An Incomplete History of Christian Science

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That fabled day when Mary Baker Eddy slipped on a patch of ice in Massachusetts, sustaining injuries (her lawsuit claimed) that only God’s own radiance relieved (her doctor testified that it was morphine)— that very day begat the faith called Science, the business made of literature and lore that Phineas Quimby took from Mesmerism and she, in turn, borrowed from Quimbyism in what the envious called plagiarism. Later she cut ties with her former mentor. Guileless as the mesmerized, he never grasped the potential of his work. Or hers. But for a woman in whose land and language entrepreneurship nearly rhymes with worship, who in her fortysomething years has reaped more than her portion of New England sorrows and keeps a flinty eye out for salvation— for such a woman there are no missed chances, there are no churches that one might have founded and yet chose not to found. She sold a book. She preached a creed. She purchased real estate to house the fastest-growing flock on earth. Three hundred thousand faithful in the boomtime— among them Mickey Rooney, Doris Day, and Jane, my grandma, who grew up and married a doctor, Dick. It’s not exactly true that Eddy’s flock can never see a doctor, but prayer’s their chief prescription, and it cost the flock some lambs, and so the faith called Science had dwindled by the time Dick married Jane and Dick and Jane moved to a pretty house and had five kids who never lacked a thing through all the boomtime of their generation.


My grandma Jane, the near-Olympian, had just crouched down and braced to swim for gold in 1940 when the world streaked by and swan-dived into flames. She straightened. Stared. Padded off soundlessly. The Games were dead, but she swam laps each day into her eighties and gave free weekly lessons at the Y (not as she’d done with Mom, to hear Mom tell it— chucking the kid right in and yelling, “Swim!”— but with a mellowed patience). Then, past ninety, flailing in tides of memory, her cheek gouged with a melanoma scar, she sank into her chosen twilight—hospice care at home—instead of bothering with doctors. Into her room I crept on Christmas break, into the viewfield of the lens that kept electric watch over her bed and saved each sight it saw. Instinctively, I whispered. They don’t make privacy here anymore; it’s one more lapsed New England industry, like hats or clocks or rifles from the Armory still crowning Hartford with its onion dome, or scores of homemade sciences and sects whose lean inventors brooded on their cots until they found a formula to brand, bottle in bright new souls, and reproduce… Those faded long ago. But privacy, the region’s one true god, is newly gone. There at the bedside of its late disciple, I watched her snore beneath the small glass eye observing when she slept and when she woke. I called her “Jane”—the first and only time. I said she’d lived well and could rest well now. On what authority, I couldn’t say. Footage may show: I kissed my fingertips and touched them shyly to the gag-gift blanket Mom had cocooned her in, its woven text— “Bah Humbug!”—heaving up in gentle swells.