I wore my grandmother's cross pendant as an atheist, but at some point, it became more trouble than it was worth.
By the time I was ten years old, all four of my grandparents had passed, and as the last of six kids, I hadn’t expected any kind of inheritance. What they did leave me were memories and vague ones at that. So I was surprised when on my sixteenth birthday, my mother pulled out a little jewelry box. Inside was a small gold cross, with a tiny, but perfect little diamond set in the middle.
A rush of murky but lovely memories flooded back at that moment. Walking hand in hand with my grandmother down our block when I was around five, sometime in early spring. I don’t remember our conversation exactly, but I do remember getting stung by a bee and her walking me back to the house quickly.
But I was so touched that she had thought of me and asked her cross to be given to me when I turned sixteen. I’m pretty sure that the age had a religious significance. So it’s probably a good thing she didn’t live to see that I never made any other catholic milestones after my baptism.
The gold cross had been an anniversary gift to her from my grandfather. And I distinctly remember always her wearing it. So when I took it out of its little box, I put it on and wore it every day from then on.
It bore no real religious significance and I kind of thought of it as a bit of a fashion statement. A piece of my past, yes, but also, I saw Madonna wear it in her Like a Prayer video. And that seemed more like a rebellious statement than one of devout Christianity. And that was kind of how I thought about it. A golden oxymoron.
And it almost never came up. Not even in the strip club.
But then, when my son was born, it presented a bit of a conundrum. I was speaking to the mother of my son’s friend, and she noticed my grandmother’s cross.
“What church do you belong to,” she asked.
I froze for a moment. Do I lie to her? Do I come up with a random church nearby and just say I go there?
Should I say, “Well actually we’re godless atheists,” and hope I don’t have to explain that we don’t worship Satan?
My kid didn’t have a lot of friends, and I didn’t want to screw this up. So eventually after what was probably much too long of a pause, I said, “We don’t really go to church.”
Which was a mistake. A horrible tactical error on my part.
Because she replied, “Oh we don’t go as much as we should either. But we’re going to try to go more often.”
The next time his friend came over, she brought her bible. My very secular kid was interested having no experience with Christianity in practice. So he asked questions, but in a curious, anthropologic way.
And in response was told that he was going to go to hell. Luckily, there were still very young. About six or seven, so my son took it like he might a movie. He didn’t attach reality to it and kind of shrugged it off. They kept playing, and I crossed my fingers that the subject just wouldn’t come up again. Ever.
Why I took off my grandmother’s cross
I had worn it on stage as a stripper, and I kept wearing it even after I became involved with the secular community. It was my Grandmother’s. The cross was a tangible piece of her that she wanted me to have. I loved it. I still do.
But there came a point where it felt wrong. Like that horrible bee sting on a pleasant spring day, it was something I would have to explain on demand that would either be contentious or disingenuous. The curse of awkward conversation.
I got crap from the nonreligious and the religious. Wearing grandma’s cross was a sucker’s bet. Besides, what would my grandmother have thought of my atheism? Would she have blamed my mother?
Perhaps it was an epic bit of foreshadowing that my family gave up trying to indoctrinate me after the priest splashed me with his water.
Then one day, my sister found that the piece of jewelry our grandmother had left to her was missing. She didn’t identify as Christian or atheist and had always loved that cross. So I gave it to her.
My mother left me other pieces from my grandmother when she passed. And in a funny way, it’s like I get both of them that way.
But either way, at the end of the day, those things are just things. They are the catalysts for memories, but they hold no other connection than that. The memories are what is important.