by Jacquelyn Wheeler
I was at Grandie and Poppa’s house, its weird guest room with the rainbow bed spread, the baseball lamp, the plaques on the walls with strange pictures, the tower that held all of Grandie’s old poofy dancing skirts. The hats, baseball caps mostly, full of pins, covered with them. I was with my sister. We were sitting on the floor playing Barbies on the coral, teal, and white carpet. I got up and picked up the hat and said, “Where did these all come from?”
“From their travels, I guess.”
“They wouldn’t notice if one was missing; there are so many of them.” I took a small one shaped like a maple leaf and placed it in the chest pocket of my purple and pink plaid flannel shirt.
I don’t know when my mom found it, how much later it was, but I do know that one day in the laundry room after she’d washed the flannel shirt, she asked me where I’d gotten it. I was lost in tears immediately and wave after wave of guilt washed over me. Grandie and Poppa would be coming to stay with us soon and I was to give it back and apologize then.
I began drawing repentant picture after repentant picture. I drew so many pictures, trying to build up an offering that would help them forget what I’d done. Artworks that said, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I wanted so badly to rebuild my reputation but there was nothing I could do. I was a thief. Nonetheless, I left the pictures outside the guest room door early in the morning, and avoided them for the rest of the day.
This was the first time I was deeply aware of myself as a sinner. This was the most blatant transgression I had known myself to make. I remember, vividly, crying myself to sleep. I asked my mother if I would go to hell as she tucked me into bed. I don’t remember what she said. She probably told me about forgiveness, but my fear was smothering me and nothing could get through. I knew the answer: I was bound for hell. I had made my one fatal mistake. I had bitten the apple and now the angels had escorted me out of Eden.
My family started attending church around this time in my life, but I didn’t go to Sunday school. I went to choir instead, where we sang songs about grace, but were rarely told about God’s unconditional sacrifice to save sinners, even thieves like me. They should have done more preaching to the choir.
I eventually forgot my guilt. Time smoothed over the lines on the wrathful face of the god I imagined. But looking back, this potent sense of my guilt was just too accurate a response.
I still fail, and do things that, apart from Christ’s sacrifice, would warrant the fear that I felt. My failures have become opportunities to celebrate the living God. And I make art out of joy rather than penance.
Jacquelyn Wheeler grew up in Portland, Oregon with two loving parents and a darling younger sister and is a recent English graduate from Whitworth University now working in Spokane as a freelance editor and visual artist. She is constantly moved by Jesus’ persistent rescue of her from being her sinful, hell-bound self.