I learned a lot about prayer on my first trip to church camp. I knew a little, of course; I was eleven years old. I knew God kept dibs on my bedtime — he liked me to check in when I laid myself down to sleep. I knew he liked to be thanked when we had pot roast, even if it was just leftovers. I also knew he liked me to apologize every single time my sister and I slammed each other’s heads into walls or doors. Repentance, he called it.
One morning before camp, my Sunday school teacher told us we could ask God for anything, and that we should be specific. So I began praying for a green bike, one with knobby tires and handlebar brakes.
Our church van didn’t have air conditioning. The seats were made of blue vinyl, so if you wore shorts your leg-skin would stick to the seats and make a plunger noise when you moved or stood up. It was an embarrassing sound, so I tried to stay still. Instead of fretting about the heat, I imagined the post-camp awards ceremony, where I would surely receive a medal for my piety.
“This young lady has been praying for a new bike for three solid weeks!” the camp counselor would say. “Let’s give Heather Hogan a round of applause for keeping her faith in the face of such adversity!”
The crowd would cheer, and then some kindly rich man would give me a new bike, because God doesn’t have to do everything with miracles: He can use rich people to create a win-win Christian situation. For example, if a rich man gave me a new bike, I would win because my prayer was answered, which, of course, would increase my faith. And the rich man would win because he would have used up some of the money in his vault of gold. Rich people have to fit through the eye of a needle on the back of a camel to get into heaven. This principle is outlined in the Gospel of Mark.
I spent nearly the entire ride to camp imaging the awards ceremony, alternating between presenting my future self with a plaque that said “Way to Endure!” or a ribbon that said “God’s #1 Sufferer!” There wasn’t much else to do; all forms of secular entertainment, including magazines and cassette tapes, were forbidden at camp. There was only one other girl my age in the youth group, Caitlin Jones, and she preferred to hang out with the older girls in the back of the van, yammering about makeup or kissing boys or who knows what other kinds of debauchery. They probably even had a Seventeen magazine back there.
The older girls called me back about halfway through the trip, and even though I didn’t want to peel my legs off the seat, I went. I was in no position to be picky about friends.
“So Heather,” the pastor’s daughter said, once I’d arranged myself in my new seat, allowing my legs to touch as little vinyl as possible. “What are you praying for in a husband?”
I laughed out loud because it was about the funniest joke I’d ever heard.
The girls exchanged The Look, the one they shared when I showed up to church with dirt underneath my fingernails, or shorts underneath my dresses, or when any boy in the youth group said he’d like to take me to a baseball game. She’s a tomboy, you know. Like for real. Like a tomboy-tomboy.
“Heather,” the pastor’s daughter explained. “Sometimes it takes God up to ten years to answer prayers. My sister prayed for a husband for six years before God sent him. You’d better start praying right away.”
Ten years to answer prayer! I did some quick math to calculate how tall I would be in ten years. I needed to start praying for a bigger bike.
“I don’t want a husband,” I said.
Several of the girls gasped.
“Why not?” the preacher’s daughter asked.
“Because he would look silly riding with the streamers and Spokey Dokes I’m praying for to go on my new bike.”
All of the girls, including Caitlin Jones, who up until that moment had been one of my best friends, began giggling.
“Don’t you want to get married?” former friend Caitlin Jones asked.
“Heather, of course you want to get married!” she said. “Everyone wants to get married. And you’ll want to do it by the time you’re 22, or there is no hope for you.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I said, jumping up with such ferocity I lost some skin to the seat. “My great-aunt Opal didn’t get married until after she was 22, and you know what she did instead? She went to California.”
My Aunt Opal drove a silver Cadillac with leather seats and automatic windows, and she had a little Yorkshire Terrier called Prissy who couldn’t keep his own eyes wet. I knew early on that you could judge character by the way a person treated dogs and cats. If you let a Golden Retriever lick you full on the face, we could be friends forever.
Prissy’s tear ducts didn’t work right, so Opal had to put drops in her eyes every four hours. Before we left to go anywhere, Opal would load Prissy up into her big silver car and sit her on a satin pillow next to the window. We’d drive that little bug-eyed puppy around the neighborhood once, twice, take her home and give her some tears, and then out we’d go on some great adventure.
Opal liked sit-down restaurants, ones that didn’t have playgrounds, but I could get anything I wanted on the menu, even one entire plate of pepperonis. She tipped so well the servers always asked “Ma’am, are you sure?” and she’d put her hand on their hand and say, “Honey, I’m sure.” Sometimes she even ordered things that weren’t on the menu, and every time, they’d cook it right for her. “It’s for Ms. Opal” they’d say, and suddenly an entire strawberry pie would appear in the middle of winter.
Aunt Opal was tall, like me, as tall as any man. She said love is: listening with your face, and whenever I told a story, she laughed and gasped at all the right parts. “Mmm hmm,” she’d say. “Mmm hmm. Go on!” Opal got her hair done every Friday, never once let me win at anything, and said swearing is lazy and crass — unless you do it right.
She grew up on a farm — as strong as any man, too — and then she went to work at a giant department store in Atlanta. Just 16 years old with one nice outfit that she borrowed from someone else. She tested perfume for women, lifted boxes with men, and then she became the whole boss. She stayed the boss too, until the day she retired.
Every time I saw her, I asked her about her trip to California.
She told about how she and her friend Alma just packed up and went Out West. She told about where they went and what they saw — the Pacific Ocean, a pier with a ferris wheel on it, Lucille Ball’s star on the Walk of Fame, a live taping of The Price Is Right, the real live Hollywood sign — and how they spent every single dollar they had out there.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said, “when we got home, we didn’t have a dollar to our name, and neither of us had a paycheck coming for two weeks!”
“So what’d you do?” I asked. “Did you rob a bank or something?”
She said, “We ate cabbage and onions for a month.”
I gagged a little, out loud.
Aunt Opal laughed. “We ate it boiled, we ate it stewed, we ate it baked. We tried to fry it! I swore I’d never eat cabbage again.”
“It took me a while, but yes.” She winked at me. “Honey,” she said, “It was worth it.”
Out behind our house, right inside the edge of the woods, my sister and I had a buried tin can full of money. We were trying to save up for a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party. We kept three dollars in a separate tin, our California Cabbage Fund. It would give us peace of mind when we took our own trip out to the Pacific Ocean. One day. We’d leave the state of Georgia one day. We’d go all the way across the country.
Because my Aunt Opal was my great-aunt, she didn’t have to parent me. “I didn’t take you to raise,” is what she’d say, winking as I sheepishly ordered a second dessert. She never told me to slow down, always let me swim right after I ate (instead of waiting the standard 30 minutes every other adult deemed necessary), and when I asked her if I had to start praying for a husband, she laughed like a bark, like the boss.
“Who told you that?”
“Church camp,” I said. “Caitlin Jones.”
“Honey,” she said. “You never have to get married. You hear me?”
I explained to her that God can take up to one full decade to answer a prayer, and that I wasn’t really anybody’s idea of a pretty girl so I was worried I needed a head start. I also told her about the green bike with the knobby tires and handlebar brakes. I told her I was worried I was pushing my luck praying for one thing I really wanted and one thing I absolutely did not.
Opal said God makes us in his image, and then we spend our entire lives trying to remake him in ours. She said I could pray for just the bike, and that I could wear pants to church while I did it. She said she was no one’s idea of a pretty girl either, and look at her now.
Oh, but she was beautiful to me.
I told Opal about my California Cabbage Fund; she gave me a ten dollar bill for it. And 25 years later, when I came home from backpacking all around western Europe, she took me to dinner in case I’d spent all my money the way she’d spent hers on her big vacation. (I had.)
When I visited Opal for the last time in her assisted living home, she asked me to bring her a chocolate milkshake, from McDonald’s. I knelt down in front of her wheelchair to give it to her. Her fingers were weak and her hands were shaking, but her gaze snapped to mine like a Lego.
“You never did get a husband, did you?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” I said, “But I did got a lot of bikes, and I’ve been to California a whole bunch.”
She chuckled, patted my face, kissed my hands. “Good,” she said. “Good.”
Aunt Opal passed away before she met my wife — but I think she knew I had one coming. I think she knew, all along, what I was really praying for.