Tag Archives: family

The Backstory: Dollar a Day

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.  Today happens to be my parents wedding anniversary date – it would have been their 42nd.
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My mom was one of those indomitable women, the working ones who juggled career and child-rearing and house cleaning and everything else without losing her sanity. Most of the time.

For as much as working parents fret about ruining their kids, I think  I turned out ok. My earliest memories were of two parents juggling their schedules and me alongside my teenage half-brothers.  Dad worked swing shifts that involved occasional night work, but his preferred was second. Once I started school, he swung his schedule back to daytime so he could pick me up after school.

loan-sharkMom had a more “regular” job as a loan clerk at a finance company. Yeah, the loan shark company that gave people money at like 30% interest. It was a job, and she was good at it, and I doubt she’d had a lot of options when, as a divorced single mother in the 1960s, she first hit the pavement looking for employment.

So by the time I came along, she’d worked at The Associates for at least a decade. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s how my dad met her…. making payments on a small car loan.

Mom’s job was pretty decent when I was a wee lass. She worked in my hometown of Connellsville; at least, that was the closest actual “town” to where we lived, since I hardly consider the mountain hamlet of “Normalville” a town. Normalville had a post office and an ice cream place and maybe a gas station.  Connellsville was a bustling metropolis by comparison.

Murphy's And The Associates had a branch office near the center of town next to a Health+Mart and across the street from a number of fascinating shops including a Murphy’s and McCrory’s and Woolworth. Sometimes after kindergarten or on summer days when I had nowhere else to be, I ended up playing on the chairs in the guest waiting area, or killing time in one of the conference rooms.  Mom’s bosses and coworkers were always nice to me. I remember one of them trying to help me learn to tie my shoes. I think I was a helpless case at the time, but velcro was about to bust onto the scene, along with jelly sandals, saving me from some serious frustration.

And at lunch or in the afternoon, sometimes she and I would walk into Health+Mart to buy a giant Crunch! bar or across the street for an ice cream, and talk to the friendly old men who sat on the benches and liked to touch my hair. Mom knew they were just being friendly, not creepy, but it always pissed my dad off if he found out.

Because Mum had worked in her industry for so long, she knew the ins and outs of loan paperwork and interest and processes apart from adding machines or computer programs. That always amazed the 20-somethings who worked alongside her. “How do you KNOW that?” they’d wonder, looking at my mother like she was some priestess of an ancient tribe, hoarding the secrets of a sacred order of finance to which they had never been invited. She knew how it all worked. And whenever the computers went down (sometimes for a day or more), her loan paperwork was still moving right along, powered by her knowledge and a hand calculator.

ibm-punchcardGrowing up, I watched her office morph from punch-card IBM computers (no kidding!) to one of those classic 80s era IBM systems with the black monitors/green type. (Or maybe it was orange?)  The keys on the computer keyboard were extra clacky back in those days…. a stiff tactile memory. And IBM typewriters and Selectrics, where loan papers had to be typed in triplicate with carbon paper in between the sheets.

I know because by the time I was in double-digits, Mum had me helping her with paperwork. Her job got busier and busier, and there was always more filing and typing than she could keep up with. And some of the work was truly mundane, perfect for a bored 12-year-old on a weekend or lazy summer day.

I wish I could say my mom loved her job, but she didn’t.

This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It's not a bad design, actually...
This logo was burned into my memory as a kid. It’s not a bad design, actually…

Around the time my dad lost his sight and thus his job in the steel mills, Mum’s office closed and they folded in her branch into one further away, about 30 minutes down the road in Uniontown. Her commute instantly make it far more difficult to drop me off or pick me up from school, and I found myself riding busses with the public school kids…. but that’s a story for another day.

Her office situation in Uniontown wasn’t as friendly or welcoming. The coworkers were decent, many of them, but offices always incite drama. One lady was sleeping with the boss, so she got extra favors. The men, who held the assistant manager positions, got paid way more than the women who shuffled the papers. The boss was basically a drunk, and though he was always nice to me, he could be nasty to his employees.

[An important side story: I got married after my mom had died. Several of her coworkers were incredibly kind to me during the months leading up to my wedding. One of those ladies baked our wedding cakes, and the entire office gave us a wedding gift.]

Things went from bad to worse and Mum faced a difficult choice. Locked into her job as primary breadwinner for her family, she could either trudge along doing loans, or she could move in the assistant manager position over Collections.  It was a rough gig, calling people who had defaulted on their loans and threatening them with whatever worked to get them to pay up. Or sending out the “repo man” to repossess whatever collateral backed the usury that folks were paying to this loan company to finance their summer vacation or last year’s Christmas. And unlike all the men who’d held this job before her, my mother wasn’t given an office assistant to shuffle her paperwork. She was now responsible for all of her former cases as well as all the new work of being a supervisor.

The pile grew large. I showed up on many more weekends during my teenage years, even one entire week during the summer, to type and file and process records. I learned how to read a credit report, how to properly file last names beginning with Mc-, how many horrible cuts and hang-nails you get when filing papers, how to send faxes and read the faint lettering on the shiny papers, how to do data entry.  It was actually a pretty good gig for me as a teen job for a little money here and there, though often my earnings disappeared when the money ran short at the end of the month, and Mum had to “borrow” it from me to buy gas. I resented that, and didn’t really see her point when she reminded me that I was getting a whole lot out of my parents already …. I don’t think any teenager is quite ready to understand that lesson.

Mom’s work hours got longer and longer and she felt more and more stressed, trapped by a job that didn’t end and the financial burdens of owning a house my parents had built when they had two incomes. We were the classic example of “house poor,” and since my parents had spent half of their lives waiting to finally build a house, they weren’t about to give it up. So we — and she — soldiered on.

Dad and I were pretty sure that the stress of her job contributed to the onset of breast cancer when I was 12 and she was 50, but who can say? She had a family history of the disease but none of us could deny that The Associates didn’t offer a safe, nourishing environment for her soul.

After the diagnosis, biopsy, mastectomy, and recovery, Mom want back to work. What else could she do? We needed money, and her salary was decent given the opportunities available in Fayette County.

My mom’s story is one of surviving. Trudging. Working. Earning. Coming home exhausted and worn down. The story of working mothers everywhere in America, where “work-life balance” really is a laughable term….. Turning down promotions for better positions away from the bullshit in her office because she would have been forced to move away from our family home (and my school). Running a side business in the springtime preparing people’s taxes because she could earn a little extra money to pay off just a little more of my Christian school tuition. Juggling the books and robbing Peter to pay Paul so everything more or less got paid and we all more or less had food to eat. 

She didn’t complain. She set her jaw, and she worked.

Because that’s what working mothers do. They sacrifice everything they could have been and all of their own dreams for the sake of their children’s futures. They drop us off at college, give us a hug and a kiss and a pep talk, and hold themselves together so the weeping doesn’t start until they’re in the car for the lonely ride home.

She didn’t get the chance to see me grow up enough to understand just what my opportunities cost her. That, to me, is one of the world’s great injustices.

 

 

 

The Backstory: Light Fading, Darkness Closing

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

We just celebrated Father’s Day, and I loved seeing all the photos of everybody’s dad popping up in my Facebook feed.  It reminded me that I promised y’all way back that I’d finish telling my dad’s story…. but I haven’t.  Most of it has been told, at least as a story arc, up through my early years. What remains is a sketch of what were to me the most vivid memories of my life intertwined with his.
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To recap:  My dad was the son of an Italian immigrant and he grew up in a poor immigrant section of Connellsville, Pennsylvania – a town that existed to feed the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh via coal, coke, and glass. My dad survived his childhood, impoverished and terrible as it was, and did a stint in the Army before settling in for a 30-year career in the world’s longest steel mill. (Really!)

He met my mom when she was the single mother of two teen boys and fell in love. Along the way, he became a Christian and they got married, touching off a firestorm in their small church. But my dad was stubborn, so he stuck it out in the pew Sunday after Sunday, growing angry that he’d been pigeonholed as an unrepentant “adulterer” (because anyone who marries a divorcee is breaking the Bible’s commandments, right?) and sidelined from doing anything more at church than warming a seat. Meanwhile, they’d built a house and manufactured a daughter, and so the set pieces for my young life were all in place by 1980.

I imagine if my dad were to list the critical moments of his life, a fateful Sunday morning on a lovely October day in 1981 would rise to the top of the list.

He got up and dressed for church, as he always did. There was a funny foggy spot in his vision in his right eye, but he assumed it would go away eventually; if not, the eye doctor would be open on Monday and he could get it checked out.  The church lights really bothered him that day.

Monday morning found my father, who was almost never sick and certainly never in the doctor’s office, sitting in the chair of the town’s optometrist. Our town was small and our doctors not exactly cutting-edge. Anything “fancy” happened down in Pittsburgh, more than an hour away. My dad always wondered if perhaps a better doctor would have saved his sight, but “what if’s” do nothing but stir up dissatisfaction.

A few routine tests indicated that something – a rogue blot of calcium perhaps? – had hemorrhaged my dad’s eyeball, not the big inside part but the small area between the lens and the cornea. The fluid was 90% gone, meaning the growing grey spot which had eaten my dad’s vision in his right eye was permanent.  The eye itched and burned and ached and he was able to see only at the very top of the field of vision.

At first, I think my dad had a little bit of hope that perhaps they could find a solution, and a great deal of gratitude that the chunk of calcium or whatever that had floated around in his head chose to lodge itself in a blood vessel in his eye rather than in his brain to cause a stroke. But it was a cold comfort for a man who’d spent 50 years working with his body.

I was too young to process much of what was going on, other than the fact that my dad was home a lot more and not going to work as much.  I imagine those were deeply disappointing weeks for him.  He talked to his bosses and US Steel offered him sick leave and eventually a new job: dipping disks (of some kind) in acid (for some reason I don’t remember). Dad was quite offended that this was his option. I’m not sure if the job was demeaning (to him) because it was a huge demotion from his previous work driving big dump trucks and bulldozers, or if he felt it was unsafe for a half-blind man. Either way, he was rather indignant and walked away from the offer.

Fortunately for our family finances, dad had just completed his 30th year at USSteel-ClairtonWorks, meaning he was eligible for a small company pension and continued health insurance coverage. It was a massive pay cut, offering about 40% of his former salary. But it was something.

I remember a few of dad’s mill buddies stopping by to see him during the year that followed. His personal misfortune was soon gulfed by the widespread collapse of the steel industry in Pittsburgh in 1983-84. Ironically, many of his friends who stayed at the mills to try to squeeze out any final months of work were rewarded with less than what my dad got from his pension.  If he’d stayed at Clairton, as he’d intended, he probably would have been in the same position…. along wit the 25% of people in Fayette County who were unemployed by 1983. (!)

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Life for my dad form then on was a lot more bitter. He still played Johnny Cash tunes for me at nap time, fiddled around the house with building stuff like our back deck, and cut wood to burn for heat in the winter.

Dad was a very skilled man, really, considering his aborted acquisition of a college education. He could figure out how to build nearly anything — but now he couldn’t see well enough to hit the nails squarely.  The constant watering and pain in his eye made going out in bright light nearly impossible, made reading very difficult, made driving dangerous (though he still drove), made everything harder.

So at 50, my father wrestled with God over what to him were the worst possible questions: What had he done to deserve this? What sin had he committed that brought upon him blindness, uselessness, encroaching poverty, inadequacy? As he said it (many times), “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t run around, I don’t gamble. Why, God? Why me? Why us?”

I don’t think the answers ever came.

We continued on as a family, cutting expenses and tightening our budget, eliminating household utilities that others probably considered necessities.  My dad cooked (he was an amazing cook) and did laundry and met me at the bus stop after school.  He still mended his own socks (as he’d been taught in the Army) and picked away at songs on his guitar or harmonica and wielded his chain saw with mastery. We listened to Pirates baseball games together on the radio or TV on hot summer nights as tree frogs and crickets created such a chorus from the trees around us that we had to put the volume on high. I was daddy’s girl, just as I’d always been.

But my dad wasn’t the same anymore. That gregarious, talkative, personable man shrunk down into his shell of pain and irritation and bitterness and darkness and watched as many of the bright spots of his life faded before his eyes.

By the time I was a teenager, the marital strain was painfully obvious. It was joint blame for sure, for my mom’s loyalty to her older children above her current husband led to bad fights and a lot of screaming and a hateful anger which took up residence in our house and didn’t leave. Their intimacy crumbled, their working lives crumbled, and their drive to be something useful to the world fell apart as well.

By the time I went to college, I’d learned to appreciate the love and energy my parents had poured into me – on that score, they were still united. But my dad’s bitterness and soul-darkness did not break until my mom died.

That’s probably a story best left for another day. 

around this time, a few years ago….

…. I was celebrating my 18th birthday, having just graduated from high school.

My parents and I on the night of my high school graduation.
My parents and I on the night of my high school graduation.

This photo is rare for a few reasons.  One, the reality of anyone over the age of 15, every photo from my pre-digital age is still packed in a box somewhere. So I have to resort to bootleg pictures-of-a-picture taken with my cellphone because I don’t own a scanner and who has time to send this stuff off to Wal-Mart?

Secondly, we weren’t a huggy, feely, photo-taking family.  I owned a small camera and shot pictures all the time — well, as much as I could when film was $2-3 a can and developing cost at minimum $6 for the super-cheap 3×5 prints you could get through the mail, and $7-9 at a drugstore counter.  I didn’t have a huge film budget, so I had to make those images count.  Taking photos of my parents didn’t really occur to me. I lived with them…. I mean, like, duh.

Thirdly, my dad just didn’t “do” pictures.  He didn’t “do” suits either.  He’d owned a suit and some sport coats about 10 years before this photo was taken …. but then he’d lost half his sight, his job, and any reason to dress up from time to time. In fact, his woodcutting beefed up his entire torso, so none of his sport coats would have fit anyway.

Someone gave my dad a suit. I don’t remember how it happened, exactly … if the person had actually handed my dad money he would have bought groceries with it.  Suits were a lavish waste of resources when he had a family to feed and too little income to do it.  But I do remember helping my mom pick out that tie, wondering whether Dad would like it, or even consent to wear it.  I guess the benefactor gave the money to Mum, and she and I shopped together.

Anyway, sorry for the digression ….   Dad, in this photo, looks almost nothing like the mental image that’s burned into my memories.   To really be Zeke, he needs to be wearing Dickies pants (in brown) and a plain pocket t-shirt, and a black ball cap that’s seen too many years of working in the sun. His shoes need to be steel-toed work boots, and he really ought to have a pair of work gloves sticking out of his back pocket.

And a smile.

My parents both had wonderful smiles, wonderful laughs.  You wouldn’t know it from this photo, though. 😉

Maybe they were feeling what all parents of high school graduates must be feeling: My word, when did our baby grow up?! 

The rhododendrons would be blooming, just to the right of where this photo was taken. The azaleas in front of the school / church building would be blazing in their orange-coral glory. The irises (“flags,” my mom called them, because they were up in time for Flag Day) would be budding, preparing for a glorious show of color.

It was late May. That evening I would don a white graduation gown (the boys wore kelley green) and tassel and honor cords and give a valedictorian speech. A speech about pressing on, moving forward, getting ready for an exciting new stage of life. Don’t hold back.  My principal asked me twice to tone down my “Yeah! We’re done!” rhetoric. I didn’t really understand that request, and I still don’t. The whole point of commencement is to start something.  I knew the meaning of the word.

More years ago than I’d like to admit 😉 I commenced a life that has been rich and good, though often unexpected.  I’ve been joined in the journey by a man who loves God and loves me, and I walk the road with friends for whom I care deeply.

So as I come to another turning of the sun, another birthday (shout-out to Bob Hope and JFK and Patrick Henry, who share my natal day), I’d like to think I’ve got a few more great decades ahead to explore and experience life under the sun.

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The Backstory: What’s your earliest memory?

My Backstory series offers stories about my upbringing and background. You can find the whole series under the category “Biography,” if you’re interested.
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I don’t know about you, but my earliest memories stretch back pretty early.  I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I have fuzzy memories of being 2.  For sure, I recall events from when I was 3.

Not unsurprisingly, my earliest memories center on strong emotions, usually negative ones.  But most of these stories are funny nonetheless.

For example, every older sibling can remember the ball and chain of watching a little brother or sister.  I’m sure it’s a drag. I’ve never had to do it. 🙂  I do remember belong left in the care of Brother #2 when both of my parents were at work during summer months – I’m sure it made perfect sense to my parents that they not pay someone to babysit me if they had a perfectly capable teenage boy at home to take care of it.

Of course, that wouldn’t have been as simple as it sounded.  I have two striking memories – mostly just images – from those brotherly babysitting sessions.

The first involves me wandering outside by myself bawling because I woke up, found my parents gone, and stumbled out the back door to find them. The vehicles were gone, and I must’ve assumed that I was abandoned.  lol   Brother #2 was dead asleep – teenage boys aren’t known for being early risers — but he finally found me outside and I guess it got sorted out.  I’d cried myself into fits.

The much funnier story involves the first curse word I ever learned.  My parents weren’t curing people …. even when my dad was furious and yelling, he didn’t curse.  Not anymore, not after he got saved, or at least never in my hearing.

Brother #2, who was probably 16 or 17 at the time of this memory, was home babysitting me (again) when he had some reason to call something shit. Shit is a fantastic word — it starts with a sibilant, ends with a  hard consonant, and works great in rhymes. My brain has always hoarded words, and my tongue quickly picked up that one.

I was walking around the upstairs enjoying the taste of the word when Brother #2 tackled me.  His intensity frightened me and I immediately started to cry.  “Don’t ever say that again! Never! I don’t ever want to hear you say that!  That’s a dirty word! A bad word!”

The memory is all red and black in my mind – I am not making this up.   I can see the room, the moment, my brother’s shadowy outline (my memories and dreams rarely capture full details).  The shadows are deep black; the highlights in the room are red.  When I was old enough to spell and recognize words, my brain tagged the visual tones of this memory to the word – even today, if you say the word shit, I will see a word in bold black sans-serif type against a deep red background, with the ghostly outlines of my childhood house lurking in the corners.

I was too scared by his reaction to say the word to my parents, which is (I’m sure) his motive for freaking out like he did — the only way I’d know a “bad word” would be if I learned it from my brother, and he knew my dad would lay into him.  Honestly, I think it’s a hilarious moment.

Some memories are borrowed from later storytelling — as family lore enters the minds of the next generations from hearing tales repeated at family gatherings and big dinners.  I am too young to really remember wandering the field on our property in tandem with our friendly golden retriever Brownie, but my dad loved to tell how he’d lose sight of me in the tall grass — but he wasn’t worried because Brownie was barking happily and the grasses and field flowers swayed as our trail rippled through the field.  I’m not sure what happened to Brownie; my memories of him don’t go past 3 or 4 years old.   But I’m pretty sure my dad ranked that memory of me as one of his favorites.

My brothers, perhaps as “payment” from my parents for dragging them up to the mountain to live, got a horse. Apparently this was the meanest, orneriest horse ever to reside on our hill, because nobody could ride the damn thing.  It had a name; I can’t recall.   But if you want to get my brothers laughing hard enough to snort their beer, let them tell you about the time Bruce, the Martin boy – who’d grown up around horses and figured he knew enough to break the animal – found himself lying on the ground after the horse took a direct beeline for a Y-shaped tree and scraped him off!

(The horse was sold; the field lay fallow; I apparently wandered it as a toddler and then the forest retook its own ground — you’d have no idea today that the area had ever been cleared.)

Brother #1 has always been interested in guns and hunting. He made friends with Eugene who lived a few hundred yards down the road, and they made their own fun on most days.  At one point they ordered a fancy scope from a gun magazine and hooked it to large caliber rifle that my brother always called “an elephant gun.”  They took their beast rifle out to test out the scope and the recoil shook the scope to pieces.  Apparently the company hadn’t expected teenage boys in Pennsylvania to shoot elephant guns? lol

My memories of home life accumulate rapidly by the time I’m 4….  I remember my dad finishing our house on his 2 days off each week, with me as “helper” …..

I recall lying down on the seat of his 1964 Ford pickup truck for naps, wrapped in a quilt that used to have a name, cradling a beloved red yarn octopus (that I named “Octopus,” of course) …

I definitely remember playing with our friendly black lab that my dad named “Governor Shapp.” (“Laziest dog I ever saw….just like the governor,” Dad would tell people, getting in a zing against the late 70s Pennsylvania governor.)

Governor (the dog) and my dad played a game — the dog would steal my dad’s work gloves or hat when my dad “wasn’t looking,” then he would chase him around the yard and I would help or laugh or both.

Someone stole the dog one day, and that was the end of my dog ownership.  We were a cat family, really.  But it always hurt my dad’s heart that someone would steal a dog…..

Mountain life was hard on animals. I probably won’t post those stories- nobody really cares about my cat tales. But dad buried a lot of animals on a corner of the property.  ….We lost a whole pile of “outside” cats one winter when they drank antifreeze that had spilled as my dad was prepping our truck for sub-zero weather that night.  Cats love antifreeze; drawn to it like moths to flame. But it poisons them and they die a pretty sad death within a day.    …. Then there’s the black cat who crawled up into the truck motor to warm up; nobody knew he was there and the fan belt took off most of his tail.  He was a much wiser cat after that.

But I promised I wouldn’t get into the cat stories.

What’s your earliest memory?

 

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.
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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.

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.
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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: I hate geese. it’s probably my mom’s fault.

I have a lot more memories of my mom’s family:  her older sister Phyllis and younger siblings “Buck” and Jo Ann.  They all gathered for holidays at Buck & Dotty’s house outside Scottdale.   Only my mom and Buck had kids, so there weren’t many cousins to play with; in contrast, my dad’s Catholic family produced billions of cousins but he never went to family gatherings so I barely know any of them.  But I digress.

Mom was a lot more connected to her family in general.  The old “home place” (family farm, on her mom’s side) lay outside Scottdale in a pretty rolling valley.  The old white farmhouse was built like so many of those turn of the century houses — big square rooms, plaster walls and ceilings, interesting staircases tucked in strange places (that house had a tight small staircase connecting the back of the kitchen to the upstairs), and a coal stove in the earthen cellar.

I never knew either of my grandmothers, and my mom’s dad was the only grandparent I actually remember.  (My dad’s dad died in the mid 60s, a decade before I came along. His mom passed away a couple months before I was born.  Mom’s mom lived long enough to hold me in her arms before succumbing to breast cancer.)

But I did know many of my great aunts and uncles on mom’s side.  Uncle Art presided over the home place in conjunction with his wife Emma Jean. (Pronounce it quickly: Emma-Jeannn)  Art suffered from “black lung” after a career as a miner, but smoked anyway and drank lots of Stoneys (a local beer brand from Smithton, PA, just down the road).

We went over there a lot — a couple times a month, it seems, and especially on Sunday afternoons if we weren’t hanging out with my grandfather who lived till I was 12.  The home place was interesting as far as places go, but there were few kids around and Art was too old to want to do anything except smoke shirtless on the porch (summer) or watch tv at head-splitting volumes (all other seasons) in the front room.

For me, as a kid, the most significant feature of the property wasn’t the historic house and barn, the old outhouse that stood as a reminder of primitive plumbing that served the house well into the 60s, or even Emma Jean’s good homemade food. (She seemed to make egg noodles a lot, I remember.)

No, what stuck out to me was the watch-goose.

See, I really don’t like geese.  When I was 4, my parents dropped me off at a nice little daycare facility that also had a goose.  A goose which hissed and snapped and threatened.  When you’re 4 you’re eye level with the hissing beast. And that goose scared the beejeebus out of me.  No chance of me escaping into the yard!

Art and Emma Jean’s goose was no nicer. That thing was just downright mean.  We’d pull the car into a spot off the gravel driveway near the start of the walk into the house and the goose would be there, eyeing us.  She had the run of the yard and felt no need to share.  Mom always got out of the car armed with a heavy pocketbook…..  She threatened while I cowered behind her skirt and ran for the door.  I kid you not.

I can’t exactly claim a need for therapy or anything, but I still steer clear of angry waterfowl.

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