Monday, January 18, 2010 Sunday candy companion...

I saw Bobby and his mother a few times a week at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses on Avenue Road.  His mother brought him there all the time, as did mine. 

 Children sat with their parents during the Bible sermons at the Kingdom Hall.  I was about nine years old, while Bobby was probably ten or eleven.  We were not really close friends, but during the intermission between 'sermons', he, I and a few other children our age would make our way across the street to a mom and pop corner store.  We would buy candies and share them with each other, while keeping an eye on the time so that we would not be late for the next round of 'kingdom messages' from the pulpit.  We talked and laughed but I recall few of the details of any of our conversations.  We often bought those pastel, powdery candies with words imprinted on them.  We would try to apply the words of the candy we were about to eat to ourselves, and giggle wildly in consequence. 

Bobby was fair-haired, pale and pudgy.  He did not have any brothers or sisters, nor a father.  He was being raised by his mother Bessy Penney who seemed considerably older than my mother.  He always had money in his pocket for candies, and he would share some with those who had no money that week.  

One day I learned the most horrifying thing - Bobby had died in the middle of the night.  He had an epileptic seizure and, we were told, died from 'swallowing his tongue'.  I did not know it was possible to swallow your tongue, but decided there and then I would keep my tongue to the front of my mouth and avoid such a fate.  I did wonder at the time if he might have been eating some of those imprinted candies, purchased the previous Sunday, when he had the seizure.  If so, what had the last candy's imprint said?

Because Jehovah's Witnesses teach that God is always about to intervene in human affairs, destroy the wicked and create a paradise earth on which his faithful followers would live forever - we all thought that we would survive the 'end of the world' and live eternally.  We assumed we would never die just like you assume that school starts each year in September.  But Bobby forgot to stay alive long enough to survive Armageddon.  I had believed what I had been told, and never entertained the idea that anyone I knew could or would die before the end of the wicked world would arrive.  I was not prepared for Bobby's or anyone else's death (well...except for the wicked who deserved to die, of course!).  How could someone I knew be well one day and dead the next?

I had never seen a dead body.  At the funeral home the casket was open and Bobby lay there peacefully, hands folded a top one another, eyes closed, with skin so pale.  I stared at him for a long time - hoping beyond hope that he would open his eyes, sit up, yell "Surprise!", and laugh uncontrollably about the great hoax he had pulled off.  He did not. 

His death created tangles in my little mind.  Every route my thoughts travelled was blocked by a comprehension knot.  I know my mother tried to explain, but my mind working hard, in its own way, to understand the meaning of it all wanted to be left alone to sort it all out.  If Bobby could die, then . . .???

I had never witnessed grief.  Bobby was Bessy Penney's only child.  She must have had him late in life.  I did not know that hearts could break and bodies contort with grief.  Seeing her being held up by friends made me go numb.  How could all this be happening?  Sometimes she would collapse in half and rock back and forth.  Other times she would throw her head back, cover her face with a handkerchief and try to muffle the strangest sounds.  The sounds and movements frightened me like the horror flicks at the cinema. 

I had no idea life could be so cruel and that people could mutate into something other than themselves because of the immensity of their pain.  Now, even more than not wanting to swallow my tongue - I never wanted to experience the nightmare of symptoms that I saw emerge in Bessy after Bobby's death.

Bobby's mother did not come to the meetings at the Kingdom Hall on Avenue Road for a while.  My mother told me it was hard for her to come to a place where she had always come with her only child, Bobby, by her side.  When she did return it was with an elderly, rather regal-looking beau by her side.  They were soon to be married, it was said.  Once married she was no longer to be called Bessy Penney.   They said she insisted on being called Elizabeth Martin. 

 I used to stare through the rows of other worshippers at this new incarnation of Bobby's mother - Elizabeth Martin.  Her new husband sat in Bobby's usual chair.  It was as if Bobby and Bessy had been erased.  Before Bobby died she was Bessy Penney.  After Bobby died she was Elizabeth Martin.  I wondered if this was a rule I had missed:  after a loved one dies and you complete your crying, you must change your name.

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that the faithful who die before Armageddon, will be miraculously resurrected here on Earth to live forever with those who have survived the destruction of this wicked system of things.  Thus, the good news was that Bobby would be back shortly as Armageddon and the resurrection were just around the corner, so to speak.  He would emerge from his coffin and grave.  His eyes would open.  He would step out into paradise and ask for his mother:  "Where is my mother?" They would reply, "Well who is your mother?"  "Bessey Penney", he would answer.  But there would be no Bessy Penney to be found.  Would he ever find Elizabeth Martin?  Would they be re-united?  Would Bobby love Elizabeth as much as he had loved Bessy?  Stay tuned.....all will be revealed in paradise - 'the new order' of things.

Thus was I introduced to death, grief, and morphing identities.  As questions about Bobby's future in paradise remained unanswered, more questions arose about life, death and religion in general.  I kept them to myself, however, preferring to work them out on my own than discuss them with the true believers at the Kingdom Hall on Avenue Road. 

I have no memories of going for candy, between sermons on Sundays, after Bobby my candy companion died.


  1. Powerful tale! Wow.

    I must say, you survived a most difficult upbringing, though "downbringing" might be a more accurate word, spiritually speaking at least.

    You've journeyed a long ways from those rather nightmarish early experiences at Kingdom Hall. A lived to help people. Kudos, Bonnie.

  2. This is so beautifully written. I walked through this beside you. I think we were not very old.

  3. What a poignant story, Bonnie. It's so hard for children to make sense of the imponderables, life and death, marriage and all the things they must make sense of and more so when faced with a set of rules whose basis makes little sense.

    I had a similar set of puzzles to wade through, though perhaps not so extreme as yours when I grew up in the Catholic church.

    When I was little and for years it was a mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays and also to eat anything for at least three hours before you took communion.

    I always imagined the latter had to do with keeping your stomach unsullied by food for the arrival of Jesus into your stomach. The business of not eating meat made little sense to me, though I understand now it has something to do with fasting, with doing without and maybe something to do with the bible story of the loaves and fishes. Everyone ate fish on Fridays instead of meat.

    Witness my horror when the ecumenical council somewhere in the late sixties dropped the ruling and suddenly it was okay to do these things. I could not understand how a sin one week could suddenly become a non-sin overnight.

    Thanks for your sharing your childhood memories Bonnie. They're so evocative.

  4. You remind me of the confusion that death raises in a child's mind. Beyond the "never-ness" of it, so many other previously faultless trusts that have broken. And, really, no one to ask...

  5. a stirring first memories of death are jambled until my grandfather passed away and i remember the firetrucks and men saluting...

  6. wow bonnie - this is a powerful rendering of the experience of death for a child. i remember the first time i was conscious of the flying away of someone was when i was in grade six and a friend's dad died. he was there one evening as i visited and he died in the night. my friend was gone to new jersey from toronto the next morning. gone. i couldn't imagine how his life was from that point on as his dad was single-parenting. i haven't thought of that for a while. have a peaceful day. steven

  7. I felt so moved by this Bonnie.I'm sure the images will stay in my mind for a while. xx

  8. Heart-wrenching story Bonnie. It's hard enough for a kid to understand these things, but when you throw in the whole Armageddon thing - you are a true survivor.

  9. Bonnie this post was so interesting to me. All those things that must have been going through a little girls mind.

    Love Renee xoxo

  10. HI BONNIE-

    Excellent writing. I hung on your every word and felt and understood every shift. I am in awe of how 'religion can cause such conflict. I know it alltoo well for myself. Oh that Catholic guilt, and add to that Italian and the power was paralyzing.

    Again, I was with you 100% in this well writtten life changing experience.

    Love Gail
    with hope for us all

  11. Wow, Bonnie, what a powerful story.

  12. The innocence, the ignorance, the confussion the majic stuff of religion...I love this story so much. Bessy Penny changing into Elizabeth Martin and giving Bobby's seat to another just breaks my heart. Wonderful post, Dear Bonnie!One of my all time faves!

  13. What a sad, poignant story Bonnie.

  14. What a powerful and very personal story, Bonnie.

    The first person known to me who died was also a child, a girl in my grade 4 class, who had been away from school with an unspoken illness for so long I could no longer remember what she looked like.

    Our entire grade 4 class was taken to the funeral parlour for her viewing. Even seeing her in her coffin did not bring back memories of the living girl.

    It did, however, keep me from sleeping the night through for a week and did make me realize how precious the lives of my family and friends were to me.

  15. Through circumstances you were exposed to death at an early age Bonnie and it obviously had a profound effect on you. Whatever we experience in life we have to learn to cope with it - it sounds to be as though you really thought it through.

  16. I was totally riveted. You explain so well the turmoil of a young child encountering complex emotions for the first time. Thank you for sharing.

    Julie Magers Soulen Photography
    Blog of Note

  17. Wow, how riveting to read. That first experience with death makes us confront so much of what we have believed or been told to believe and opens us up to the possibility that maybe we don't know all the answers.

    So beautifully written! I love getting these peeks at where you came from and what shaped you :) Thanks for sharing...

  18. I read this earlier today and was at a loss. I didn't know what to say. I still don't because it so poignant that I can't seem to find the words to do justice to how I feel reading it. Well done describing a child's view of loss.

  19. Bonnie, you write beautifully. The story is so emotional and personal yet it is something that conveys to everyone's experience. I will be looking for your future chapters.

  20. As a child confronting death for the first time, the world tilts. The whole process. The coldness of the body, the weird way they just don't look the same. Your post is so descriptive of the process. The pain, the unrelenting pain, of losing a loved one. One can only hope that Bessy Penney found some consolation in becoming Elizabeth Martin.


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