Three weeks ago Tuesday, an earnest man died.
While raising his family, he and his wife lived socially separate from the “world”, ascribing to a set of beliefs which dictated that they “touch not the unclean thing.”
Such a system of belief came to include his relationship, familial though it was in real time, with me.
That man was my cousin. Though we’d grown up literally around the block from one another, in recent years I would be shunned — never contacted; never included in family gatherings, though remaining the only [ and, solitary ] blood relative still living in the same county.
Apart from one conversation with his wife, circa 1995 (the year mum died, she paying several visits to the house to help with Mum’s hospice care) – I had never actually told him anything about my life, directly. As a couple, they did provide great kindness to my father, inviting him several times for dinner after mum died, and supported an orchestra in which I had performed for many years; but, upon my retreating from that organization in the wake of both a horrid harrassment scene and failure to secure a contract, I could not recall any further voluntary contact from either of them.
In fact, following the final four years of my father’s life, most of which were spent as live in caregiver at either his house or mine, the next time I would see them in person would be when we all attended his nephew’s wedding reception. Though we’d been seated together at one of many round tables, no eye contact was returned and no conversation entertained. Only one comment, from his wife, remained with me, to replay over and over in my head: “You LOOK like somebody I know….?!”
At the time, I remember thinking afterwards that perhaps they’d been repelled by the black, Grecian-styled gown which I’d worn as professional dress at another wedding having just completed performance; typically, the garment was sleeveless, with two bands of stretch jersey meeting at an Empire waist, securely covering both breasts but, by a certain standard, a “plunging” neckline. Though no aspect of my body’s private parts were at all exposed I was, possibly, inappropriately attired for their company. By attending that wedding reception wearing that dress I had committed an offense, against them.
Enmity from God. Disobedience against laws and precepts, as outlined in the Holy Bible.
To the Roman Catholic system, sin is clearly delineated within a hierarchy: Venial, or “lesser” offenses, which include transgressions; all the way to Mortal, those grave, serious and, frankly, felonious. Accordingly, punishments are doled out by means of penance requirements, after the requisite confession.
But among the Christian church’s innumerable outgrowths, from conservative to liberal, sin would come to carry a remarkably malleable definition – and over time, I would learn, subject to a legion of interpretation.
Herewith, the school of my own life.
Back in the late 1970’s, Mum hosted a German boy in our home. Not the typical exchange student, Roland hailed from the Schwelm assembly of our sectarian, fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren fellowship. He had secured a tool and die apprenticeship, of sorts, with the local Penn-Erie Schober, a machine shop owned by a wealthy, Swiss shipping magnate who himself was a member of the Zurich fellowship. Roland worked at the shop during the day, staying with our family nights and weekends and, invariably, attending the Gospel Assembly Hall with us both on Sundays and for every weekday “meeting”.
Roland was tall, blonde, and quiet. His English was halting, most notably his “v” sounds always slipping into “w” like Elmer Fudd. But, unlike his bold, cartoon counterpart Roland blushed, easily. And, he avoided eye contact with most everyone – especially me. I, on the other hand, on the cusp of college swiftly developed a crush, which would last until our tearful goodbye the following year.
My first alarm sounded during one of the earliest Gospel meetings held on Sunday evenings, at the Hall. Arriving just in time, I’d slid into an empty seat just beside him at the end of a row. His countenance ran crimson, his head elevated, nostrils flaring; clearly, my presence beside him was excruciating.
Later, he would disclose: German Christian men and women, both single and as married couples, never sat together during any meetings of the Plymouth Brethren. Men occupied one side of the worship room; women, the other. And, all ultimate relationships were, even still as late as the 1970’s, discreetly arranged by parents of agreeable families.
I was s.t.u.n.n.e.d.
This was the ’70’s. Granted, women’s liberation had not touched the Assembly of the Plymouth Brethren; but, arranged marriages had gone out with the advent of indoor plumbing!
Oh, but no; Roland was quick to intone that the Lord did not condone flagrant socializing between male and female adolescents. And, like all serious brothers of the Brethren, he had a Scripture to support his position.
I don’t remember the Scripture. I do remember his face, his skin, his averted gaze, and his physical discomfort which I had caused simply by sitting beside him.
Eventually, Roland returned to Germany. A few years later, Mum took in yet another German boy from the Brethren. Again, this young man would also work at Penn-Erie Schober. Hans-Jorg was completely different in both appearance and carriage, from Roland. Always smiling, happy, loving the outdoors, his English was fluent; we all enjoyed him, especially Mum who could, at last, carry on lengthy conversations about so many topics for which she was starved. I, however, was away at college, so my interactions with Hans did not include sitting beside him for any reason.
In 1984, I took my first trip overseas, traveling first to Scotland and, from there, across to the European continent. My visit at Roland’s home was brief, toward the end of my time in Germany; but, meeting up first with Hans-Jorg in the town of Remscheid, I’d been entertained at two eateries, one for “spaghetti ice” and the other a classic German pub.
As we sat, awaiting our sumptuous brunch of omelet and salad, Hans ordered a mug of beer. As it turned out, Germans were very keen on their beer, at virtually every meal except breakfast! (In Paris, I’d also been offered wine with dinner, which I declined.) Furthermore, Hans told me that cigarettes were very common in Germany; during the short social time between Morning Worship/Communion and Sunday School, all the men would stand outside, and smoke!
Regardless the decade across American history, the assembly of the Plymouth Brethren in the United States condemned both drinking and smoking. To them, along with s-e-x, these were sins – and, their offenders, living “in sin”. In fact, if one among the closed, accepted fellowship was found to be indulging in either, said violator was “put out” of the fellowship – no longer permitted at “the Lord’s Table” to accept communion.
Yet, here I was, in both France and Germany, among members of the same fellowship, the wine and beer flowing freely, the cigarettes puffed and inhaled at will.
At this juncture, my notion of sin began to evolve. How therefore, I mused, was God to judge anyone, and by what standard? And, if God’s standard was flexible, how could mere humans pass pronouncements of any kind upon one another, Christian or infidel?
Being obedient to the Almighty God takes conviction, determination, and a harnessing of the human will. Knowing how and when one is displeasing God, apparently, depends entirely upon where one lives on the planet.
My cousin is now where he knows, even as he has already been known by his Creator. The place is Heaven, where God sits on the throne and Christ beside him, they one and the same. Easier now to accept three in one, let alone two, in these times of quantum and string theory and non-locality. With God, all things are possible, after all.
One day, time will become eternity. Apparently, repentance is still the order of the day for humans, forgiveness the modus operandi of the Divine and, finally, acceptance.
Given time, how might we mortals hope to define what we can and should mean to one another?
Copyright 4/8/23 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole, part, or by translation, permitted; sharing my blog link, exclusively, and that not via RSS feed. Thank you for respecting the history of someone other than yourself.