Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Memoir Supplement - Chapter Three

Guilt was big in my family and probably in most families at the time, 1930s & '40s. It was used in my "moral education" from a very early age through at least high school. I suppose an argument could be made that guilt outweighed my moral education by two to one since morality was pretty much defined by my parents rules pertaining to right and wrong and their rules reflected those of the midwest, small town culture in which we lived. There was little ambiguity, gray area or room for discussion about what being moral entailed. It was mostly aligned with puritanism with a dose of piety thrown in and topped off with a serious protestant work ethic. When the superintendent of schools in Aberdeen, South Dakota, was ticketed one night for driving under the influence he was summarily fired the next morning before breakfast and any inquiry.

In my case, one example of many is that once, when I was ten years old, my fifth grade basketball team played another team at that schools gym across town, Huron, South Dakota. The school was no more than a mile or so from where I lived and the game was probably over by 4:30 P.M. But I hung around with other kids and didn't get home until 6 P.M. or so. There was my father at the door, my first inkling I was in trouble. He sat me down in the kitchen and gave me a lecture on how irresponsible, thoughtless, insensitive and wrong I was to cause my mother such terrible worry. I knew the next usual step was that we'd go to the basement where I'd get spanked with a piece of wood of some kind. From the beginning of the lecture, tears were rolling down my face. I couldn't have felt worse. I just wanted Dad's words to stop and the spanking to begin because it wouldn't hurt nearly as badly as the lecture.

My Dad, Theodore (Ted) W. Sr., was not a mean man at all. He was the oldest of four boys in his family and as such took very seriously the tacit responsibility that often goes with that birth order rank. He was big, strong. handsome, popular, outgoing, sang in the Elks Chorus, went to church every Sunday, was devoted to my Mom, my sister, Rosemary, and me. He loved sports, had been a football player until he blew out his knee in college. At the time they had no way to repair the damage so he had to live with a very loose, painful knee. He worked hard, leaving home as early as 5:30 A.M. and working until 6 P.M or later in those dust bowl ravaged, harsh depression days.

In spite of my lurking fear of him, my Dad was my hero. I idolized him and more than anything, I wanted to please him though it seemed I seldom did until I became an All State football and basketball player in high school though the effort to please him took some of the fun out of playing sports. As I said in Memoir Two, Dad's temper had a short fuse and he was constantly stressed, anxious about his job and taking care of us. As I also said earlier Dad worked for a big wholesale company that supplied grocery stores all over the midwest in those days before big chain stores. It was a dicey business and no matter how good he was at his work, or maybe because he was good at it, Dad got transferred from one branch to another without any say in the matter so the family was in constant flux.

Dad never complained, at least in my hearing, and he drilled into me the conviction that being tough meant never complaining. From a very early age, I must have sub-consciously realized I'd never be the man I believed my father was and that weighed on me. It wasn't until many years later that I realized my father wasn't the man I believed he was either. No one could be. I had to break down emotionally and get a lot of therapy before I was able to see (squint at) Dad more wholly, and so accept, love and be grateful for the very good man he was.

My Mom, Bess, as I wrote earlier, seemed fragile though she really wasn't, which was confusing. She was very beautiful, gracious but quite shy, a somewhat strange combination. She had her ways of getting her way: a grim sigh, pursed lips, a steely look, teary eyes, the flare of a nostril, the ominous sound of her silence. Unquestionably she was the fuel, fulcrum and shaper of the family. It was she who tended the scrapes and cuts of our bodies and the sprains and bruises of our egos and emotional crises and was the consoler of us all, sometimes to an excess that frequently made me feel ashamed and squeamish.

And yet, despite her manifest strengths, Mom was curiously lacking in self-confidence. It's beyond knowing for sure what caused that deficiency or the sadly futile ways she tried to camouflage it. I do know her lack of confidence, as well as her compensations for it, were contagious and personally infected my sister and me, which makes trying to sort out the what and why of it is especially relevant to me. Was it the result of her small town upbringing? Was it the traditionally and legally designated subordinate position of women when she was a young since she was already 18 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed giving women the right to vote? Was it society's widely held assignment of women to the role of wife, mother and homemaker? Was it her accepting for herself the embedded myth of male superiority? Or did it result from from the deep influence of her little church which espoused women's deference as a virtue and element of faith?

Squinting back at her now, I see her lack of confidence probably came most seriously and sadly from the religious factor but includes some combination of all of the other possibilities with that of her church being the most significant and permanent. Of course, there could have been other less identifiable causes as well. In any case, my Mom used to tell us that when she had trouble with arithmetic in school - i.e. why 1/3rd was more than 1/4th when 4 was more than 3 - she would tell herself the her confusion didn't matter because her future husband would take care of such things. And yet, she felt insecure and stupid dumb for not knowing herself.

My mother's children, her family and her church were the heartbeat of her life. She leaned toward social and political liberalism in moderate conservative, populist, midwest, though my Dad was a bit slower to come to that view. In 1940 she voted for Socialist Norman Thomas instead of F.D.R. or Wendell Willkie because Roosevelt drank, Wendell Willkie was an unknown businessman, Thomas was a Presbyterian minister and therefore must be a teetotaler. Her father, Jacob Pflug, was a strong advocate for women's education and sent his three daughters to college as well as his four sons. Mom, fourth of the seven and the oldest girl, went to Nebraska Wesleyan for two years to get her teaching certificate, and coincidently, to meet and bond with my Dad. While he finished college, she taught first through sixth grade in a one room schoolhouse. By then she must have mastered enough arithmetic to at least teach those young students.

I think my Mother also felt even more intensely lonely. guilty and inadequate because of her two miscarriages. They were loses that deeply wounded her though I knew of only the second which happened when I was four. The other one happened before I was born and I learned of it later. Both miscarriages and their consequences undermined her in subtle but painful ways which also impacted my life in ways I began to understand much later in my life but subconsciously sensed as a child. That also involved looking back from the different angles of time and reflection.

Her work was to be a mother and homemaker because there really weren't many other viable options and she was as good at that one as it was possible for anyone to be, given the limited psychological and sociological resources available at that time. She fully invested herself in my older sister, Rosemary, and me. Clearly there were many benefits of her care. There was also a cost to us as well as to her. For Rosemary and I the cost was the burdensome, inescapable sense of owing her, of nagging indebtedness which we were expected, and somehow came to expect ourselves, to pay by shaping our selves to her expectations and not giving much weigh to our own inclinations, wishes and hopes.

For our Mom, it was the stultification of her own talents and energies about which I learned and appreciated decades later. The lesson came most forcibly when helping my parents move to another apartment in a retirement home, I found some superb paintings tucked away under their bed. She had done them as a young woman, then given up her art when she got married. I teared up looking at them. Truthfully, they helped me squint even harder to see both my Mom, and Dad, and certainly myself, in a different way than before.

What I saw was her, and more obliquely, Dad's, unfortunate, misdirected and ill-fated longing which had sadly constricted her life. That misdirected longing not only squeezed their lives but burdened those of their daughter and son. Of course, Dad in his own way, and Mom in hers, blessed us with their work, provision, devotion, spirit, attention along with a good sense of values and helpful lessons. Her life, and his, were gifts to us.

The painful and somewhat debilitating glitch in their gifts was the implied expectation that Rosemary and I return their investment in us by being and doing what they wanted us to be and do. They were misguidedly trying to fulfill through us their disappointed dreams for their own lives. We could not do that, hard as both of us tried. Given what I believe longing is, namely a permanently unfulfilled primal link to God, no human being can do that for another, or even completely for themselves, common as that subtle expectation is in our human relationships.

For many years, the effort my sister and I made to meet Mom and Dad's expectations resulted in frustration, anxiety, guilt and grief that lasted for years. The irony is that it was the gift of their mutual courage, faith, spirit and unspoken but implicit belief that help me see I could be my own version of the quality of persons they wanted so much, that finally helped me, at least, squint and see them and my self more wholly and begin to lay down some of the burden she inadvertently put on me. In her own, different way, my sister did the same.

For now, I add this final word, about which I'll no doubt write more later. One way I tried to meet particularly my Mom's expectation for me was to become a minister. I didn't want to go in that direction and resisted in whatever way I could, but to no avail. I took as rebellious a course toward that designated outcome as I could, but take it, I did. I knew almost nothing about theological schools but assume Yale Divinity School (YDS) would be the top one since it was a department of Yale University. So I applied and, miraculously, was accepted. I got married at the end of my Junior year of my undergrad study at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and a day or two after graduating, Dory and I started for New Haven, Connecticut in a secondhand Dodge coupe with everything we owned in it. Talk about being naive. It was the beginning of a tough journey with many twists and turns.

Happily, YDS was indeed a great school and I took course of study would which lead to post-graduate study and a Ph.D. and again, was admitted to that program. To get housing and a squeak by income, I took a part-time appointment as a student minister of small church in a village near New Haven. By then we had two baby boys, Mark and David, and were expecting a third who turned out to be a little girl, Karen. Shortly after her arrival, the church began to grow because of the housing boom that turned farms and orchards into suburban sub-divisions. The church needed a full-time pastor, asked me to take the job with better pay and I agreed, thinking I could just take a break from my studies for a year or two and then go back to my Ph.D. program and plan to teach college. I persuaded myself that only temporarily would I be… what else, a minister? Two years later, we had another boy, Tom, and any thought of going back to finish a Ph.D. completely faded. Within a few months, I had a terrible emotional breakdown and began several years of therapy. That turned out to be a seminal, life changing experience to which I'll return to expand on later.

That was over fifty years ago. I always say, rightly, that I became a minister because that's what my Mother wanted me to be. But that isn't the complete story, is it? The rest of the truth is that I may not have wanted to be a minister but, obviously, I didn't want to do something else enough to stand my ground against becoming one. Squinting back now, I see that outcome was not a huge mistake. I became a pretty good minister if a somewhat unconventional one, making every effort to not be phony or hypocritical in the process and sometimes paying a price for it. It was worth it!!

The mystery of it is that someone, or Someone, squinted, perhaps through my Mom's eyes along with some others along the way, and saw me as someone who could serve better in unsought calling and larger purpose in ministry than in any other way. It's safe to say that I never thought for a minute that being a minister was what or who I longed to be and it was misguided for my Mom, and secondarily, my Dad, to feel that my being one would satisfy her or their longing, or after all these years, satisfy my own. But one thing I've learned over those years is that longing abides beyond all attempts to satisfy it and is the mysterious whisper of God to pay attention to it, and the Eternal Father-Mother of us all.

1 comment:

  1. there is so much raw honesty and beauty in this post. i'm typing w/ one hand b/c i broke my wrist.

    as one who has also needed therapy (don't we all?), i can appreciate the difficulty of this see and accept and expand this image of our parents, and ultimately, ourselves