Growing up, I was mortified by my parents’ public displays of religion. I’m still convinced that from the years of 1982 to 1986 my parents were part of a cult; others called it “Marriage Encounter.”
One fateful Friday afternoon in 1980, they packed one suitcase and prepared to leave for the first of many retreat weekends; weekends that would become the bane of my existence; weekends that would become the main reason I fled to therapy at the ripe age of ten.
“We’re not getting divorced,” they asserted repeatedly, often in unison, when I questioned their decision to join such a mysterious organization. Of course, deep down I suspected that was the reason they were going. “What are you hoping to encounter?” I asked sarcastically.
“Marriage Encounter helps turn a good marriage into a great one,” they’d say chipperly, having memorized the tagline of the brochure, which featured the M.E. symbol — a heart above two intertwined circles united by a crucifix. Even though I was in fifth grade, I remember the Sunday evening that they arrived home in our purple Plymouth as if it was yesterday — it changed my childhood from a semblance of normalcy to something otherworldly. My parents pledged their full allegiance to the United States of Marriage Encounter and all of the rites and rituals that came with it. The burden of my adolescence was simple: I was mortified by my parent’s public display of religion.
Marriage Encounter stickers soon made their insidious way into our home. I considered them an infestation as my parents placed them everywhere — on the refrigerator; in the back windshield of the Plymouth, replacing the triple-A sticker à la “Who needs a tow truck when you have the Lord?”; even on the outside of the front door of our house. Whenever any of my friend’s parents drove me home from school and were curious as to what the sticker represented, I would lie and say “It’s for UNICEF; just ignore it.”
In 1982, I turned ten and asked for Michael Jackson’s Thriller album for my birthday; I got Godspell.
What fresh hell is this?
Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, they inevitably did. That year, our home became the holy headquarters when my parents were elected “team leaders” of the upstate New York chapter of Marriage Encounter. “What fresh hell is this?” I remember asking at the age of eleven when I arrived home from softball practice one spring evening to our living room, full of hand-holding strangers and reeking of Sanka and polyester.
I remember looking around the transformed living room — a sea of strangers smiling at me — hoping my scowl of scorn would fend off a group hug. (It didn’t.) I met the cast of characters who would shape my adolescence.
Father Al: a gregarious Italian priest who had dinner at our house at least twice a week — my Mom and Dad now went everywhere with him. (This would become my personal definition of a threesome: two parents and a priest.)
Tony and Joan: the coolest of the bunch, in that Joan wore tight jeans and Tony swore and smoked cigarettes — certainly not typical of holy rollers.
Frank and “Chickie”: I never knew Chickie’s real name, though I suspected it was probably Mary Frances, Mary Ellen, or Mary Elizabeth. They were the oldest of the group, attended daily mass, and had eight children. Frank said “I love you” each time I saw him.
Ray and Theresa: to me they looked more like twins than a married couple, as they both had crooked teeth and stood no more than 5’2″. Even though Ray gave me money for ice cream or school supplies at each and every meeting, I still had no problem in making fun of his belt buckle, a gold carving of the Marriage Encounter symbol that dutifully held up his pants. “Why don’t we all just go downtown and get the Marriage Encounter logo tattooed on our foreheads?” I asked the group at the beginning of the second meeting. Everyone laughed, except my parents. (I was grounded for a month.)
Hugh and Anne: their daughter Maggie became my idol after I stayed with them one weekend, and Maggie and I were allowed to stay up and watch both The Love Boat and Three’s Company, television shows that were forbidden at home.
Henry and Nancy: soft-spoken and intellectual; Henry was a chemist, Nancy a social worker. Because they didn’t have children of their own, they faithfully attended my brothers’ and my sports games, plays, concerts, communions and confirmations for the next two decades.
Yet it wasn’t just the weekly meetings at our house or the many weekends my parents spent traveling around the country, like Deadheads on tour, to attend retreats; it was the lack of what I considered a normal life. I dreaded going to “Charismatic Mass.” It was held once a month and was always longer than forty-five minutes. It featured the polyester parade replete with microphones and guitars, a veritable Catholic Woodstock, minus the sex and drugs. I begged to sit in the back pew by myself, preferably with a paper bag over my head.
They always ended with the couples standing in a circle on the altar, singing the Marriage Encounter song, a heinous spectacle for my twelve-year-old eyes to behold:
“There’s a new world somewhere, it’s called the Promised Land
And I’ll be there someday, if you would hold my hand
But if I should lose your love dear, I don’t know what I’d do
For I know I’d never find, another you…”
The group would substitute the final word of the last line to a resounding “US!” loud enough that it was probably heard in Bangladesh.
I remember scrutinizing the brochure that was stuck on the front of our refrigerator, via a ME sticker. I was grounded (again) after crossing out the answers to the frequently asked questions for new members and substituting in my own. The brochure listed questions such as:
- “Is there any age limit?” (No, couples as old as Yoda are invited to attend.)
- “Is Marriage Encounter for all faiths?” (No, only those who foolishly collect stickers.)
- “What does a weekend cost?” (Only your dignity!)