“God Is My Daddy: The Dove Versus Feminists, China, Californians, etcetera,” by Jessica Tilley Hodgman

Nov 9th, 2022 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Gabby Star was religious in the way that starts wars. Her beliefs were incontrovertible, incontestable, infuriating. Even to people who agreed with her.

Gabby Star married my Grandpappy when he was a body-building swarthy hunk of a man and she had a Dolly Parton wig and waist. Gabriella Stella was Gabby Star’s given name but she preferred the anglicized Star lest someone miss the glorious implications of her naming. And Gabby to balance the glory with accessibility. And never Grandma, Nana, nothing to suggest she had lived long enough to see two generations birthed. Gabby Star preferred to be called nothing but Gabby Star. Unless it was a deep bass Baby from hunky Grandpappy across the room. That seemed permissible.

When I was a kid, Gabby Star had a cat named Abishae, as blonde and bouffant as that wig she wore. Abishae rhymes with grey toupee and translates roughly, God Is My Father from the Hebrew. Abishae was overfed and had a predictably sized ego. She was a stunner, though. Possibly the prettiest cat I’ve ever seen.

When Gabby Star set about decorating her suburban Atlanta home, she jumped on the 1980s beige, brass, and feathers bandwagon. Abishae was the pièce de résistance. The place had a calming effect, especially when compared to our own home, which had a everything’s-been-sat-on-lots country vibe. Gabby Star’s place served as a portal to a different world. There was a brass birdcage filled with plastic fruit. Plush shaggy carpet you could make carpet angels in. A mysterious sweet powdery smell. Feathers in unexpected places. And then that pervasive holy feeling that made you want to whisper. Plus—prayers just for you were floating in the spittle in the air. I knew cause I’d seen my name on Gabby Star’s daily prayer list.

To pass the time when I visited, Gabby Star would sketch bare Christmas trees in green magic marker on notebook paper so I could decorate them. She did this year round. I drew stars, baubles, and bows with Crayolas to fancy up the poor plain evergreen and its swoop, swoop, swoop of branches.

The only thing that disrupted my zen at Gabby Star’s were the televangelists. I hated their begging, sobby faces. Gabby Star would walk through the room when they were on the TV, grunt an affirming “Mmm—” and you knew she believed the Holy Spirit had just spoken through them.

There was really nothing to say after that.

When the evangelists were on, I’d duck to the back bedroom and read. There was a set of Jesus-meets-Aesop’s-Fables books there. My favorite was about a greedy boy who always snatched the biggest cookie. To teach him his lesson, his savvy Grammy made a batch of cookies with one blazingly larger than the others, except she somehow made it with a center full of sawdust. True to story arch, greedy boy grabbed it, choked it down, and learned his Christian boy lesson.

I stayed there overnight once when Gabby Star was hosting this prayer group she called Flap of the Dove and I felt like the Spirit really did jump back in the little dove body like at Jesus’ baptism and flap gently over our heads. Gabby Star played her electric keyboard on organ mode: “Jehovah Jireh, my provider, his grace is sufficient for me, for me, for me,” and other repetitious songs in minor keys with heavy chords. The white middle-aged working mothers of Flap of the Dove swayed in their breezy clothes, make-up so heavy they were caricatures of Ester, their sweet and spicy perfume transporting me to the markets at Samarkand.  I felt safe with those fragrant women building this big wall of sound, chasing away any demons, with the Dove there and all.

Flap of the Dove held the fervent belief that our Christian nation was under attack from Satan, working through leftover Bra-Burners and everyone who opposed Newt Gingrich. Only the Spirit-filled Prayer Warriors who wielded the full Armor of God and polished the Sword of Truth on the daily kept us from being heathen like the Chinese, God bless the missionaries.

Flap of the Dove supporters really believed. They were the most confident group of ambitious women I’d ever met. They held the right hand of Creator God, covered with Agape love by their own personal Abba Daddy.

Right there in the middle of it all sat Abishae with righteous feline aplomb. God is my father herself.

We didn’t have pets at home. Mom liked her country house to be meticulously clean, so no animals. Houses with pets were as good as amusement parks to me. I’d soak up the peace on Gabby Star’s white sofa, watch the feathers sway when the AC kicked on, pet the daughter of God Almighty, and feel the doors of enlightenment crack a little.

When I was ten, we moved to Kentucky. It was two years before we visited Gabby Star again and when we did, it was like that first step into a cool cathedral after a hot sweaty city day. We walked over the threshold into the cool entrance hall, plastic fruit looking just picked, everything right where we’d left it, eyes roving for Abishae and Good Lord. Abishae.

Abishae was furless. Her pink skin was pricked with goosebumps—I suspected never relaxed—no whiskers, nothing. Just a naked cat, victim of some no-respecter-of-persons cat disease. She still sat up straight as the Sphinx, though—a proud little puss on her way to eternal rewards.

For a non-pet-owning kid, it was utterly distressing. Pet death was not in my repertoire. Closest I’d come was kids in Sunday School who’d make a Prayer Request in a squeaky voice: “Please pray for my dog Dildo that he will heal from being hit by Mrs. Katz’s bad driving.” Other than Dildo not making it, I didn’t think about the relationship between animals and Death. But there it was. Mortality. The sad baldness of the Last Days. It had never occurred to me how ugly she might be under all that furry glory.


Jessica Tilley Hodgman’s heritage includes a Native American taxi driver, half a dozen Pentecostal preachers, and a sailor who led the charge to recover a sunken ship full of Confederate gold. (He didn’t get to keep it.) Her academic work has focused on racism and attempts at reconciliation in the 20th century South (University of Toronto) and the Primitive Baptist tradition of Sacred Harp singing (Georgia State University). Her writing in The Bitter SouthernerThe Haight Ashbury Literary Review, and others pull from childhood experiences in the rural South and adult experiences in the urban South. Her most proud academic moment was providing the name of an obscure literary character that a lecturing Cambridge University professor had forgotten. She has been speaking up ever since.

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