For reasons that I still haven't figured out, I attended kindergarten at Rock Hill Presbyterian. My mother was a recently observant Muslim who had just adopted hijjab and become friendly acquaintances with the Kosher butcher in downtown St. Louis. Frankly, if I had understood any more about religious identity, my childhood would have been even more confusing that it already was. As it were I spent my days trying to avoid Jesus' gentle gaze in the chapel, hoping he wouldn't notice that I didn't believe in Him as much as I believed in his Father. Still, I took great comfort in the stories promising that He loved me.
When I wasn't avoiding Jesus, my days were filled by Miss P, Miss J and Miss Jane Marie. Each had a specific role in my life: Miss P, the principal, was all love and patience. I remember the day she taught me to count in tens. Miss J was all business and order in a way that made me feel safe. Nothing bad could happen around her because bad things were not part of her daily plan for the kids. And finally, Miss Jane Marie was the thorn in my side. She was tall and very heavy in a way that only Midwesterners seem to be; an accident waiting to happen and the opposite of Miss J in every possible way. When I realized that they lived across the street from each other and sent their children to the same school, I was fascinated for days. I imagined a street bi-sected, pitting neighbor against neighbor. These thoughts made prayer time much more interesting.
After a few months, my mom started working at the church. My hijjabi, Muslim mother joined the pre-school staff and would sit next to me on the pew during prayer. She would peek into my classroom to see if I was behaving and soon became friends with the three grown-ups in my life. Frankly, in a time when my lonely mother needed support the most, these three women were by her side. During the days that my mother had to take my brother to the hospital, they would offer to babysit me. The Miss J days were wonderful: Snacks on actual plates; kids playing games and doing homework; dinner being prepped and a cat watching all of us lazily from the top of the stairwell. Miss J made being a single mom to seven children seem effortless.
Staying with Miss Jane Marie was like a smelly, whirlwind. As the proud owner of four cats, two dogs and four puppies, she had a given up on cleaning after them. Moving around her house was much like navigating my way through a field of landmines, "Oh! Don't sit there sweetie, that's where Mr. Whiskers likes to pee." or "Smell the pillow before you use it for naptime! I haven't washed them after Lady gave birth to the puppies." She was not a great believer in showers, handwashing or house cleaning. Meal time at her house was filled with anxiety for me, because she liked to reuse paper plates (the thin white ones) that no one had bothered to throw away from whenever. What time I didn't spend locked in the bathroom, cautiously washing my hands and air drying them, I would spend staring wistfully out the window at Miss J's house, planning my escape.
One day after church lessons, I asked, "Miss Jane Marie, is cleanliness really close to Godliness?"
"Yes, of course."
"And do you love Jesus?"
To her credit, Miss J wasn't just orderly, she was incredibly fast, too. She had scooped me up and relocated me to a pile of books that needed organizing by size. Sadly, I never got to finish my question. Nor could I offer her any five year old wisdom on the necessity of bathing regularly and not discussing one's bowel movements.
Strangely, in second grade I met a girl at my new school who looked like she had been plucked out of a Peanuts cartoon, complete with her own dusty aura. Her name was Jane Marie. I went home that day and declared, "I think I don't like the Jane Maries. They're all the same! EWWWW!"
I would like to say that I stand corrected. I don't like the St. Louis Jane Maries.