In the beginning, at the starter’s gunshot of all beginnings, there appeared a bearded and cherry-cheeked giant who wore bright red suspenders. His was the first breath, his the first ray of sun, his the first drop of ocean. This gentle giant created it all: the mountains and rivers, the dusty road down to the lake, and the weather in all its extremes and all its airs in between. He created the pretty blond Dutch girl chasing her runaway goose, the plump and mustachioed butcher with a string of wieners around his neck, the serious boy who rode a unicycle.
At least that’s the way it seemed to me, at the age of five, armed with blanket and bear, when my father or mother opened up A Treasury of Children’s Stories at bedtime. The book cover showed an enormous and happy giant, relaxed and peering over a mountain to observe the silly people in the valley below. All the colorful characters from the chapters within were there to behold, and the giant took great delight in watching as their audience. To open this book was to celebrate the foibles of these sweetly flawed human beings. One was too fat and another too stingy. One was too thin and another too grumpy. The giant loved them all, and I loved the giant for loving them so.
Their creator was invisible to those valley folk, just as God was invisible to me. To exist in such gigantic human form, to step across the land with footprints arriving in adjacent counties, to stand tall among the clouds, why, I felt that this giant had to be God Almighty himself. And within the ticking of my five year-old skull, those bedtime visits to the Treasury persuaded me that the happy man behind the mountain was the One behind it all.
And so as my family sat down for supper, and together we recited our blessing, to me it was that large bearded fellow I was addressing: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hands we must be fed. Give us Lord our daily bread.” And I imagined a wink from above as I dipped a spoon in apple sauce.
I frequently spoke to the giant in those days. Just as the characters in their stories played out their impossible plots to invariably happy endings, I felt I was just such a player within the chapters of my own world, within my own Hundred Acre Wood. God the Giant was my audience too, and when I was alone after a new and peculiar thing had occurred (and to a five-year-old, most things are new and peculiar), I would stop, turn and face that invisible mountain, and remark aloud about the curiouser and curiouser nature of this wacky wonderland, and especially about the characters who were my family.
I narrated the story to help him understand, and God wholeheartedly agreed that, yes, I certainly had a good grasp of this worldly comedy. That, for example, yes indeed, my little sister certainly was a snot-faced sassy pants. And before I would turn to enter the next scene, God would guarantee that more strange encounters lay ahead.
Such was the secure and comforting company the giant provided me. He was my biggest fan. He felt sorry after my mother swatted my rump for urinating a beautiful yellow rainbow from off our elevated porch outside. He worried with my father down at the lake when I would not be stopped from swimming over the deep and out to the raft. He laughed when I mugged with mouth wide open for the family photograph. And every time I commiserated with him about yet another of the world’s bewilderments, he seemed to admire that I was growing in wisdom.
God stayed home the few times I attended Sunday school. The preacher’s son was in my class, a boy who gave off an acrid and bleachy smell. All the children adored him, it seemed, because he was the preacher’s boy. But in the summer down at the lake, I saw that he was too afraid to wade in above his ankles. These were not my people, and the frightening Old Testament tales were not my stories. Every Sunday morning I complained and complained of a nauseating stomach ache until usually I was allowed to stay home. The real God rejoiced that I got my way by steering clear of that foreign and troubling place.
I have friends whose five-year-old son had similar fits on Sundays. Tim is short for Timothy, and having immersed himself in Japanese monster movies, Tim assumed when he heard about God, that the name was short for Godzilla. Whenever talk of religion and God entered his ears, sinister images of a fire-breathing, mutant dinosaur came to mind. A table prayer might have ruined his appetite: “By Godzilla’s hands we must be fed. Give us Godzilla our daily bread.” What a queasy insecurity Tim must have felt. That a volcano’s fiery eruption might swallow a village in its path: perfectly explainable. But what confusion when learning on a Sunday that God(zilla) created the heavens and God(zilla) created the earth. “And, Timmy, the most wonderful thing is this: God(zilla) can be found deep inside of you, too.”
I found refuge from monsters and Sunday terrors by seeking the private counsel and audience of an imagined man in red suspenders. In a long year or two, of course, his image and that sweet time of playing the actor faded away, just as Christopher Robin one day let drop the paw of Pooh. Those storybook characters were left to sleep on the dark pages of chapters before some other child, armed with blanket and bear, might release them again to the light.
As for the origins of the heavens and earth, the mountains and rivers, and the weather in all its forms: many would approach me over the years with fantastic explanations. But in the end, the explainers all seemed a bit angry about the subject. Instead, my spiritual beginnings came as an accidental thing, cast by the long shadow of a gentle giant. Joy came to be found in all of us, in the characters of the valley, in our sweetly-flawed selves.
Tom Bohnhorst is a social worker and lives in Traverse City, Michigan. In 1973, he spent a harrowing night in a Turkish jail. He also has a blog called Poopiderum.