You probably know I am experimenting by writing my blog as a book entitled The Longing Way Home. That means each post will be one chapter of the book with a second post being part of a Memoir that accompanies the preceding post/chapter.
It also means that my Blog's Posts are long and, hopefully, challenging and helpful as well as thoughtful and spiritual. Any and all comments, questions and suggestions are welcome, indeed invited, and I will respond to them in the best and most direct way I am able. Thanks for hanging in with me and thinking as well as feeling about it. Faithfully, Ted Loder
MEMOIR Supplement = Chapter One
Childhood memories are usually fragmentary and sporadic rather than coherent narratives. They bear little clear meaning apart from their singular intensity. Only later, upon recall and refection, do those remembered incidents yield clues of their significance and their influence on your life.
My Dad was a salesman and manager for a large, Midwest wholesale grocery company called Nash Finch. It was during the Great Depression and my Dad was stalked by the terror of losing his job. Like sheet lightning in the prairie sky, his depression terror would flash through the family bullying us toward cover. That was a common experience because in those grim days, everyone who had a job was constantly worried about losing it. Migrant hobos in wrinkled, stained suits and frayed shirts often knocked on the backdoor asking for food in exchange for doing a chore. My kind hearted Mom would give them a small peanut butter sandwich.
Whenever Dad was transferred, we moved. It always happened just after Christmas near the first of the company’s fiscal year, which unfortunately came at the middle of the school year. That made those moves even harder for me. Leaving familiar surroundings and friends made me increasingly anxious as I was growing up. The challenge of going to different schools, finding new friends, making the sports teams, even as early as fifth or sixth grade, seemed overwhelming to me as we moved from Crawford, Nebraska, where I was born, to Clinton, Iowa, to Huron, South Dakota, then across town in Huron which meant changing schools, then to Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Finally, on my fourteenth birthday, June 10, 1944, after my Dad resigned from Nash Finch, we left Aberdeen, drove west to Milwaukie, Oregon, a town bordering Portland, where we moved into a rooming house and Dad joined his father in a small insurance agency. By then anxiety had become my constant companion, the worry that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I’d be rejected or have some awful thing happen to me. My sister, Rosemary, was four years older, talented, beautiful, socially gifted and effervescent, handled those moves much better than I did. She was definitely the life of the potluck party family dinner table, sharing what seemed to me every boring detail of her day’s events and conversations. I always ducked and loved her from afar.
Gradually, I slipped to the outskirts of the family. Clinton, Iowa was a rather short stop of about 18 months on the family’s journey. And yet, I now realize two memories from that time were of critical experiences in shaping my character. The first was when I was about to start kindergarten. What I remember is seeing my Mom sprawled on the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs. She didn’t move. She told me to get a chair to stand on so I could reach the phone on the wall to call my Dad for help. She told me how to make a call and gave me the numbers to dial one at a time though I was crying and unsure.
I must have succeeded because the next fragment of the memory is being very scared as I watched my Mom being put in a red and white truck with a whirling light on top and taken away. Later, my Dad told me Mom was okay and she’d be back home soon. He said she had lost a baby who would have been my little brother and the doctor had to take care of her for a few days. I didn’t understand much except Mom was okay and I wouldn’t have a brother.
I immediately began to miss him. For years I wonder if it was my fault he was lost, that I didn’t call for help the right way, or I should have helped my Mom more. I felt sad and bewildered about it and vaguely scared without knowing why. I kept wishing for a brother. As I got older the longing for a brother transposed into urgently wanting a best friend but never seeming to find one either because we moved too quickly, or I didn’t deserve one.
Sometimes, in family gatherings, I heard references to Mom having miscarriages. I dimly realized that meant she lost babies. Had Mom lost another baby brother before I was born? I was confused and anxious about what it was all about. Where was he? What did "lost" mean? I was only sure it had something to do with me, something frightening that in someway troubled me for much of my life. It made me long for something I couldn’t have, some good I could never achieve, some peace I could never find. Something unfathomable in me was slowly making its presence felt. It still is. It is primal longing.
The second of those early experiences was another kind of initiation into the mystery of longing but in a less traumatic way. This time I was a five-year-old kindergartener. It a memory of a time near nightfall on a Christmas day after the few quite practical presents had been opened and the festive casserole dinner eaten. My slightly frazzled family was sprawled about the small living room, my sister and I on the floor, everyone quietly reflective, or perhaps just tired. It was an unusually comfortable, pleasant gathering, one commonly associated with holidays.
But slowly, then more rapidly it all changed for me. Everything began to feel very weird, unfamiliar, and remote. In part it may have been because my Mom was still recuperating from losing a baby. Or it could have reflected the Clinton was still a largely unknown town to us. Perhaps it had something to do with it being 1935 with the cloud of the great depression clinging to everything like the pervasive scent of decay and anxiety. Probably those factors did influence that experience, but not consciously. When you’re a kid, whatever your circumstances are seem normal to you.
My feeling was tinged with something like disappointment, though not exactly that. It wasn’t that I hadn’t gotten something I wanted for Christmas since I really hadn’t wanted anything special and was glad for what I did get. It wasn’t because I was unhappy about something; I wasn’t. It wasn’t because I was angry about something or worried; I wasn’t. It was just that something was missing. I couldn’t say what was missing except that it felt very important and wasn’t more of what was already there. It was just … missing. Maybe it was the brother I didn’t have because of Mom’s fall but it wasn’t that focused. It was more that something of me, or in me, or about me, was missing but at that moment I had no notion of that either. I was five years old! I got inexplicably sad. I wondered what was wrong with me.
A few nights earlier we’d gone to see a nativity scene laid out on a large hillside of an estate or farm on the edge of town. There were figures of angels and wise men and shepherds with what I thought were real sheep and maybe they were. What seemed a large number of cars were parked nearby surrounded by people commenting appreciatively on the scene. I was delighted to be there and knew, from Sunday School, what the scene us supposedly represented but that the figures themselves weren’t real. It was all like make believe play about something from long ago and far away, something somewhere out of reach of that hillside and that night. I wished I could see that somewhere, the real thing I could only imagine. Where was that? What was that? Those questions were still with me that Christmas night in my feeling of something missing. If it was real as it felt, why couldn’t we go there, see that?
I realize now that what I was feeling that Christmas night was longing, nearly overwhelming longing. Those many years ago I wouldn’t or couldn’t have called it that. That night I only knew it made my eyes tear up, a lump come to my throat and a dim sense that whatever was missing would probably stay missing and I had no idea what it was.
It was only later that I could identify what I experienced that long ago Christmas night was longing and what was missing would indeed stay missing for me, for us. I can identify it as longing because I’ve had some form of that experience nearly every Christmas of my life. In fact, I’ve come to believe that an experience of longing is one of the sacred gifts of Christmas and is close to what the celebration of Jesus’ birth is about – the stirring of longing for our truest home and for what is missing in the partiality of life, however much we might pretend or wish it to be otherwise. It’s the keen awareness of living in exile.