Book Review: Night Bloom, A Memoir by Virginia Redfield
By Mary Ickes
Ms. Redfield writes in her bio that . . . Even in my earliest memories, I struggled against the killing literalism of my mother’s fundamentalist faith. She vividly recalled her mother, Iva, praying over her at night: The weight of her body over mine as she fell to her knees, her hands gripping the far side of the cot. Her head pressed into my stomach, as she sobbed, her breath coming in spasms. Iva frequently re-dedicated Virginia’s life to God, declaring, like Abraham, “I am willing to lower the knife, O God, . . . if that’s what it takes.” The nightly prayer vigils ended when Virginia was six or seven, but Iva relentlessly crusaded to keep her daughter safe and godly.
Virginia and her parents lived in Miami, Florida, where her father earned a good living in the real estate business. Mister, his nickname for her, indicated that, as an only child, she also fulfilled his wish for a son: It never bothered me – I knew he loved me – but it was strange. Virginia happily accompanied him to the barber shop on Saturday mornings and then to the ice cream shop where, her flavor finally decided, her father grandly commanded, “Give’r a double dip, Carl.” Baby, Iva’s nickname, constantly reinforced her belief that she must control Virginia’s life, down to the most trivial detail, lest she stray from the spiritual path. Virginia’s father rarely agreed to interfere; in religious matters, he counseled, “Keep her happy, Mister. Keep her happy.”
For direction in shepherding Virginia, Iva switched to the Central Church of the Nazarene. Instead of the Sunday morning service where, Virginia noticed, the people came to Church peaceful and left content with themselves, she and her mother attended services twice on Sundays, on Wednesday nights, and a cottage (home) prayer meeting on Friday nights. Virginia writes, I had no idea how much the change would affect my life.
She soon noticed that, in a place that was to be safe . . . danger hovered continually. Lest his flock tumble into Miami’s hell hole, Brother Pendry preached fire and brimstone with a dragon’s ferocity. His Sunday evening sermons, which he referred to as the mourner’s bench, exhorted them to choose between, in the spiritual sense, the angelic death of Carolina, his daughter who died from cancer, and the electric chair death of murderess Winnie Ruth Judd. Hundreds of angels, he assured them, hovered around Caroline, despite the overpowering stench of rotting flesh. Angels, however, ignored Winnie Ruth Judd’s sizzling end.
People choosing an angelic death might be rewarded sooner than expected by the Rapture, that glorious day when Jesus selects his Bride (the faithful people) and ascends with them to heaven for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Brother Pendry described the torment and tortures awaiting sinners left behind. Desperate for Caroline’s angelic death, Virginia made altar calls even though she lied when she proclaimed, “God saves me.”
Hopes that she might be forgiven were shaken by Brother Fuggett’s sermon about another danger, the unpardonable sin. A revival preacher, he roared, “Whatever you do in your daily walk . . . somewhere down the road there is a line – invisible to the human eye – and when you walk over that line, you are forever beyond God’s mercy.” Virginia, like everyone else, stampeded to the altar, even though she wondered how she was responsible for invisible danger.
Back in church, Brother Pendry defined a danger easily seen by women: If [your] hearts are right with God, it should show on the outside. Dark, modest high-necked dresses with sleeves below the elbows and hems at mid-calf; no makeup; long hair pinned into a neat bun; and no open-toed shoes confirmed that women were right with God.
Once again, a revival preacher endorsed Brother Pendry. Preaching on I Timothy, Brother Tidwell, glaring at the women, demanded, “Why do you need a wedding band, Sister, to let people know you are married? What about those little children hanging to your skirts? Aren’t they wedding rings enough? . . . God is always in the soul-saving business, but tonight is for you women who are still hanging on, proud and stiff-necked, to your diamonds, your pearls, and your wedding bands. . . . God will be pleased . . . if you come down to the altar tonight and surrender your adornments.” Most of the women, including Iva, complied.
Forced to dress accordingly, Virginia writes: I knew I looked funny in school – my dresses, expertly made by Mama, looked ridiculous . . . . Nobody was mean to me. They just didn’t notice that I was there. Iva’s crusade against the school’s mandatory black shorts and sleeveless shirts for gym class probably still echoes through the legend and lore of the Miami School System.
At home, the Nazarene teachings translated into lonely isolation for Virginia.
(To be fair, Ms. Redfield presents plenty of evidence that many Nazarene parents were more lenient than Iva.) She could not join school activities, including the band and Girl Scouts. In the second grade, Virginia rushed home with the glorious news that she was to play an Easter egg in the school pageant. Iva marched her back to school and confronted Miss Howard, the teacher: “We are Christians. We don’t believe in worldly things like plays and frivolous stories.” Miss Howard never spoke to Virginia again.
School social functions assuredly encouraged sin, dancing promoted lust, movie theaters were sin pits. Virginia had no playmates; Iva naturally assumed that non-Nazarene children were ungodly and Nazarene children might sin at home, like the Russell girls who displayed their elbows and attended football games.
Iva never relented as Virginia progressed through grade school, middle school, and senior high; Virginia, except for minor infractions and one major offense, never rebelled.
One Wednesday evening, sarcastic sneers greeted a mother requesting prayers for her errant son. Iva, at her self-righteous best, related her experience of transforming Virginia from a child rooted in sin to an obedient daughter. Overhearing a rebellious remark, Iva started her campaign: “It’s a terrible thing for a child to grow up wild and willful. Obedience is the key to knowing His will. When I call you in or ask you to do something, you must obey at once. Do you understand?” No sooner was Virginia settled in her mulberry tree than her mother called. As quickly as possible, she climbed down and ran across the yard into the house; Iva forced her to kneel for another sermon because she had not obeyed immediately. Lessons continued until Virginia, exhausted and frantic, broke into hysterical sobbing. Iva rejoiced, “Bless God . . . I have won.”
Virginia cringed in shame and humiliation as her mother pontificated: I hated her . . . I wanted to stand up and scream. . . I learned that day what I had to give her to keep on living. She was wrong about one thing: she didn’t get all of me. I squatted. I never knelt. I never knelt. Beneath the appearance of the dutiful daughter that Iva demanded, Virginia . . . kept a small piece of [herself], a piece [her mother] couldn’t see.
Within that small piece, Reading Friends, Ms. Redfield, like her metaphorical night-blooming jasmine, nurtured the knowledge, courage, determination, and other blossoms that prepared her for the life she intended to escape. On first reading, I must admit, I zoomed right by the blossoms because I was so engrossed in her story solely as a religious primer. He/she did what? They really were that insensitive? Then, with a full perspective, I noticed all sorts of blossoms.
Ms. Redfield’s clear, concise prose makes the complex levels of her story readily accessible. Her description of Brother Pendry is scant – light brown hair falling over his face, a scar running from the side of his mouth toward his eye, a limp – but when she notes that, while preaching, he paces and bangs his cane on the altar rail and that spittle runs from the sides of his mouth, his presence looms. Likewise with Brother Tidwell, a big, rude man with blue eyes; as a preacher: The veins on Brother Tidwell’s forehead stood out as big as spaghetti and his face looked like he had spent the day at the beach. That’s how red it was. Heck, I was ready to throw my rings and jewelry into his basket.
Humor glimmers throughout. When she overhears Sister Harper confide to the Prayer Warriors (Iva’s prayer group) that her husband gave her crabs, Virginia is puzzled: Why did they think it was so horrible? Crabs ran all over the sand at the beach. Who would bring crabs home? And why? We never ate crabs, but I heard that other people did. Imagine Brother Brown’s jolt when Virginia, interpreting her innocent crush on him as adultery, asks to confess her sin before the congregation.
Minute details Virginia recalls prove her remarkable perception, especially about Jack, her father’s employee: I loved Jack – his shiny, crinkled face and his gentle ways. Sensitive about names because her parents never used her real name, she asks Jack about his last name. He replies, “All cullud men be Jack. . . . My name be Moss–Ben Moss.” When Virginia asks her father why he doesn’t use Jack’s real name, Iva cuts her off in a tone brooking no argument. Years later, Virginia helps people like Ben earn well-deserved respect.
Beyond Nazarene teachings, Virginia never pondered forgiveness, a crucial blossom to nurture for a fulfilled life. Leaving home indicated that glorious moment she escaped Iva’s domination. The morning she leaves for college, Iva asks Virginia to play a hymn so they can sing together one last time. As she plays, her father’s hand gripping her right shoulder and Iva . . . determined to meet this separation with all the courage she could muster, Virginia realizes how deeply she loves them in ways that she never before perceived, leaving her confused and bewildered.
With the wisdom and insight granted by time and distance, Ms. Redfield finally confronted her painful childhood in Night Bloom: A Memoir; the conclusion she draws about her parents opens the book: Dedicated with Love to My Mother and Father.
Night Bloom: A Memoir is currently available only in e-book format that may be purchased at www.virginiaredfield.com and other web sites.
On Ms. Redfield’s website are pictures of Virginia as a child, and of her parents that add to her story’s insight.
A Tribute Reading will be held on Thursday, September 20, 2012, at the Laurel Forum Room, UNCA Campus. Area authors will read one page of the book and offer their thoughts about the book’s extraordinary values. Participants are Rick Chess, Christian Hale, Tommy Hays, Elizabeth Holden, Holly Iglesias, Elizabeth Kostova, Sebastian Matthews, Catherine Reid, Janet Shaw,
View From My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Was July WNC Woman great or what! Glorious articles about cats, dogs, and other wonderful creatures. So why didn’t Mary review a book about animals for that issue?
Beats me, but I’ll make sure that oversight is corrected next year. On her behalf, I’m open to suggestions by authors living in WNC and her regional neighbors.