Finding My Voice

Oklahoma-logo

High school was not my favorite time of life.  It would have been difficult enough, but I moved 80 miles away from all of my friends and had to start over in Woodbury, New Jersey.  The church helped a lot.  The congregation included me in their warm welcome of me and helped me adjust by introducing me to some kids my age.  But I was shy, I struggled with anxiety and depression, and I was anything but “cool.”  I also had no interest in partying.  First of all, there was nothing I hated more than throwing up, and I didn’t get the appeal of getting so drunk you were ill and hungover the next day.  Nothing about that appealed to me.  I didn’t smoke at all because of my Aunt Julia, who had emphysema and looked like (as my mother would say) “death warmed over.”  I never even tried it.  As far as sex, well, my mother had told me if I ever had sex before marriage, she’d be able to tell, and I believed her.  On top of that, I was very naive, knew nothing about contraceptives, and therefore I would not have known how not to get pregnant.  So I was a goody-two-shoes all around.

I did have a couple of close friends in high school.  Some did party on the weekend and others did not.  I managed to survive high school without too much drama, but I always felt like the only one who didn’t fit in.

Music has been my lifelong therapy, in many forms.  Singing in the adult choir at church was a gift.  I did feel a part of that group, and it was a fun bunch of people.  I finally made it into the high school choir in my junior year.  Before that, I was so nervous at the auditions that my throat closed up and I blew it.  But my junior year I triumphed!

Mr. Snodgrass was the choir director at high school, and was very popular with the kids.  I adored him, but was much too shy to go anywhere near him or to hang out in the choir room during study hall like the cool kids did.  Choir was 7th period every day, and at the end of rehearsal, he always stopped about ten minutes or so before the bell rang.  He pulled up a stool and talked to us;  about life, relationships, God, and love.  He spoke much along the lines of Leo Buscaglia, encouraging us to appreciate the goodness of life.  To know that we were valuable, lovable human beings with a purpose.  He inspired us to Carpe Diem!  He told us to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves, to always seek to grow and love and serve.  I looked forward to 7th period every day and soaked up every word he said.  I ached to be able to just hang out in his office with the others, to be near him, and to soak up his positive presence. But when I passed him in the hallway, my mouth went dry.

In accordance with his own reaching-for-the-stars philosophy, he had us perform Carmina Burana by Carl Orff during my junior year.  None of it was in English but in German and Latin.  We were accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra.  It was a daunting piece for an 80-member high school choir, but we worked hard.  It was an exhilarating experience!

I was so anxious all the time, however, still carrying my Maalox tablets and Donnatol.  For every concert we performed, I always made sure I could see my getaway behind the bleachers, just in case I needed to faint or throw up.  I needed assurance I’d be able to get out as discretely as possible.  Once we got singing, however, the anxiety was temporarily forgotten and I was caught up in the high of the music; the energy, the power, the heights of emotion.

During my senior year of high school, a new couple joined our adult choir at church.  Georgi was a soprano, so she sat next to me that first night when she and her partner Bruce showed up.  Georgi had a beautiful voice, and had been a choir director in her previous church before her divorce.  She was a tall, pretty woman with flaming red hair.  She and Bruce seemed very comfortable in their new surroundings, kidding and joking with all of us.  I’d heard that she taught piano and voice lessons in addition to her day job.

After a couple of months listening to her powerful soprano voice next to me each Thursday night and Sunday morning, I pleaded with my mother to pay for voice lessons.  I loved to sing.  I had no aspirations to sing any solos, but I wanted to improve my voice, to strengthen it.  I also wanted a chance to get to know Georgi.

Looking back, I was so hungry for closeness and love, for emotional intimacy, that I gravitated toward adults who seemed able to give it.  I felt so awkward and shy most of the time.  That and my depression kept me from seeing at the time that God seemed to bring many loving adults across my path to offer their own contributions to my unfolding story.  They loved me into myself.

I went to another parishioner’s house for my voice lessons since we didn’t have a piano.  My lessons with Georgi were another highlight of my week. Most of the time I asked my Mom to just drop me off rather than lend me the car so that Georgi could give me a lift home.

Georgi let me know early on that she didn’t believe in someone singing just for themselves.  “If you have a gift, God wants you to share it!” she assured me.  I didn’t want to do that, and at first she didn’t push it.  She patiently pulled my voice out of me.  She made me work hard, as if she knew there was more inside of me than I knew.

She gave me a ride home from my lessons, and when we arrived at my house, she’d turn off the car and we’d sit and talk for a while.  She introduced me to Amy Grant music, and other Contemporary Christian music.  More music to feed my soul, strengthen my spirit and give me the fuel to go on.   I found I could talk to her easily, there in the darkness of her car.  After a while, she’d lean over and kiss me on the cheek.

“C’mon, Peggy Sue, get out.  I gotta go home.  I love you,” she always said.  Sometimes it took a lot of prodding for her to get rid of me.  I drank up her presence and friendship and just wanted to be near her.

After a few months, she signed us up to sing duets in church.  I didn’t feel good enough to sing with her, but she gave me confidence.  Bruce would be there for our rehearsals and adjust the sound in the sanctuary for us.  Bruce was an odd partner for her, I always thought.  He was much older than her, a bit cantankerous and cynical.  But there were moments I got glimpses of the warm heart underneath the crusty exterior.

“Why don’t you like me?” I protested to Bruce once, pretending to kid, but really meaning it.  He teased me a lot and I knew he asked Georgi why she spent so much time with a 17 year-old girl.   I spent time hanging around their apartment on weekends, tagging along to flea markets with them, baking cookies with Georgi at her apartment, or just watching TV, hugging one of her stuffed dogs.

The question seemed to catch him off guard, and his face softened.  “I… um.. I like you!  I wouldn’t kid with you if I didn’t like you.  I’d just ignore you,” he chuckled self-consciously.  I hugged him.

After the Christmas holidays, Mr. Snodgrass announced the plans for the Spring Concert.  It would be a musical revue of various Broadway show tunes, that would conclude with several songs from Oklahoma!  There would be auditions for various parts.  Of course, there were always some students who got parts without having to audition, as they were experienced soloists.  And favorites. One of those was Andy, one of the most popular boys in our class and the class clown.  He would be Curley in Oklahoma!  The part of Laurey was up for auditions.

I happened to mention this to Georgi, with no intention of trying out.  I had tried out for solos before in school concerts and was once again stifled by my own anxiety.  It would be my last concert in high school, and I just wanted to enjoy singing with the group.

“Oh no, Peggy Sue, you’re going to try out for Laurey.”

“But….!”

“No arguing.  It’s time to try for something big.  You can do it.  I’ll help you,” and the discussion was closed.

The audition piece was People Will Say We’re in Love.  She and I worked on it for weeks.  She helped me to imagine doing it in character, to add inflections and emotion.  I thought she was wasting her time, but she believed I could do it.  I didn’t want to let her down, but everything in me said there was absolutely no way I’d win the part over the top four sopranos in the choir.  All of them were very experienced at solos, and this was a coveted part.  It was also the last high school concert for all of us before graduation.

Georgi and I rehearsed at the church the night before the auditions at school.  When she was satisfied that I was ready, she drove me home.  I was already shaking and feeling nauseous.  I didn’t want to leave her car.

“Peggy Sue, I gotta go home.  You need to go get some rest.  You can do this.  I know you can.  I’ll be praying for you, now get out,” she said playfully, leaning in to kiss my cheek.  When I got out, I stood in the driveway as she started to drive off.

She rolled down the window.  “I love you, Peggy Sue.  I’ll see you tomorrow night at choir.  I don’t want you telling me you didn’t get it!”  And with that, she rolled up her window and drove away.

What??  I stood alone in the driveway for a while, looking off into the night.  There was a lake across from our house where the geese always landed and gathered.  It was peaceful and beautiful.  I looked at the water in the moonlight.  How would I face Georgi if I didn’t get the part?  At the time I kept telling myself there was no way at all that I’d get it.  How would I look at her tomorrow night?

I went to my room, took Donnatol, chewed up some Maalox tablets, drank Chamomile tea and paced my room.  I tried going to bed but every muscle in my body was tensed.  My heart was pounding and I was out of breath.  I could not sleep.

The next day, I went to school after taking another Donnatol and chewing more Maalox pills.  I ate only dry toast for breakfast as my stomach was doing flip-flops.  My anxiety level was at an all time high.  The auditions were 7th period so I had all day to worry.  Which I did.  During study hall in 2nd period, a friend of mine suggested I go to the choir room and practice with Mr. Snodgrass.  Maybe that would help.  So I did.  Several popular kids were hanging out there, some rehearsing, some just being social.  I shyly asked Mr. Snodgrass if we could rehearse.

Debbie, who ranked 2nd in our section of 20 sopranos, looked on.  She was fairly certain she’d get the part, someone else told me.  I tried not to look at her as “Snod” played the introduction to the song.

I sang, trying so hard to tune out everyone in the room.  I imagined Georgi sitting in a corner.  I tried to shut out the voices that asked how I dared to reach beyond my place.

When I was done, Mr Snodgrass smiled.  “Good job, Sue, I don’t think you need to go over it again, you know it!”  I smiled shyly, hoping he was being sincere.  I glanced over at Debbie, and I couldn’t read her face.

But before I looked away and hurried out of the room, she said to me, “Hey.  I didn’t know you could sing like that. Good job.”  I nodded.  I was shaking too much to open my mouth.

But I smiled on my way back to class.

Still, when 7th period came I hadn’t eaten all day and I still thought I was going to have to run to the bathroom.  The entire 80 member choir was present for the auditions, huddled in cliques and chatting in corners.  There were five of us auditioning– as predicted, the other four were the top four sopranos in the choir.  All soloists.  All confidant.

And then there was shy, trembling, nauseous, heart-pounding me.  I could not go to church choir that night if I didn’t get the part, I’d already decided.

After each singing some phrases from the song more than once, it was down to Debbie and me.  “I want you each to do it in character.  Be Laurey.  Use expression in your singing, imagine yourself in the role.”  Debbie went first.  She was very good.  It was my turn.  I thought of Georgi, pictured her face and how she coached me to express myself in the song.  Don’t come to choir tomorrow and tell me you didn’t get the part.  

I did my best.

Mr. Snodgrass leaned back a little on his stool and looked at us, his hand holding his chin.  He looked at each of us, back and forth, for what seemed eons.

“Sue.”  There was a mixture of clapping and boos.  I heard later that Debbie’s popular friends Mr. Snodgrass gave it to me out of pity.  I thought they were right.  But still. I got it.  I concentrated on keeping my knees from giving out and walking out of the room with my friends, who congratulated me and gave me hugs.

That night, Georgi was at practice early, sitting in her usual seat.  As I watched the back of her head, I savored the moment.  She turned around and saw me, looked at me expectantly.  I smiled and nodded.

She let out a sigh and jumped up and hugged me.  “Oh, thank God!  I felt so bad telling you not to come and tell me you didn’t get it!  I worried about you all day!”  She laughed and hugged me again.  I don’t think I sang much that night, I just savored the feeling.

On the night of the concert, I thought I was going to die.  I had to get through most of the concert before the Oklahoma! segment came up.  I’d taken my pills and was pacing back and forth backstage, looking around for my escape routes if needed.  I kept swallowing so I wouldn’t throw up.  My throat stuck together and I wanted a drink of water so badly, but it was getting close to the moment when I had to sing the opening lines to Oh, What a Beautiful Morning  before bursting through the front door of the makeshift stage house.

I was inside the little house, which was open in the back, pacing the tiny space.  Andy, who I sat next to in Honors English and who never gave me the time of day normally, approached me.  “Hey, you’re going to be fine.”  He took my hands in both of his.  “Just breathe!  You’re going to be great.  And when we sing People… just hold onto my hands and look me in the eye. Forget about the audience.”  He let go of my hands and nodded.  The opening notes of the song played in the distance.  I took a deep breath, and belted the words out…

First line, out onto the stage.  Curtain closed.  Pause.  Time for our duet.  The curtain opened, and Andy was holding my hands again.  We sang.  It wasn’t worthy of Carnegie Hall, but I did it.  I got the song out.  My voice was shaky, but I got through it.  By the time of the closing reprise of Oklahoma! with the whole group, I was breathless, exhilarated, and so glad it was over.

Offstage, Mr. Snodgrass pulled me into a hug.  “You did it!  You stepped out of your comfort zone and you did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  My face burned with both shyness and delight.

In the hallway, I found Georgi and Bruce with my parents.  Georgi had roses in her hands and her face looked like she’d been crying.  “You did it, Peggy Sue!  You did it!  I’m so proud of you!”  She pulled me into a bear hug before giving me the roses and squeezed me tight.  “I love you, kiddo!” she said into my neck.

“You did alright,” Bruce said, giving me an awkward hug.

Georgi and I sang many more duets in church and sang at my brother Stan’s wedding just weeks after the concert.  My voice gained in confidence with each performance and got stronger each time.  I savored those moments with Georgi, singing next to her.  She believed in me.  She thought I had a gift.  She loved me.  She wanted me around.

Andy and I didn’t become friends but went back to our separate school lives with no evidence of sharing a moment onstage.  At graduation, Mr. Snodgrass hugged me and told me again that I’d done something big that spring.  “You wanted something, you didn’t give up and you reached for it.  Don’t forget that.  I’m proud of you.”  I carried those words with me for a long time into the future.

Sandie and her family came down from New York for my graduation and stayed the weekend.  Ed drove down from Freehold after church to be there.  I couldn’t believe either of them had gone so much out of their ways to be there for me.  They made an effort.  Ed had to leave right after preaching that morning, on Father’s Day, to be there for my graduation.   Sandie made a big fuss over me all weekend.  At graduation, each time they called my name– once for a Spanish award, once for a scholarship through the AAUW, and finally for my diploma– Sandie stood up and screamed from the bleachers, “Yay, Peggy Sue!” and pumped her fists in the air.  Georgi and Bruce sat with her and Chet and the kids.  Back at the house afterward, all of my favorite people got to know each other.  They’d all heard about each other through me.

It was a very good day.

Why I Marched

march

My first march was the March for Science that was put on locally in Kearney, but it was a fairly small turnout.  But I marched nonetheless.

I went to the Women’s March in Lincoln this year.  I took my husband Larry and my daughter Sarah and her best friend Avery.  I missed it last year, and I’ve waited all year to join in.  I needed to feel connected to others who’ve endured this year as painfully as I.

I wasn’t raised to fight back.  I wasn’t raised to get angry.  My mother –whom I love very much–taught me that anger made me less attractive.  My father thought that any women who spoke up in anger were “bitches” trying to be men.  I was indoctrinated on Freud’s anti-woman/anti-mother psychological theories.  My father has always believed that men are superior to women, that women are “too emotional,” “hysterical,” and non-intellectual.  To him, we are guided by our emotions.  Even now, when I get angry at him, he laughs at me.

I was raised to be a “good Christian girl,” which in my house meant I was to keep smiling, no matter how much I needed to scream.  My father didn’t think I had a right to speak up when men offended me, much less abused me.  I learned early as a pastor’s daughter that my job was to make my father look good at all costs.  I had to keep our family secrets.  Our image was to be one of perfection, emotional control and harmony.  When I did get angry, my father would stuff a mild tranquilizer in my mouth and tell me to calm down, he’d say “you’re just like your mother,” and…laugh.

I marched for the little girl who was always told to shut up.  I marched for the little girl of whom no one expected much, because she was a girl.  I marched for the little girl who was bullied in school, but only one teacher stood up for her and took her seriously.  I marched for the little girl who was told all her life that men were superior, women were stupid and emotional bitches, whose ideas were dismissed, and could not be leaders because they weren’t stable.  I marched for the little girl who was depressed and had no one to confide in.

I marched for the young woman pastor who had to sit and listen to her senior pastor tell her how wonderful he was, all the amazing things he accomplished and how everyone thought he was so important.  I marched for the young woman who had to smile in church standing next to him, knowing that behind closed doors he would yell at her, threaten her, and tell her that God must be a man because women didn’t enjoy sex as much as men.  I march for her who tried to speak up to the church authorities who didn’t take her seriously and who said, “he’s just that kind of guy.”  I march for her who was better at a lot of things than him, but who was constantly assured behind closed doors that he “was the better pastor.”  I march for all the anger she had to hold in, for the trembling smiles she wore while she wanted to throw up, for having to watch him be honored by the powers that be when she knew he could be cruel in words and made his secretary cry.

I march for those women who suffer much worse and no one takes them seriously, or makes excuses for the men, and even elects these monsters to be in office, saying that “boys will be boys.”  I march because I’m tired of trying to keep the peace, which means keeping my mouth shut while others around me can express their cruelty and meanness freely, sometimes in the name of Jesus.  I march because when I was a pastor I didn’t have the guts to be myself, or cringed when someone outed me as a “Democrat.”  I march for myself and all women who are bullied in the name of Jesus or God.  I march for my mother who has a lifetime of anger broiling inside of her and whose voice was silenced early in her life.  I march for my daughter whom I raised in a culture where sex is a sport and women are conquests, where women are shamed and silenced daily, where women have to fight just to have what men take for granted every day, where women’s bodies are used for entertainment in violent and abusive ways that are accepted.  I marched because I thought for 19 years in the church I could make a difference, only to feel continually silenced.  I marched because I’m tired of feeling powerless.

I marched for those who couldn’t march for whatever reason.  And I will keep marching.  Keep speaking.  I have two good feet and a voice.  And I can vote.

Following the Lead

field-of-dreams

I have never been one to say things like “God wants me to do this” or “God told me…” or “it’s the Lord’s will.”  I don’t criticize those who do; some are certainly legitimate and others use God to condone their own desires.  What was happening to me in 1989-90 was certainly not typical of my interactions with God either before or after.  I didn’t tell a lot of people what was going on at the time, lest they lock me up.  It was also far too precious, leaving me feeling incredibly vulnerable to share with just anybody.

When I got back from my weekend with Carolyn, having decided to go into pastoral ministry, I decided I could take some time to breathe.  I planned to look at as many of the 13 United Methodist seminaries in the country as I could that coming year and plan on going in 1990.  Silly me.

Soon after coming back I went to see “Field of Dreams” with a friend.  I was looking forward to having some fun, settling in to my life with my future plans on the board.  As the movie started, however, I couldn’t concentrate.  I was agitated and distracted and the thought let the dead bury the dead kept rolling over and over in my mind.  Huh?  I knew it was a biblical thing and it was something that Jesus had said, but I wasn’t such a scholar that I knew the context or the meaning of it.  After a while, a bit annoyed, I found a piece of paper in my purse and wrote it down, let the dead bury the dead.  Only then could I relax and enjoy the movie.

Later, as I got ready for bed, I looked up the verse (oh, where were you, Google?)  It’s in the story of Jesus calling people to follow him and one young man said that he had to go bury his father first. (A reasonable request, I thought)  But Jesus said to him, “let the dead bury their own dead, as for you, go and proclaim the gospel.”

Ok.

Living alone has its privileges, one of which being that you can talk out loud to yourself or to God without causing a disturbance.  I paced my apartment and railed at God a little bit, feeling, nonetheless, a bit foolish.  “So.  Does this mean you want me to go to seminary now??  And where??”  Silence.  Which is what I expected of course.

The next day I came home from work and picked  the mail up off the floor.  Amidst the stack of bills was an application form for Drew University Theological School.  Subtle.  I stood there for a while with my hands shaking.  Ken, I knew, had requested that Drew send me a catalog, as it was his own alma mater.  I’d already received that.  I called Drew right away and asked if it was too late to apply for the fall semester, being as it was already late July and the semester started in August.  According to the application, I needed to take the GRE.

“Oh no,” said the admissions secretary, “that’s an old form.  You don’t have to take the GRE.  Just go ahead and apply, it’s not too late.”

Holy Burning Bush, Batman.

I filled out the application, wrote all the essays that were required and sent it on.  I asked my friend Doug  to go up to Drew with me to visit.  Doug was a leader in the Lay Witness Mission; a lay ministry that I’d become involved with recently.  He and June took me in and allowed me to hang out at their house any time I wanted. Which was a lot.

Doug and I drove up to Drew in my car and met with Mr. Hand, the admissions director.  Randall Hand was a kind, gentle soul who immediately put me at ease.  He let me know that I was accepted to the M.Div program, and happily added that they were very impressed with my materials and my writing.  That felt good.  I did confess that I didn’t have any money.  I was living from paycheck to paycheck in my own apartment and had no savings.

Randall shrugged.  “I know it sounds simple, Peggy, but if God wants you here, I believe God will get you here somehow.”  At the time, that sentiment didn’t inspire me.  I knew once my father found out, he’d want a full explanation.  How are you going to do this?  This doesn’t make any sense!  Who’s going to pay for this? I anticipated all the explaining I’d have to do.

Drew was very intimidating to me then.  It was where my own father had received his D.Min degree in the ’70s and always espoused it to be a difficult, prestigious institution.  The main reason I didn’t want him to go visit with me was because he’d already said, “You know, it’s a very difficult school.  You may not get accepted.”  Thanks, Dad.

In our Southern New Jersey UM Conference, some dismissed it as “much too liberal.”  Many of the buildings on campus were made of stone, carved and made to remind one, I suspect, of the likes of Cambridge or Oxford.  All of the buildings were surrounded by a forest of trees that provided a beautiful natural ceiling to it all.  It all loomed above me as I got into my car with a sense of foreboding.  It felt like God was a part of all this, but where was I going to get any money to do it?

I had a large collection of mixed cassette tapes in my car, all assembled to inspire me and encourage me in my travels.  One was in the cassette player in my car.  When I started up the car, the tape resumed on a song by David Meece that said, “You can go, now, you can go… you’ve got the power of God, let it flow…”  Doug chuckled.

“Well, there you go!”  I smiled.  At the moment, I was still skeptical.

I was right, my father thought I was crazy.

“There’s no way you can go to Drew next month!  Where are you going to get the money?  And how are you going to pay for it?  And what about your apartment?”  It was all what I expected.  I was asked to justify it all and I couldn’t.  Nothing was ever simple.  I always had to have a really good explanation for the things I did, and they always fell short.  I had no rational explanation for him.  And I couldn’t tell him about the crazy things that had been happening.  He didn’t believe in that kind of stuff.  In fact, I confess, I never knew what my father believed.

I was able to get my security deposit back on my apartment with no penalties, and the local church where I attended gave me $500.  It was very much appreciated, but it was a mere drop in the bucket of what I needed.  Nonetheless, on August 25th, 1989, my parents and I drove north on the Garden State Parkway with two carloads full of my stuff.  My father, I learned later, complained to my mother the entire two hours, assuring her that we’d all just have to turn right around once we got there and I’d have to live with them.  There was no way I’d be able to stay with my $500 check.

At a rest stop where we stopped for lunch, we saw the headlines of the local paper.  The oldest building on Drew’s campus, Mead Hall… was on fire.  The fire had started that morning and was still burning.

“I think we better go home,” my father said.  I refused.  Sure enough, when we pulled onto the campus, there were firetrucks and emergency vehicles everywhere.  The area around Mead Hall–where I’d met with Randall Hand a month prior–was all sectioned off.  There were still visible flames and smoke.  We were redirected to an area where there were trailers and temporary buildings set up to continue the business of the first day of the Fall semester.  We found the trailer that temporarily housed the financial aid office.  Of course, all their computers were down.  The man behind the desk in Financial Aid shook his head.

“I’m sorry, but there is no way you can attend class if you don’t have any means to pay.  We can’t process your student aid or scholarship applications without computers.  Seriously, you may want to think about coming back in the Spring.”  He looked tired.

I didn’t want to cry.  I was already a nervous wreck.  I was angry that I wasn’t getting any support from my father, and my mother was silent.  Normally, I would have tucked my shy little tail between my legs and skulked away; gone back home with my parents to live, and suffered the consequences.  But there was much too much at stake.

“I’m not leaving,” I heard my quiet little voice say.

“What? I told you…”

“No.  I have come too far, and Randall Hand told me it was possible. (Talk about dropping names!)  I’m not going home.  I filled out the applications just like I was supposed to, I did everything I was supposed to do.  I’m not going anywhere.”  My hands pushed down on my lap, trying to keep my legs from visibly trembling.  I thought I was going to be sick.

“Fine,” the man sighed and walked away for a while.  My father didn’t say anything while we sat there.  When the man returned, he said he was able to push my applications through and get me some scholarship money, with the rest covered by a loan.  He sent me to the housing office.  There were two rooms left.

We moved my stuff into a house for grad students just off campus and then went to a local diner for supper.  My father had been very quiet the whole time we unloaded my things.  At supper he finally said,  “I get the feeling you’re supposed to be here.”

I got that feeling too.

Growing up in a pastor’s family my whole life left me pretty sheltered and unaware of a lot of things.  I had romantic notions of what seminary would be like, and of living with four other women.  I envisioned that we’d all get along well, we’d have dinner together every night, have little get-togethers and be a cozy little community.  Actually, three of the other women were PhD students and I was quickly told they simply didn’t have time for anything but study.  The other M.Div. student downstairs regularly entertained married pastors who came to Drew for “seminars” occasionally.

We weren’t in Kansas anymore.

They all caught on early that I was just a babe in the woods compared to them, very naive and “innocent.”  Some were kinder than others.  I did get to be friends with one woman named Darcie, a young PhD candidate, who seemed to have compassion on me in my naivete.  She and I spent a lot of time that first year going out for coffee and became each others’ confidante in various dramas.  Early in the first semester I came home to her and another woman student making out in her room.  I tried really hard not to appear shocked or alarmed, but nonetheless Darcie felt the need to explain.  She was very heterosexual, she informed me (not that I would have judged her otherwise), but she and her friend were what one might call “political lesbians.”  They enjoyed men, but the very act of sexual intercourse was to them oppressive.  (I had no data to offer in my opinion on that subject)  I liked Darcie, so I was willing to listen and try to understand her perspective.  I knew I’d landed on an entirely different planet from what I was used to.

A senior in the M.Div program once said to me that seminary “was like a nuclear war on your insides.”  I came to understand what she meant right away.  At least at Drew, we were put through so much self-analysis and scrutiny of our beliefs.  Drew was big on therapy, which was part of the culture of Northern New Jersey.  It was a status thing at that time to admit you were in therapy.  People actually said things like, “I was telling my therapist the other day…” or “Well, my therapist says…”

One of our first courses was Pastoral Formation, led by a pastoral psychotherapist.  We were to examine ourselves and our lives thoroughly and share deeply in small groups.  It was harrowing and nerve-wracking.  What I didn’t realize until later was that going to Drew for me was  like going to an institution created by my  father.  My experience at Drew was sometimes a nightmare of being picked apart and splayed open like a dissected frog, and at other times it was a triumph that I was able to endure and even succeed the spiritual and mental boot camp of “my father’s school.”

Nonetheless, it was exhausting.

On my first day of Introduction to Theology, Dr. Delores Williams closed the door to the classroom and leaned up against it as if to make sure we didn’t escape.  She narrowed her eyes and looked around at all of us.

“Nobody in here believes in the Virgin Birth anymore, do they?” she said mockingly.

What?  No one had ever told me the Virgin Birth was a problem.  I kept my mouth shut and my hand down.  She laughed.  “I thought not,” and proceeded to go into all the reasons why the Virgin birth was a problem.

We didn’t learn any of what came to be known as “White Guy Theology”– no Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Bonhoeffer, etc.  My Introduction to Theology class was an introduction to Liberation Theology, theologies done by minority peoples.  I didn’t even know this stuff existed, and despite my anxiety and defensiveness, I found it fascinating.  I never considered that anyone’s theology was affected by where they were born, the color of their skin or even their gender.  Therefore I didn’t realize until then that the psychology that my father espoused as gospel was also written by men who studied men, and applied it universally to all people.  Suddenly there was a hole torn into my father’s sacred robes…

My favorite class was with Dr. Bull.  Christian History.  He lectured without notes about early Christianity and how the Bible was put together.  Again, it was news to me that there were so many different gospels written down by many different people.  A committee of bishops voted on what to keep and put into the canon, and what to discard.  Therefore the Gospel of Mary Magdeline was lost… until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  The editing of the Bible was a political act, I learned.

Holes were being torn into everything.

But Dr. Bull was a passionate older man who really got excited about Christian History.  He talked as if he were close personal friends with Augustine (pronounced Au-GUS-tine, not like the Florida town) and was there at the Council of Nicae.  I was enraptured by his lectures.  Dr. Bull was one of the few professors, too, who exhibited a personal faith, oddly enough.  When the Berlin Wall came down that Fall, Dr. Bull started class on his knees, saying a prayer.

Everywhere else, one didn’t want to talk about their faith with just anyone, lest they laugh at you.  It was a community that highly valued intellect above all else.  Most of my classmates had no interest in serving a church, but were on their way to PhDs to teach.  The local church, to them, was a place for non-intellectuals.

I spent a lot of time in Randall Hand’s office, lamenting my anxieties, and needing some spiritual connection.  Randall was different than a lot of people.  He wasn’t a professor, so he had the luxury of being a regular guy.  He had a deep and sincere faith, and was very understanding of my struggles.  I came to rely on him quite a bit that year.

Fortunately, I did make some friends that I could relate to and with whom I could share my struggles.  Debbie was a pastor’s wife and nurse from my own Conference and we found a lot of common ground.  I was one of the youngest seminarians on campus, as the majority of them were on their second or third careers.

I found solace on my walks through the campus, getting lost among the trees and sitting and watching the hundreds of squirrels in their antics.  Drew intimidated the hell out of me.  They wanted to, of course.  The school reeked of superiority.  At the time, I didn’t make the connection to my father and my lifelong struggles to prove myself to him.  Drew was very similar to my father and his values, and in my relentless anxiety, I worked very, very hard to prove myself at Drew.  To prove that was I worthy to be among them and that I wasn’t just some naive kid from Southern Jersey with a blind faith.  I never felt very smart.  I always thought I was rather stupid, in fact.  I didn’t get excellent grades in college.  I didn’t try harder because I thought I just wasn’t able.  But my anger and defensiveness at having landed in The Forest without a map to negotiate my way compelled me to work my butt off.  That first semester I got horribly ill with bronchitis and was down for two weeks.  The remaining weeks in the semester I had to push even harder to catch up.  On my Introduction to Theology final exam, I got an “A,” and my professor was so impressed with my argument against the Virgin Birth (which I still believed in) that she wrote “You are going to be a theologian.”  I’d made it.  I got straight A’s that semester for the first time in my life.

But even with all the accolades of my professors and my classmates, with the straight A’s and Randall Hand even suggesting I would be a bishop one day, I felt empty and lost.  None of it made me feel worthy.  None of it proved to me that I could actually be a pastor.

None of it impressed my father.  So during January break, I decided not to go home, but signed up to go on the seminary choir tour down through the southern states.  I had no idea that my life was about to change.

The Ache of Grace

img_2512

“Hurts so good.” “Sweet sorrow.”  Why do we say these things?  Why do good things make us ache?  And why does it feel that if  we name a goodness, a happiness, then we make it go away?

I was 12 when we visited the Allens up in Connecticut.  They’d moved away from the Red Bank area and I was sure we wouldn’t see them again.  The only close friends my parents had were a couple they’d known in college who were also a pastor and his wife.  They were also in New Jersey, so they stayed connected by beings pastors in the same region.

The pastorate was not conducive to friendship.  Parishioners got jealous if a pastor was closer to some members than others.  My father didn’t believe pastors could have friends.  And my mother found it difficult to be honest with people she was friends with;  she couldn’t share any problems or concerns that might reflect badly on my father.

But Chet and Sandie moved away and were no longer “parishioners.”  So I guess they were no longer off limits.  That weekend we went to see them was the “beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.”

Their 8 year old daughter Andrea had gotten some Poppers for Christmas.  They were little cylindrical pieces of foam that you pinched between your fingers, aiming them at other people.  The only thing I remember about that weekend is the Popper-fight that somehow erupted among the adults and children.  It seemed like there was enough Poppers to go around and then some, because the Popper fight went on for quite a while.  Chet and Sandie both attacked me and my mother got into the fray along with Andrea’s little 4 year old brother Chip.  It was like a pillow fight that had gotten out of control.  We were laughing, rolling, dodging, grabbing more poppers off the floor, pinching and popping blindly.  In the end, I could no longer reach any more ammunition, and Sandie was straddling my body on the floor, pelting me with her stash of little pieces of foam.  Finally, we all were on the floor–except my father who opted out of such nonsense–wiping our eyes, holding our bellies and laughing at absolutely nothing.  It was delicious and beautiful, and when Sandie made me surrender, she awkwardly disentangled her legs from my back and stood up.  I rolled over and took my time getting up, wiping the extra tears that formed in my eyes, and fighting the sudden urge to sob.

For those few minutes, I was outside of myself, out of my head, out of my life.  I forgot myself, which didn’t happen often.  For those moments I was free from my constant anxiety, the weighing of all words before I spoke them, the analyzing of every thought and emotion and subsequent self-condemnation.

I felt included.

Chet offered me a hand and pulled me up into a hug.  “You alright there, Peggy Sue?” he asked,  giggling.  The tears still formed in my eyes, but perhaps he thought they were leftover from all the laughter.  I smiled and let myself be held.

I was more than all right.

When we went back south to New Jersey, I replayed those moments over and over in my head, feeling a literal ache in my middle.  I curled up on my side in the backseat and replayed the visit again and again in my head.  I tried to write about it in my journal.  About how the weekend was so good it hurt.

I adored Sandie from that weekend on.  She took up permanent residence in my heart and as time went by, my love for her only deepened and took stronger root.  It didn’t matter that I was so shy I could hardly speak a whole sentence without evaluating it first.  It didn’t matter that I was quiet and timid.  I felt… visible.  She didn’t look through me or past me to my parents.  She smiled when she looked at me, as if she delighted in me.  She was a very touchy person– she was always putting her arm around me, scratching my back, tussling my hair or pulling me into a spontaneous hug.

Whenever we left a visit with them, I wrote every detail down, every touch, every word, trying to freeze it in my memory so I could retrieve it anytime.  So I had evidence it really happened.  That it was real.  It was a delicious pain.  Like eating a piece of chocolate so sweet it made your teeth hurt.

When I turned 14, my father was moved from Red Bank to Woodbury, New Jersey.  I thought my life had ended.  Red Bank was the only home I knew, as we’d moved there when I was five.  I grew up with all the same friends since kindergarten.  I was so shy, despite buying a book on How to Overcome Shyness.  My father thought that emotions were simply things that needed to be fixed and overcome, not felt.  Books, psychology, would fix anything.  Nothing “fixed” my shyness.  I didn’t know how I would survive leaving all my friends and be the new kid in school.

Fortunately, Kemble Memorial United Methodist Church in Woodbury embraced me along with my parents.  They helped me meet new kids before school started, and invited me to various youth activities in the church.  I felt welcomed.  They helped ease the terror of starting in a whole new school and having to make new friends when I was so shy.  They became my family.

The summer I turned 15, I decided to go to a summer camp called Pennington Institute.  It was a church camp put on by our Conference.  I’d never been away from home for a whole week before, but my then-boyfriend Eric was going, so I decided to go too.  The two of us were so painfully shy and awkward that I hoped it would give us a chance to relax with each other a bit, away from home.

Camp started on my birthday, so I didn’t really get to celebrate.  No one else knew it was my birthday, so as soon as my parents left, I kind of panicked.  What had I done?  A whole week?  I didn’t know anyone very well, and Eric already indicated that he wanted to hang out with his best friend.

After unpacking my things in my room, I wandered up to the boys’ floor to look for Eric.  He wasn’t there, so I came down the stairs that led into the main entrance of the building.  There was a crowd of teenagers milling about, greeting each other, dragging duffel bags and tennis rackets.  In the middle of the crowd was the head counselor, Ed, who was a pastor.  He’d been talking to my father earlier.  Ed was in his mid-thirties, and  dressed in shorts and a white T-shirt.  He had a whistle around his neck.  He looked up from the midst of the noisy teens and spotted me.

“Well, well!  What do we have here?” his voice was a deep baritone, loud enough to silence everyone.  They all looked up.  I felt my face get hot, and I stopped mid-step on the stairs.

“First day at camp and she’s already wandering around the boy’s floor.  And a pastor’s kid at that!!”  He gestured wildly with his hands and looked around.  The kids were all smiling up at me.

I could feel myself shrinking inward.  I thought I was in big trouble and I hated being singled out.  I opened my mouth but nothing came out.  Instead, I hurried down the stairs and ran in the opposite direction.

“You can run but you can’t hide, Michael!”  Ed called after me.  The youth around him laughed and resumed chatting.

During those first couple of days, I was so anxious and homesick that I couldn’t eat a thing.  My stomach was  twisted up in knots and I  wanted to go home.  This was a big mistake.  I didn’t go anywhere near Ed, but watched him closely.  He was very funny.  The youth all seemed to love him.  He was… weird.  He teased and joked and acted really goofy.  He made a fool of himself on purpose, to get a laugh.  I didn’t understand him.  The only pastor I really knew was my father, who always wore a tie, who never was silly or goofy, and certainly didn’t play.  My father would never lead a youth camp and found it very hard to relate to “young people.”  Ed was so different than any pastor I’d known.  I didn’t know if I liked it.  Or him.

By Monday, I’d decided I need to go home.  I was so sick to my stomach I’d never make it the whole week, and Eric was off with his buddy all the time.  Monday night, I called my Mom from the payphone in the lobby.  I was crying, begging her to come get me.  She was trying to convince me to stay.  Meanwhile, behind me I heard weeping and loud wailing.  I turned around and Ed was sitting across the lobby, pretending to cry.

“She’s waiting so desperately by the phone, wondering, ‘will he call? Does he love me?’ She doesn’t know.  But she waits, and hopes… oooohhhhhhhh!”  he collapsed into exaggerated bawling.

“Who is THAT?” my mother asked, a bit alarmed.

I couldn’t help but smile.  “Um, that’s Ed.  I guess he’s a pastor.  He’s the head counselor here, he’s a little weird.”

“Oh honey, I love youuuuuu!” Ed lamented in a falsetto voice.  I turned around and looked at him again.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” He was suddenly very serious, “I didn’t know you were on the phone, I thought you were waiting for a call, oh my gosh, I am so sorry…” he put his hand over his mouth and looked genuinely embarrassed.  I laughed out loud.

“Sounds like you’re having fun,” Mom said.

“No, no, that was just now, he… I don’t know him really,” I stumbled to recover my argument.  She agreed to come by the next day and see how I was doing and she’d decide then whether to take me home.  I hung up, hopeful.

Ed approached me.  “I really am so sorry, I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have done that… hey, we’re having a gathering in the gym in a few minutes, if you’re feeling up to it, why don’t you join us?”

I knew he could tell I’d been crying and I was embarrassed.  “Yeah, I need to go to my room first,” I said shyly and ran up the stairs.

The next day, my roommate suggested that we go to the pool before my parents came.  Brenda and I walked into the pool room in our swimsuits, me wearing my Dr. Scholls wooden sandals and my towel around my neck.  We walked by the bench where several of the camp counselors sat.

“There goes that Michael kid again, always making trouble…” Ed muttered loudly enough for me to hear.  I ignored him.  He was getting to be annoying.  I just wanted to go home.  I was starving.

Before we found a place to put our stuff down, he was right behind me.  “You going swimming, Michael?” He grinned like the Grinch. “Why wait?” and before I could take my next breath, he’d swung me up into his arms, cradling me.

He walked toward the side of the pool and already kids were chanting, “Throw her in! Throw her in!”  They were laughing and cheering.

As I kicked and screamed, Ed just grinned at me, swinging me back and forth, back and forth.  I felt a rush of anger and frustration as well as a bit of panic.  Brenda rushed over and grabbed my shoes off my feet.  The chanting and laughing went on, and still I felt a mix of embarrassment and anger.  Perhaps sensing that I wasn’t enjoying myself, he swung me a few more times and finally put me down.

“Never mind.  Too soon,” he shrugged.  I relaxed, just as he said, “but this is already damp anyway,” and he threw my towel in the pool.  The kids laughed.  I looked at my towel floating away, looked back at Ed and stomped my foot.  I couldn’t believe it!

A brown-haired guy named Dave was in the pool and grabbed my towel before it sunk.  “This yours?” He held it, dripping, above his head.

“Yes,” and I started to reach for it.

“Thought so!” he said and threw it further into the pool.  I sighed heavily and dove into the pool after my towel.  I swam toward the side and got out, lugging my heavy wet towel, and spotted Ed talking to someone.  I hurried toward him and the person he was talking to to warned him, “Look out!” as I threw my wet towel towards him.  It missed him and landed on the tile floor.

Ed winked and hurried off.

Brenda joined me and we went after him, spotting him here and there around campus before he ducked in another door.  My parents caught me running across campus with Brenda and I admitted that I was ok.  In fact, I realized… I was having a good time.  I stayed the week.  I barely ate a thing because my stomach never calmed down, but I had a good time.

The brown-haired boy named Dave started hanging around me.  Then he held my hand.  Then he kissed me.  I was over the moon.  Eric who?  Dave lived 80 miles away from me, so we didn’t get to see each other much over the few months we were “going out,” but we wrote letters every day, talked on the phone and convinced our parents to drive us to each other’s houses to visit.  It was over by January and my heart was temporarily shattered, but that experience of “first love” was my first taste of being giddy in love.

During that week of camp, Ed sought me out and started conversations with me.  When we made T shirts, I gave myself a “new” name.  I put the name “Peggy Sue” on the T-shirt, a name that Sandie had invented for me when I was 11.  To my new camp friends, I was Peggy Sue.

I watched Ed with other youth.  He was very popular.  He was fun and silly.  How could someone so “important” care at all for me? I wondered.  I didn’t realize until then how much I wished my own father could just love me for who I was and not always try to mold me into what he wanted; his little protege, his enraptured audience, his biggest worshiper.  I ached for a father who could look at me with love, instead of with Freudian analysis, summarizing me like a case study.

Not only did I enjoy the fun times, but I was very attentive during the study times of camp.  When he was serious, Ed was an engaging speaker and preacher.  It was as if he were personal friends with God.  His prayers weren’t formal, but sounded as if he were speaking to a beloved and familiar friend.  Ed was… real.  He got excited about telling us God loved us, or teaching us how the Bible stories related to our lives.  The singing was fun and inspiring to me, and I was moved by the candlelight commitment service.  It was an intense worship service with singing, Bible readings and skits.  It lifted me, empowered me and filled me up.

The week of Pennington–as it came to be for me for three more summers– was a week of intense community, sharing of feelings, hugging,  play and laughter, singing, swimming, and profound God-moments in the candlelight.  When I was at Pennington, I felt free to be myself.  I felt loved, visible, even popular.  In high school, I was a lonely goody two-shoes.  I didn’t fit in.

Going home from camp every year was a jolt to my emotions.  I felt exposed, vulnerable and cut off.  The rest of the world felt so harsh outside of camp.  My parents didn’t understand.  I never understood why they weren’t thrilled that their daughter had such an intense faith experience.  Instead they were annoyed that I was such an emotional mess when they picked me up.

I adored Ed like I adored Sandie and Chet.  He saw me.  He thought God loved me just the way I was, and he also seemed to think I was pretty great.

“Why do you hug him so much?” my mother would ask when I reluctantly folded myself into the car, tears running down my face in a mixture of joy and sweet sorrow.

“We hug a lot at camp, that’s all.”

“He shouldn’t be hugging you so much,” she’d say, meaning Ed.

“He’s like a father to you,” my father would add, “and of course you have sexual feelings toward him, that’s natural…”

“Dad!  I don’t!  Stop!” Leaving Pennington, I felt like my heart was hanging out of my chest, and the world was full of open containers of alcohol.  Rollo wouldn’t stop.  He wouldn’t give me a break, but kept dissecting me, especially at my most vulnerable.  I felt powerless in his presence to stop it.

“It’s true, I know why you love him so much, but he shouldn’t take advantage of that,” he said casually.

“What? He’s not… Dad, just please, be quiet.”  And I’d slump down in the backseat, holding all my camp memories close to my chest, aching so much it felt like I’d break in two.

My growing faith got me through high school.  I struggled daily with depression and anxiety.  I wrote poetry.  I kept a journal, into which I wrote all my feelings, good and bad.  I wrote Sandie and Ed lengthy letters, sharing some of my poetry, and every so often they’d reply.  I wrote letters to all my camp friends, listened to music for hours in my room and played my guitar.  I joined the Adult Choir, the bell choir and acted in plays at church.  Singing was a therapy for me that I savored.  I had a few close friends in high school who were just as nerdy as I was.

God was in the music, the poetry, the highs of summer camp, the candlelight, and in the agonizing periods of darkness and loneliness.  God saturated my life.  In that, I rested and breathed.

 

Out of the Backyard

227634_10200472992806570_1568810581_n

People have asked me, “What about your call?”  I no longer believe that the events of 1989-90 were so narrowly focused as to simply get me into church ministry.  My call to ministry, as I referred to it all back then, was also a call to life.  It was a summons out of my old life that wasn’t working, that was leaving me stagnant and depressed.  It was a call to get away, far away enough, to become who I am, and not just a mixture of my Dad’s psychology and my Mom’s fears.  It was a call to start being who I am created to be, to think for myself.  It was a long journey.

My becoming a pastor never entered the mind of anyone in my family, least of all me.  When my oldest brother Don was a child, Rollo groomed him for the ministry with high hopes.  He’d put Don up on the dining room table and try to get him to recite poetry, giving him tips on how to enunciate and speak out.  I’m not sure when he gave up on that dream– but as Don grew older, it became very clear that he wanted nothing to do with the church, much less the ministry.  Rollo gave up, but was bitterly disappointed.  The other two boys followed Don to the exit door of the church.  My father never even considered that I could be a pastor.

From as far back as I can remember, Dad told me I was “too sensitive, too emotional” for the ministry.  I had no interest in doing it, mind you.  I believed him that the church would eat me alive.  Besides, I was sure I was too dumb, too shy, and yes, too sensitive.  Besides, Rollo didn’t like women ministers much.  He believed the ones who were trying to pave the way for other women were “bitches”– too aggressive, trying to be men.  Others were too flighty or too this or too that.  I knew of no women pastors that my father respected as equals.

It was fine by me.  I don’t have many memories of my father growing up, except at mealtimes.  The church was his whole life, and I knew there were many times that he and Mom went into a room and locked the door to talk about church stuff.  He complained about people that made life difficult for him, who didn’t like his preaching, or complained about this or that.  Until I was a teenager, they didn’t let me hear too much about church conflicts, but I saw enough that I figured I would never be tough enough or smart enough to do it.

From the time I was a teenager, I suffered from undiagnosed depression and anxiety pretty frequently.  I was tested for mono a lot in high school,  but no one–including the doctor who was a church member–wanted to think that Dr. Rollo’s daughter could be depressed.  What would she possibly have to be depressed about?

The summer of 1989 changed my life.  I had a strong and passionate faith, which I believe got me through quite a bit to that point.  I was the one child in the family who did NOT leave the church.  My life was immersed in church. I loved going to the United Methodist Annual Conference gathering in Ocean City, New Jersey every June.  There I got to see people who became like family to me, since I rarely saw my real extended family.  Pastors and their wives, counselors from camp, people I’d met through the church, were like my aunts and uncles.  I loved going to Conference, worshiping with a thousand other Methodists, walking the boardwalk, getting hugs from the people I loved.  Going to the beach was a bonus.

In June of 1989, I was working full-time and couldn’t get off for Conference.  I’d graduated college with a B.A. in Psychology two years before, and still had no clue what to do with my life.  I was very depressed at that time, living in my own apartment, paycheck to paycheck, going from one job to another, relying on my clerical skills.  On June 12, 1989, I drove down to Ocean City to go to the worship service that evening to say goodbye to two of my favorite people, John and Jane Ewing.  John was retiring and they were moving to Florida.  John had been my father’s District Superintendent at one point, and I grew to love him and Jane like family.

When I slid into the pew beside my mother at St. Peter’s UMC in Ocean City, my mother said that the preacher that night was supposed to be really excellent.  She’d heard that he was really unique and inspiring, and sounded like someone I might like.  I loved the music and singing at Conference, but the preachers were usually quite boring, often being Bishops from other Conferences.  I was just there for John, who would be recognized with the others who were retiring that year.  I was sad that he was leaving.  I was sad in general.

Some important person introduced the preacher, a Dr. Eugene Lowry from Kansas City, Missouri.  I had no clue where Missouri was, but knew it was pretty far away. Out in the middle somewhere.  Dr. Lowry was a bit of a scary looking person.  He was very tall, thin and lanky.  His face was squarish, outlined by a beard but no mustache.  If you put a tall stovepipe hat on him, he could have passed for Abraham Lincoln.  He was stern looking, and certainly carried an air of authority.  I leaned back and tried to get comfortable.

Lowry took out his reading glasses from his suit pocket and put them on, opening his Bible to the evening’s Gospel passage:  Matthew 25:14-30.  It was known as the Parable of the Talents.  As soon as Lowry began to read, I knew something was different.  He read with great drama, as if he were telling the story rather than just reading it.  He was animated and expressive.  I’d never heard the Bible read like that.  I sat forward.  When he was done reading, he took off his glasses, laid them gently on the edge of the pulpit and said, “This… is the Gospel of our Lord.”  Silence.

He looked around the room of about 900 people, slowly.  He shook his head.  “Well,” he said, “I’m offended.”  More silence.  Huh?

And he began to preach.  He spoke as if Jesus were full of it to tell such a story.  Questioning Jesus??  The story is about a rich man who went on a long trip and left his entire estate in the hands of three servants.  He didn’t divide things up equally, however.  To one, he gave five talents, to the other two and to the last, just one talent.  In ancient Middle Eastern times, a talent was about a year’s wage for the common laborer.  It was serious money.  While he was away, the first two servants invested or gambled the money and doubled the master’s money.  The five talents were turned into 10, and the two talents became four.  The last servant, perhaps a more conservative sort, dug a hole and buried the one talent.  When the master returned, he called the servants in to see how they fared in his absence.  The two servants happily presented the master with their results, and to each of them he said, “Well done, good and faithful servants, well done!  You have been trusted with little, now you will be trusted with much!  Enter into the joy of your master!”

The third servant was afraid of the master.  He knew the master to be a man who reaped where he didn’t sow and took what wasn’t his.  And so the servant nervously came forward and assured the master that he had not lost what was given to him.  “Here,” he said, “you have what is yours.”

The master was ticked off!  “You wicked and lazy servant!  You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow?  Well, you should have at least put the money in the bank where it would have gathered interest!  Get out of here, take this man to the outer darkness where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth!”

Lowry was offended.  His face reflected that.  He seemed completely indignant. He spoke of how the last servant was the most loyal and responsible!  He wasn’t wicked and lazy!  The other two had gambled the master’s money– it wasn’t theirs to play with– and they could just have easily lost it all!  But the last one was careful.  He knew it wasn’t his money, and so he kept it safe.  Sure, Lowry said, he could have earned interest on it had it put it in the bank, but… well, at least he didn’t lose any of it!

Then he looked more closely at the third servant.  What was his wrongdoing?  Lowry had us all questioning Jesus’ standpoint.  Why dishonor the third servant?  Why honor those crooks?  It seemed to me the preacher was digging a hole he wouldn’t be able to get out of.

The third servant admitted being terrified of the master, who was known to be a ruthless man, taking what wasn’t his, reaping where he didn’t sow.  He could crush anyone who went against him!  The third servant admitted it:  he was afraid.  No one could blame him, sure, but he was afraid.  He was afraid of the enormous gift that the master had entrusted him with, and was so afraid of anything happening to it, he didn’t even trust the bankers.  He needed to keep it where he could control it, keep an eye on it himself.

So he buried it in the backyard.  Well, then he couldn’t just leave it there unguarded.  Perhaps neighbors would see the disturbed earth and go snooping and digging.  So the third servant stayed there, hovering over the hole in the ground, not letting it out of his sight, not trusting anyone else to care for it or guard it.  He stayed there day and night, worrying and fretting, and could do nothing else.  He was afraid.  He was stuck in that backyard, and, Lowry suggested, that backyard became his grave.  There was no life in the backyard, only death.  Life for that servant stopped.  The third servant was afraid.  His fault didn’t lie in his fear, but his allowing his fear to keep him paralyzed, seeking to keep control over that gift in that hole that he had dug for himself.

“Get out of the backyard,” Lowry said.  There is no life there, only an outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Get out of the backyard.  Lowry paused, looking around the room.

Enter… into the joy of your master.  He closed the Bible and put his glasses back in his breast pocket, still looking hard out into the upturned faces in the congregation.  Enter… into the joy… of your Master.  And he walked away.

He walked away!  No “Amen” or “thanks be to God,” no introduction of the next hymn… he just walked out of the pulpit and sat down with the worship leader.  There was silence.

Suddenly, not knowing why, I wanted to cry.  Or throw up.  My hands were cold and clammy, I was sitting forward on the pew, my back aching from being tense.  I felt like I’d been holding my breath for a long time.  I turned to my mother.

“Who told him I was coming?” I asked her.  She looked at me questioningly, but smiled, as she opened the hymnal to the final hymn.  How the hell did he know??

I actually felt scared.  Who was this guy?  I had the alarming sense that he’d known what it was like to be me.  To live inside my body.  To be afraid all the time.  To feel like everyone was going to find out that I was nobody special after all.  That I had no gifts, no talents, no achievements to brag about.  I was so afraid all the time that no one would love me if they really knew me.  I was so depressed.  Living alone didn’t help, but I had desperately wanted to get away from home after college.  As hundreds of people sang around me, I stared at that angular man behind the pulpit.

Who are you? How did you know?  

I went to the reception afterward in a bit of an anxious daze.  I hugged John and Jane and sadly said goodbye to them, telling them I loved them so much.  If John were staying, perhaps I would have talked to him about what was going on inside of me, my questions and self doubt.  But he was leaving.

I decided to come back the next night. Lowry was preaching again and perhaps he would give me answers to all the questions he’d stirred up that night.  So, I needed to get the hell out of the backyard where I was dying in my own fears and anxieties.  But what did that mean?  What was I supposed to do?

When I went to college, I’d toyed with the idea of going into the ministry, but folks at my Christian college assured me that God didn’t call women into the ministry, it said so in Scripture, they said.  Nobody else encouraged me, so I gave that idea up in my freshmen year of college.  What had I been thinking?

That night after the sermon, I spent the night on the couch of the cottage where my parents stayed for Conference.  I drove back to work early that next morning, with plans to return to Ocean City that evening.

The next night, Lowry preached another powerful sermon, this time on the Woman at the Well.  I was desperate to get answers that never came, so I don’t even remember what he said that night.  I got separated from my parents after the service as they greeted friends, and I was so tired.  I hadn’t slept well at all the previous night, thinking about backyards and talents and taking risks but not knowing what kind.  As I shouldered my way through the crowd with my eye on the door, a woman named Mrs. Burrus bumped into me.

“Oh, Susan,” she said, and her eyes were full of tears.  She grabbed my arm, holding me in place.  I hadn’t seen the woman since I was about five years old and she scared me a little.  She laughed self-consciously.  “I was just so moved by that sermon,” she said, shaking her head as if trying to shake off her tears.  I didn’t know what to say, so I just smiled.  Just as suddenly as she’d grabbed my arm, she let it go, and I continued to move through the crowd of people.

I made it through the door and just as I landed on the street, Greg bumped into me.

“Whoa!  Peggy Sue!” He smiled and wrapped me in a big bear hug.  Greg was a pastor and had been a camp counselor at the church camp I’d attended during high school.  He and I had talked about the possibility of my going into the ministry, back in high school.  In fact, we’d had breakfast together to talk about it, on a Youth Conference Weekend in Ocean City, about six years previously.  We lost touch when I was in college.

I was so glad to see him it hurt.

We chatted about my job and life, what was happening with him.  “I haven’t seen you on any lists for candidates for ministry, what’s up with that?” He asked bluntly.

I hemmed and hawed, made excuses, saying something about moving on and realizing that the ministry was not the answer for me.

“Really?  Well, I think…”

“Hey Peggy Sue! How are you??”  Ken came up from behind Greg, slapped him on the back and reached forward to pull me into a hug.  Ken was Greg’s best friend and had also been a camp counselor at the camp I attended.  He asked me many of the same questions Greg had asked me, trying to catch up on five years.

“We were just talking about why she decided not to go into the ministry,” Greg informed Ken with a smile.

“Whoa, really? That’s not right.  Let’s go get ice cream…” Ken put his arm around me.

Greg insisted he was too tired, he wanted to go back to his hotel, but Ken was often like an enthusiastic child.  He wouldn’t let Greg wiggle out of it.

We walked the boardwalk, eating ice cream, and talked about everything but the ministry.  They talked about Lowry’s preaching. “Well, if that’s preaching, then no one here has ever preached,” Greg said enviously, shaking his head.  We all agreed Lowry was like nothing we’d ever heard before.  I didn’t mention that he’d completely unnerved me and scared the crap out of me.

A couple of hours later, we ended up back at St. Peter’s, and the three of us sat down on the front steps of the church.  Greg and Ken both talked about their calls to ministry, their experiences in the church, and didn’t sugarcoat it.  They’d admitted that there were times that were pretty rough and that they’d both thought of leaving.  But there were unspeakable gifts of grace and joy in it all, too.

As we parted with hugs, Greg slipped me a book that was usually shared with candidates for ministry.  “Read this,” he said, “and then call me.  We’ll have lunch.”

I said I would, but as I got into my own car and drove back to the cottage, I was determined to find my own way out of the parabolic backyard.

I didn’t sleep well that night either, going over all the conversations in my head.  The ministry strangely made sense out of my whole life to that point.  When I arrived at work the next morning, I called my friend June and asked to meet for lunch.  June and Doug were like surrogate parents to me at that time.  I hung out at their house a lot when I was lonely, and often stayed for dinner.  They were also leaders of a lay ministry that went to various churches for weekend programs to help revitalize the churches through their lay ministries.

We’d recently been on such a weekend together up in New York state.  The church had been pastored by Carolyn, a recovering alcoholic and brilliant scholar.  I had been called on to tell my story in one of the evening’s events and Carolyn had said she really identified with a lot that I’d said.  We’d agreed to stay in touch.

When June and I ate lunch, I told her about the sermons and my conversations with Greg and Ken.  “I think I’m going to call Carolyn, to see if I can go up and visit her and talk with her; get a woman’s perspective.”

June smiled.  “Well, that’s weird.  Carolyn called us last night, asking for your phone number.”

This was getting a bit weird.

When I got to my apartment, sure enough there was a message from Carolyn asking me if I wanted to come visit for the 4th of July weekend.  I called her back and accepted the invitation, but didn’t tell her about my own agenda.

Meanwhile, I took a road trip to Pittsburgh, PA to visit a friend of mine out there.  The six hours on the road gave me a lot of time to think.  While there, we went to see “Dead Poets Society.”  At first I really identified with the character of Todd; the shy, awkward and nervous student who ate up everything Mr. Keating said about seizing the day.  Todd was too shy to really speak out or take risks, always opting to do what his parents wanted him to do.  During that powerful scene in which Mr. Keating pulls him forward to make up a poem, prompts him, pushes him, and finally gets Todd to speak a poem that came from his heart and creativity– whoo, I was there.  I was weeping.

But then I was caught up in Neil’s character.  The boy whose life was mapped out for him, who lived to please his parents.  He dreamed of being an actor, of letting out that passionate, creative side to himself, but his parents would have none of it.  Mr. Keating inspired Neil to give it a try.  He did, and he was brilliant.

But as Neil’s father came to bring him home, yelled at him for being so irresponsible, and finally informed him he was going to military school, I felt myself getting angrier than was appropriate.  He was trapped.  He didn’t have the guts to stand up to his parents and do what he wanted to do, what was in  his heart.  As he slowly came to the decision to kill himself, inside I was screaming, “No!  No!”  I was sweating, crying and begging him not to do it.

I left that movie completely unnerved.  Get out of the backyard.  I knew that I’d already considered Neil’s decision a few times, but knew I’d never go through with it.  But the realization of how desperate I felt scared the hell out of me.

I drove up north to Rye, New York to spend the 4th of July weekend with Carolyn and her family.  I got there early and the babysitter let me in.  I was sitting at the kitchen table when Carolyn and her husband arrived home.  They sat down and we talked for four hours.  I got right to the point, and told her what all had been going on since I’d last spoken to her.

She smiled knowingly.  She offered to pray with me.  The three of us held hands and she prayed a long prayer for me, for me to be open to what God wanted of me, to what was best for my life and for who I was created to be.  Before she was done, I knew.

I was going into the pastoral ministry.

Mixed Blood

Misspexels-photo-602607.png

Truth is a big deal to me.  Ask my daughter.  One thing I can never tolerate is being lied to.  I told her whatever she ever did or got herself into we could deal with, but I could not tolerate being lied to.  Of course, as most kids do, she occasionally lied, but nothing of major consequence.  I managed to not kill her.  She was grateful.  But seriously, don’t lie to me.

As an adult now, she understands why.

My mother grew up in the deep south, in the country outside of Brookhaven, Mississippi.  She grew up on a farm, doing chores like milking cows and cleaning stalls from the time she was a child.  She was the only girl with five brothers, growing up in the 1930s and ’40s.  Her maiden name is Calcote, and I’ve always understood that we are somehow related to anyone named Calcote–at least in Mississippi.  There are still swarms of them in the area today, where my parents have returned in their later life.

Thanks to the current access to DNA, we’ve learned that Mom’s family are the descendants of slave owners and slave traders.  We are also descendants of soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and on the Confederate side of the Civil War.

I never really knew my grandparents, as I came along so late and they were old by the time I arrived on the scene.  Pop-Pop died when I was just four years old.  I have few memories of him, but one of them is riding with him in his green pickup truck out into the watermelon patch, where he loaded up the back with watermelons.  I  remember sitting in a circle with uncles, aunts and cousins in my Uncle David’s front yard, eating watermelon and boiled peanuts.  I loved boiled peanuts.  When I was an adult and feeling nostalgic, I boiled some roasted peanuts from the store.  It didn’t work.  What can I say?  I grew up in Jersey.

My only memories of Mom-Mom are of the time after she’d begun to get what we called “senile” back then.  Most of my memories  are of visiting her in the nursing home when she called me by my niece’s name.  But I heard some stories about that rugged, tiny lady from my mother.  Stories about a tough little woman who raised five boys and one girl and dealt with a husband who drank too much.  I’ve heard about her bracing her little body against the storm cellar door during a tornado.

She passed her toughness on to her daughter.  Growing up on a farm with five brothers was no small challenge, I’m sure, along with a father who was scary when he came home drunk.  My mother befriended a sharecropper woman on their property, with whom she shared all the dreams and questions she couldn’t share with her own mother.  Mom dreamed of becoming a missionary someday in a foreign country.  She was the first in her family to go to college.  She began at a local women’s college in MS, but then went on to Asbury College in Kentucky–over 600 miles from home.

My mother always had a deep, passionate faith in Christ.  She nurtured that faith at her small rural New Hope Methodist Church, and out in nature, among the trees, fields and country roads of her childhood.  When I was a child she told me stories of growing up on the farm, seeing life and death among the animals, doing the dirty work of a farm.  Mom never shied away from physical work.  She’s always been somewhat sheltered and quiet, so it must have taken quite a bit of courage and faith to go 600 miles away from home.

She tells the story of standing in line waiting to register for classes when a couple of college officials ushered in this darker skinned international student with a funny accent and took him to the front of the line.  She remembers thinking, who is he that he gets special treatment?  It happened to be her future husband.

My father’s pre-American life was always a mystery in our family.  He never talked much about it, offering only tidbits of stories here and there.  He was born and raised in an area near Bombay (now Mumbai), India.  He was the youngest of 11 children, 5 of whom died in childhood.  His father died at the age of 57 when my father was only 14, forcing my grandmother to go to work full-time.  My father often had to stay with his older brother Trevor, and was mostly mothered by his older sister Cynthia.

Amidst the mystery, we came to understand that Rollo, my father, was a British citizen with some Indian blood in him.  That’s the brief bio I went with all my life.  His accent seemed British to our American ears and to that of his curious parishioners.  Rollo has a perpetual tan and black hair, so it was clear to anyone who met him that he was “not from around here.”  I never met Mom-Mom Michael.  She came to the U.S. only once, in 1963, before I was born, and I’ve never been to India.  Pictures of her show a very Indian looking woman, but according to my father, she hated all things Indian and embraced all things British.

I never really knew Rollo’s side of the family.  Whereas we visited Mississippi every summer where I got to visit with aunts, uncles and cousins, I only met two of my uncles on Dad’s side, and only once or twice.  The closest one lived in Canada, the rest were scattered in England and Australia.  I only knew of my two cousins in Canada who came to visit us in New Jersey with their parents.

Wherever my father went, he described himself as a citizen of the British empire, an English subject.  The Michael branches of our family tree were very shaded and mysterious, and after a while we stopped asking for details.  However, a few years ago, my brother Stan gave Dad a DNA test.  Around the same time, I discovered my cousin Peter– Uncle Trevor’s son– on Facebook, who lives with his wife Sylvia in England.  They connected me with another cousin in Switzerland.  Both cousins started to fill in a lot of gaps in the Michael story.

The jig was up.  My grandmother Michael was a full-blooded Indian, which seemed evident to me in her pictures.  Pictures of my grandfather, whose DNA is more complicated, reveals a very Indian-looking man, wearing Indian clothes.  My father was not, in fact, a citizen of Great Britain, but a citizen of the Commonwealth of India.  His passport was Indian.  My cousin Peter told me about his father, my Uncle Trevor, and about my other aunts and uncles and cousins.  Peter also grew up in the area of India near my grandmother, and Sylvia says that when he arrived in England he had an Indian accent.  After spending most of his life in England, now, he sounds more British.

My father would have arrived in the United States with an Indian accent in 1949, but since he told the story that he was in fact, British, we have wondered if,  while on that ship crossing the sea from India to New York, if he in fact, developed a more British sounding accent to back up his new biography?  We can’t know for sure, but he would not have had a British accent in India.

It has always been important to my father NOT to be associated with “the natives.”  He uses that phrase a lot when speaking of people whom he calls “sub-cultural,” who are usually rural people of any area.  When he arrived in Mississippi in 1950 as Margaret Calcote’s fiance– well, dang it, they thought she’d brought home a “black man.”  And in 1950-Southern Mississippi, that was not a positive thing.  But my grandfather, sober by that time on his own volition, decided not to run him off.  I’ve been told that was quite the miracle.

My father doesn’t claim to not have known that he had more Indian blood in his veins than he claimed for so many decades.  Nor does he explain why he told us a different story all those years.  However, it does disturb him to have it in an official, non-disputable report.  Blood doesn’t lie.  When we talk about it, he gets angry.  I stopped thinking years ago, that it was in fact weird that I didn’t know what cousins I had on my father’s side.  It was just part of our story.  We, like we often did, adjusted to what was.  When “Rollo’s nephew Mel” came to New Jersey to visit him, it never occurred to me that he was in fact my cousin, nor did anyone introduce us as cousins.  He didn’t interact with me at all, as happened with the uncles and aunts that I’d met on Rollo’s side, so I got used to not being included in the equation.

It was part of my growing identity as the Invisible Girl, an observer of all that went on in and around me, without interacting a lot with it.  I didn’t think of myself as part of these strange people from other countries.  They were Rollo’s connections, and I didn’t always feel connected to the important man in the suit and tie, who sat on the green vinyl throne in the evenings, who delivered psychology lectures at my dinner table and picked apart my soul like a biology experiment.   He was important, he was Other, he was “Dr. Michael.”  I was just a little girl whose teachers wrote “too quiet, too shy” on my report cards.  A little girl who couldn’t make her mother come out of the bathroom or do anything important enough to make my father notice.

I was “just a girl.”  It was like being a “native.”

 

I Believe in Music

cash

“It’s common for daughters to be sexually attracted to their fathers,” my father said at one of his breakfast table lectures.

I almost spit out my toast.  “Ew!  No! No it’s not!”

He smiled condescendingly.  “It is, whether they admit it or not, it’s perfectly natural.  The daughter has conflict with her mother  because she’s jealous of their relationship….”

“No. No,” I tried to make him stop talking.  It was how I most often felt with him.  Like I was trapped and he wouldn’t shut up and no matter how much I argued with him, he made me feel like he was analyzing me under a microscope and coming up with conclusions that he believed but were absolutely false.  He overwhelmed me  from as far back as I can remember.  He wasn’t taking off my clothes, he was taking off my skin.

He smiled again.  Mom was in the kitchen, putting things away.

My father believed that feelings were signs of weakness and illness, and must be “fixed.”  No, I never felt the least bit “attracted” to my father, quite the opposite.  But he would never stop talking, analyzing, picking, peering.  Most of the time I felt like a frog, splayed open and pinned to cardboard.  But everyone said he was “brilliant.”  My mother assured me regularly that “everyone” loved him, loved his sermons.  He told me himself that he helped “so many people” in counseling and they were so grateful to him.  And I had no self esteem.  Perhaps he was right and I was just stupid.  But I had no sexual or even positive feelings toward him.  It didn’t matter, though, he believed what he wanted to believe.

And feelings were further signs of mine and my mother’s weakness.  Around Rollo, feelings were bad.  We never talked about Ruth again.  She showed up one more time in school, but then she was gone.  I never did find out what happened to her, I was just glad she was gone. Just like with everything else, we went on, pretended these things didn’t happen.  Anything else was a strike against me.

My mother, however, did feel very deeply.  When those feelings were pain, she just stored them away until she couldn’t hold them in any more.  She rarely argued with my father when I was growing up, she assured me he was a great man.  Every so often though, she couldn’t hold it in anymore, and she’d “lose it.”  She’d yell at him, cry– which only made him judge her further– and finally lock herself in the bathroom.  Years later I understood, but as a child I didn’t.  When I was an adult, I realized that he got to be so overwhelming, so condescending, literally laughing at anyone who argued with him, that one just had to get away from him.  As a child, she just scared me.  I thought she was going crazy.

“Susan, go get your mother out of the bathroom, she’s upset,” he’d say to me.  I would stand at the bathroom door, knocking, begging her to come out.
“It’s ok, Sue, I just need some time, I’ll be out later,” she’d whisper to me.  It tore me apart every time.  At other times, she’d be so exhausted, she would lie down on the couch for a couple of days and just sleep.  It terrified me as a child.

Music was my comfort.  I learned that from my brothers when they’d lived at home.  David Cassidy, Mac Davis, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, the Captain and Tennille, and others.  Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond stayed the course with me over the years, when I grew out of the others.

“I got an emptiness deep inside and I’ve tried but it won’t let me go…”  “I am! I said… to no one there… And no one heard at all, not even the chair.”  That song, and many others, described what I couldn’t describe myself.  I felt invisible. I kept a diary since I was 10, but it was many years before I could even be honest about my feelings to my journal.  How I didn’t like my father, I didn’t see what others saw.  I sat in church while he preached things that went way over my head, and I thought he was a fraud.  I knew what he was like at home.  I knew how he treated his family.  I couldn’t understand how a father could feel no emotion, could have no feelings of love toward his own children.

Yet even as a child and middle schooler, “I Believe in Music, I Believe in Love” took root as my basic theology.  “Stop and Smell the Roses Along the Way.”   It was simple, but it worked for me.  Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash sang my angst, my loneliness.  They put into words what I didn’t have the nerve to do.  If I admitted how I felt, I was a bad daughter.

I was never bullied again, the way I was bullied by Ruth, but I still felt bullied quite a bit, even into adulthood.  And I felt bullied by my father, though at the time, I wouldn’t have used the word.  I was scared of him.  He never touched me, but his words, his relentless analyses, his superior attitude and his condescending attitude made me feel small and weak.

When my mother got “hysterical,” as he called it– when she finally talked back to him and got angry– he’d leave the room.  He would come back and put his hand on the back of her neck.

“Here, take this,” he’d say, shoving a little white pill through her lips.  “It’ll make you feel better.”  Sometimes she crumbled and swallowed it.  Sometimes she spit it out, “I don’t want your stupid pill!”  And she’d wrestle away from his grip and go into the bathroom.  (It’s a good thing that we had three bathrooms in Red Bank)

When I was about 12, he pushed his little white pill on me.  I was  very nervous, shy, and anxious, and later that developed into depression.  “Here,” Rollo would say, shoving the pill in my hand (I was grateful that he didn’t force it into my mouth).  By 8th grade, I had my own supply of the pill, in a prescription bottle that had his name on it.  It was Donnatol, a “mild tranquilizer”, my father said.  It helped my nervous stomach calm down.  It helped me sleep.  I took it any time I had to face a nerve-wracking situation, which for me was pretty often.  I carried my supply in my purse, along with a little sandwich bag of Maalox.  By the 8th grade, I ate Maalox tablets like candy.

I took Donnatol pretty regularly, as supplied by my father, till I was 25.  Looking it up later, I discovered that it was used for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  When comparing stories later in life, Don told me that any doctor in any town gave Rollo whatever he asked for.

Twila Paris had a song out in the 1990s called “Love’s Been Following You.”  It’s true.  The grace of growing up in a parsonage, is that there were people.  There were always people.  They didn’t know what went on in our house, and they liked my Mom and Dad, but some of them showed up and loved me too.  There were people that came along, sometimes to stay for the rest of my life, but more often to be there when I needed them.  They didn’t know the significance of their reaching out to me, but somehow, by the grace of God, they perceived I needed a friend.

In Red Bank, my father led a Sharing Group, made up of couples who had been to Marriage Encounter weekends, a weekend retreat meant to open up communication between couples.  They met once a month in each other’s homes, had refreshments, and spent a couple of hours “sharing their feelings.”  Every three months they met at our house, and I always looked forward to that, even though I was supposed to be upstairs.  I sat on the stairs when they all came in the front door and watched them hug each other in greeting.  There was a lot of hugging.  Sometimes they’d wave at me and say hello.  But one of those nights, things changed.  There was a couple in the group named Chet and Sandie Allen.  I knew them because their kids had stayed with us for a couple of weeks when they went on a trip.  I liked them.  They were fun and silly and hugged a lot.  And Chet was really good-looking.

One evening, while everyone was hugging and kissing and greeting each other enthusiastically, Chet looked over at me sitting on the steps.  He walked over, and I think my heart did a little flip.  “Hey, Sue.  You want a hug?”  He smiled.  I might have died right there.

“Sure,” I managed to squeak out.  He reached down and engulfed me in a big bear hug, and tussled my hair.  His wife Sandie broke away from the group.

“Sue always sits here and watches us exchanging hugs, I thought she might want a hug, too,” Chet told her.  Sandie smiled.  She was so beautiful, and her whole face smiled.

“Well, of course!” and she pulled me into a hug that lingered for a while.  “In fact, when we have refreshments later, you should come down,” she added, tussling my hair.  I fell in love with both of them that night.

It became a regular thing, then.  I came down when I heard them break for refreshments, and I managed to be near Sandie and Chet in the kitchen.  They asked me questions, kidded with me, paid attention to me.  They were the first adults to see me.  To see me as if I were a person in my own right.  I didn’t even care if they talked to me, I was glad to be near them, to soak up their joy and love.  My parents were different around them.  My mother was lighter, sillier, and she was more herself especially around Sandie.  Sometimes Sandie came over for coffee with my Mom.

They moved away when I was 11, to Connecticut and then to New York, near Hyde Park.  About four hours away.  But my parents and I went to visit them and they came to visit us, so I got to see them a few times a year.  They had two children younger than me, Andrea and Chip.  When we all got together, we played.  My parents didn’t play, but they did with Sandie and Chet.  And us kids were included, always.  We laughed a lot with the Allens.  There was a comfort, a freedom to just be myself that I didn’t experience often.  My parents were different with them.  They were more… human.  Free.

Through the years I wrote Sandie long, long letters.  When we visited, she and I often had our own time together, after everyone else went to bed.  She and I would sit up when I was a teenager and drink herbal tea and just talk.  During those three or four- day visits, I got hugged and touched a lot.  There were hugs in the morning, spontaneously through the day, and always several hugs before bed.  She played with my hair during games, rubbed my back.  Before we parted for bed, she’d hug me a long time, then hold me away from her, hold my face in my hands and say, “you’re so special, Peggy Sue,” using the nickname she made up for me.  She delighted in me.  Not only did she see me, but she seemed to love what she saw.

“From where I stand, I’m able to see it, love’s been following you…all through the stormy night, didn’t you see the light…goodness and mercy right there behind you…”

Sandie was the source of some of my greatest joys growing up, but would eventually be the source of my most heartbreaking sorrow.