I liked going to church when I was little because I’d see my friends and I liked, to some extent, dressing up once a week. I didn’t like listening to the sermons in the early part of the morning, before we broke up for classes, and Mama was always telling me to sit still, which didn’t seem necessary to me as long as I didn’t make noise.
But the music was great. I knew some of the hymns by heart and I wanted to sing with the choir. But by the time I was old enough, I was too ensconced in getting good enough grades to gain college entrance to allow taking on additional activities.
The first memory I have of Sunday school was being in a class with other kids when I was five. The teacher “Sister” Naomi Henry (Mormons titled all the women “Sister” and all the men “Brother”), a gentle, perceptive woman with short sandy red hair and freckles, asked me my name, and I responded, “First name, or middle name?” She smiled, as this was not what she expected from a five-year-old, and said, “First name.” So, I told her “Carol.” And this was true, but, no one ever called me Carol. I was named for my Aunt Carol, my dad’s sister (who decades later lied in court in order to obtain my small inheritance from my grandmother), and after my mother, Frances.
I always felt a little guilty that I was pulling the wool over people’s eyes at church. In a way this was appropriate since in the long run, this was not where I belonged, but it was also the beginning of my own developing sense of spirituality. I did feel that when they called me Carol, they were addressing the Christian polio girl, and when people called me Francine, they were addressing the real polio girl. So, my relationship with the church was a little schizy from the get-go.
In Sister Henry’s class at one point, we were asked to make up a story and draw pictures on the blackboard. We were somewhere in or near the Christmas season, and I made up a story about Christmas trees in the woods waiting to be chopped down and taken to someone’s home. I drew several symmetrical trees, but there was one little tree that was lopsided and crooked and was the last to be chosen. Finally, someone loved it and took it home to decorate with holiday splendor. I saw the look on Sister Henry’s face when I finished the story; it was tender and understanding. I had not seen that I had been telling a story that could be about me, but the look on her face communicated that to me and I knew, even at five, that I’d described myself unintentionally. I always gravitated to underdog stories where the least likely but most sincere somehow won out, and that’s all I’d done, make up a story like you’d see on “Lassie,” “My Friend Flicka,” or “Fury” on TV. I hadn’t known where I was going with it until I started drawing on the blackboard.
I had kept a secret—that I actually went by my middle name—and conversely, revealed a private feeling about my handicap, within a very short time in my early Sunday school life.