I grew up in Beaumont, Texas and lived in a neighborhood full of kids who were told what we almost never hear anymore: "Get out of this house and GO PLAY!" Sometimes the mothers would get together for coffee at the kitchen table of one or the other's house and while some were closer than others, no doubt there was a fair amount of gossip among all of them that was bound to have occurred on any given day. And for sure one of their favorite things to talk about was the fact Ann King was pregnant AGAIN. The King's lived next door to my family and their oldest, a daughter named Beth, was my age and a favorite playmate of mine for jacks and baby dolls and coloring books.
Beth also had two sisters, Peggy and Patty and two brothers, James and Michael, who was too little to play outside without his mother. Beth was crossed eyed and she wore glasses. She was the only kid in the neighborhood who did. And she was the only kid who wore white socks and shoes even in hot summer when the rest of us were going barefoot, stepping on bees, broken glass, and oyster shells and getting cuts and stings and stubbed toes.
The King's were "different." Any woman in the neighborhood would tell you that. To start with they were Catholic and they had "ALL THOSE KIDS!" Horror of horrors! If you grew up where there were many Catholic families, say, New York or New Jersey, then this may not make sense, but where I lived Catholics were a rare breed. They were frowned on and mocked and joked about. All in fun, don't you know. Everybody knew they worshiped statues and said prayers to people who weren't Jesus and they couldn't have a hamburger on Friday. I was told to not go in Beth's house to play with her toys. NOT that I would have been asked to go in there. If you were a kid, which I was, your place was in the yard unless you had to pee and then you went home for that. In the King house there were crosses and statues and "lord knows what else" that a kid like me shouldn't be exposed to.
St. Anne's Catholic Church on the corner of
Calder and 11th Street in Beaumont, Texas
Mostly all the kids on the block went to the same school I attended, all but the King family, who went to St. Anne's Catholic School, which was "simply ridiculous since there is a perfectly good public school a lot closer to us," The coffee drinkers would say, "Why on earth she wants to put her kids through all that driving around is beyond me. And, you know the grandmother is paying for it. There's no way Jimmy makes enough money to pay for ALL THOSE KIDS to be in private school."
The King's had one of the rare swing sets in the neighborhood--a piece of equipment I never owned, which left me always hoping I'd be invited to have a ride on someone else's. The swing set was a gift from Grandma King, probably. They also had a blue parakeet and on one very very rare occasion I was asked inside for my very first Twinkie ever. I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever eaten. My mother didn't bake, nor did she waste money on store bought cakes or pastries. If you wanted something sweet in my house, you ate Mayhaw jelly on a saltine cracker, or fig preserves or licked a spoonful of the sugar cane syrup that was always on the shelf in the refrigerator. A Twinkie was the last thing you'd ever have found in our pantry. I remember sitting at the table with Beth savoring every dear and delicious bite of my Twinkie thinking how nice it is that we are all sitting here together in our places being nice to each other in this tidy space and not "getting food and mess all over the place in that tiny little kitchen" as I had been led to believe would be the case by the coffee drinkers if, that is, anyone ever imagined what it would be like "to have to feed that army of kids on a regular basis."
The King's had Christmas lights on their long front porch at Christmas, when no one else in the neighborhood did and while I didn't go inside to examine it, though I wanted to very badly, they had a Nativity Set, no doubt the only one on the block. Beth held open her front door and pointed to it on the top of their piano so I would know what it was. To me it was a delightful Jesus doll house and I couldn't imagine why we all didn't get to have one. What was that all about? Dolls are ok and Jesus is ok, but "we are not having statues in this house and that's the last I want to hear about it and don't you go in there and touch it, you hear me?" Such admonition of course made me desire it all the more and I had Beth describe each figure in great detail and how they were to be arranged.
There came the time when Beth received her First Communion---a word I did not know but was told by her how special it was. I was convinced of that because the occasion came with a scapular that she wore secretly under her shirt and only pulled it out to give me a peek, and a most beautiful little white covered book with a bulging front cover in which there was a tiny white statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.I had no idea what Blessed or Virgin was, but if you had such a title it must be special, or at least I thought so. Beth let me hold the book and turn a few pages, but she wasn't supposed to have it outside and let it get dirty so it went back in the house in short order. I had maybe only a minute or two with that little prayer book in my hands, but the effect it had on me was to change my life.
I wondered how could it be that being Catholic was so bad when Beth seemed so happy and loved and cared for. Her parents took care of her in ways none of the rest of us were. Not only were her physical needs met---eyeglasses, socks and shoes to protect her tender feet, but she was loved and nurtured, spoiled and pampered with treats and goodies and playthings. Beyond all that and most important, I knew Jesus in her house had a whole other meaning for her family than it did for mine.
The King's moved when I was about eight or nine. "Well, is anybody surprised? The house was bulging at the seams with all those KIDS!" No more was I to get an annual glimpse of the Nativity Set through the front door. No more would I have the opportunity to talk to someone about big words like scapular and communion and blessed; however, no one could take from me the memory or the desire to know more about them. I eventually had other Catholic friends who were part of devout Catholic families, devout not being a term you could use when referring to my own family which went to church now and then but not with any degree of regularity. "If you believe you are saved then you don't have anything to worry about and most of those people are there just to show off anyway."
When I was in college several of my sorority sisters were Catholic and they went to mass together carrying Catholic books of some kind, exactly what I did not know, and wearing lace over their hair. I imagined Beth at the time was somewhere doing the same and that she would have known about all the things in these books they carried. Beth wore glasses to correct her vision, but she had also been given a lens on the world and on heaven to see what I could not see and a clarity of truth even as a child, that I was not able to recognize.
Beth had been given the kind of "glasses" which guided her life as surely as the focus knob on a projector or a flashlight in the dark, helping her to avoid the real dangers in this world and in the next. I read recently that God will give us enough light to find our way to the truth if we desire it. Beth was that little light for me which never went out.
Years went by and as it always does, life took its twists and turns. When I was 21, I made the decision to pursue instruction in the Catholic faith. I was blessed to become a Catholic that summer and when I walked down the aisle a year later to marry a Catholic I loved (and still do), it was the aisle of the same St. Anne's Catholic Church Beth and her family had attended when we were children together. Beth King without ever knowing it was an evangelist of the best kind, one who was truly happy to be Catholic and completely unashamed to let it show. Each of us is the light for someone whether we ever know it or not. Never hesitate to let it shine!