him like biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth, and John – the issue of his begetting – and we always made a scene. I scolding the young ones in harsh whispers, the youngest ones squealing and climbing onto the back of the pew, the middle whining about someone picking on her, and others cowering close to mom, who had brought up the rear.
I was perversely proud to be part of the disruption. These people were my posse. An exclusive club to which only a Swett could belong. Long after I knew it to be untrue, I believed that to be a Swett was to be superior in every way. We were imbued with God’s favoritism.
Until I was eleven, which is when I learned that things were not as they appeared.
I was in 7th grade when against the advice of my English teacher, I read Exodus, which made me dizzy. I began to piece together the German, Italian, and Serbian fragments I’d been hearing all my life, the hushed despair as telegrams arrived, the silent brooding. Reports of my grandmother’s mysterious trip to Vienna when I was a toddler. I knew they were Jews. But it never occurred to me . . . .
“God is love,” my dad insisted. And I believed. But how does a loving God . . . ?
My mother was a deeply good person. She never denied Jesus, and she never rejected Christianity. When I was little, she told me about the adored sister she lost to meningitis and the beloved brother who died of anaphylaxis. She agreed with Daddy when he explained that God took innocents to be with Him as a reward for their goodness, that they were happily in Heaven reaping their rewards.
But this new information was unjustifiable. God is love, but God permits genocide?
I read the book in a single Friday night then spent Saturday processing the revelation. I cornered my mother as she stood at the stove frying our weekend breakfast pancakes.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“About Hitler. About the camps. About Europe. . . .”
“What’s to tell? I lived. Not interesting. “
The next day, when my Sunday morning alarm rang, I pulled the covers over my head and burrowed more deeply into my pillow. Dad knocked on my door, and the sound was muffled, but I heard and did not respond.
“Come on, Carla. It’s getting late.”
“Go away,” I called through the door. “I’m not going.”
“My father laughed. “Of course you are.”
“Nope. I’m done with church.”
“Stop being ridiculous.”
I got up and opened my door. Dad had already descended to the landing of the grand stairway that was right outside my bedroom. I stood at the doorway and watched him for a moment. He was waiting for me, examining the snow on the roof outside the small window.
I shuddered and addressed him in a near-whisper.
“I am not going, Daddy.”
He got very quiet. I knew what was coming. I had experienced it a few times, and I often watched my younger brother endure it.
Dad pivoted, climbed the half-flight of stairs, and went to his bedroom. I ducked back into my room, back under my covers. I was a big girl. He would leave me alone if I held my ground.
But he didn’t.
Dad entered my room and dragged me out of bed, out of the room. I tried to escape by bolting downstairs toward the front door, but I tripped on the third step and fell onto the landing. Dad was already there and stood over me, staring, the belt poised.
I could not take my eyes off his knuckles.
Suspended above his head, poised to strike, the knuckles were ominous. Bulging, red, striated by the bleeding cracks wrought by repetitive frostbite. His oversized, gnarled hands, scarred by physical labor, yellowed from cigarettes trembled under the strain, misleading in their appearance. I knew those hands as the ones that soothed my night fears when he rubbed my head as he chanted the Canterbury Tales in sing-song middle-high English. I braced myself and looked at his face. He seemed about to cry. I sighed. He was not the kind of man who would beat a child for disagreeing with him.
I whispered desperately, “I won’t do it. I can’t.”
“Silly girl. Just get ready. God will forgive you. God is love.”
“No, he’s not,” I screamed at him. “If God were love, mommy’s family would still be in Vienna. They’d still be Jewish. They’d still be –”
Now, Dad’s face reddened and glistened with anger. His temple throbbed. His April blue eyes darkened to a sinister gray. I was sure the thrust was coming, so I jumped back, thinking to break away. He caught me, and we struggled, locking one another in a desperate kind of wrestle hold. If either of us let go, we would likely both fall down the steep stairs, undoubtedly to our deaths. I held my breath and silently submitted.
He calmly grabbed my shoulders and righted us both on the landing. His face calmed. The light returned to his eyes.
I heard my mother call us from the kitchen, “Breakfast is getting cold.”