‘I smell the devil. He’s been right here!’ My mom snapped her fingers just like Beulah did to validate that the devil’s presence had been wafting through our house.
Beulah played the piano at our church. She wasn’t an exceptional piano player, but she was exceptional at being dramatic. I was eavesdropping on my mom as she was telling my dad all about Beulah’s visit to our home earlier that day.
“…..and after she said, ‘I smell the devil,’ she sniffed like this.….” and then my mom sniffled real loud to give my dad the full essence of Beulah’s revelation. Beulah was the self appointed spiritual goddess of our church.
I was ten years old and I didn’t like Beulah too much. She yelled “amen” during the sermons like it was a competition and she barged in on everyone’s business.
When Beulah sat at the piano bench you couldn’t see any of the bench. She owned the spiritual presence not only where she sat, but all around her keyboard. Her shiny brown wig bobbled with each beat. And she wore custom made muppet colored kaftans with sleeves that fell right below her elbows, so that when she played a hymn they billowed in the wind as if God’s breath was behind each note.
I was kinda sorta interested in what my mom was telling my dad, just because I wanted to know why Beulah thought our house smelled like the devil. But I couldn’t hear everything my mom was saying.
It was hard to eavesdrop from my room. Well, it really wasn’t my room it was my sister’s room. My mom gave my bedroom away to a stranger. Her name was Sharon.
Sharon was a grown up. She was either thirty, forty, or fifty. When you are a kid all those grown up ages seem the same. I found out about Sharon one afternoon when my mom was making her cookies, her horrid never bake cookies.
“Sharon is going to come live with us.”
A little bead of sweat was forming above my mom’s lip, not because she was nervous about revealing this shift in our family dynamics. It was her cookie dough. It was tough like potters clay and required strong biceps because it was filled with dense ingredients, the ones kids hate like honey, oats, sticks, seeds, and carob.
“How long is she staying?” I asked.
“Until she finds a place of her own.”
I had a bedroom. My sister had a bedroom. And my brother slept in the craft room off the garage. I was pretty sure Sharon wouldn’t be asked to sleep in the craft room since it was drafty and had very little privacy.
And then I got this sinking feeling, “Where is she going to stay?”
“She’s going to have your room.”
“Why?” I tried not to cry.
My mom said nothing.
“I don’t want her to stay in my room.”
No comment (again). My mom continued grinding the dough.
And the no comment got me I had to scream, “WHY CAN’T SHE STAY AT HER OWN HOUSE!?”
“Because she can’t take care of herself right now she is mentally ill.” I sighed and walked away. I was used to this.
Mentally challenged folks weren’t new to me. Our mom made sure we learned about all walks of life. And my mom felt it was her calling in life to help those who weren’t as strong as we were.
The year before, when I was nine, we made a weekly trip to the state hospital. By “we” I mean our whole family.
My mom wanted mentally challenged deaf teenagers to be a part of our family for church each Sunday. She also wanted them to go on a picnic with us after service since the kids had no family of their own. So she coordinated with the state hospital. The hospital would have a group of kids ready for us Sunday mornings, the only thing, we had to be flexible because the hospital would determine what kids could come with us for the day. And it changed a lot.
I learned sign language over a period of a few months. And signing became standard practice in our home. There was no more vocal-only conversations. If I asked my mom anything verbally she’d reply, “I’m not going to answer your question unless you sign and talk at the same time.” And that little rule turned me into a badass nine year old signer.
On Sundays two hours before church our family would pile in the van squishing two ice chest between the back seats. We drove 45 minutes to the state hospital to pick up our kids. Our conversation en route would be about which kids we thought the state would allow us to have that particular Sunday.
One of us would say, “I hope we get Nancy today.” Nancy followed rules. She smiled. And she wasn’t a runner.
Runners were the kids who at anytime got an impulse to jump up like rocket fuel lit their ass and take off down the street. This was my dad’s to handle. He’d yell, “Hey! Hey! Come back here.” And then he’d remember they were deaf and he’d sprint off after them.
Once the kids got in the van they’d frantically sign while pointing to the ice chests. The ice chests had our picnic food. The kids didn’t have an opportunity to make choices in life, so our mom stuffed the ice chests with a variety of sandwiches so they would feel empowered to choose tuna or peanut butter and jelly .
Sometimes we’d have to explain what tuna was and sometimes we’d have to open up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to show them what was on the bread.
The kids would get so wrapped up during the sandwich convo a lot of times they forgot they had to go to church first. That could lead to a meltdown or an ‘accident’ in protest which lead to a restroom detour before service. We never knew what to expect based on the varying degrees of illness.
But finally after we did three hour church – it was picnic time! We usually chose a vacant park. Because well, a picnic of mentally challenged deaf teens can be a little scary if you aren’t used to it and we didn’t want other families bothering us or the kids.
We finished playing in the park around 3:00, we’d pack up the ice chests and blankets and return the kids to the hospital. We drove home fulfilled but exhausted. We did this for about a year and then eventually we stopped. Well not stopped working with mentally challenged people, because my mom would never stop that which is probably why Sharon came to live with us.
My mom took Sharon to a lot of doctors appointments and she hung around the family a bit. She smoked cigarettes and had a bad cough, and then something happened with her bladder because when she coughed she would pee my bed.
I sat down next to the crack of the door trying to hear more about the devil conversation.
”…and then she came up the stairs and stood right here….and she smelled him, the devil, right here…” I could imagine my mom spreading her arms wide and gesturing as she turned side to side.
We talked about the devil a lot in church. Almost as much as we talked about Jesus. Beulah was big on getting rid of the devil and we even burned our books in the fireplace because the church thought that would help get rid of any evil we might have lurking in our house.
As my mom continued to talk it made me wonder what did the devil smell like? Did the devil smell like cooked broccoli? Or brussel sprouts? Or a really bad egg fart?
Our church was, well, not a normal church. It was a fringe church, which is a church that isn’t mainline like Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran etc. Our church was like a Houdini magic show.
You know that feeling when you go to a magic show? You’re expecting to see something spectacular – so spectacular that you’d have to scratch your head and say, “Wow! How did that happen?” That’s what I felt each service was like. And that’s what I was waiting for, something spectacular!
Magic time was at the end of every sermon. The preacher would say, “Anyone that needs God to heal them, come up front,” and then he’d add to the plea, “Come up front NOW!”
I’d almost get a spooky scary feeling like being at a haunted house. I’d scoot to the edge of the pew and peek between the big hair people in front of me to get an eye on those going up front for a healing prayer. And then I get bummed out.
It was ALWAYS the same lady. And she always wanted the same thing for God to heal – a headache. This was NOT what I was wanting God to heal. I wanted someone who got their arm shot off in a robbery to have the preacher to pray and ask God to grow a whole new arm outta their stump. Then that way we could all see some God awesomeness. But that never happened.
The headache lady would stand in front of the preacher holding a squished kleenex. As the preacher started praying Beulah would play a sad slow hymn and her kaftan sleeves billowed with each beat. Then the church people would start to pray too. All at once. Out loud. Not like the Lord’s Prayer, more like made up stuff. Everyone prayed with their own words. Some people cried their words real loud, others bowed their head and sniffled their words into a kleenex, and people like me said nothing but waited for the spectacular. Once the prayers got loud enough and the preacher felt the frenzy had the right energy he would look at the headache lady and proclaim, “You’re healed!”
I was tired of God healing headaches. I kept waiting for that robbery victim with one arm. And that made me think maybe Beulah smelled the devil because I was ungrateful for headache prayers or maybe because I was tired of Sharon peeing my bed and I wanted my room back.
My mom kept going, “…and then when she got right here she said, ‘I smell him, he’s been right here, and he’s wanting your husband’…”
“Awh c’mon,” my dad said.
“….and she said….I can see her, she’s walking around your house in her nightie…”
So that was it! This was another way the devil could get into our lives. Sex. The devil was part of sex. And something with nighties and sex was making the devil smell. I knew that wasn’t me. The church had trained us well in covering up our body.
If the church wanted the youth group to meet at the lake to swim, play games and roast hot dogs, we could not swim with the boys. Bad things could happen. So the boys would have to go to one side of the lake and the girls at the other. If we all swam together a boy’s penis might fly off and swim right up to a girl and get her pregnant.
But the church added a layer of devil security. Just in case a boy might see us across the lake we were asked to wear a one piece swim suit (because only dirty girls wore two pieces) and we wore a T-Shirt over our swim suit. This was AT ALL TIMES. And in case you are wondering the T-Shirt stayed on even when we swam just in case that detached flying penis had a seeing eye camera with recording capabilities.
Our church was good about telling us how to give the devil no place in our lives. And our family followed all the rules, we burned our books in the fireplace, we wore one pieces with T-Shirts, and we volunteered and helped folks that most people in the church were scared of. I couldn’t figure out what Beulah was smelling.
I can tell you this, it wasn’t long after Beulah’s visit to our home that I got my room back and my mom went on to find her next person to help, Ms. Sandretto. Ms. Sandretto was our homeless babysitter. She wanted my bedroom real bad, but my mom never offered it to her. A little part of me thinks I have Beulah’s nose to thank for that.