My family never talked about underwear.
We purchased it. We wore it. We laundered it. We even mended it. When it wore out, we disposed of it. But, for us, our unmentionables truly were unmentionable.
This taboo has had an enormous impact on my life, starting at age ten, when my inability to broach this topic caused my baptism to be delayed.
By thirty-five years.
As children, my sisters and I attended Linden Avenue Baptist church. Every Sunday, while the choir sang "The Old Rugged Cross" or "Onward, Christian Soldiers," the minister made an altar call. Upon reaching her tenth birthday, each of my older sisters answered that call, sailing down the aisle to be blessed and prayed over and scheduled for her turn in the washtub of salvation.
After I grew up, I went back to visit. The church not particularly large, but when I was a child it seemed huge. The sanctuary looked big enough to hold an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an impression reinforced by the stinging odor of chlorine that filled the air on quarterly baptism days. Beyond a window arch at the back of the altar was a wall of celestial blue. Inside the window lay the baptism pool. On the big day, illuminated by a few well-placed lights, freshly laundered Christians emerged from the pool, sopping wet, but safe from Satan.
One after another, each of my sisters appeared in that archway, dressed in a gauzy robe and cradled in Dr. Parr's ample arms. He asked each of them three questions: Do you believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God and your personal savior? Yes! Do you renounce Satan and all of his ways? Oh, yes! Do you accept the gift of the Holy Spirit? A final affirmative and the Reverend placed one plump hand behind the supplicant’s shoulders, the other on her forehead and he plunged her backwards into the water. A moment later he dragged her back out, shining with sanctity and reeking of bleach. The flame of sinfulness might not be permanently dowsed, but the Devil would have a tough time getting a bonfire going under all that water.
I couldn’t wait for my turn to run up to the front of the church and be welcomed into the fold. I pictured myself robed in white, the center of attention. Afterwards, people would stop me in the social hall to say, “Child, you looked like an angel up there! An absolute angel.” But as the long-awaited day grew nearer, I encountered a hitch.
I didn’t know what to do with my underpants.
If I left them on, I’d have to walk home six blocks with my panties squelching every step of the way. If I took them off, I would wind up participating in the ecumenical equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest. What if the minister saw through my robe? What if the whole congregation gazed into that brightly lit archway and realized I was stark naked beneath that robe? If you committed a sin of that magnitude right while you were being baptized, would it negate your salvation? A third option, wearing a pair under my robe and bringing an extra pair to change into afterwards, had its own challenges. Where would I put the extra pair while all this was going on? What if someone saw them? And what would I do with the wet ones on the walk home?
In a normal family, I could have raised this issue and been given a little overnight case in which to store my things while I was being baptized, but for me that was not an option. I sat through altar call after altar call while my sisters hissed that an eternity in hellfire lay in store for me. Finally, I took to playing hooky from Sunday school, watching cartoons instead.
If I was destined for an appointment with Satan, at least I could catch up on Johnny Quest in the waiting room.