Motherhood and Mayhem


It was 11:00 p.m.  I was eight months pregnant and we were waiting at a truck stop at the Wood River exit off of Interstate #80 .  We’d driven 90 minutes to get there for this clandestine-type meeting.  It was past my bedtime.  I was tired, achy, and feeling  as big as the side of a house, as my mother would say.

“This is just weird,” I told Larry as we sipped on Diet Cokes in a booth near the window.  I started to wonder if we ought to be near the window after all.  I should stop reading so much Grisham, I thought.

At about 11:04, Susan spots us in the corner and nods.  She stops to get a coffee, pay for it, and then heads in our direction.  Susan was a District Superintendent in the Northeast District of the Nebraska Conference.  It was May.  I’d made it plain to Sam, our D.S. in the South Central district, that I could not stay at Guide Rock/Cowles for another year.  I would not raise my baby in that hostile environment.  The Bishop had agreed, anyway, that the best thing for GR/C was to be connected to Red Cloud, and let the Red Cloud pastor deal with them.   So we were in limbo as to what would happen to us come June.  With a baby soon to come.

Susan had called us earlier that day and arranged to meet us at the truck stop near Wood River at 11:00 p.m.  We didn’t know what to expect.  The United Methodist Church was very adamant about keeping clergy appointments secret until the Sunday that all of them were announced simultaneously in the affected churches.  They were very unhappy when the PPRC members of such churches leaked the news that a pastor was moving or who they were getting.

Thus this secret meeting near midnight on the Interstate.

“I have an idea,” Susan informed us as she slid into the booth across from us.  “But it’ll require you to take less-than-fulltime appointments.”

We weren’t pleased.  Both of us had school loans to pay off.   We really couldn’t afford less-than-full-time appointments.  But we also couldn’t afford to stay where we were.

“There’s a three-point charge in my district;  Tilden/Meadow Grove/Battle Creek.  The Tilden United Church of Christ is on its own, and the UCC Conference has asked for our help in getting them a pastor.  So what I want to do is this;  add the Tilden UCC Church to the United Methodist Parish.  You’d be at 3/4 salary for the first year, and then next year, Peggy could get a full-time salary and Larry would get half-time.”

As a Probationary member of the Conference, I had to have two years of full-time ministry before I could apply for Full Membership and Elder’s ordination.  I’d completed one year.

“That just means, Peggy, that you’d delay Elder’s ordination for a year.”  Susan leaned back and waited for our response.

We didn’t have much choice.  It was either take the offer of less money and later ordination or stay in Guide Rock.  Neither option felt good at all.  But one did feel worse.

“I guess we take it,” we agreed reluctantly.

What Susan didn’t mention that day was that the current pastor, Brian, was well-loved and didn’t want to move, and that neither the United Methodist Churches or the UCC Church members had a say in the formation of the new parish.

When my water broke at Dreisbach’s, Larry called the doctor back in Superior to ask what we should do.  She instructed us to get back to Superior to the hospital.  While he was on the phone, Mom had ushered me into the women’s bathroom to clean up as best as I could.  The waitress was holding a tray full of rolls when Larry approached her to tell her we had to go, that his wife’s water broke, and he’d be willing to pay for the salads.

“Oh my God!” she yelled, dropping the tray, sending rolls bouncing across the restaurant floor.  “Get out of here!  Go!  Don’t worry about it!”  She physically pushed Larry toward the door.

“Wait,” he said, “My wife is still in the bathroom!”

We made the 90 minute drive back to Superior, with me in the front seat holding my breath, as if that would keep the baby in.  Larry made a stop at a gas station to get Dad some crackers and cheese, as he was about to “faint with hunger.”  When we arrived at Broadstone Memorial Hospital in Superior, we were pre-registered (just in case this happened), so they took me right up to the room.  My parents took the van and went to the nearest bar to get some supper.

My doctor, who was a woman, did not “believe” in epidurals, so all I was given was some meds to relax me.  Additionally, they hooked me up to an IV of Pritocin to get things moving.  Dad went into the waiting room to sleep in a recliner and woke up to find a nurse covering him up with a blanket.  Superior was a town whose population was 2400, so we got small-town service.  I was the only one in the maternity hall that night.

Larry stayed by my side all night as I drifted in and out of sleep between contractions.  I had a lot of back pain, so he stood up and rubbed the small of my back with his fist until a nurse relieved him.  When the doctor arrived at around 9:00 the next morning and announced it was time to have a baby, Larry had the presence of mind to switch the cassette tape in the player to Gene Lowry’s jazz piano-playing.  At 9:43 a.m., with Larry and my mother present to witness her arrival, Sarah Gene was born to “The Sound of Good News.”

Immediately the doctor placed Sarah Gene on my belly.  I’ve joked that she looked a bit like ET at the time, but she was my ET.  She was still covered in birth gunk and her face was still swollen from the entry into the world, but I cried.  She was mine.  Larry and I made her.  I’d wanted a daughter so badly for so many reasons I couldn’t even name.  And here she was.

The doctor insisted I stay two nights, knowing I was moving on Monday.  Sarah was born on Friday.  Some Guide Rock members sent flowers and gifts.  Larry brought a gift that my brother Stan and his wife Barbara had sent “to be opened on the day of the birth.”  It was a beautiful silver Ankh necklace; an Egyptian symbol for fertility and new life.

On Sunday afternoon, the Superior/Nora churches held a farewell party/baby shower that had been planned ahead of time, not knowing Sarah would be there.  I was looking forward to going home that afternoon, but the ladies at the church were anxious to see the baby and me.  So the day I got out of the hospital, I went to a church baby shower/farewell party.

The very next morning, the movers came to move us out.  I stayed in the living room with Sarah Gene, sitting on a lawn chair while Larry loaded up our van with last-minute things.  It was 98 degrees that day with heavy humidity, truly miserable.  We were headed to Norfolk to spend the night in a hotel before moving into the parsonage at Tilden.

I felt sick and miserable, sitting in the back, guarding my little girl from an avalanche of belongings towering behind us.  It was hot, we were stressed, my father was put out because he thought he should be at home enjoying his retirement, not hauling boxes in and out of houses.

At a rest stop off the interstate, I climbed out of the van and moaned with pain and discomfort.

My father turned to me abruptly and said, “What the hell’s the matter with you?

Mom intervened.  “Rollo, she just had a baby!”

“That was three days ago!” he argued.  I scooped Sarah out of the back and went into the rest stop.  I didn’t have the energy to deal with him.

When we pulled up to the parsonage in Tilden, my heart sank.  There was a wall of garbage extending half a block at the curb.  People were going in and out of the house.  It turns out Brian and some faithful parishioners had been up all night packing things up, because he’d put it off until the very last day.  They weren’t done.

I was exhausted in body and soul.  Could things get any harder here?  We’d already been warned that the United Methodists were angry that they were being forced into a parish arrangement with the UCCs, and that the UCCs were angry and worried that we’d try to turn them into United Methodists.  We were already walking into a hostile situation.  I had four more weeks of maternity leave, but I needed to just get into the house and rest.  Not yet.

By the grace of God, Susan, the chair of the UCC administrative committee, lived a block away in full view of the parsonage.  She came over as soon as she saw us pull up, and offered to have us come over to her house while Brian finished up.  Best of all, Susan was the mother of four and understood what I was feeling.  She kind of scooped us up and took us out of the present chaos.

She had a full lunch laid out for us and she took the baby out of my arms to give me a break.  Her home was like something out of a magazine, beautifully and artfully decorated with antiques, country items, etc.  I immediately felt calmer and sheltered.  She took these tired, stressed-out souls and gave us rest.

Primary on our agenda would be setting boundaries.  Brian, we already discovered, had some issues with boundaries.  The parish office had been in a bedroom of the parsonage, so people let themselves in the front door at all hours of the day.

Having a baby helped in a lot of ways.  It assuaged a lot of the people’s anger over the forced parish, and it put up instant boundaries.  People understood I needed my space for the remainder of my maternity leave.  They agreed that the parsonage was our domain.  The office was moved to the basement, to which there was a separate outside door.  One problem solved.

The women of the churches were very kind to us.  Again, being mothers, they were very concerned about me having just given birth and having to move three days later.  They were also impressed. 

“Wow, back when I gave birth, they kept us in the hospital for two weeks!  I can’t believe you had to move!  You’re a rock star!”  one little old lady said.

The parish women had set up an arrangement to have suppers brought in for the first two weeks, so I got to meet a lot of people ahead of time.  Most of the time they caught me in my nightgown, after having been up with the baby every two hours during the night, but I was so tired I didn’t care.  They got to see the vulnerable human Peggy right away!

The day after we moved in, Larry had to get on the road to head back to Pennsylvania to attend his older daughter Jennifer’s high school graduation.  So I was left with mountains of boxes, a newborn baby, and my parents.  And people I didn’t know showing up at the door.

I couldn’t be much help with the unpacking.  My mother, God bless her, has always been very task-oriented and a hard worker.  You give her something to do and she dove right in, incredibly focused and driven till the task was done.  She delegated tasks to my father, who regularly complained about having to do all this work.

“Why aren’t you helping??” he finally barked at me one day.  I was carrying the baby, bouncing her and rocking her to get her to stop crying.

I opened my mouth to speak, but my mother got to him first.

She was leaning over a box to see what was in it, but when she heard him, she whirled around as if lit by a match and her face looked fiercer than I’d ever seen it.

You didn’t understand 28 years ago, and you don’t understand NOW!!!  Just HELP for once and shut up!”  I was frozen in place.  I’d seen my mother’s wrath before, but never like this, and never directed at my father.  Her face was red and she looked like she could burst, but tossing some stuffed animals out of her path, she retreated to the bedroom.

My father didn’t say a word but picked up a box and carried it down to the basement.

When my mother was pregnant with me, my father was being moved to the Pennington United Methodist Church from Erma.  I was due to be born July 4th, but we had to move June 25th.  Instead of making arrangements in the new town, my father asked the doctor to induce labor before the move.  I was born June 22.  My father and three brothers were out getting ready for the move.  Mom and I moved three days after my birth, from the hospital to the new parsonage in Pennington.  A few days after the move, my father packed up the family to go spend a month vacation at Malaga Camp, in a small cabin.

It’d always been one of those family stories you tell with laughter.  It wasn’t until Sarah’s birth that I realized Mom hadn’t been laughing.  She’d been stuck in a cabin away from home for a month, with a newborn baby and three boys 12 and under, while my father … relaxed.  She’d been holding that one in for twenty-eight years.

Larry turned around after the graduation and came right back, so he was only gone a few days, but it was a rough few days!

My mother had intended to stay for six weeks, as her own mother had done for her for each of her four births.  But after two weeks–while we were watching OJ Simpson drive down the highway on TV in a white Bronco–Dad announced that they were going home.

“Rollo!—” Mom started to object–

“No.  We’re leaving.  I don’t have anything to do here.  We’re going tomorrow.”

I was furious, but spent.  I wasn’t getting any sleep, I was scared of how the new parish was going to go, I was worried about how we were going to pay our bills with less money, and I was brand new at this mothering thing.  I wanted my mother.

They made a deal that Mom could fly out later in the year to stay with us.  But I needed her now.

Thank God for Susan, just down the street.  She was more than willing to help with anything, to babysit while I took a nap, to listen when I had questions, etc.  She had a calm, soothing demeanor, as if nothing could shake her.  I relied on her a lot that first year.

When I started back to work, I preached at two of the churches and Larry preached at the other two, then we’d switch the following week.  I packed up the baby in my Ford F150 and took her with me.  When I arrived at the churches, someone in the congregation took her and held her during the service.  They had sign-up sheets to take turns each week, and the women were delighted to get a turn.  It was distracting to preach while my daughter was crying out in the congregation, but I learned to concentrate under pressure!

After a few months of that, we hired one of the teenage girls from the Methodist Church, Alicia, to hold Sarah during church at the Tilden UMC, then bring her home to the parsonage and babysit till we got home.  That took a lot of pressure off of me, trying to get from one church to the other on time.

The money was not enough.  We couldn’t make ends meet on two 3/4 time salaries.  We had too much debt.  Almost from the beginning of our three years at Tilden, we had constant phone calls from collection agencies demanding money we didn’t have.  When Sarah was sick, we worried over whether she was sick enough to go to the doctor, as our health insurance didn’t cover a lot.  It took us three years to pay off the hospital in Superior for Sarah’s birth.

The pressure was building, but in the midst of all that, I was determined to not let any of it take away from my daughter’s first years.  I didn’t want any of it spoiled.  She was my grace, my purpose and the source of my hope in those difficult days.  They were also the most difficult days of our marriage.  The pressure of the struggling parish, the constant bickering over which church got more attention, the lack of sleep, the relentless phone calls from collectors all kept us in a pressure cooker most of the time.  We fought a lot.

Yet there were many pockets of grace.  There were people like Susan who offered us respite and friendship.  We looked forward to Wednesday night choir practice at the UCC Church.  There were people of all ages there.  They began their evening with a covered dish dinner and fellowship, followed by rehearsal.  There was a lot of laughter and kidding.  Singing was always a great therapy for me.  Men and women alike passed the baby back and forth through the choir as we sang.  That community was a balm to my soul every week.

There were kind people whom we ministered to in the midst of cancer, illness or grief.  There was always Sarah’s firsts:  talking, walking, singing.  She was a source of relentless grace, bringing joy and laughter on the worst and best of days.

She gave me a reason to press on.

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