The Backstory: “God hates divorce” and therefore my dad?

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

Sorry about leaving y’all hanging after that last post. I had to write a paper. Mission accomplished, so back to our regularly scheduled biography….

So. Apparently my mom is the only person I know who practiced “missionary dating” and it turned out ok.  She started dating my dad with the hopes that he would become a Christian. And he did. And they decided to get married.  He bought her a lovely diamond & ruby engagement ring. They were in church for every service (if he wasn’t working).  He became a voracious student of the Bible, attending Bible conference services (which were a common occurrence for their church), went to Sunday School, started singing in the choir with her.  (She was an alto; he was a tenor.)

So how could things go wrong?

It’s hard for me to explain independent fundamental churches. If you grew up in that world. you will understand.  If you didn’t, then I don’t really know how to explain it.  I’m not interested in detouring into a long explanation. I’ll just try to explain what happened and leave the analysis for another day.

Their church was run by a pastor & some deacons. The pastor, an older Rev. H., kept it old school.  His face is a distant memory in my mind — he retired from the pulpit by the time I went to kindergarten. So I can’t tell you if he was a good pastor or preacher. I just know that it was hard for me to sit through long sermons and be quiet, but my mom knew all the tricks for helping a kid learn to self-entertain.  Three words: paper, crayons, patience.

Like many conservative pastors of his generation, Rev H. took the verses about divorce really seriously ….and without any of the nuance appropriate to reading the whole counsel of Scripture rather than proof-texting it.

So as far as I can tell, while he never really opposed my parents’ dating, he absolutely refused to marry them when they asked.  Why? Because mom was a divorcee, and that meant she could never remarry …. because “marrying a woman who is divorced is committing adultery.”

My parents were stunned.  Mom had been very happily involved in her church for years — the church became a haven for her in the difficult years of single parenthood. She taught Sunday School (4th-6th grade boys) for years, did VBS crafts, sang in choir, participated in ministry.

My dad had become someone welcome in that assembly, as well.  But they were welcome only as long as they dated?

So… they took matters into their control.  They found a preacher in a church in West Virginia (I don’t know anything about why they picked him), drove down there with a couple witnesses, and got married on a beautiful June day.

A week later, they showed up at church, married. And that’s when everything  went to hell.

As you might expect, Pastor H. was livid.  And  I can understand.  I mean, most of us don’t take kindly to a poke in the eye.

His retribution was swift.  He called my dad an adulterer publicly, banned my parents from teaching or ministering at church ever, threw them out of the choir.  For the next 7 or 8 years, they were pariahs, declared unfit for service because they were living in a constant state of sin.  To marry a divorcee was to be an adulterer, and no one living in sin was worthy of the kingdom of God.

My dad was understandably blindsided by how quickly he could go from a guy everybody liked to a man who had no right even to take up the offering. It made him angry; it made him feel demeaned and worthless.  It bred in him a hatred of hypocritical Christianity.

But they didn’t leave.

I’ll never really understand why.

For years, they went to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, Bible school, monthly Bible conference services. My dad was angry. My mom was embarrassed. Yet they continued to go.

It’s not like we lived in a church-desert.  Even within the tiny isolated circles of fundamentalism, there were 4 churches within driving distance of our house, including the church that ran the Christian school I attended.

But they stayed. I think they were just too stubborn to give people the chance to say the pastor had run them off.  Or maybe the abuse was somehow more palatable than the idea of change?

My brothers (a story I’ll pick up in a future post) shortly afterward abandoned the church forever. Neither is particularly religious to this day.

To be fair, many of the individuals in the congregation were very good to us and remained our friends.  A new pastor showed up, one whom we hoped would make a difference in the church’s attitude…. and he kind of did.  My memories as a kid are positive. I had several good teachers; I enjoyed the children’s activities; I loved seeing the slide shows when missionaries came into town.

(Another historic battle between my dad and the church: He was appalled that the congregation voted to spend thousands of dollars to build a “fellowship hall,” when one of the missionary couples who had visited the church on deputation had holes in his shoes and a car that barely ran. The husband was selling vacuum cleaners during the week to try to keep food on their table. The church voted against supporting the couple as missionaries because they didn’t have the money in the budget due to the building program. My dad immediately wrote the missionary a check to fix his car and get some shoes, and my parents picked them up for monthly support until our own financial situation meant we had to stop. )

A few years later, when I told my parents that a Sunday School teacher informed me that I would never be allowed to participate in the church’s proposed talent show (a statement that my parents took as evidence that their disgrace would be a generational curse), they left.  I was in 4th grade.

My dad stopped going to church at all (for a series of reasons).  And my mom did too, for a few years.

Ironically, the church put us on their Tuesday night visitation rotation — meaning that we were backslidden Christians who needed to be visited by members of the church who would try to convince us to repent of the sin of not attending church.  So for about 18 months, we hid in our house on Tuesday nights. It was easy to hear people coming down our long, secluded driveway – the distinct sound of car tires on gravel – and we dove for cover, doused the lights, turned off the TV, closed and locked the door.  Church folk knocked, we didn’t respond, they eventually gave up and left, and we came out of hiding to return to our regularly scheduled programming.

It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade — and probably because I felt left-out and guilty when the kids in my Christian school asked me where I went to church — that I pestered Mom to start taking me to church at Mt Carmel (where I also went to school).

The specter of divorce haunted my mom the rest of her life, even in a new congregation.

After the Mt Carmel people asked her repeatedly to teach VBS classes, she finally agreed, but only if she was the helper rather than the lead teacher, and she never talked about it much.  I think she felt like the scarlet A was visible to everyone but they were too nice to say it.  And there was a single divorced lady at church who wasn’t really able to do much either; perhaps Mom didn’t want to make things worse for her, or enjoy some kind of special privilege because people at the new church didn’t know my mom’s story while this other lady had to live with the stigma of being divorced.

I don’t know.

But I learned early on that church wasn’t a place for authenticity or honesty.  Being honest about certain kinds of failures would get you slapped upside the head.  Or thrown on a bizarre trash heap of never-ending irrelevance where people who didn’t really want to have anything to do with you insisted that you attend anyway.

Hold up — BRB

I realize I’ve done the cruelest thing a writer can do — leave her readers hanging for too long.  I’ll get back to that unfinished story about my parents, I promise.

Right now, though, I have *got* to finish this paper (contrasting the views of Karl Barth and Abraham Kuyper on the purpose of the State and the Church’s relationship to it). Really.  I gotta get this done.  It’s shamefully late at this point.

So, just in case the Snowpocalypse of January 28, 2014 has you housebound and bored, here are a few items to keep your mind busy:

A delightful short film created by a local filmmaker and a winter term class of local college students. Enjoy. 🙂

One of my former students plays music in the Upstate and has just released a new EP.  Her voice is fantastic.

Go check it out:  Darby Wilcox, She Took To The Sea

And while I’m on the subject of great music created by friends of mine, please give the new album by my friends The Fire Tonight a thorough listen. It’s full of surprises.  I tell people, “Nearly every song is different.”   Great musical growth and songwriting here.

The Fire Tonight, How Could Anyone Do This? 

A hodgepodge of bits that I’ve found interesting in the lat couple days:

Why Mom’s Time Is Different Than Dad’s Time (Wall Street Journal)
A short piece explaining what women seem to already know intuitively: a mom’s workday just isn’t the same as her husband’s. Guys, this article helps explain why your wife sometimes wants to kill you for what seems like no good reason.

Today is the 28th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. Like many of my cohort, I was home due to snow and flipped on the TV right as after the launch took place, watching in horror with the rest of America as seven astronauts exploded in front of our eyes. (I can’t imagine what was going through the hearts of Christa McAuliffe’s sixth graders at that moment.)  LongReads has posted the first chapter of the book Challenger: An American Tragedy. The Wikipedia article is thorough.

Reagan’s speech that evening on the Challenger disaster — one that he gave instead of the scheduled State of the Union —  is one of his best:  The astronauts “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” 

Children succeed with character, not test scores (NPR)
“Grit” part 2: Is “Slack” what kids need?
(Ira Socol, blog)
Lastly, you should tune into the (somewhat heated) exchange of ideas between champions of developing “grit” in children (the ability to come back after failure, a resistance to intellectual or social coddling) and Ira Socol’s fiery response which highlights the significant disadvantages children face when they come from lower socioeconomic classes.  For Socol, what’s needed is “slack” – giving kids battered by life the space and forgiveness to come back from  mistakes and overcome barriers.

Lastly, this short post called “Thoughts on the Church” hits 9 points that I heartily agree with.  Do you?
OK.  Now it’s paper time….

The Internet is changing how we think and write

Two relatively short pieces that are worth your attention.  The Internet is changing how we think, interact, read, write, and learn. It’s not a bad thing; it’s probably mostly just a thing

The first is an interesting interview with an author who can both tear the Internet a new one for being stupid and annoying at times, but also recognizes the incredible potential of human beings reading and thinking and learning together: 

writing becomes significant through labor. The cherished things online, whether they be profitable or not, clearly spring from a place of great effort, even if in the end that effort is, as it usually should be, invisible.

via TL;DR: Choire Sicha | Full Stop. (Language disclaimer.) 

Along these lines, I recommend an article in Wired Magazine from October 2013 about the amazing potential for innovation that comes on the heels of connected human networks.

Historically, we can find times when innovation is more common than at others, and those times are marked by humans being aware of what other humans are doing. Conversely, interruptions in networking slow down the progress of knowledge.  

A good read; not rocket science or life-changing, but certainly relevant to current discussions about our changing world, and to adapting education to meet new challenges and foster creativity.

Thinking Out Loud (Wired Oct 2013)

Link: ‘Life Keeps Changing’: Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World – Atlantic Mobile

Short, thoughtful interview with an author who left science to pursue Story.

‘Life Keeps Changing’: Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World – Atlantic Mobile.’

The natural world is a source of wonder and even horror for Jennifer Percy, author of Demon Camp, but science can only explain so much. After Percy read Lawrence Sargent Hall’s “The Ledge” for the first time in college, she dropped her physics major—and started asking questions about story, memory, and narrative. Stories, she now says—invented, reported—better capture the full, complex reality of human beings and our surrounding universe.

….To continue with the story, the language of physics didn’t help me bridge that gap. There was an emptiness that physics couldn’t help me dispel. Stories could, though. Talking to people wasn’t enough, but if I could visit a world, and be held there in its arms, then I could invite others inside and maybe they could be held there too. So I changed my major from Physics to English. I think I actually cried when I filed the paperwork—it was that scary to give up my whole plan and start on something new. But I was able to articulate writing something important I’d never been able to say on my own before. And, of course, that’s what literature does.


The Backstory: First dates, “and the rest is history”

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.

I wish I knew more about how my parents met.  This is all I got so far:

My mom lived & worked in Connellsville. My dad lived in the same town, though he worked in Clairton. She worked at a finance company and meanwhile worked at raising her two boys.  So they kinda knew each other; it was a small town and I think dad may have done some business with her office at one point.

Dad told me only a couple stories about his life as a man, beyond the Army stories or occasional mill story, or a caper involving him and his friend Ellsworth.  He told me that long before he had any kind of religious allegiance, he prayed and asked God to give him a red-headed wife someday.

My mom had gorgeous red hair, a true red, almost carrot colored but not quite.  She didn’t have the flock of freckles on her face that you’d expect; maybe as a kid but not as I remember her.  She also had a tiny waist, a petite 4’11” frame, and a love for swing coats and high heels. [My mom will remain better dressed than I, with much better fashion sense.]

Somehow, my dad met my mom and she invited him to church.  That’s about all I know.

He wasn’t particularly interested in “vacation Bible school” or church, though he found her description of the building’s wooden beams and ceiling rather intriguing. (She told him it looked like an upside-down ark on the inside, and it kinda did.)

Nope. He was interested in her.

Their first date was to see a double-feature: The Lady and the Tramp, followed by 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Presh.  And as they say, the rest was history.

Well, there was a wrinkle.

My mom was attending an independent Fundamental non-denominational church in town (yes, that’s a mouthful; yes, that’s a real denomination).  Actually, the string of adjectives read “independent Fundamental Bible-believing local church.”  It wasn’t Baptist, so “non-denominational.”    It’s a rare bird, actually — you’ll find plenty online about independent Fundamental Baptist churches (or IFB for short). Nosomuch the non-denominational or “Bible church” variety.  I digress.

Mum’s church was full of good people; I met most of them.  Dad felt rather welcome actually.  He discovered that he had a thirst for learning more about the Bible, so his mission of getting my mom to date him by attending church ended up making him a Christian.  He made a profession of faith shortly before he proposed to her.

And then all hell broke loose.  But it’s midnight and I’m tired, so I’ll pick up that thread next time.


The Backstory: Winter nights, snowy days, and an Appalachian woodcutter

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
My parents relocated our family to the top of an Appalachian mountain by the time I was 3.

One wall of our living room, 7 feet tall by 16 feet wide, was solid Pennsylvania field stone, handpicked by my dad and brothers for the stone masons to set into a wall for that end of the  room. (Still the coolest part of the house IMHO. I love it.)

A huge slab of hand-cut cherry formed a mantle, where stood some of mom’s treasured ceramic and metal pieces of art, and hung with a powder horn in honor of the pioneers and Indians who’d lived in these hills before us.

Beneath that was set a black steel wood stove, offering a shelf of hot metal perfect for a pot of soup that might serve as supper. And stretching the width of the wall on either side was a built-in stone hearth, a foot or so out into the living room, making room for piles of the wood that kept us warm. [And a pair of wagon wheels, one on either side, gathered by my mom during her antiquing trips.  But that’s a different story. ]

I grew up on top of a “mountain.” Granted, this was in Pennsylvania, so it wasn’t a mountain by Western standards. (We once drove from 100 degree Phoenix to 40 degree Denver in one long shot, crossing Wolf Pass in Colorado shortly after midnight where — I kid you not — it was 32 degrees and there was snow in the ground, in late June.)

But for the East, it counts.

Rich Hill probably doesn’t show up on a map. It’s not really the name of the place, just a local appellation for a general area, a peak among peaks, a hill that rose above others to provide some wonderful vistas as you were driving into town.  And on top of Rich Hill you would find 12 acres of trees, with a small clearing and our house.

The outdoor temperature always registered 10 degrees cooler at home than “down in the city” (a town of <10,000). In the summer, that meant cool breezes filtered through the shady canopy of hardwoods that surrounded our house.

In spring and fall, a thick blanket of fog might sit on top of our mountain all day, never relenting.  You could drive ½ mile down the  road and find that a cloud had snagged on the peak, leaving us smothered in white while the rest of the world carried on its business underneath a relatively normal cloudy sky.

In the winter, we caught brutal snows and wind that befit the first real range of mountains as you head from west to east from Pittsburgh into the interior of the state.  A freight-train wind made your insides feel cold, regardless of the thermostat reading.

I’ve always hated winter. It’s dark; it’s dead; it’s cold. Depressing, really.  Nothing sounds as despairing as the wind howling around a house in a fierce snowstorm.

And it was in that cold that my dad trudged through the thick snow several times each night to make sure all the home fires were burning, that no pipes were freezing, that we weren’t freezing.  I slept through his nocturnal watchings, burrowed under 2 blankets and on top of a 3rd. (Sheets are way too cold when your household temperature overnight is a chilly 55.)

Snow laid out on a field under a full moon is probably the most beautiful sight God ever created.  Even when the bitter cold leaked through the very molecules of a windowpane (you could feel the cold on your face, inches from the glass), the beauty of unbroken snow took me back.  It was so …. perfect.  Untouched by human hands. Maybe the tracks of a freezing songbird, squirrel, cat, or fox.

We heated our house with wood.  There’s a longer explanation, tied to my dad’s partial blindness,  unemployment, and resulting financial crisis for our family. The short answer is this: We lived on 12 acres of trees. Hard to beat “free” when it comes to fuel for heating.

It took a tree — an entire 90 feet of gorgeous oak or maple or cherry  which had probably stood since before airplanes existed to fly over its head — an entire tree a day to keep our house warm on the coldest days.

Each winter day, once things had thawed a bit, my dad began his  ritual:   After breakfast and his Bible study, he doubled up his socks, put on a third shirt (above the t-shirt and flannel he was already wearing), and laced up his steel-toed work boots.  Over the layers of shirts, he buttoned an undercoat and then a dingy yellow work coat with flashes of reflective tape (leftover from his days in the steel mill) and wrapped a scarf tightly to keep his neck warm. He stacked a couple hats on his head, put on a pair of work gloves, and headed to the basement to fire up the Stihl chain saw.

If I happened to be at home – perhaps a rare snow day, triggered because below-zero temperatures made it too difficult to clear the roads enough for the mountain kids to get to school? — I’d hear the thump of the cellar door as he went out to find a dead hardwood he’d marked on his mental map back when the leaves were there to tell the story of which trees still carried life, and which were ready to fall.

If I stood near a window I might hear the hum of the chainsaw cutting through a trunk, first notching the tree in the direction he wanted it to fall (you had to work all this out before you began cutting), and then around the other side to sever the tree low at the stump.  If all went well, the tree fell without taking any others with it.  If he was unlucky, the tree might catch on other nearby branches, refusing to fall.  Or tilt backwards on its stump, pinning the chainsaw. Bad.

But on the easier days, an impressive crash and thud from a felled tree echoed …. unless the snow hid it.  Snow has an incredible insulating property, the ability to absorb sound out of your very skull so that nothing seemed to make noise ever. Eerie, in fact.

This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.
This was the shorter of our two driveways. Whenever it snowed, Dad would shovel it open by hand.

Once the tree lay on the ground, Dad cut the limbs from the trunk so those could be gathered later. Thick limbs might be useful for the wood fire; the thin ones were basically just kindling or “along-siders,” my dad’s name for the smaller logs needed to support a good fire overnight alongside a giant piece of oak or cherry.

He’d segment the trunk down into 6 to 8 foot sections and then — this is just crazy! — somehow he’d manage to single-handedly lift a full length of tree up onto his shoulder.

I wish I had a photo of this.  You probably don’t believe me. I hardly believe it myself, but it was a simple quotidian memory:  Dad emerging out of the woods bearing a massive log balanced on his left shoulder.

I think in the early days he used to cut up the tree and then haul the logs out by hand using his wheelbarrow. Ideally, we would have used a pickup truck, but his  50-something Ford died when I was very little, and we had to sell the Ford 150 trucks when he lost his job.  So no engine power; all manual labor.  And it’s hard enough to drive a wheelbarrow on level ground. Murderously hard on a wooded path covered in inches of snow.

You can drag logs, but that’s backbreaking work.  Easier to balance it and walk it up.  So he did. Somehow.

My dad wasn’t a huge man. He was around 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered, thick necked, large hands.  He wasn’t as muscular at the mill. But those shoulders and hands grew to fit the work in the woods that kept us alive from September through early May, kept us warm.

If all went well, he’d have the tree felled but uncarried by lunchtime. A quick sandwich or bit of leftover soup, a bit of respite, and then back outside, hauling up the logs  to be cut into 2-foot portions, then  splitting some by hand into manageable pieces for our wood stoves.

The rhythm of an axe makes its own melody on cold crisp air.
Chnk Chnk Chnk Crack Thud
A steel wedge made the job a little easier ….  Tap the wedge into a giant piece of oak, creating a small crevice. Pound the wedge into the hunk of tree, forcing it to give way. Hard work. Practiced swings.  A beautiful arc.  Then the log gave up, falling into halves or thirds, better for burning.

Armfulls of fresh and fragrant wood kept us warm, cooked our food, made the Pennsylvania winters in the isolated mountains bearable.

There was a rhythm to Dad’s steps, too, as he finished his woodcutting for the day, usually around 3 or 4pm.  I’d hear his feet crunching the snow outside as he walked around the front of the house with a load of wood for the upstairs wood stove.   The front door opened directly into the living room, which housed the hearth and the wood stove.

He’d stop outside the door to kick the snow off his boots — less watery mess to clean up afterward.  Thump-thump. (Right foot.) Thump thump. (Left foot.) The door opens, Dad walks in, arms full of wood.  The pieces crash down onto the hearth. Back out for another armload. Had to stock up enough for a full night’s burning.

The darkness would come by 4:30 in the dead of winter.  Woodcutting done, dad would mop up the snow-water from the floor, sweep the chips, hang up his coat and gloves to dry.  A warm fire made the house really pleasant.  He’d start on supper.  Mom wouldn’t make it home till 6:30 or later but she’d appreciate something good to eat after a long day of work.

On the best days, supper was already bubbling away in a pot on the living room stove: minestrone, perhaps.  You’d try to eat the air, it smelled so good.

“Pssssh. This isn’t cold! You wanna see real cold? Well, when I was in Pennsylvania….”

I guess it’s by the grace of God that transplanted Northerners aren’t murdered in droves every winter by the Southerners who put up with their constant derision at definitions of “cold,” “snowy,” “winter,” “storm,” or “you really should wear a coat.”

I’m sorry y’all.  We can’t help it.  Your snow days are so adorable. 🙂

Sorrowing with those who sorrow: wise words of advice

A fantastic column in the New York Times today offers timely and thoughtful, real-world suggestions for people who stand just outside the circle of grief or tragedy – those of us who wonder what we can do to help, but often walk away because we don’t know what to do.

It’s a short piece but well worth your time.  The Woodiwisses offer simple and effective suggestions based on their own experiences of tragedy.

The columnist, David Brooks, writes:

[S]uffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom is quite useful.

via The Art of Presence –

Don’t miss the original post that sparked the NYT column:

The New Normal: 10 Things I Learned About Trauma
written by Catherine Woodiwiss, who was hit by a car last fall while riding in DC on her bicycle. She marches on through a long hard road of recovery.