Some brides get cold feet before their wedding. My mom got cold feet about seeing me at hers.
My phone pinged before I stepped off the plane that had taken me from my new home in Southern California to my home state of South Carolina. My mom texted: “Trisha, I love you very much, but I can’t let you come to my wedding.”
I’d flown across the country for this; it was a rare opportunity to see her. 14 years earlier, I’d been disfellowshipped by the Jehovah’s Witness elders, which means I was considered spiritually dead and was excommunicated from the congregation ― including friends and even family.
In the 14 years since, I tried to remind my mom I was still alive. I’d occasionally text photos of my cat or let her know about big news, like when I got my Ph.D. Sometimes she’d respond. Most times she didn’t. She refused to attend my own wedding, but she did send a gift. Her wedding was my last chance, I felt: I would show her I was still her family, even if I was no longer part of her religion, and she could still love me. But as my plane landed, she once again refused to see me.
She raised me to be a good Jehovah’s Witness girl. Just before my 21st birthday, though, I rejected her God, and she rejected me in return. I had a tricky habit of sleeping with my friends: boys, girls, fellow Witnesses, and neighbors who were “worldly” — the term Jehovah’s Witnesses use for everyone outside of the congregation. I straddled two worlds: Tuesday and Thursday night were in the Kingdom Hall, their house of worship. On Wednesday I’d abscond with a friend out to the South Carolina back roads, and into the back seat of my green Chevy Corsica.
Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain loyalty by monitoring members’ actions and looking for any sign that they may step off the narrow path. The Governing Body, a group of eight men said to be appointed by God, dictates a litany of complex rules.
Each Kingdom Hall is led by elders who enforce those rules. Members are rewarded for their service with additional titles, access to leadership opportunities and prominent teaching positions. For minor offenses, members are punished with public announcements of their sins, silent treatments and demotions in their titles.
It’s a strict hierarchy controlled by fear of Armageddon and threats of excommunication. Their rules controlled every aspect of my life, clothing, job, friends, education and entertainment. The life they offered me was full of friends, family and safety. But it was a small life. I wanted more. The choices they offered were prescribed by men who needed women to be passive in order for men to feel in control. I couldn’t accept this.
After they kicked me out, I felt like I’d left a toxic husband, except it was an entire congregation of elders. I felt high when I wore short shorts without shame. Staying out all night, without having to lie about where I was, felt like a radical act of self-determination. But the price of my freedom was painful. The elders effectively pronounced me dead, and my mom acted as if I was. I mourned the death of her love. She told me she wouldn’t see me until I came back to the Kingdom Hall. She refused to hug me until I repented. Her love was hostage, and my repentance was the ransom I refused to pay.
When I was first disfellowshipped, I could only think of survival — with no place to live, no friends and no plans for my future. I had no time to grieve. It was only as I began to build a new life that I realized everything I’d lost. It was only when I found people who loved me that I discovered I missed my mother’s love most of all. All grief is nonlinear, but the particular grief of losing a loved one who is still alive is one that feels fresh with each time I’m reminded of her rejection.
Three months before the wedding, she called to share her big news. I was surprised that she called, but I wasn’t surprised by the news itself. A relative had already asked me if I was going to the wedding. I assumed she’d invite me eventually. Even if she included me in the family for just one day, I’d do anything for a chance to show her I still loved her. She still had a chance to choose me. When I eventually did see her name on my phone, I picked up immediately. I listened to her tale of a whirlwind romance between two people who hadn’t been on a date in 30 years.
“I didn’t even know we were dating,” she said. “But he sure did stop by for dinner often.”
“We’re 60, why wait?” she added. “I’ll be sure to send you photos of the wedding.”
I launched into my arguments for why I should be invited. “Weddings are times to bring together two people and their families,” I told her.
“Yes, but you know it’s different with you,” she replied.
“I know, Mom. But you’re marrying this man, and don’t you think he deserves to be introduced to all of your children?” Her silence rang in my ears. “I want to meet him, Mom. I want to see you get married,” I said.
She quietly replied: “Well, I can let you know when we set a wedding date.”
That was a lie. I knew the date had been set weeks ago. Still, I’d cracked open the door. I used that crack to wedge myself into her wedding. I called weekly. For the first time in years, she picked up every time. I asked about her dress, the flowers and the honeymoon. We talked about wife things: our husbands’ needs, tiffs over wedding registries, how much men eat.
She described her beau as a good ol’ Southern boy who built her a chicken coop and spent his time repairing Kingdom Halls and members’ homes across the South. My mom and her sweetheart were chaperoned throughout their courtship to ensure passion didn’t lead to sin. Even senior members of the congregation are surveilled to make sure they follow the letter of the many laws.
“Even at 60, men are still men, Trisha,” she said.
“True, true: Men are still men,” I mirrored.
She asked about my husband, Per. I shared stories about my wedding four years earlier. She told me she liked my pink wedding dress, and that a pixie cut looked good on me. I sent her a photo of Per in the kitchen wearing an apron covered in flour. “He has kind eyes,” she texted back.
Through stories of our men, a nascent relationship began to grow. I showed her the side of myself she could understand: the wife, gardener, cook. After a month of talking, she told me her wedding date.
But as my plane landed the day before the wedding, she changed her mind. Before responding to her text uninviting me, I ran to the airport bathroom. I wept on the cold floor, furious at myself that after all these years she could still hurt me so deeply. I splashed water on my face and prepared to beg.
“I’m already here, Mom. Please see me.”
I asked just to see her for a moment, for coffee, for a hug. And she responded with her best attempt at a compliment: “I’m proud that you are married and would love to get to know your husband, but we cannot see you.”
In a series of follow-up texts, she waffled between inviting and uninviting me.
“If I see you, I’ll just cry, and I want to be happy on my wedding day,” she wrote.
“But Mom, I’m so happy for you, you’ll have to be happy. Let me share in your happiness,” I pleaded. Eventually she agreed to meet me for brunch.
I barely recognized her with wrinkles and powdery white curls, instead of the jet-black hair I remembered from the last time I’d seen her. But when she smiled, I saw my mom. Over biscuits and weak coffee, Mom and her fiancé caught us up on their busy wedding weekend. After the third cup of coffee, Mom’s fiancé patted Per’s hand and said, “Well, young man, why don’t you and I go outside for a stroll?” He stood up and Per was compelled to follow.
Outside, Mom’s fiancé explained, “You know Trisha can come back any time.” He said I’d have to attend meetings and ask for forgiveness. “Jodi loves her daughter,” he said. “That’s why she can’t talk to her. But all Trish has to do is come back.”
Inside, my mom launched into her appeals: “If you come back, I’ll take care of you, Trisha.” She promised that everything could be just like it was. I could have my family back.
But coming back wasn’t easy. For an entire year I would be required to attend meetings while vowing not to speak a word, even to my family. I had to submit to being literally silenced for a year. Elders would no doubt require me to narrate my sins to them in private to demonstrate my repentance. These would be tests of obedience and humiliation. Then, I’d have to submit to the elders’ rules, discipline and control for the rest of my life.
Mom didn’t mention any of this, but I was certain these strings were attached. I thanked her for the offer, shrugged and changed the subject. This salvation was her only way to care for me. She felt safe and cared for in the religion, and she wanted the same for me. This was the only way she had to show her love, and I couldn’t reject her outright. I’d do anything to keep our conversation going a little bit longer. Before leaving the diner, my mom’s fiancé wrapped his arm around her shoulders and reinvited us to the wedding.
On the big day, Per held my hand in his warm palm. When we entered the Kingdom Hall, we were hit first by a gust of air conditioning, then by the laughter of the congregation. I was the only woman with a pixie cut, and my dress had a side slit. Per was the only man with a beard or painted nails. He’d left open his top two shirt buttons. Every other man in the room wore a tie, including the toddlers. We didn’t belong here. Their barely concealed glances followed us as we settled in the front row with the bride’s family. But as the music started, everyone’s eyes moved to the bride. She was beautiful, beaming in her pink, high-necked lace dress with a modest lace shawl.
The minister was a round man with a jovial Carolina drawl. He opened the ceremony as one might expect, celebrating the joy of the occasion. In a cadence particular to rural Southern ministers, he warned: “Let us remember the importance of the times we live in. These are the end of days ― Armageddon is on the horizon.” Then, looking directly at Per, he added, “All unrepentant sinners will be annihilated.” This was the first wedding Per had attended where mass annihilation was germane to the ceremony.
The minister read Colossians 3:18 ― “You wives, be in subjection to your husbands, as it is becoming in the Lord. You husbands, keep on loving your wives.” Submission is a precondition for a husband’s love. The minister explained that only when men receive proper subjection from women are they able to love their wives. He entreated the groom to show my mother love. He never turned to my mother to ensure she felt love for her soon-to-be husband. Instead, the minister asked if she was willing to obey. She must obey the “law of her husband,” he explained, and gave her a wink. The audience chuckled.
After the ceremony ended with a loud “Amen” and a sweet kiss, the couple strode down the aisle, holding on to each other like young lovers. Per and I joined the end of the queue to share our best wishes for the couple. When I hugged my mother, I held her and didn’t let go. I breathed in her heavy Estée Lauder perfume. Her lace dress was stiff. Her body was soft.
This could be our last hug, perhaps forever, I realized. Our mothers are our first home. When I hugged her, my entire body clung to the home I’d lost. My mom was right: I would make her sad. I would make her cry. We both cried. I don’t remember who pulled me away from her. I remember it was not my choice.
Just as much as holding my mother felt like returning home, leaving the Kingdom Hall felt like a sweet escape. As we left the building, I felt the soft heat of the night and Per’s arm wrapped around me. We went to drink bourbon on a muggy lakeside deck while the rest of the guests went to the reception to eat cake and dance the Electric Slide. I hadn’t been invited to the reception, and I knew I didn’t belong there. My mom and I lived in different worlds. I longed for a relationship with her. I longed to spend hours laughing with her while drinking too much coffee and eating carbs. But I could never go back to living in her world.
Mom left on her honeymoon. I flew home to California. She went back to ignoring my texts, until Thanksgiving. I sent her a photo of the pecan pie I’d burned. She responded immediately: “Cover it with lots and lots of whip cream. No one will know the better.” She always burned the dessert, too.
Before the wedding, I didn’t have photos of Mom. Now I have a handful of photos on my phone of us at the ceremony. We are the same height. Our shoulders are delicate parallel lines sloping to strong arms. I’m told I have my dad’s smile, but my eyes get small when my smile widens, just like Mom’s eyes. We both look joyful and brokenhearted.
Looking at the photo, I know she’s always loved me. I grew up believing in a resurrection. My mom and I both cling to faith in a resurrection. She hopes I’ll repent and be saved. I went to the wedding hoping I could resurrect some semblance of a relationship. Through hope, we both show our love is alive in our different worlds.
Trish Fancher is a writer, teacher and feminist in California. Her personal essays have appeared in Autostraddle, Catapult, Northwest Review and forthcoming in The Sun magazine. She can occasionally and anxiously be found on Twitter at @trish_fancher.
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