Dunkin’ Donuts Immersion

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I grew up with the familiar pink-lettered box from Dunkin’ Donuts.  Getting a dozen on a weekend was a treat.  The donut chain just came to Nebraska in the last few years and only last year came to Kearney.  Before that, whenever we passed through a town in our travels that had a DD’s, we had to stop.  It’s not that I had to gorge on donuts or even that their donuts are the best I’ve ever eaten.  Or that I’m that fond of donuts in general.  But seeing those big pink letters and smelling that sweet mixture of sugar and coffee takes me home. 

Before my mother discovered cholesterol and fat we would pick up a dozen donuts from DD’s fairly regularly.  My favorite has always been the Boston Creme, with the mixture of chocolate on top and Bavarian creme in the middle.  It was fun to go with my father or brother to get a dozen and be a part of picking out the 12 donuts from the myriad of mouth-watering choices.

When we lived in Woodbury, New Jersey, the DD’s was across the railroad tracks in the not-so-nice section of town.  We always went in the daytime, mostly because that’s when you get donuts, but also because  it didn’t seem like a safe place after dark.  Some folks in town suggested not keeping your back to the windows, lest you get shot.  That was a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure, and of course you had to stand with your back to the windows to place your order.  But we habitually looked around nervously, just in case.  We never sat down at the counter to drink from one of those thick ceramic mugs that my husband so loves now and partake in the ambrosia of sugar and dough.  The clientele at the Woodbury DD’s was a bit scary.

So it was a bit of a terrifying thing to me when my choices for a summer job in the summer of 1985 grew slim, forcing me to apply at DD’s.  The manager, Doug, could always be found during the day sitting at the counter with the regulars.  He wore a white undershirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one of his sleeves.  I think he sampled the goods fairly regularly, as his pot belly peeked out from underneath his T-shirt, spilling out over the top of his jeans.

When I approached him at the counter that May, I reminded him that the previous summer he’d told me there’d be openings that year.  He looked me up and down through his thick, black-rimmed glasses and nodded.  “I remember you, sure.”

He pushed his massive body back off of the stool and motioned for me to follow him to the back.  We walked through the kitchen where donuts were stacked in trays on the rack, waiting to be iced or filled.  The baker, a petite, short woman in blue jeans, nodded at me.  I filled out an application in Doug’s tiny cluttered office as he lit up a cigarette.  They needed people on the evening shift, from 6pm – midnight, he said, and I would begin in two days.

6 to midnight?  The shop was open 24-7, so I was grateful I wasn’t on midnight to 6am, but I knew my father would be more than concerned that I was working there in the dark.  I was a bit concerned myself.

Back then we wore short pink and brown dresses with an apron and a little cap.  I was not excited about this job, but was grateful to have a job, nonetheless.  The bonus was that we got to eat whatever we wanted for free, but honestly, after smelling donuts all day and coming home with it on your clothes, they seemed less appetizing.

We made $2.40 an hour, which was far below minimum wage, but they insisted we would make it up in tips.  (Yeah, right)  I had a day job, thankfully, for a few weeks, office-sitting Pam and Alex’s surveying firm while they were away in Europe.  My father tried to forbid me to work at DD’s, as he was afraid I’d get mugged or something in that part of town at night.  Being ridiculously sheltered and naive at the age of 20, I was afraid for myself as well, but since Dad was so much against it, I took the job.  As I did so often in those years, I felt like I had to prove I could do it.

The first few nights I stayed by the cash register and didn’t go near the customers at the counter unless they called for me.  Back then, we served soups, coffee and donuts mostly, and some of these regulars could nurse one cup of coffee for hours.  I realized a lot of these people hung out there every evening, paying 40 cents for a coffee that we kept refilling hour after hour.

“Hey, why don’t you come talk to us, pretty lady?” one called to me that first week.  I’d smile and wave to him, looking in the other direction.  The other waitress I worked with was a rough character.  She flirted and teased the customers, sometimes pulling up her skirt or straddling the countertop.  She was middle-aged, had a few teeth missing and looked like she could pin anybody who tried to mess with her.  I steered clear of her.  She immediately caught on that I was a bit out of my element, and teased me a lot.

“Jim over there wants to kiss you, what are you going to do?” she’d sneer at me.  I pretended not to be afraid and just rolled my eyes.  But I stuck to my spot at the cash register, a safe distance away.

Finally, the boss stayed later to talk to me when I came in.  “You have to mingle with the customers,” he said, “you can’t just stand by the cash register.  They want to talk, that’s why they’re here.”  He patted me on the arm and winked at me.  “They don’t bite.”

Oh God.  I started lingering in the little cul-de-sac of the counter space after I poured their coffee or gave them their bowl of soup.  I stood back a few feet, though.  I pretended to be more confident than I was, and tried to joke with them.  They’d ask about college, where I was from, what my “Daddy” did.  I was nervous every night, and I always parked close to the store so I didn’t have far to walk in the dark.

One night particularly  got insane.  Lois, the hard-living, flirty waitress, acted like she was drunk.  She was mean and harassed me all evening, pushing me, yelling at me, scolding me for every little thing I didn’t do right.  She stood back and let me do all the work.  I took the donut orders at the counter, filling the boxes as people chose, and also had to respond to the requests for refills at the other end of the counter.  She just smiled, and took many cigarette breaks, leaving me on my own.  The boss wasn’t around, and Lois’d been there for years, so I didn’t feel like I could complain.  I also wanted to prove I was tough enough to be there to the end.  That night, however,  it got out of hand.

I was running here to refill the coffee maker, running back to take an order and the box would fall apart as soon as I put donuts in it.  Customers at the other end were calling me for another refill or some soup or a donut.  Lois spent hours in the back room doing God-knew-what, while customers poured in the front door to order a dozen.

I was shaking and on the verge of tears as several customers yelled at me, or Lois would come out of hiding smelling like smoke to ask me what the “*#$%*” I was doing, calling me a lard-ass, and many such poetic names.  Finally, while she was hovering over me, yelling, pushing and insulting me, I went to the coffee maker to get some coffee and it was empty.  I’d just started it to make more!  So I pulled out the filter holder to see what was wrong and it was clogged– full of boiling hot coffee which ran in a wave over my right hand.  I screamed at the sudden pain and burst into tears, bending over, letting all the pent-up sobs come pouring out.  I figured I had a good excuse– my hand felt like it was on fire.

Jim, a young regular, literally jumped over the counter, grabbed my hand and jammed it into the freezer full of ice.  He held it there and talked very gently to me.  “Hey bitch!” he called to Lois, “Call the boss!  NOW!”

As Lois, a bit stunned, ran to the back room, Jim held my hand in the ice.  It was burning and freezing all at the same time, but I was strangely grateful for the interruption in the mayhem.  I just cried, staring at my hand, while Jim still talked gently to me.  The rest of the customers just stayed quiet.  One smart guy held up his glass, “Can I have some ice?”

“Shut up,”  Jim shot back.

After Lois got back, she took over, taking orders, filling boxes, serving customers.

Doug came and took me to the emergency room where they put stuff on my hand and wrapped it.  No permanent damage, the burns would heal. Painful blisters formed all over my right hand, making for a excruciating night.

The atmosphere changed a bit at work.  Doug didn’t schedule me with Lois anymore (we had nice long talk at the ER), and the customers were particularly kind to me.  There was Jim, a local truck driver, who took care of me that night.  His buddy Gene was an elderly man who was always waiting for a phone call from his girlfriend who called him every night on the payphone at DD’s.  Rob was another truck driver who was so shy he hardly said a word.  There was Pat, a very large man who took up two stools, had very crooked teeth and talked with a lisp.  He had the mind of a child, though I guessed he was about 35 or so, and he almost daily confessed his love for me like a shy schoolboy.  And there was Digger.  I knew that wasn’t his real name.  Digger was an elderly African American man who always wore a long-sleeved shirt, no matter what the weather, and a cap that looked like it’d been dropped in the dirt a time or two.

One night Digger said to me, “I’ve been coming here for years, y’know, and ain’t none of these people know my real name.  But I’m going to tell it to you because you are a preacher’s girl and you’ll understand,” he said, smiling.  His rheumy eyes were lined with red, and his jeans had dirt caked in so deep I don’t think they would ever come clean.  They called him Digger because he dug graves in the cemetery in that part of town.

Digger’s pals leaned in. “You gonna tell her your real name?  How come you never tol’ us?”  Pat seemed legitimately offended.

Digger smiled, revealing yellowed teeth.  “‘Cause you ain’t know your Bible, man!”  He turned back to me and leaned in.  “My name is Hezekiah Wiggins, after the king in the Bible.  My mama was a good God-fearin’ woman, and I know you are too, ’cause your daddy’s a preacher.”  His eyes were moist.

“Hezekiah??”  His buddies laughed.  “What kind of fool name is that??” They laughed, saying it over and over.

Hezekiah didn’t care.  He was proud of his name and of his mama.

As days went on, I met a lot of strange people.  There was Cassie, an obese woman with curly brown hair that wore mumus and talked dirty.  She always came in with her skinny little woman friend, Carla, about 11:00 each night.  Rumor had it that she was dating Luis, the skinny little Hispanic guy she sometimes sat with, who was about half her size.

One night, Beth, the baker, came out from her baking exile as Cassie went out the door with another man.  “You know what they’re doin’, don’t ya?”  She was drying her hands off with a dish towel.  She nodded toward a van on the far corner of the parking lot.  “Cassy and Carla both own that van.  They come in here every night at 11:00 pm looking for guys.  They take ’em to their van out there for a while.  Some men will pay for anything…” she smiled, knowing that she’d shocked me, and pushed through the swinging door into the bakery room.  Ok.

Becky was a teenage girl that was new to DD’s, and began working with me most evenings.  I had to train her and she was more sheltered than I was.  I tried to calm her as she was nervous about the flirtatious customers.  One night an older man called me over to refill his coffee.  He’d been huddled with a few of the guys, showing them something and making them all laugh.  “Hey, Church Lady,” he called me, “Come look at this.  I bet you ain’t never seen one of these.”  When I approached him with a fresh pot of coffee, he held up a small plastic monkey on a key chain.  He squeezed its sides and out popped an oversized penis.  I immediately blushed while I poured his coffee while a bunch of the men laughed.

One evening, about 11:30 p.m., Carla and Cassie were sitting at the counter, talking to a couple of men that I hadn’t seen there before.  That last hour of my shift always brought in some particularly strange people.  I was usually counting down the minutes at that point in the night, hoping to get out without any incidents.  But that night, all of a sudden, skinny little Luis came bursting through the glass doors and approached the man sitting next to Cassie on a stool.  He shoved him.

“What the hell you think you’re doing, man?”  Luis screamed at him, pushing him again, till the man stumbled off his stool onto his feet.  He kept going after the guy who was twice his size, trying to get a rise out of him.

Cassie tried to calm Luis.  “Honey, I was just talkin’ to him!  Ain’t no big deal!!”  Becky literally stood behind me, grabbing onto my arms, hoping I’d protect her.  The bigger man shoved Luis back, and Luis went after him, punching and kicking.  I was frozen to my spot.  Fortunately, the baker saw the fight through the bakery window and called the police.  Then she shoved open the swinging door and approached the two fighting men.  The bigger man was beating on Luis.  Sandy the baker pushed right in the middle of them and put her arms out, her hands on each of the men’s chests.

“Let me at him!  He’s after my woman!” Luis screamed, blood running down his face.

“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sandy screamed.  I couldn’t help but think she was one tough chick for her tiny size.  She wasn’t the least bit afraid, holding the two men apart.  Finally the police arrived and shoved Luis down on the counter where they handcuffed him.  When he bent over, a very large knife stuck up out of the back of his pants.  I was still frozen to my spot in the floor with Becky still clinging to me.  The police talked to Sandy a bit, decided the other man was just defending himself, and dragged Luis out the door.

I was terrified, trembling and feeling sick.  Sandy approached me.  She nodded to the side wall of windows where there was a big smeared blood stain.  “Somebody better clean that up,” she said.  “I’m going to get a cigarette.”

Cassie just shook her head and asked for a refill.  There were some murmured conversations and Becky and I each took deep breaths.  The 12am-6pm waitress came in and put her stuff away.  I told her what just happened as I was still shaking.

She smiled.  “Oh girlie, that happens all the time.  You better get used to it.”

As the evenings passed, I talked more with the regulers.  Jim was always asking me to run away with him to Atlantic City for a weekend.  I politely declined.  Digger was always quoting the Bible to me and telling me that he knew I was a good girl and always listened to my “daddy.”  One evening, my father picked me up but stayed in the car.  He’d wanted me to quit that night the police came, but that made me want to stay all the more.

When Dad pulled up to the shop a few minutes before midnight, Digger turned around and looked out through the wall of windows.  “Hey, is that your daddy?”  I smiled and nodded.  “Well, shoot, I oughta go say ‘hey’.”  Before I could discourage him, Digger slid off his stool and went out the door.  I watched him approach my father’s car window and make a motion to my Dad to roll down the window.  My father looked at me a bit sheepishly, looking a bit panicked, but rolled down the window.  Digger stuck his hand through the window to shake my father’s hand.  I could imagine him introducing himself by his real name and proudly telling of his “good Christian mama.”  I knew Dad was terrified.

Digger came bouncing back in and slid back onto his stool.  “Your daddy’s real nice.  In fact, I tol’ him, we’ve done some services together in the cemetery.  I remember him!  I tol’ him what a special young Christian lady his daughter is.  Real nice,”  Digger grinned.

My last day at Dunkin’ Donuts was the afternoon shift on a Saturday.  I was relieved in many ways, but I was also going to miss some of the regulars.  I imagined I may not see them again.  After the night I burned my hand, the small group of guys got protective of me.  Every night when I left my shift at midnight, they all spun around on their stools to watch me walk to my car, to make sure I made it there safe.  Before I got in the car, I’d always wave to them.  They all waved back in unison.

As the end of my shift got closer that Saturday afternoon, I noticed that all the night regulars were there.  Even Cassie and Carla had showed up, and the man with the monkey penis key chain.  Jim, Gene, Rob, Pat, Digger and several others I recognized from the evening shift lined the counter with their thick ceramic mugs of coffee.  Pat informed me he was wearing a brand new shirt, and his hair was slicked back.  Digger wore a wrinkled suit.  Finally, Digger slid off of his stool and cleared his throat.

“Everybody, listen up.  It’s almost time.  Peggy,” he said to me, “We jus’ wanted to tell you how glad we are that you came to work here this summer.”  He cleared his throat and his eyes got moist.  “You study hard at that college of yours, you hear?  You listen to your preacher-daddy and be a good girl.  You already is a good girl, right?”  He winked his red eye at me.  He cleared his throat again.  “It ain’t much, but I took a collection and we wanted to give you something.”  He pulled out a dirty, slightly wrinkled envelope from his coat pocket and gave it to me.  It had my name on it, printed in sloppy capital letters.

“We gonna miss you.”  He sniffed and nodded, then led the procession of customers as one by one, they filed past me to shake my hand and say goodbye.  I had tears in my own eyes as I shook their hands over the counter and nodded in response to their good wishes.  Soon the room was empty, but for me and Becky.

I opened the envelope and pulled out a card with flowers all over it, signed by all the regulars.  Inside the card was a crisp new ten-dollar bill.

napkin

(picture drawn by Pat)

 

Learning to Trust

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In January of 1990, the Drew Theological School Choir was going on tour.

We were a ragtag bunch of people, since Drew’s student body was made up of mostly second and third-career students.  I was by far the youngest in the choir.  Our director, Lester Berenbroick, was the music director at the theological school and had been there since the dawn of time.  He was kind of a living legend around the school.  We were frightfully intimidated by him, yet he commanded high respect.

His face was carved up by deep lines and his toupee was a point of discussion among students.  It was a rather bad one.  His angular face and the harsh lines that carved it up all served to make Lester a somewhat frightful presence.  He was a master musician and we all knew it, but his personality was not conducive to teaching.  He didn’t seem to like people.  Many years later, after his death, he came out in his obituary.  He’d been living with his long-time partner for decades.  At Drew such things were probably known in whispers among students, but despite Drew’s proud legacy of liberalism, such things weren’t talked about openly.  I guess most people knew, but I was still naive and never on the gossip circuit.  He just scared me.

If I’d known about Lester’s closeted relationship, perhaps I would have better understood his hard personality.  I certainly cannot imagine having to keep the most important relationship in your life a secret.  I did come to know a bit of that for a short time, but nothing near a lifetime.   I realize, now, there was much more to Lester than met the eye.

We were all encouraged to go on the Choir Tour, of course, and after some major conflicts with my father during my first semester, I was not eager to spend the January term at home with my parents.  Lester demanded that I bring my guitar on tour, which would have been just fine with me had he allowed me to have my music.  But he wanted me to play by ear, accompanying the choir on several pieces.   I didn’t do this.  He insisted.  You didn’t say “no” to Lester and survive his scathing looks.

I was a nervous wreck.  An anxious fool.

We “toured the south,” literally singing in a different church every night of the two-week tour.  It was a brutal schedule for a bus full of mostly middle-aged pastors.  We went from New Jersey to Alabama and back, staying in the homes of kind church members along the way.

At Lester’s request, I practiced my guitar-playing during every free moment I had, which was mostly on the bus.

For each of the songs that we sang in our concerts on the tour, two students were paired up to take turns introducing the piece.  I was paired up with a second-career student named Larry Rush.  He sought me out to share conversations about how we would introduce the song.  Being a man who never forgot anything he ever read, he already knew quite a bit about the Moravian piece that we had been assigned.  I was more than a bit annoyed with Rev. Rush, as he seemed like a know-it-all.  Plus he talked too much.  On top of that, I was in a permanent state of anxiety over my guitar-playing.

One night a few of us were sitting in the living room of our host family when suddenly I got hot all over, started trembling and hyperventilating and felt an urge to throw up.  I gracefully excused myself and went to bed, where I held onto the sides of the mattress and gritted my teeth to keep them from chattering.  It was a full-blown anxiety attack.  There was nothing I could do but ride it out.  It happened again a couple of nights later right before a concert.  I sat down on the floor and became short of breath, sweated profusely and trembled, my teeth chattering.  Someone called on a young theological student, Carlos, who also played the guitar, and told him he would have to fill in for me that night.  He panicked.  As I sat on the floor, hugging myself and gritting my teeth, he attempted a laying on of hands.  He laid his big pudgy hands on my head, pressing down, imploring the Holy Spirit to heal me and fill me with the courage I needed.  I think he was the one who needed courage.  He didn’t want to play.  The Holy Spirit did not intervene on time, and a very nervous Carlos took my place on accompaniment while I sat out the concert.

On the journey back north, Larry Rush started sitting near me on the bus, and he made fun of my head bobbing all over the place as I tried to sleep on the bus, since I wasn’t sleeping well at night.  I was tired, I was stressed, I wanted to go home.  I was not amused by him.

However, as we got closer to home, we started talking some more.  I shared with him my own spiritual emptiness at Drew, where personal faith was generally frowned upon, and if you uttered the name of Jesus even in conversation, you were labeled ConservativeEvangelical.  It was not a compliment.

There were few corners where I found morsels of spiritual nourishment.  The campus United Methodist Church was dry and boring.  Larry suggested that a few of us be in a covenant group together.  It sounded like a good idea.

At the start of Spring semester, I was encouraged by my New Testament professor, Dr. Neil Hamilton.  Dr. Hamilton was a good friend of Jesus and  a bit of an oddball.  He was short, with thick, shockingly white hair and thick-rimmed glasses.  He ended sentences with, “don’tcha know?”  Sometimes he actually giggled like Tigger.  He seemed energized by a relentless joy.  He began each class with a heartfelt prayer and led us in many guided meditations centered on Jesus.  This annoyed a lot of the more scholarly liberals.  They were offended that he “made” us pray.  I worried for the future of the Church if its pastors didn’t want to pray…

I ate up everything Dr. Hamilton did.  I was a sponge, eagerly soaking up all the grace his class offered me.  I made an appointment with him one day just to talk.  He understood my spiritual struggle, my ache and longing for spiritual community.  He also said I’d have to initiate my own, because there wasn’t much of it on Drew’s campus.  He suggested some books about spiritual direction and encouraged me in starting a covenant group with Larry.  At the end of our conversation, he took both of my hands in his and prayed fervently for me and my struggle.  He gave me a hug and sent me on my way.  I felt a little less alone.

Seminary Hall was where the Theological School had most of its classes and on the third floor was the chapel.  The outside of the building was carved stone, much like the Graduate Hall across the lawn, and I felt very scholarly walking through The Forest that was Drew’s campus.  The trees came together high above to form a colorful ceiling, and the many trees were an Eden for the campus’ large squirrel population.  The squirrels were a much loved presence at Drew.  They seemed remarkably large;  well-fed without a doubt.  It helped my spirit to watch them as I walked through campus.  Their antics and interactions made me laugh at loud.  I was grateful they were there.

Larry became a regular fixture every weekday morning in the basement of Seminary Hall, where there was a gathering place with vending machines and coffee makers.  Before class, I’d stop in and have a cup of coffee with him and others who gathered.  Larry came to be known that semester as Dr. Death.  He was taking a Death and Dying course, taught by a popular professor named Nelsen, who was at the time undergoing treatment for cancer.  Larry loved to share all that he was reading and learning in Nelsen’s class, and asked us questions about our thoughts and feelings on death.  Most of us were more concerned at that time of passing exams, writing papers and passing ordination interviews.

Several of us did participate in a covenant group that semester and got to be close friends.  Larry, as the resident third-year student, led it.  We prayed together, meditated, discussed various topics, etc.  I shared some of my writings with Larry and we got to be very good friends.  However, I was leery of getting too close to him, as he was planning on moving back to Nebraska in May.  He was originally from Pennsylvania, but had finished his Bachelor’s degree in Nebraska while serving two tiny rural churches there.  He fell in love with the state.  We thought he was nuts.  I didn’t even know where Nebraska was.  Out in the middle somewhere.

Larry was a student assistant pastor at the UMC in Roselle Park, NJ.  He was planning to take his youth group to a David Meece concert in April.  David Meece was a popular Contemporary Christian music artist whose music I’d come to know at Messiah.  Larry invited the covenant group to come along.  I was especially excited to go when I realized that the concert was going to be at The Pennington Prep School, where I’d gone to camp.

I had mixed feelings about it.  It had been six years since my father had worked on me, relentlessly planting doubts about Ed and Pennington in my head and heart.  During those six years, I’d softened.  I wasn’t sure what was the truth anymore, but I did have enough memories in my heart to know that even if Ed had been inappropriate at all, he’d done a lot of good in my life.  Even if it was in spite of himself.  I’d tentatively sent him a college graduation invitation, to which he responded with a beautiful letter, affirming me and memories of our time in Pennington.  He’d sent me a letter encouraging me in my call to ministry after I wrote him about heading to Drew.  I still wasn’t sure what to think.

When we went to Pennington for the concert, I was flooded with memories.  There was the dining hall where we ate all our meals at camp.  Where Ed greeted us all each morning, singing at the microphone, making jokes.  There was the building with the swimming pool, where he’d thrown me in my first year.  There were the steps to the main building where we gathered at night to sing songs in candlelight before going to bed.  Or where we had early morning communion.

The concert was to be in the gym.  I remembered all the dances we’d had in the gym during my years at camp.  We settled in for the concert and I soaked up the memories, though still confused at what it all meant.

I liked David Meece’s music.  His song, “I Don’t Know What I’d Do Without You” was a song I played a lot during my time at Messiah, especially that freshmen year from hell.  However, that night he was promoting his new album, Learning to Trust.  The songs on the album followed a particular theme of being the child of an abusive alcoholic.  David told the story that night of his father’s death three years earlier.  His father’s death unleashed a lifetime of pain that he’d previously kept secret.  For the first time during his career, David was addressing his father’s alcoholism and how that affected David’s life.

He was very real as he spoke.  He talked about the dynamics of living with an alcoholic.  Something seemed terribly familiar.  It wasn’t the first time, either.  Before I’d gone to seminary, a recovering alcoholic church friend asked me to accompany her to a seminar on Codependency.  That day, too, the family dynamics surrounding an alcoholic sounded exactly like life in my own family.  I couldn’t understand why, as my parents didn’t drink.  My mother would flip out if Dad ordered a glass of wine.  It was then that I discovered that my grandfather was an alcoholic, which would have affected my mother deeply.

As David talked, he spoke of how everything centered around his father and his needs.  He was the most important one in the family, and he must be pleased.  He would put down David and his friends.  He demanded perfection.  He was angry when good things happened to David, instead of celebrating such things.  It took attention away from him, the father.  David talked about never feeling good enough to please his father, about never trusting good things as there was always a consequence, a punishment.  As he went on and on, I truly felt that he was describing my own experience.

Even as an adult with a successful music ministry, he never felt good enough.  David said he could offer God’s grace to other people and believe in it for them, but somehow had a hard time accepting grace for himself.

As he spoke, my eyes burned with tears that I didn’t understand.  And then I had a flashback to Pennington.  I suddenly remembered a moment.  I think it had been my third summer at Pennington.  We’d had a dance that night in the gym– the same gym where we were then.  Ed was going through the gym making sure everybody was out, picking up trash and planning on turning out all the lights before the next event.  A few kids were still hanging out, talking.  As I often did, I went to Ed to get a hug.  That summer I’d been having a particularly bad time with depression for some reason.  The moment that burned in my brain in that moment was of Ed hugging me as I cried.

He didn’t know why I seemed so resistant to God’s love and grace.  “Peggy Sue,” he said, holding me away from him, “God loves you.  Your parents love you. I love you!”

It might have been in the very spot where David Meece was standing as he told his stories of pain and abuse.  As the image faded in my mind, I broke down.  I cried hard.  David kept on speaking and went into a song, the album’s title– Learning to Trust.  It was about how hard it was to trust in the goodness and grace of God’s love as a kid.  It talked about a child growing up with the hope of a mother and father who would love you unconditionally, and how, if that didn’t happen, it was hard to trust in God’s love.  I cried harder.

The image of Ed standing on that gym floor, wondering why I was so resistant to God’s grace, stayed in my mind.  It was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,

Your father lied. 

Larry and my friend Tonya had no idea what had sparked my tears, but as I literally bent over in my chair (as if I was throwing up), they each rubbed my back from each side of me.

I looked around the campus in the darkness after the concert, seeing it all again for what it had been:  a profound moment of grace in my life.  An experience where my faith had taken root.  It was real.  It was trustworthy.  It was Good.

My father had lied.

The next morning, Larry and I had a long, emotional talk in the snack bar.  I related many memories of my father and his gaslighting (although I didn’t know that term then), his convincing me that my own perceptions of anyone or anything were not trustworthy.  His jealousy over Ed.  His always wanting to defuse any good thing that happened to me.  I always felt afraid when good things happened, even then– as if I would be punished for it.

My father lied.  It was the first time, and not the last time, that I would realize that my father lied.  It was devastating.  How could a father do that?  I continued to have my mind and heart flooded with all the best, highest, holiest moments of Pennington, when I experienced a profound sense of God’s love for me.  And a sense of horror that Dad had tried to tear all of it apart.

I didn’t know why my father’s behavior resembled that of an alcoholic– this being the second time I discovered that.  I didn’t know yet about Narcissism, basically an addiction to Self, and how everybody around a narcissist had to behave in a way that fulfilled the Narcissist’s needs.  That my father’s behavior paralleled that of an alcoholic because he was an addict– he was addicted to himself.  He couldn’t love me, or anyone else.

But that day, I didn’t know that.  I was just mad.  And horrified that I’d lost my friendship with Ed because of my father’s lies.  Larry advised me to go see Ed and tell him the truth.

So I did.  I called him up and asked if I could come see him.  He lived about an hour away from the seminary, and he seemed glad of a visit.

The day I was to go see him, I could hardly breathe.  I could not imagine telling him the truth of why I’d been distant these past six years.  Would he believe me?  Would he wonder why I’d been able to believe such things about him at my father’s word? Or worse, was I stupid yet again and would I find out he was a horrible human being after all?  Somehow, that last fear felt the least likely.  I could believe, perhaps, that he’d be hurt that I’d believed my father…

The day I arrived at Ed’s front door, I was shaking, my hands were as cold as ice, and I could hardly breathe properly.  He seemed glad to see me.  We chatted for a while as his wife Carol prepared lunch.  He let me go for a while, before he finally asked me, “So what brings you here… now?”

I swallowed and stared at the floor.  I told him about a class I had that semester called Religion and the Social Process.  It was known to most seminary students as the White Male Bashing class.  It was an emotionally brutal class for everyone, but usually left our white male colleagues feeling really defensive.  In that class, I was exposed to very real stories, however, of oppression of anyone other than white males.  I’d never read or heard much about feminism, or thought about it.  Larry had actually introduced to me a lot of sexism in the Church and society.  The more I heard about it, the more I recognized some of my own experiences.

I’d been in that class the day after the David Meece concert.  That day they talked about men who were jealous of women gaining anything good, and who fought to keep women from getting ahead.  They talked about fathers and emotional abuse of daughters.  They talked about verbal abuse, men putting women down, men assuring women that they were, in fact, inferior and stupid.  It went on and on.  Women in the class shared stories.  Again, some of the stories shed light on my own experiences growing up with my father.  I was stupid, I was weak, he didn’t expect anything from me as he did my brothers.  When I went against him or argued with him he assured me of my inferiority;  too weak, too sensitive… too female.  

I lost it in class that day, I told Ed.  I had to leave and I ended up crying a lot.  It was like throwing up emotionally, I told him, which I seemed to be doing a lot of lately.

Ed was quiet, his eyes never looking away from me as I spoke.  Finally, he said quietly, “Did I oppress you?”

I was so stunned by his question, it took me a moment to answer.  “No, no, not at all,” I whispered, shaking my head emphatically.  I felt the tension in the room, as if time was standing still and it was just two of us right then and no one else was around.

“My father…” I told him what happened in 1984.  I reminded him of David and spring semester and when I called him and he told me to get away from David, get a job across campus.  I told him what my father said about him.  How he had worked on me, analyzing and explaining and insisting that Ed had only been interested in me sexually and had therefore manipulated me to adore him all those years at camp.  I told him how it built and built in my head with Dad’s help, and that it was much easier for me to believe that it was all a fraud then to accept that someone could legitimately care for me– even God.

Then Carol came in and said it was time for lunch.

And so it was out there, hanging in the air as we joined Carol and their two daughters for lunch.  Ed prayed over lunch, we ate.  Carol asked about school, we made conversation.  But it was there.  I wanted to look at Ed, see if he was alright.  If he hated me.  If he was hurt.  But I couldn’t look at him.  We had a pleasant lunch.

After lunch, as we sat down together again, I remember the air felt like it was tinged with an energy, a tension, but not a bad tension.  Ed was quiet at first, still not breaking eye contact.  “I thought you just wanted space to grow up,” he began.  “That you needed space from me to do that.”  He shook his head.  He didn’t jump in to defend himself or to deny anything right away.  He admitted that I was special, that I was set apart from the other kids at camp for some reason.  That he felt a special connection with me.  He admitted that maybe there were times that he could have been inappropriate, but not intentionally.

I interrupted.  “I don’t believe you ever were.”

We talked for several hours.  I told him more about growing up with my father.  Never feeling good enough.  About how everything was about filling his needs.  Our lives centered around pleasing him, and as the only girl, I was inferior to my brothers and to him.  No matter what I did, I could never be good enough.  That if I argued with him, he dismissed me as “just a woman.”  I was too sensitive, weak, and irrational.  That I was never allowed to have anything good, certainly not all the attention at any given moment.  I told him everything.

“You tell me all these painful things, but you’re smiling as you talk about them.  How can you do that?” he asked.

Yeah.  I was taught to always cover my feelings.  Nothing was ever that serious when it came to me, but if it happened to my father, it was very important.  My mother and I both did it.  We smiled when we were angry.  We laughed when we wanted to cry.  I’d learned very well to cover.  My feelings simply weren’t all that important.

When it got to be dinner time, I thought I better leave.  We sat for a bit longer in silence.  I remember the light came into the room behind me, surrounding us in the late afternoon glow, as if God was holding us.  Gently keeping us.  Tenderly setting us down to go forward.

I asked him if we could pray, and he simply nodded.  We stood and held hands in the fading afternoon light.  I treasured praying with Ed, he always had such a familiar, tender connection to God.  We stood in silence at first, feeling God’s tender presence, before Ed began to pray.  It was a tender thanks for bringing me there today, for the talk, for healing, for honestly, for friendship, and for God’s relentless grace.  His words blessed me, surrounded me, filled me; gently held me.  I don’t remember what I said, but with eyes closed, it was easy to be honest and vulnerable.  I do remember thanking God for the restoration of friendship, for the safety and shelter of it.  For healing.

“Thank you,” I said a bit shyly after we hugged.

He touched my arm and smiled at me, his eyes shining a bit.  Were those tears?

“Thank you, Friend.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cruel, Cruel Summer

indy
People who are old enough to remember might associate 1984 with the novel that describes a  dystopian society.  However, for me, it symbolizes the worst year of my life.   When I was finally diagnosed with depression in 2001, the psychiatrist used the word “chronic.”  I looked it up.  Among other things, the word chronic means “(a problem) that is long-lasting and difficult to eradicate; unending, persisting, ceaseless, unabating…”  While depression is something that runs in my family, I think of 1984 as the year that my depression became chronic.  Unending. Ceaseless.  The time it drew its crevices in my skin where it made a home.

It was also the year that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out in theaters.  When I think of that summer almost 34 years ago, I recall the image of the “pagan” priest reaching into the chest of a live man and physically ripping out his heart.  That’s the image I have of 1984.  A permanent wounding.  Scarring.

When I went home that summer after my dramatic freshmen year of college, I was already bereft.  My faith was confused by the continuous judgment and correction of my classmates at college.   In addition, being led to believe Ed  a fraud was to also believe that Pennington was not what I thought it was.  If Ed was not trustworthy, then the love, grace and spiritual growth I experienced at camp was also false.  It was all a lie, I thought.  My mind worked continually and daily, in sorrow and anger, at having been duped.  My father made himself available to “counsel” me, offering sympathy and support in my profound grief.

Ed had made me feel loved by people and by God.  He made me believe that perhaps I had gifts to offer the world, that I was worthy of God’s love.  My faith took deep root at Pennington.  What now?  If Ed was the manipulator that my father made him out to be, then was anything of Pennington real?  I assumed not.  It was easy to believe the bad stuff.  Believing that I had any self-worth was more difficult.  Believing that I was stupid and easily conned made more sense.  Good stuff was nearly impossible for me to accept.

One of the two most important people in my life at that time allegedly betrayed me; so I was convinced.  And the other one… died.  Four months after that fateful snowy weekend when I said goodbye to Sandie in her hospital bed, she was dead.  Of a fast-growing cancer.  Melanoma.  She’d been clean for four years.  It came back with a vengeance and got her when she was 39.

C.S. Lewis wrote:  “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning…” (From A Grief Observed)  It was like a baseball bat to the stomach, and then one to the back of the head.  I was in so much pain that summer, I didn’t want to get back up.  I couldn’t imagine ever having the physical energy to get up again.  Just leave me alone.

Two weeks after I returned home from ex-boyfriends with machetes, lovesick married men, and a barrage of hellfire and brimstone classmates, we got a phone call from Chet.  My parents said that Sandie’s cancer had “grown.”  At the time I knew little of what was going on with Sandie.  My parents were always vague when I asked, and Sandie’s letters to me were more about how she was taking care of herself.   I thought of a tumor in her abdomen that had been hurting her back in January.  So, a tumor grew.  Ok, we can still deal with this, I thought.  One tumor, just a bit bigger.

What my parents didn’t say, as we made our way north to Staatsburg, New York that weekend in May, was the word “metastasized.”  Spread.  

When we arrived at their house that Friday afternoon, I was anxious to embrace her.  To hold her, kiss her face, encourage her, as she’d done for me so many times.  As we pulled into the drive, I looked for Sandie to be on the porch, waving us in, as she always did.  She wasn’t there.  As we got out of the car, Chet came out of the back door and greeted us with hugs.  Andrea and Chip, ages 14 and 11, skipped down the steps behind him to greet us.  No Sandie.

After hugging Chet, I pushed past him and went through the door into the kitchen.  There she was,  wearing a nice black pantsuit, clutching  the kitchen chair for support.  Her face was blank, pale.  She showed no emotion.  Her eyes, staring down at a random spot on the floor, slowly turned to me.  She looked confused.

“What are you doing here?” she whispered.

Something seized in my chest.  “Uh,” I stumbled, “I was able to get off work after all!”  I’d been excited to surprise her, expecting her to be excited to see me, eagerly enfolding me in a hug.  Like usual.

It hit me in that moment that nothing was going to be as usual.

She just nodded slowly, moving her other hand to the chair to help hold herself up.  As I tentatively ebraced her, the others came spilling into the kitchen behind me. Chet, in his new role as host, dragged in some of our suitcases, talking excitedly and energetically.  Something was way off.  My parents joined in, greeting Sandie with hugs that she responded to with limp acknowledgement.  I hung back, watching the strange scene– people talking too much, laughing too loud.

She seemed like a zombie.  No one spoke directly to me, and it was as if we were all trying too hard to make things appear normal.  I felt like I was looking through a window watching the scenes play out.  Sandie hardly spoke.  She sat down, finally, as if she’d used up all her energy standing.  At supper– that my mother cooked– I sat next to her, holding her hand during the prayer, but it lay limp and lifeless in my own.  I squeezed her hand before letting go, but it just fell to her lap.

We played games, we chatted, speaking of everything but what seemed to permeate the air.  Sickness.  Weakness.  Doom.  Was she depressed?  It was like she was… gone.  Her body walking around impersonating a woman I loved, and not doing it well.

After supper that night, the kids went off to watch TV and the adults stayed at the table and talked.  Chet talked about “hospice” and nuns.  I didn’t know what hospice was, and no one explained.  Suddenly, Sandie’s face screwed up in unspeakable sorrow–the first sign of life I’d seen yet that day– and whispered, “I don’t want to die.”  She bent over and sobbed.  My mother reached over and rubbed her back.

My father immediately assured her, “You’re not going to die.”

I stared at her.  I couldn’t speak.  I couldn’t move.  I’d never seen Sandie… weak.  Afraid.  Helpless.  She was a fireball, a go-getter, a fighter, a joyful expression of life and fun and play.  She was silly, loving, hugging, giving, creating.  Her entire house was like an art project, an expression of the beauty of her soul.  I adored her.  She was crumbling in front of me.

Chet talked about an experimental treatment that the doctor suggested, which would require Sandie to travel out west.  They weren’t sure she was up to the trip, much less the aggressive treatment.  I was confused.  Why was she giving up?  When I cornered my mother later with questions, she brushed me off.  “She’s just worn out, poor thing.  The medications make her kind of out of it,” she smiled sadly, moving on to wipe the table or dry a dish.

I didn’t know where to stand, where to sit.  Nobody seemed to even realize I was there.  Sandie couldn’t seem to connect at all.  Chet was working hard to keep up a pleasant, upbeat mood in the role of host which was new to him.  Sandie used to do this.  Sandie used to run things; plan the meals, the activities, and make sure we all had what we needed.

It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the house.

The next day, we decided we all needed to get out of the house and we decided to go see a movie.  I don’t know who chose the new movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but we all piled into the car and got there about 45 minutes early.  We were all eager to get out.  As if we needed to be away from the house.  To breathe.

At the theater, I sat on the end of the row, next to my mother.  I was so anxious, feeling very lost and out of place.  I got up and went to the bathroom, and once in the stall by myself, I sobbed as quietly as I could.  I cried so hard that I could hardly breathe.  I prayed in whispers, asking God what the hell was going on.  What was wrong with her?  Why was Sandie giving up?  Why wouldn’t anyone tell me anything??  Finally, I got up and washed my face as best I could.  I’m a messy crier.  My eyes and nose were puffy and red.  I didn’t care.

When I returned to my seat, my mother was sitting in it.  She smiled up at me.  “Chet had us all move down a seat,” she explained.  I looked down the row, and the seat on the opposite aisle, next to Chet, was empty.  Chet waved and smiled, motioning me over.

When I gratefully sat down next to him, he pulled off his cap and set it playfully on my head.  “You and I haven’t had a chance to visit this weekend, Peggy Sue, so I figured now was a good time,”  he winked and leaned in, affectionately bumping me with his arm.

I wanted to weep with gratitude and joy, but I was all cried out.  I just smiled and nodded, my throat aching with emotion.

He asked about my life, my summer plans, my job.  He asked about school.  I answered the best I could, but left out most of the details of my year.  I was glad it was all behind me, and to tell of it would have taken more emotional energy than I had.  In light of what was happening, it all seemed so trivial anyway.

As I talked, Sandie peeked around Chet’s other shoulder, listening.  There was a weak smile on her face, and as our eyes met at last, I felt a sharp ache in my abdomen.  I blinked to keep from crying again.  I wanted to connect with her.

When the music started playing, Chet bopped me playfully on the rip of the cap I was still wearing.  “I’m glad we got a chance to visit, Peggy Sue,” he playfully nudged me. Me too.

I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the movie.  I was horrified at the scenes of the priest about to sacrifice the female lead to his pagan gods.  She was chained up in the cage that was lowered slowly into the fiery pit, as Indiana was controlled by some substance he was given.  After he snapped out of it and started fighting the priest and his minions, the cage holding the woman lowered toward the flames again.  Indiana tried to pull her back and she came back up, she was going to be saved.  Then something happened, and the cage fell again.  Up, down, up, down, she’s going to die… she’s going to live.. back and forth.  I was sinking into my seat and tears burned my eyes.  Please, don’t let her die!  Somebody save her!  I was not just talking about the actress in the movie.  I was so scared that Sandie was seeing this the way I was;  as a game between life and death, hope and despair.  I couldn’t see her face.  My eyes brimmed with tears as the scene went on for what seemed forever.  Any other time I would have known that the woman would of course be saved by the hero, but I wasn’t thinking or feeling clearly.  When she was finally snatched out of the pit, away from the flames of death into Indiana’s arms, I was glad it was dark.  Tears ran down my cheeks and I laughed out loud.

As we all filed out of the theater, I playfully put my arm around Sandie’s shoulders and said, “Well, that was relaxing, eh?”

She turned to me in a rare moment of joy and laughed out loud.  “I loved it!!”  I fell back behind her and glanced at my mother.  She rolled her eyes and let out a deep breath.  She’d felt the same way during the climactic scene.  We shared a moment, chuckling at ourselves.

On other visits, Sandie was up before everyone else, and when I came down to the kitchen, she’d be there starting breakfast.  She’d greet me with a hug and ask me how I slept and kid around with me.  But of course nothing was normal anymore.  My mother cooked breakfast that weekend, and Sandie showed up later in the morning, her hair wet from the shower.  She wore sweatpants and a T-shirt, no make up or jewelry.  She quietly took her seat at the table.

As we were getting ready to head home later on, I saw my parents in the hallway next to the stairs.  My mother was intense and angry.  “You need to say a prayer before we go! Please!”

My father looked helpless, shaking his head.  “No, I can’t. I just… can’t.”  I sneaked past them into the kitchen where we were getting ready to say goodbye.

“Rollo’s going to say a prayer before we go,” Mom announced as they entered the room, my father shot her a panicked look.

“Let’s pray.”

We got in a circle in the kitchen and held hands.  I intentionally slid in next to Sandie and clasped her hand.  As my father used his preacher’s voice and prayed for Sandie, for our journey home, etc., Sandie’s grip tightened on my hand.  By the time Dad finished, she was holding on so tight it almost hurt.

As the circle broke up, we began our goodbye hugs.  Sandie held onto my hand as she hugged my  mother and father each.  She had a strong hold on it.  As she turned to me, for the first time all weekend, she focused her eyes on me.  She hugged me with a strength that she must have summoned up for that moment and held me in front of her.  She held my face.

“I’m so sorry we didn’t get to visit this weekend…”

“It’s ok,” I said, of course, it hadn’t felt ok.

“No, I am sorry.  I want you to have a good summer, Peggy Sue.  Don’t let those people at work get you down.  You are so special, and you have a lot to give.  Don’t forget that.”

I couldn’t speak at first, trying to hold the moment, keep time from moving forward.  She was here.  She was looking at me.  She was with me.

“I love you so much,” I said to her in a trembling voice.

Her eyes filled with tears and she embraced me hard again.  “I know, kiddo, I do.  I love you so much too,” she said, holding on.  Then the moment was gone.  She’d spent what little she had.  She moved away from me and it was time to go.

“Hey, maybe you can get a bus down to New Jersey and you could stay with us.  We could take care of you,” my father said.  It felt awkward.  Sandie didn’t respond, she just looked at him.  She was gone again.  She’d used up her energy.

I didn’t look back as we moved through the door to the car.  Mom said that as we drove away, Sandie was at the window, looking at us, with no expression on her face, but it made Mom cry.  I laid down in the back seat and shut my eyes, trying to make the terror go away.

It had felt like Sandie was saying goodbye… for good.

Nobody spoke on the long drive home to New Jersey.  Two nights later, my parents called me into the living room.  “Sit down,” my father said, trying to appear casual.

I sat down.

“What would you do…” my father said as if he were just making conversation …”if Sandie died?”

What was he doing??  “That won’t happen.”  I shook my head, half laughing, half angry.  “God doesn’t let anything happen to us that we can’t handle.”  Where had I heard that?  Anyway, it had made it into my personal credo.  “And God knows I can’t handle … that.”   What was he trying to do?

She died that night.  Around midnight.  My parents told me when I got home from work.  They were waiting in the kitchen when I walked through the door.  My father pulled me into a hug, trying to comfort me, but I kept my hands at my side.  “Awwww…” he said.  It was awkward.

I didn’t cry.  It was like someone telling me that the sky was purple.  It didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t comprehend.  We weren’t good at talking about hard stuff in our family.  We usually tried to pretend bad things didn’t happen.  We didn’t share feelings.  In fact, we were trained to not feel emotions, especially “bad” ones.  I stared at my parents.

It took me a whole two days to cry.  Then it felt like I’d never stop.

Her funeral was exactly a week to the day that I’d last hugged her.  My father presided at the funeral at Chet and Sandie’s Episcopal Church.  For the two days leading up to the funeral, my own grief was on hold.  We had to take care of my father.  He was anxious and scared that he’d “break down” during the eulogy.  First of all, I’d never seen my father cry.  Second of all, I said, “so what if you do?  She was your friend, it’s appropriate!”

“I’m the pastor, it is not appropriate for me to break down.  I’m supposed to help everybody else!”  He was inconsolable, but for two days it was all about him.  Again.

We arrived at the beginning of the visitation time that lasted all afternoon.  When I saw Sandie’s body in the casket, it was like a baseball bat to the gut all over again.  I started shaking and crying.  We hugged Chet and the kids and my parents mingled.  I sat down by myself and just cried.  I cried till I was hiccuping and then cried some more.  I kept staring at her there in the casket, trying to imagine her alive, hugging me just a week ago.  Saying “I love you, Peggy Sue.”

After a while, my father sat down next to me.  He clasped his hands between his knees.  “Are you ok?”

I glared at him.  “No.”

He was quiet.  After a few minutes, he got up and walked away.

Stan’s wife Barbara came over right after that and put her arm around me.  “C’mon,” she said, “let’s get you out of here.”  She half-carried me to the bathroom.  She held me while I cried some more.  She knew how much I loved Sandie.  She knew how important she’d been to me.  She knew my heart was shredded.  She held me.

“It just sucks,” she said.  “She’s wearing the outfit she wore to our wedding last year.”  After a while, she pulled away and started washing my face, cleaning me up.  I was so grateful for her that day.  It was a rare moment of intimacy between us.  She understood.

It was the beginning of summer.  A summer of hell.  I was disoriented.  I visited Marlene for a few days, but she didn’t know how to relate to me as I’d burst into tears in the middle of conversations.  By the time she took me to the train to go back home, I felt sure I was crazy.  She was acting as if I were crazy.  Like she didn’t know me.

At home we didn’t talk about it.  Sometimes I had to leave the room and cry.  A TV show would be about death, or there was a funeral, and I had to leave.  Periodically, my father would say, “What’s wrong with you?”  or “You obviously haven’t gotten over Sandie’s death.”

I was completely alone.  My parents went to Switzerland for two weeks.  I went to work.  Came home.  Breathed in and out.  Reluctantly.

I wanted to die.  I had no idea a person could hurt this much.