An Excerpt from Prodigal Father Wayward Son

safe_imageChapter 2


In the little world in which children have their existence…

there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.

— Charles Dickens

Somehow, at a very early age, I became confused about the exact nature of the relationship between you and God.

My earliest memories are of a two-story redbrick house perched on a corner lot on a sleepy tree-lined street in Louisville, Kentucky, where we lived from the time I was two until I was eight. Mom stayed home with the kids while you spent your days teaching at the Presbyterian Seminary. Unsurprisingly, given your profession, religion was big in the Keen household: Bible stories, Sunday school, church every Sunday.

At the time, I was most familiar with the Old Testament, and I doubt I ever went so far as to think you actually were God. But it did seem to my young mind that you and God were much better acquainted with each other than I was with either one of you. Adding to my confusion was the apparently large number of character traits you had in common with Him.

First off, you were large and powerful with a huge voice. Omnipotent and omniscient. A stern and judgmental taskmaster, you were commonly absent, and unaccountably uninterested in my travails — much as God often seemed unconcerned with the plight of the Hebrews. Like God, you would descend at irregular intervals, sometimes lighting up the whole house with laughter and affection. When I nestled in your shoulder on Thursday nights to watch The Rifleman on TV, or sat in your lap while you told stories of fire fairies, I felt safe and warm, protected by your love. But at other times, your anger shook our home to the fundaments, leaving me sure I would be transformed into a pillar of salt.

I never knew which face you would show, beneficent or wrathful. And I could never determine any rhyme or reason to these moods — you were simply a force of nature. But as children do, I assumed I was responsible for your fits of temper.

In the end, although I didn’t quite think you a deity, I did come to the conclusion that you were more like God than I was like you. This did not, unfortunately, result in the kind of respect or adoration I know you would have liked. Quite the opposite, as I became deeply troubled by Christianity at an early age.

Mom used to read to me almost every morning before school from a big picture book of Bible stories for kids. Normally it was a happy moment in the day; I would sit in her lap and enjoy her attention. But one morning, when I was five, she chose the story of Abraham and Isaac. Before we were halfway through, I was asking questions like, “What’s a burnt offering?” and “What does God mean by ‘sacrifice’?” I don’t know whether she was unsettled or not, but she pressed on, and there on the last page was a horrifying drawing of little Isaac, bound and helpless, lying on a pile of wood. Abraham had this huge knife about two inches from poor little Isaac’s throat, and it was obvious that the glowing angel staying Abraham’s hand hadn’t intervened until the last second.

In the picture, it looked like Abraham was fighting the angel.

I remember my head spinning all day at school. This was deeply screwed up — I mean, what about you? Would you slit my throat and burn me to a crisp if God told you to? In this context, the perception that you were on better terms with God than with me wasn’t exactly reassuring. And what if the angel were late? Or God had forgotten to send him? And what kind of God would do something so obviously wrong?

I tried to forget about it, but the lingering suspicion that you would sacrifice my life to God’s whim made a lasting impression, and I made a serious mental note to avoid taking long walks with you.

As it turns out, I was right to be suspicious. Less than six years later you did sacrifice me, and the rest of the family, on the altar of your quest for personal freedom. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I remember the event that finally catalyzed the differentiation in my mind between you and God. It was a traumatic experience that at some level set us against each other and would haunt our relationship for decades to come.

This was the incident of “The Egg.”

In the summer of 1966, when I was six, you bought a used VW van, removed the backseat, and replaced it with a wooden platform topped with a mattress — then packed up the family and headed out for a cross-country driving trip. There were no seatbelt laws in those days so as we drove from place to place, my sister and I frolicked on the double bed in the back of the van, playing games of our own devising. I periodically retired to the rectangular bin above the engine to sleep or read.

One early afternoon, somewhere in Middle America where it was flat, hot, and forested with large, deciduous trees, we stopped for lunch. Imagine the scene: the shiny VW van sitting in a field a hundred yards from a busy freeway, a checkered blanket stretched in the shade of a nearby tree with the remnants of our picnic lunch deserted along its margins. We were resting off the food, avoiding the moment when we would get back in the car. Mom had wandered off into the nearby woods in search of momentary privacy.

And then you called me. “Son, come over here this instant.”

Your voice was low and dangerous, laced with ominous undertones, and I was already afraid by the time I came to where you were standing.

“What’s this?”

You were pointing to the ground. And then I saw it: The Egg, an otherwise insignificant hardboiled egg, peeled and partially eaten, then rejected and inadequately concealed, abandoned with radioactive disregard behind the back wheel of the van.

“Why did you throw your egg in the dirt? You know we don’t waste food.”

“It’s not mine. I ate my egg.”

“Don’t lie.”

“I’m not,” I pleaded, lower lip quivering. “Mom saw me eat it.”

You lost it. Before I knew it, you were standing over me screaming at the top of your lungs, fists clenched, face red, the tendons in your neck stretched tight, like steel cords — as if you were channeling the very wrath of God.

Then you forced me to eat the egg. By the time I lifted it from the ground, it was covered with dirt. Twigs clung to the gummy surface. There were ants crawling on the partially masticated, pale yellow yolk. And you wouldn’t even let me clean it off. It was a lesson. Children were starving in India. I would never be a Man if I didn’t learn to tell the truth and own up to my mistakes.

I ate that damn egg. Dirt, sticks, ants, and all. All the while sobbing so hard I was afraid I would puke, begging you to relent, or at least to wait till Mom came back from taking a piss and ask her.

A few minutes after the deed was done, Mom returned to find me in tears, you in a rage, and my poor sister, Lael, cowering by the corner of the van.

“Gifford ate his egg,” she told you. “It must be Lael’s.”

There was a note of admonition in her voice.

Fury thwarted, you turned on Mom. “Well, where the hell were you?”

“I was trying to squat somewhere the passing cars couldn’t see up my pussy,” she shouted. Mom almost never spoke back to you, especially in front of the kids, and I remember it well because it was the first time I’d ever heard the word “pussy.”

After a tense silence, you turned away.

I thought then that you would admit your mistake and try to make amends, or at least that you would smite my sister, the true perpetrator of the heinous deed. But all you did was mumble something vaguely accusatory in her direction; then we got back in the van and drove away.

You never even said you were sorry.

For years the incident of the Egg loomed large in my psyche as a story of injustice. Not only was I falsely accused and received punishment disproportionate to the crime, but when the true culprit was uncovered, she was let off with nothing more than a weak reprimand. (It took a long time to realize that of all of us, this incident was probably the most traumatic for her — but that’s another story.)

It wasn’t until I had children of my own that I asked a much more obvious question: Why were you flying into a murderous rage, screaming at a six-year-old, humiliating him, making him eat dirt and ants — all over a five-cent egg?

Why were you so often angry with me when I was young?

Read the prologue

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