When I was a boy growing up in Hyde Park, a community on the South Side of Chicago, our family belonged to the Trinity Episcopal Church. Father Anderson, the rector, was handsome, generous-hearted and kindly, and I wanted more than anything to win his approval. His wife, Elizabeth, was warm and gracious too. My own parents were okay, but they were—you know—parents.
Father Anderson “believed” in me and hoped I’d become a priest one day. He seemed to like my sense of humor too, not that his standards were too high—his favorite comedian was George Gobel of “Well, I’ll be a dirty bird!” fame.
I was both a choirboy and an acolyte, depending on the occasion, and I’m sure I looked positively angelic in my black cassock and white surplice. But I knew I was a pious phony and unworthy to gather up the crumbs under His table.
The worst day of the year was confession, especially when I became a teenager. The Anglican tradition doesn’t call for a confessional booth, so Father Anderson and I would sit side by side in a pew. After reciting a short prayer, he’d turn toward me and say: “So, is there anything you’d like to confess?”
“Yes…some things.” “What things?” “Oh, you know…’ “Maybe you could try to describe them.” ‘Okay. And I won’t do them again.” “Do what again?’ “The things I did.”
Drumming on the back of the pew: “It would be better if you confessed what they were—then we can begin the process of forgiveness.”
“Father, I broke the 10 Commandments, which I shouldn’t have done.”
“Which ones?” ‘Some of them, and I’m really sorry I did.” “Do you fail to honor your father and mother?” “Yes.” “How?” “I don’t honor them enough. Wish I did.” Long silence: “Have you ever taken something from a store without paying for it? Or is there anything you want to tell me about girls?”
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO TELL ME ABOUT GIRLS?
Had Father Anderson only known the sickening, monstrous secret that festered in my heart: I had a crush on his daughter, Stefanie, which is to say: I HARBORED LUSTFUL FEELINGS FOR HER.
Stefanie must have been in her early 20’s then, and she had lovely, dark eyes and an exquisitely luscious mouth and a slim waist that blossomed upward into what could only be a—well—heavenly fullness. Stefanie came to the 11:00 a.m. service every Sunday, sometimes sitting in the front pew, while I in the choir stalls was always praying—praying I’d catch a glimpse of a stockinged thigh as she crossed her legs (as was most of the choir, I should add.)
I was a total mess, confused and guilty about everything, and my prayers grew all knotted up and muddled, because I didn’t know whether to let God in on what I was really feeling—although, of course, I knew that He knew that I knew that there was nothing He Didn’t Know. I never figured out how to pray at bedtime either: Should I kneel or get in bed, close my eyes or keep them open, mouth the words or just think them with all my might, etc.
Not only was praying highly stressful, it was totally inconclusive. What I really wanted was to move in with the Andersons—a fantasy easy to bring to life: After a delicious pot roast and asparagus supper followed by homemade lemon layer cake, we’d watch the George Gobel Show, and Stefanie (in her bedtime jammies, of course) would curl up in my lap, her soft, sweet- smelling hair splashed across my chest. And, and, and….
The maddening, bizarre truth: I WAS IN LOVE WITH A WHOLE FAMILY!
I was also a pudgy teenager with troubled complexion, and I couldn’t help but picture how Father Anderson might react if I came clean about my illicit libidinous longings.
“Let me get this straight —you’re talking about my Stefanie? And you’ve imagined what?”
“Just crossed my mind…for a fleeting second….” “As you knelt and crossed yourself in our house of worship, no doubt.”
“Not in church or anything…maybe…when I was studying for exams…”
“This confession is over, young man. I’m appalled and revolted by everything I’ve heard here–and by your very presence, in fact. The gutter is where you belong. And don’t you ever dare have a lewd thought about my daughter again or lay an imaginary finger or her, or the Lord will strike you dead!”
“No, no….I wouldn’t…” “Now turn in your cassock and surplice, get out of the church, and STAY OUT!”
Well, none of that ever happened, of course, and the confessions always ended with me being forgiven for all my sins, generic as they were. Our family moved to Tallahassee after I graduated from high school, and Father Anderson later became a Bishop of a large diocese outside Chicago. I thought of the family fondly from time to time, and about five years ago—on a whim—I managed to track down Stefanie, who was living in a small town in Illinois. I wrote first, then gave her a call.
She sounded genuinely glad to hear from me—out-of-the-blue as it must have seemed—and I let her know how much her father had meant to me. Stefanie remembered me and my family very well, and she said Dad had once helped get her a job (he probably had the hots for her too).
Stefanie’s husband, a middle manager in a large corporation, died of lung cancer some years ago, and her two daughters are married with children. Father Anderson and Elizabeth moved to Cape May after he retired and lived happily there until he died at the age of 89—she, shortly afterward.
Not surprisingly, Stefanie’s very active in the local Episcopal Church and seems to lead a busy and rewarding life. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about my high school crush on her. We probably would have had a good laugh about it, but…she might have sized me up as a looney, lonely-guy loser nursing an 60-year infatuation and angling for an invitation to visit her. Of course, maybe that’s what I was hoping for.
Well. Painful but lovely memories. I still have the Bible Father Anderson gave me when I graduated high school, inscribed: “To Bob, from his pastor and–more important–his friend.” I always get teary when I read it. And I return again and again to those confessions, trying one more time to get it right. “I’m so sorry I have impure thoughts about your daughter,” I say, “Please forgive me.”
Father Anderson smiles slightly: “That’s okay. Stephanie could do a lot worse.”
Robert Strozier’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous publications including Atlantic, Esquire, The New Times Magazine, and The NYT Book Review. He’s had plays produced in NYC, and a musical he wrote (book and lyrics) has had five concert readings (theressomethingineedtotellyou.com). He also helped launch five national magazines, then served as Editor-in-Chief of two and a senior editor at the others.