Ten minutes before Sacrament meeting was scheduled to begin, Reed burst into the kitchen wearing his dark suit and an air of frustration. “What’s wrong?” I asked, pajama-clad, washing the thermometer for one of the sick kids.
“There’s no bread,” he said as he rummaged through our bread drawer. “Last week was General Conference and the teachers’ quorum presidency forgot to make the assignment. None of the advisors are at church yet, so the bishopric gets to fix the problem.” He shut the drawer and opened the freezer. Grabbing a frozen loaf, he shoved it into the microwave and set the defrost timer, then looked at his watch and shook his head.
I peeked out the front window, where I could see my 14-year-old son and his friend in the backseat of Reed’s car, looking only slightly sheepish.
When the timer beeped, Reed retrieved the bread and tucked it under his arm. Although exasperated, he paused to kiss me on his way out. “Good luck,” I said.
He rolled his eyes and forced a smile, then headed for the door.
A man spoke with God about heaven and hell. God said to the man, “Come, I will show you hell.”
They entered a room where a group of people sat around a huge pot of stew. Everyone was famished, desperate and starving. Each held a spoon that reached the pot, but each spoon had a handle so much longer than their own arm that it could not be used to get the stew into their own mouths. The suffering was terrible.
“Come, now I will show you heaven,” God said after a while. They entered another room, identical to the first — the pot of stew, the group of people, the long-handled spoons. But there everyone was happy and well-nourished.
“I don’t understand,” said the man. “Why are they happy here when they were miserable in the other room and everything was the same?”
The high school auditorium was dark and filled to capacity with fidgeting students, glad to have an excuse to miss class. I slumped in my seat in the sophomore section, contemplating a nap. Didn’t seem likely. Three enormous screens had been placed at the front of the auditorium along with towers of stereo speakers, and the principle was commanding our attention on stage.
“We’re pleased to share with you today a special multimedia presentation titled The Gift.”
For the next half-hour the screens flashed in rapid succession, forming familiar scenes: kids at school, opening books and lockers and soda cans; kids with troubled faces and jeering faces, kids banded together in tight groups with pointing fingers and kids sitting alone, heads bowed. Voiceovers gave snippets of inner monologue which revealed that, all appearances aside, everyone is hungry—desperately, gnawingly hungry—for acceptance and approval.
I groaned silently, knowing what would be next: some kind of “come together” montage. Sure enough. Covering all three screens, a dozen of the featured teens stood in a row. The sullen girl with huge hair turned to the football QB standing next to her and slowly hung a gold medal around his neck, Olympic-style. Then the QB turned to the skinny, pimply guy next to him and put a medal around his neck. And so on, and so on. Kids who’d barely looked at each other before, or who’d pelted each other with derision and scorn, now freely gave each other The Gift as (what else?) Foreigner boomed through the speaker towers:
I want to know what love is
I want you to show me
My heart pounded as I moved up in line, closer and closer to the white-robed priest holding a silver chalice. Spending the weekend with my Irish Catholic friend Erin, I’d vaguely suspected that I’d attend mass with them, but I hadn’t expected to be offered communion. At age ten it had been years since I’d stood before the Greek Orthodox priest, and I’d long since grown accustomed to the Mormon sacrament. I made Erin go first so I could see what to do.
When it was my turn, the priest gave me a brief look, then proffered the spoon. “The blood of Christ,” he said. I swallowed the sickly sweet wine, then opened my mouth again to receive the holy eucharist. “The body of Christ,” he said. I thought the wafer would taste and feel something like a water cracker, crisp and melty. But on my tongue it felt firm and synthetic, like a laminated cardboard disc.
I returned to my seat and watched the others receive communion. Hungry, I wishing there were baskets of rich bread chunks to choose from, like I remembered from the Greek service. But even as a ten-year-old, I noticed something poignant about all those people standing before the priest one by one, mouths open, being fed like children.
The therapist uncapped a green dry-erase marker and motioned toward the white board. “Okay, let’s draw the kids in your family. Who’s the oldest?”
“Elizabeth,” my son and daughter said simultaneously. The therapist drew a stick figure with long hair and a skirt.
“Who’s the next oldest?”
“Ben,” they said. The therapist drew a male stick figure, slightly shorter than the first. Then, as directed, she drew Andrew and Christine themselves, then Matt and Sam, and finally Thomas. The row of little green heads looked like descending stairs.
“Okay. Now, who picks on who?” she asked, uncapping a red marker.
Andrew and Christine looked at each other, then started to explain. The therapist drew curved red arrows to illustrate the pecking order. Elizabeth was rarely mean, but when she was, Ben was the target. Ben was mean to Andrew and Christine, who were both mean to Matt. In a cruel reverse move, Ben and Andrew sometimes got little Sam to be mean to Matt, too. (Nobody was mean to Thomas—yet.)
“Christine, how do you feel about all this?” the therapist asked, pointing to the pattern. Red arrows of hurt shooting from one sibling to the next
Christine’s lower lip started to tremble. “I feel sad,” she said.
We waited in silence for her to continue.
“It really hurts my feelings when Ben is mean to me, but then I do the same thing to Matt even though I know it’s wrong.” She began to cry in earnest. “I don’t want to be mean but I am anyway, and I don’t understand why. Matt doesn’t deserve to be picked on.” She sniffled a few times, then exhaled. “Nobody does.”
(from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, chapter 7, “How They Eat in Heaven”)
Turtle, wielding a chopstick in each hand, had managed to pick up a chunk of pineapple. Little by little she moved it upward toward her wide-open mouth, but the sticks were longer than her arms. The pineapple hung in the air over her head and then fell behind her onto the floor. We laughed and cheered her on, but Turtle was so startled she cried. I picked her up and held her on my lap.
“Tortolita, let me tell you a story,” Estevan said. “If you go to visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation. They are jibbering and jabbering, but they cannot get a bite of this wonderful stew God has made for them. Now, why is that?”
“Because they’re choking? For all eternity?” Lou Ann asked. Hell, for Lou Ann, would naturally be a place filled with sharp objects and small round foods.
“No,” he said. “Good guess, but no. They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles. As long as that.” He pointed to the mop, which I had forgotten to put away. “With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!”
“Now,” he went on,”you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat.”
“Real fat, or do you just mean well-fed?” Lou Ann asked.
“Just well-fed,” he said. “Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?”
He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.
Reed looked more tired than usual when he came home that afternoon. By 4 p.m. he’d already spent 10 hours at church that day, and after dinner would be heading back for a few more.
“How’d things turn out?” I asked. “With the sacrament, I mean.”
He sighed, then smiled—for real this time. “We started ten minutes late. What can you do?”
I smiled too, thinking of the young priests hastily assembling the slices of half-frozen bread on the stainless steel trays. During the sacrament hymn they’d have torn the white slices into bite-size pieces, and then, after the prayer of blessing, handed the trays to the deacons. One of the deacons, perhaps even Andrew, had offered a tray to the bishop and his counselors. Then the other deacons had passed the trays from row to row, and the ward family had eaten, holding the trays for each other, leaning with outstretched arms to close the gaps between families in the pews, offering each other The Gift.
I only hoped the bread had thawed soft by then.