When I was two-and-a-half, I was baptized. I didn’t like it.
The facts of the offending event: June 5, 1955. St. John’s, Alamogordo, New Mexico. Episcopal, of course. My uncle, The Reverend Al Babbitt, Rector.
Although he was a towering man, my uncle was gentle with me. I liked him. He looked like the wise bird in my picture book, so I thought this kind giant’s name was… Owl.
Episcopalians are rarities west of the Mississippi, and Uncle Owl, a middle-aged lawyer, was new to the priesthood, so he had scant experience baptizing little girls. Especially little girls in VERY special dresses.
My dress was a VERY special dress with a history. My mother had paid an extravagant sum for the dress. It was made of the stiffest crinoline overlying petticoats that made it stick out from my body at a ninety degree angle. Had you stood me on my head, I would have looked like a frilly, white mushroom with two match sticks poking out of the top.
My mother was indecently proud of the dress.
My father’s older sister did not know that my mother had purchased a dress- THE dress- for my baptism. Aunt Doris was a seamstress, and she created a lovely baptismal dress for me. When she presented the dress to my mother, my mother was stunned. She didn’t want me to wear Aunt Doris’s dress. She had already purchased THE dress I was to wear. After Aunt Doris left, my mother had a conniption.
For days, my mother and father pleaded and argued with each other. I was two-and-a-half. They didn’t realize that I was listening to every word. I didn’t understand everything, but I understood enough: that the critical element of my upcoming baptism was my attire. My daddy wanted me to wear the dress that his sister had made for me. My mother wanted me to wear the dress that she had purchased. My mother won. If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
The morning of my baptism, my mother dressed me in THE dress, ruffled panties, lacy anklets, and Mary Janes. She braided my hair into two tiny pigtails. But before we left the hotel for my uncle’s church, a gentle rain began to fall. My mother was aghast. “We mustn’t let your dress get wet!” she cried; in only moments, the rain would wilt the starched, stiff crinoline. We watched the sky anxiously. Finally, the rain stopped, and we hurried to the church.
When we got to my uncle’s church, I saw the bowl of punch for the post-baptismal reception. I asked my mother for a sip. She said I couldn’t have any because “We mustn’t let your dress get wet!”
I asked to go pee-pee. She hustled me off to the bathroom, held up my dress to keep it dry while I settled myself on the toilet, and then when she helped me wash my hands, warned, “We mustn’t let your dress get wet!”
Finally, with my dress pristine, we entered the nave of the church. We settled ourselves on the first row. The music started, and Uncle Owl processed down the aisle while the choir sang. He did lots of things that my priest back home did, but then he did something different. He told my parents to bring me to him where he stood by a big, tall bowl of water. He said some words I didn’t understand, and my daddy handed me to him. He wrapped his long left arm around me.
Surprised, I looked back at my daddy. I turned and looked at Uncle Owl. I followed his gaze down to the big bowl of water. And then I realized the worst: Uncle Owl intended to put me in that big bowl of water. So I looked him square in the eye and shouted, “Don’t get my dress wet!”
I left the church that day, a Child of God with a dry dress. A beautiful, stiff crinoline dry baptismal dress. A loud, opinionated Child of God.
I am still a loud, opinionated Child of God. But now that I am old, I don’t worry about getting my dress wet. In fact, I make a point to dip my fingers into the Holy Water when I enter church. I dip them in all the way to my palm. Then I liberally wet my forehead, my bellybutton, and my left and right shoulders. Those little wet spots are a tribute to God; to loud, opinionated little girls in crinoline dresses; and by no means least, to Uncle Owl, smiling down at me from Heaven. And still laughing.