What We Keep

My little brother and mother both smirk as my grandfather asks me to pray before we eat. I put down the green olive I had almost popped into my mouth and say “sure,” with a facial expression that feigns joy at saying the blessing while also telling the two smirkers to leave me alone. Before I begin, I briefly weigh the ethical implications of praying to a celestial being without an active belief in it receiving my divine communication. There seems to be something seedily performative to it all, but there’s also the pragmatic consideration of what my grandparents ought to know about their grandson. Pragmatism wins out, and I launch into my practiced premeal prayer that can be said in exactly nine and a half seconds, with its clipped sentences making me sound like a robot practicing being human.

“Dear Jesus,” I say, instinctively bowing my head, but still keeping my eyes open in an act of childlike defiance, “thank you for this food. Thank you that Grandma and Grandpa are here. Thank you that it’s the Sabbath. Please let this food nourish, and, uh, strengthen our bodies.[1] Amen.”

Like the majority of Seventh-Day Adventists, my family identifies as vegetarian, so our dinner tonight consists of pasta with marinara sauce and veggie-meatballs, a salad, green beans, and a bowl of olives. Of this dinner, we all take considerable portions, except for my grandmother whose plate resembles an upscale, no doubt European, restaurant that hasn’t quite grasped the bottomless American diet. I count four green beans, eleven noodles, shards of veggie meat, and a lone olive (if the meal were centered on her plate and served in better lighting, it would go for some exorbitant price). My grandfather grunts in defiance as she tries to pass him the bowl of pasta.

“You need to eat more food,” my grandfather says. “I don’t want you walking around all night.”

“Mom,” my mother chimes in, “you really should eat more than that.”

My grandmother gives the dismissive laugh that has become her signature in the last two years, as she explains that she’ll be fine with the food already on her plate. My grandfather almost comments, but my mother shoots him a cautionary look and he takes the bowl of pasta away from my grandmother, placing it beside him.

After a period of muffled chewing, the conversation turns to the General Conference and the church’s stance on women’s ordination as ministers, with the most recent vote denying individual conferences the right to decide to ordain women. In response, liberal conferences like the Pacific Union Conference and the Columbian Union Conference retaliated by deciding to continue to ordain women without approval from the world church, and now the General Conference was stalling on how to properly discipline those in rebellion.[2]

“It’s just so absurd,” my mother says. “Ellen White was a woman. How do you have a woman prophet and founder and not ordain women?”

“It’s insanity,” I say, shoveling a forkful of pasta into my mouth. “Corey what do you think?”

“What?” My little brother says, looking up from his plate with a bewildered, lost child expression.[3]

“Women’s ordination. Are you for or against?”
“I don’t know. For?”

“That’s a relief.”

“Ordination isn’t Biblical,” my grandfather (a retired Adventist pastor) says. “We shouldn’t even be doing it in the first place. It’s a practice that we should have gotten rid of a long time ago.”

“Mom, what do you think?” my mother says.

“Well,” my grandmother says, smirking—her eyes a little brighter than what I’m accustomed to, “I think they should get ordained.”

“Your grandmother has always been very independent,” my mother says to me in a slightly bragging tone. “You know before she started editing at the Review,[4] she was paid less than all of the other vice-presidents at CUC.[5] You were always bothered by that, weren’t you Mom?”

“Yes, I was.”

“That’s great,” I say. “About the women’s rights stuff—not about being paid less.”

My grandmother has a subtle, self-satisfied smile on her lips.

“The problem is that the church is a world church,” my father chimes in. “They can’t just think of North America and Europe. If they say it’s okay for women to get ordained, the African and South American conferences will get upset.”

“Let them get upset,” I say, a guttural reaction to any slightly conservative sentiment my father puts out. “We should be doing what’s right and not giving into these countries and conferences that haven’t caught up with the rest of the world. It’s ridiculous.”

In moments like this, I have to admit that I’m not a very good non-believer. I revert very easily back to the vernacular of Adventist shop talk and begin to use “we” instead of “they.” In truth, while I’m at home, it’s easy to revert to my earlier liberal, Adventist self during these conversations, giving me a mix of comfort and distress. Like seeing an old friend, this supposedly lost piece of my past identity reminds me that it’s still there, and like many old friends, I’m unsure of how to talk to it. I like to think that I’ve grown past this part of me, that I’m a more honest version of myself where I can publicly say that I don’t believe in God, but sitting around the table, with my grandparents sitting beside me, I want to stay connected to my culture, to my religion, to the generations that came before me, and yet, I don’t think beliefs are choices. I can only converse with my old identity rather than embody it again.

“Oh, dear,” my grandfather says in his signature disapproving tone as he holds a scoop full of pasta over my grandmother’s plate which she is trying to move away from her, “you need to eat more.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“It’s all the candy you’ve been eating. It’s ruining your appetite. If you don’t eat anything now, you’ll wake me up in the middle of the night because you’re hungry.”

Candies and sweets have become my grandmother’s favorite food group, with the amount of it that she’s eating remaining unknown to us, but we’re all fairly sure it’s a high number. Despite her eating next to nothing every lunch and dinner, she’s gained weight—a normally petite and spry woman, she’s now having difficulty lifting herself out of her chair. Except for my grandfather, my family has a fairly laissez-faire attitude towards her sweets eating, as denying an 85-year-old woman a piece of chocolate or pastry seems counter to human rights. You shouldn’t be able to get old and have people tell you what you can and can’t eat again.

“I had enough for lunch,” my grandmother says, one hand over her the plate, the other grasping my grandfather’s wrist.

“No, you’ve only snacked. We didn’t eat a full lunch. Remember? Oh. Of course, you don’t. Now come on, I need you to eat more.”

“No, Bob.”

“You have to,” my grandfather says, his patience waning. “You just be quiet, and you’ll eat it and you’ll like it.”

He tries to move the serving spoon full of pasta towards my grandmother, but she holds him off.

“Oh, shut up, Bob” my grandmother says. “Shut up,” is her favorite phrase when it comes to him and one I imitate whenever I do an impression of her for my family or friends. Even when she was most able, she used it to put my grandfather in his place all the time. They were the stereotypical older couple who bickered all the time, but it wasn’t malicious. They were partners, both intelligent and strong willed, and sometimes these shared personality traits resulted in arguments.

“Now, Dad,” my mother says, “you don’t need to talk to her like that. Mom, will you take a little more pasta?”

“I’m not hungry,”

“Dad says that you were up all night the other night.”

“I wasn’t,” my grandmother says, releasing my grandfather’s wrist, momentarily distracted by my mother.

From his spot directly across the table from me, my brother looks up awkwardly at me, and I shrug. Of all my family members, he seems the least concerned by my break from the church. He’s a keep to himself, don’t ask, don’t tell, DIY, kind of guy, which is why I occasionally worry that he’s a Republican, but despite my worries, I appreciate his lack of caring when it comes to my position on faith. I think he believes in God, but on the few times I’ve heard him vocalize his beliefs, I get the sense that he doesn’t believe that God is in control of anything here on Earth.[6] Whatever his reasons for not questioning or seeming concerned about my change of beliefs, I feel comforted by him for it, and if anything else, this is what siblings are for—to be a comfort to you in times of familial awkwardness or disagreement.

“You were,” my grandfather says. “You don’t remember these things.”

“I do too.”

“You don’t know anything,” my grandfather says, aggressively placing the pasta on her plate. “You need to listen to me and eat your food.”

My grandmother stares down at her plate and gives a frustrated, deflective chuckle. If she were to speak honestly, I think she would tell my grandfather to stop embarrassing her, to stop calling attention to her growing sense of confusion. To her, only my mother and my grandfather know about her dementia, and this is the way she would like to keep it to avoid the shame of publicly acknowledging the person she’s becoming. We will not talk about the spaghetti on her plate for the rest of the dinner, except for the moment that she tries to feed the poodle with it and my father scolds her. She eats it all, finishing her last bite while I tell her, for at least the fifteenth time, that I’m a graduate student and teaching in my university’s English department. She tells me that she wants to read my writing, and my grandfather tells me that I should rewrite the Bible.

Later, after we’ve finished dinner, we all sit in the living room together talking, and my grandparents hold hands—despite their arguing, their habit of doing everything together (a habit fostered over 60 year of marriage) keep them close together on the couch. Soft-Christian rock of the K-Love variety plays in the background, lulling my mother to sleep. We all have our screens away so that we don’t offend my grandparents’ strict observance of the Sabbath. My grandfather tells us about the horses they used to raise in Canada, and how they would sometimes get loose, galloping over the Canadian-U.S. border. My mother briefly wakes up to tell us how they would get in the truck with a horse trailer attached and drive a few miles to cross over at the border station before being able to reclaim the horses that were only fifty feet from their front yard.

For a moment, the familiarity of it all will bring me back to a partially imagined Friday night before we knew that anything was wrong with my grandmother. On this night, my grandmother would tell me that I would make a good pastor, and I would actually consider it an option. She would read us some of her writing and tell us that she was writing a book about her and my grandfather’s life. A night where no one treated her like a child, and where she only bickered with my grandfather about the amount of salt to put in the soup. My speech would not be tempered by the fear I would accidently reveal my lack of a belief in a God that had been so central to my grandparents’ way of life (and my own), and my grandmother’s mind would be free of her “shameful” disease that turned her into someone seemingly defined by dependency. Of course, no one’s called her disease shameful, but she’s never acknowledge it to anyone but my grandfather and my mother. I think she prefers to believe that we don’t notice the way she has changed, but I also wonder how much she can recognize that she own transformation.

On this Friday night, my grandmother eventually whispers to my grandfather that she would like to leave, and my grandfather nods. He gets out of his seat and begins to put on his coat. I stand up as well and go over to my grandmother to help her up. I squat and put my hands underneath her armpits, lifting her out of her seat. She laughs at me as I give my routine apology for not knowing how to properly help her out of the chair. As she gains her balance, she holds my hand tight. She stands close to me, looking up into my face and comments about how tall I am as if it’s her first time realizing it. I smile like I always do, and we hug before she leaves. While we hug, I silently grieve for her loss, and I grieve for my own. My grandmother’s sense of the past and the present has been receding day-by-day while my sense of the future has become infinitesimally smaller, both punctuating themselves through loss. Holding her, I worry that my grandmother’s identity will have been dismantled by the time she passes away, and before I die, I wonder how much of my own self I will have been able to keep.

I let my grandmother go, and my grandparents leave for the night. They will be back again tomorrow morning, and though my grandfather will not be preaching, we will all go to church.

 

[1] With the amount of information on the nutritional value about different types of food out today, this seems the most pointless facet of the standard Christian dinner blessing. Can believers really expect God to not roll His omniscient eyes at the request to bless a burger from McDonald’s no doubt partially made from a cow’s asshole? If God doesn’t intervene in genocides, why would He turn a cow’s sphincter into kale?

[2] In other news, the church had also clarified its stance on creation, coming out strongly for six literal days of creation rather than the more liberal idea of those days being metaphoric. This topic of conversation is avoided.

[3] I have to admit here that I’m being a bit of a dick. I don’t actually care what he thinks. My brother is just so apolitical, I must, at least twice a year, remind him in a very lofty tone that to not be political is a political statement in itself (which, of course, I’m parroting from my undergraduate critical theory class).

[4] By this, my mother means the Adventist Review, which is the official magazine of the Seventh-Day Adventist church and based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

[5] Columbia Union College which is now named Washington Adventist University (the university where I began to lose my faith (no fault to them though; you can blame reading and the internet for that) and eventually transferred from to receive my education from a secular institution for the first time in my life.).

[6] This lack of any belief in God having any direct control from the world most likely comes from our mother getting breast cancer twice while we were children. These sorts of events lead you to ask, “What fair God allows for, or even gives, people like our mother breast cancer twice (or even once!) in their life?” And more relevant to the present, “What just God lets a disease exist that fundamentally changes who you are, stripping your memories and self away from you as you mentally slip further and further away from reality?”


Christopher Shaw is a graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. At the university, he earned a master’s degree in English along with a B.A. in English and a B.F.A. in creative writing. He currently works as an associate copywriter and is based in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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