The first book I remember owning was a big children's Bible story book. I can still feel what it was like to be sitting on the couch with Mom or Nana reading to me and while I don't remember what the cover of the book looked like I can see some of the illustrations in my mind's eye: there was a giant hand hovering behind the earth -- like God had just thrown a fastball -- that illustrated creation, for instance. There was a picture showing Noah reaching out of the ark to retrieve the dove returning with the olive leaf in its beak (floating around in a big boat filled with animals sounded like a foretaste of heaven to me). And I had an actual Bible -- it had a picture of Jesus on the cover. He was sitting under a tree and was surrounded by children. The sky was a quite unbelievable royal blue, but I thought it was all beautiful.
Mom took us to Sunday School when we were little, but not church; I don't know why. Dad didn't go with us and at first we went to Anona Methodist Church in Largo. I have no memories of ever entering the church sanctuary at Anona, which is a shame (I was baptized there as a baby, so I DID go inside -- I just don't recall it). Even then the small building was quite old -- my great-grandparents Sara (Hammock) and Irving Meares were the first people to be married in it way back in 1901, and the cemetery behind it contains the graves of the largest gathering of my relatives anywhere. It was built as a community church originally, serving people of various faiths. Today that old building is a prayer chapel. I keep meaning to stop by, to see if it's open. I've been past it so often, but I've never dropped in.
I attended kindergarten at Anona Methodist Church too. In those days kindergarten was optional and I'm pretty impressed that Mom signed me up (maybe I was driving her crazy and it was a way to get a partial break -- my brother is just 11 months younger than I am, so it might have been a chance to spend one-on-one time with him). My teacher was Goldie Kreitzer -- a Jewish name if ever there was one (I don't know anything about her background and I'm sure I didn't even know what a Jew was back then). I loved Mrs. Kreitzer and I loved kindergarten. I wonder if we went inside the sanctuary during kindergarten? It would seem likely, but I don't remember.
My two favorite things were fingerpainting and music. Fingerpainting satisfied my tactile sensibilities. Mrs. Kreitzer would take us into a room adjoining our classroom, help us into a smock, put a big glob of red or blue or green paint on a piece of cream-colored paper, and let us go to town. I can still feel the cold paint squishing between my fingers. The only thing I knew how to create were flowers that I made by smooshing the side of my closed fist in the paint, so that's pretty much what I always did. The end product wasn't important, of course -- it was all about the process.
As for music -- well, "music" is kind of a stretch -- we had blocks that we would bang against each other or hit with sticks, and a few bells, and something resembling castanets, but we just called them "shakers." One child would be chosen to conduct the orchestra. She would stand in front of the class on a chair with a conductor's baton (adults were so reckless with our safety back then), raise her arms, and begin. No tune, no rhythm -- but it felt glorious when I got to be the conductor! Leading the class satisfied my need for attention, I guess. Or power. Everyone had to at least pretend to pay attention to me.
I still have a friend from my kindergarten days -- Kitty Wright McNeel. My oldest friend.
I don't know why Mom switched from Anona Methodist to Seminole Methodist -- it was closer to our house, but not by much. I have a few hazy memories of church at Seminole -- mostly because Mom made me join the children's choir. I hated it because the practices were barely organized chaos and I had such stage fright that I could only whisper when it was finally time to sing in front of the whole church. Oddly enough, I remember one song quite well that we learned in choir: The Church's One Foundation. Go figure. "Chaos" describes my memories of Sunday School there, too. I hated it. I was always sure someone was actually going to get hurt and I also wanted to learn, which was impossible in that environment.
Mom finally gave up -- again, I don't know why -- but I felt relief more than anything else.
On the day of first-grade registration I met Joanne White, another new registrant. When I found out that she lived on my street I was elated. Joanne is about six months younger than I am but just made the cut-off for first grade. Her mother was older than mine and different from anyone I'd known up until then. She was short and broad, had a loud voice and a northeastern brusqueness. She had been raised Catholic, I remember, but had converted to Protestantism at some point. The bus stop was probably half a mile from my house (again -- parents let us do things then that they would be arrested for today) and I'd pass their house on the way. Mrs. White would invite me inside (actually, she would insist that I come in -- she was not about giving me options) and we'd all have morning devotions. There would be Bible reading and then prayer. She taught me to pray using my fingers as reminders: the thumb was family and friends; the pointer finger was people who pointed me in the right direction -- pastors, teachers; the tallest middle finger was for government leaders; the weak ring finger was for the sick and the pinkie, the smallest, was for myself.
Joanne invited me to come with her to a club called Pioneer Girls (that's us in our uniforms above -- Joanne is on the left). Pioneer Girls was like Girl Scouts -- we earned badges, went camping, etc. -- but God was a major focus. I was in Brownies (then Girl Scouts) and Pioneer Girls, but I liked Pioneer Girls so much more. God was working on my heart. I knew of him, but I still didn't know him.