Dreams of a guilty child

When I was a child--maybe 8 or 9 years old--I had a nightmare, one I've never forgotten.

Unlike authors Stephen King and Mary Shelley, I rarely remember my dreams well enough to write about them. I wish I didn't remember the childhood nightmare that awakened me, left me sweating with fear, haunted me at a time when I was still playing with dolls.

The dream was exceedingly short and to the point--the point being that I was in a sort of fiery funnel cloud hurtling me toward hell.

Almost a lifetime later, I suspect my nightmare resulted from feelings of guilt, then fear of repercussions.

I'm not sure what childhood misdeed doomed me to hell that night. Maybe it was the occasional lie I told my little sister Terri: There was the one about the big, bad doctor coming to my best friend's house so Terri wouldn't try to tag along. Or maybe it was the time I secretly yearned for that fifth-grade boy's kiss, or just to be called somebody's girlfriend. More likely, I'd disobeyed my parents and was hoping to keep the misdeed to myself.

My point is that children of all ages can often feel guilty for nothing more than being children, for not doing their homework one night, for wetting the bed, for eating too much candy, for applying Donald Trump-style nicknames to other children and their teachers.

You know the kinds of nicknames I mean--those like Senator Dicky Durbin, Little Adam Schiff--a surname Trump once misspelled with two t's instead of two f's--Crooked Hillary, Pocahontas for Elizabeth Warren, Cheatin' Obama, Lying Ted--a Ted Cruz moniker Trump later rescinded and replaced with Beautiful Ted--and SleepyCreepy Joe for Joe Biden.

Despite the nightmare, I was a good kid, even a kind, studious and conscientious one, perhaps a tad too much so at times. When I was in the ninth grade and taking algebra from the school's head football coach, I somehow learned that a boy whose name I've long forgotten had gotten the test questions in advance. No doubt seeking to boost his own popularity, the boy shared the information with his junior-high colleagues, including me.

Naturally, I was among the students who aced the test. But unlike the others, I began feeling guilty and soon confessed my dishonesty to the teacher. He handled the situation well, I thought. He took half off my perfect score for cheating and gave me half credit for being honest, albeit belatedly.

Well before I was a teenager, I believed in God, Jesus and the devil. I presume Satan was the one about to welcome me into his fiery pit in my nightmare, though I think my dream ended before that happened.

I rarely missed a service at the Church of Christ, which for years met in a building on Broadway Street in Marked Tree next door to my uncle Slim's small grocery store. I faithfully recited my Sunday school memory verses, never skipped getting a lesson, and was baptized (not sprinkled, but immersed) at age 9. I did on occasion exchange non-biblical notes and giggles with my friends Eva Lou and Sandra during long sermons.

Eva Lou, who lived on what I remember as a small farm in nearby Payneway, and I often visited each other. I shall not forget the Sunday her mom was sick and her dad let Eva Lou pick out her own Sunday attire. Eva Lou, who was all of about 9 or 10, came dressed in her mother's 1950s style Sunday best, including a dressy hat with a veil.

My mother--far more averse to attention than I--remembers a few instances of my less-than-stellar behavior during the services at a church that expects its women to be submissive and largely silent during worship services.

I don't know if it was an early sign of my rebellious tendencies or what, but I'm told that when I was a toddler, Daddy was leading a prayer as I stood beside him by a front pew and suddenly noticed a metal tobacco can someone had left on the building's floor.

So I did what any self-respecting toddler, male or female, would do: I enjoyed the repeatedly clanging noise as I grabbed the can and proceeded to drop it on the concrete floor, pick it up, drop it again, pick it up, drop it again ... until my praying dad reached over and swatted my behind.

As an older toddler, I liked to talk and knew our preacher's surname was Connor. Brother Connor, whose first name I don't recall, was preaching away one Sunday when I again flaunted any command for females to be silent and shouted, "That's right, Connor!"

I was in elementary school when Eva Lou and I were considered big enough to sit by each other on pews a few rows behind our parents. One of our favorite songs was the Robert Lowry hymn "Up From the Grave He Arose." Like all hymns, the congregation sang it a capella.

Always looking for something to liven up the services, Eva Lou and I remained seated at the first of the song, until the refrain which began, "Up from the grave he arose." Those words were the signal for us to jump up and join the rest of the already-standing congregation.

Childhood wasn't all fun, though. I went through a phase where I felt guilty over harmless activities. I washed my hands repeatedly--a symbolic effort, I now understand.

No one made me this way. My parents, in fact, helped me get past it, to understand that I hadn't sinned but that I was just a kid being a kid. Once, while still in elementary school, I walked to the front of the congregation during what we called the "invitation song." There, I intended to ask for forgiveness for my sins.

All these decades later, I don't know what I thought those sins were. What I do remember is that my dad quietly walked to the front, took my hand and walked with me back to another pew. No explanation, no rebuke needed--just a parent holding a scared little girl's hand.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 03/29/2020

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