Andover, Illinois, where I grew up, is a small farming town settled by the Swedish. Most of the people I knew were either a Larson, a Johnson, a Nelson, a Swenson, a Swanson, or a Thompson. My childhood home stood on a 2 ½ acre lot, right off the only road that can take you into or out of town. There is a park, a café, a gas station, a bar, and a post office. They were all walkable from my house. We knew our next-door neighbors, and we knew who their aunts, uncles, and grandparents were. That’s how we knew that the neighbor across the street was living in sin, which is to say that she was living with a man before marriage. I graduated high school with the same people I went to preschool with. Outsiders were not welcome unless you had family already living there. Not many of us left. Leaving was against the rules.
I am a rule breaker. I got the hell out of town as soon as I could.
Our green, three-story, home housed my grandparents, my uncle, my mom, my brother, and myself. Grandma and Grandpa bought the house when mom was a baby. From what I have been told, this was a step up for the family in 1964. They moved from a quaint house in the country with no indoor bathroom to this spacious tri-level because Grandma was pregnant with Mom. They raised their four children in the home. Mom moved out for a short time when she married my dad, but had to move back in for support after their divorce. My uncle moved out but had to move back in when he had a farming accident. Everything I never learned about religion came from the people under that roof or in that town.
Grandma was a loud woman who sounded like she was yelling even when she was not. We never saw eye to eye, and I would beg my mom to move us out. According to Grandma, I could not cook, I did not clean right, and my clothes were too short or too tight. She did not like me. Her words, not mine. I can still hear her yell “wash the drinking cups before the pots and pans,” or “your shirt is too short. Who’s going to buy the cow when you’re giving the milk away for free?” or “leave something for the imagination.” I heard those lines regularly. She attended church on Sundays. I had no choice but to go with her. We were Methodist Christians I think because that was the denomination of the church in town. Don’t ask me what it means to be a Methodist. Despite it all, I liked to hear Grandma sing, and I can still hear what she sounded like when she sang “What a Friend we have in Jesus.”
Grandpa was a quiet man. He had to be because Grandma was not. He kept to himself and watched religious programming on TV as often as possible. He only went to church on special occasions (Christmas). For Grandpa, God was the way, you could not marry outside your race, and you could not be homosexual. I walked in on a sermon he was listening to once when I was in forththgrade. I heard the preacher say, “No man shall lie with another man and no woman shall lie with another woman.” Those words haunted me. I cried for days, thinking I was gay and going to hell. Finally, when my mom asked what was wrong, I reminded her that I slept with my girlfriends when we had slumber parties and that I was now afraid that I was going to hell. I did not tell her that I was also sad because I did not think that being gay was wrong. Grandpa died before I married outside my race, before he found out his son is gay, and before discovering that I have slept with women.
He didn’t always live with us. He lived on his own for a while and was a fun uncle until his farming accident. He was driving a tractor, and it burst into flames. He had burns on his entire body. He moved back into the house so Grandma could take care of the burns and change his bandages. That’s when he found God. I am not sure if it was because he had a near-death experience or if it was something else. He and Grandpa came to agree on race and sexuality. He went to church every Sunday and listened to it on TV. Once he finally moved back out on his own, he would come over on Sunday mornings and scream like a military sergeant for me to get out of bed and get up for church. I wanted to be a teenager. I went to church and never got the answers I was looking for.
“How do you know it’s a sin to be gay?”
“How do you know it’s a sin to marry outside your race?”
“How do you know God is real?”
The only thing these questions got me were chores. He believed I was being defiant, but I only wanted answers. He did not attend my wedding, and he knows his brother is gay. He does not have a good relationship with either of us. He later embezzled money from the food pantry. Was embezzlement a sin? I hated him. I hated church.
Mom was a hard-working single mother who got a raw deal and lost her battle to breast cancer at age 36. She had a positive attitude and accepted everyone for who they were. She did not attend church mostly because she worked all the time. She encouraged my brother and me to attend church, partly to make the family happy, but also so she could work. She attended church on special occasions, while my brother and I had to attend every Sunday. She never discussed religion. The day she lay dying in her bed at home on hospice surrounded by family, she looked at me and told me to make sure I go to church. I told her I would. I lied.
The Town Residents
The same people I would see on Sundays at church were the same ones I would see beating their wives, leaving the bar, yelling at me from the porch and calling me a n***** loving whore, cussing, watching porn, and all the other “sinful” things I was warned about. I begged Mom to let us move. I was born into a situation where I did not belong. Reba McEntire has a song that goes, “Momma died, and I ain’t been back.”
That is exactly how it went. Mom died, I left, and I ain’t been back.
After leaving home, I decided to attempt to find religion on my own. I attended Catholic Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, and a nondenominational church, and I still do not have a religion that sits well with me. The only thing I discovered is that I do not believe in organized religion.
I believe in a higher power and in reincarnation. Once we have lived as many lives as it takes on Earth to be our greatest self and learn all the lessons, that is when we stop reincarnating and go to a place some might call Heaven. This place is whatever your favorite things are. For me, it would be a sunny beach with live music and a cabana boy bringing me drinks. No one ever goes to Hell. There is no such place. Earth is our Hell and we keep coming back until we can get it right.
I’ve been in this Hell before, and I have no doubt I’ll be coming back. Maybe next time, I’ll come back as a preacher.
Melissa Chism was born and raised in Andover, Illinois. She moved to the big state of Texas at the age of 27 and continues to reside there with her two sons and two dogs. She’s always had an interest in writing, and in 2020, she began taking writing classes through Catapult and Dallas Writers Workshop. Her writing interests cover a range of topics to include religion, dating and racism. When Melissa is not with her family and friends, she can be found reading a book by the pool.