When was it that the idea of heaven and hell first coalesced in my mind? It must have been during those slow summer days in the apartment on Elmdale. The one I was born in, literally, my mother having been traumatized by her sister’s hospital birth stories. By the time I, her third, was ready to enter the world, she was an experienced home-birther and my parents’ bedroom would go on to be the delivery room for my younger brother too.
I remember sitting at the front room window overlooking the street, watching the dust motes in the air, wondering at their providence – divine? Was that fairy dust? No, just the regular kind. They would hang in the afternoon light, waiting for a breeze to determine whether they’d end up dust on the sill or fly away. I’d study the dust motes as only kids can, filling my sight and horizon with their mysterious movements. And I’d think about God and religion.
I heard those words a lot in our home. Our home, where my father was a Muslim and my mother was a Mormon. Our home of uneasy alliances and fragile peace. A peace so fragile I once broke it with a tiny angel figurine. It was a parting gift from Great Aunt Mabel. She let me pick one out from the countless beautiful little people that covered every surface of her pink doilyed sitting room. I chose a beautiful blonde angel, with a long white dress, glittery wings, and golden halo.
When we got home, I excitedly showed it to my dad, which resulted in another bewildering parental argument that ended with powdered figurine in the air. Muslims do not believe in haloed and winged angels. Muslims do not keep idols in their homes. I should never have called it an angel when I ran excitedly to show it to my father, who’d stayed back, as always, to work. If I’d only called it a fairy, perhaps I’d still have it to this day. But then maybe I wouldn’t have learned about heaven and hell the way did, when I did.
There were two religions in my world – Muslims and Mormons – and I was a Muslim. And that meant no angel figurines, no trick-or-treating at Halloween, no more shorts and tank-tops in the summer, no tap-dancing lessons, no shimmying in the school winter musical – when everyone else shook their booties, I, in concession to my inherited faith would hold very still then. If not? Then hell. What was hell? A bad place. You didn’t want to go there. There, people were burned for being bad.
But these rules didn’t apply to momma. She was Mormon. She wore dresses, had experienced marshmallows and gummy worms, could eat meat outside our house and shimmy if she wanted to. We believed in one god, and she believed in a god, his son and a spirit. Momma went to church where she got special little bits of bread and water, and we went to masjid where sometimes we’d get donuts. Momma couldn’t have coffee and we couldn’t have pork. Neither of my parents could drink or gamble, and we were all supposed to be kind and honest. Her rules were hers, and ours were ours.
What did that really mean though, beyond the ominous and empty words of God and religion? I don’t recall asking or maybe my dad’s answers were too complex or evasive to understand. I was only five or six when all of these realities, like dust motes and broken figurine particles, were still settling. So there was never a sudden epiphany of what me being Muslim, and momma not, signified. Not like when I realized on the way home from grandma’s house that my grandparents were old and would die, and in fact, we’d all die. Or when a summer trip to visit my dad’s family suddenly illuminated the mystery of his darker skin, preference for strong tea, and somber songs in another language.
What all of it really meant would take years to sink in, but back then, in those sleepy simple days, I was certain only that it was not good. I know this because the first thing I ever prayed for, in a quiet whisper gathered in my tiny child hands, was for God to fix it. Make momma Muslim. It was prayer poured over the dull muffled debates that leaked under my bedroom door at night. Make momma Muslim. It harmonized with the sing-song squawk of the swing-set that babysat me across the street. Make momma Muslim. And it would churn those dust motes in wait for wind or gravity to determine their final destinations. In wait for God. As I still am. Please God, make momma Muslim.