Saturday, January 17, 2015

MTV and Me

Author's note: This piece was originally published in the 2014 edition of Quills and Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I burst through the front door, threw my books into the doorway of my bedroom, grabbed a snack in the kitchen, and ran down the hall to the den. Settling cross-legged on the blue-shag carpet in front of the television, I grabbed the silver knob and pulled. First a click, then a hum, then static electricity crackled across the screen. I had arrived at my house a few minutes earlier after an emotionally-grueling day of sixth grade. But now that the faint image on the screen was growing vibrant, I was truly home.

Music Television had debuted the summer before my fifth-grade year, but I hadn’t become aware of it until later. Living in tiny Lovington, New Mexico, limited—or at least, delayed—my knowledge of pop culture. Our little one-screen theater showed movies months after they were released. While the kids in Lubbock, a two-hour drive away, were getting tired of E.T. and moving on, we Lovington kids were just seeing it for the first time.

So I didn’t find out about MTV because kids were talking about it at school. They weren’t. I just stumbled across it one day. It took me a while to piece together what this thing was. All day and all night, MTV showed mini-movies set to popular music. One day, I made this life-altering observation: “Oh! It’s like radio, but you can see it!”

From then on, I was hooked. I filled my afternoons with INXS, Joan Jett, The Human League, The Cars, David Bowie, A Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, The Psychedelic Furs, The Pretenders, Pat Benatar, and the Go-Go’s. I watched Michael Jackson invent pop music. Then I watched Madonna redefine it on her own terms. I watched The Police reinvent themselves with “Every Breath You Take” from their ground-breaking “Synchronicity” album. I watched for hours every day and never got enough.

I came to realize that not everyone shared my joy at this discovery. I had a friend over one day, and I turned on MTV to show her this daring new frontier. Def Leppard was crunching through “Rock of Ages,” and the lead guitarist, wearing tight white pants, was swaying his backside in front of the camera. My friend stared at it for a minute. Then she said, “My mom says rock music is from the devil,” and left the room. I kept watching as lead singer Joe Elliott swung a large, glowing Excalibur-like sword over his head as he launched into the second verse.

“If this is from the devil,” I thought, “he has pretty good taste.”

My friend’s mother wasn’t alone. As MTV’s popularity grew, so did conservative disapproval.

“MTV is destroying the very souls of our children!” I heard one pulpit-pounding preacher exclaim.

But MTV did not make me feel as though my soul were being destroyed. It actually put my soul back together. While my peers seemed to be sailing through puberty effortlessly, I remained physically and socially awkward. I was either picked on or ignored at school. I couldn’t decide which was worse. Sixth grade had not been kind to me so far.

But at home, I found solace in the flickering light that illuminated the den. Those music videos told stories that I understood. I knew the band members would never know who I was, but I knew them. Sting wasn’t just gazing into the camera in “Every Breath You Take;” he was staring straight into my soul. I might have felt powerless at school, but women like Madonna and Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox and all five of the Go-Go’s—an all-female band, for heaven’s sake—oozed empowerment and influence. When Martha Davis of The Motels sauntered through a nightclub and purred the lyrics to “Only the Lonely,” I knew she understood the isolation I walked around in every day. In this refuge glowing out of my TV, these people became my friends. School was destroying my soul. But MTV, this gateway to a new world, was where I was accepted and understood. If MTV wanted my soul, MTV could have it.

I was intrigued by Boy George’s shocking androgyny. I was mesmerized by Talking Heads’ quirky profundity. I admired Pat Benatar’s tough femininity, and I loved the way each of Duran Duran’s videos seemed to have been designed to send adolescent female hormones into a frenzy. And I could not get enough. If I uttered “Just one more video” enough times, my MTV-watching sessions could go for hours.

My parents realized how much MTV I was watching and pulled the plug by cancelling our cable subscription. I tried to land sleepovers at the houses of friends who had cable, but I missed having MTV around all the time. After my parents bought our first VCR, I discovered VHS tapes of music videos at the video store. I gleefully checked out Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” and took it home and, in an attempt to demonstrate what this medium meant to me, watched it with my dad. I didn’t realize the video shown on MTV was the “clean” version, and the one I brought home was not. This did not help my case.

But then a miracle happened. My brother was playing with the buttons on the VCR one day, and MTV suddenly illuminated the screen. We didn’t know how he had done it, but we were pretty sure we were getting MTV illegally. I didn’t care. MTV was back! And now I could fill VHS tapes with it!

For a lot of people, MTV provided entertainment. But it gave me a connection and a sense of significance. Popular music had become visual, and I felt I was more than a witness to this monumental transition in pop culture. I was a part of it. Eventually, I would go on to find meaning in things other than a music video network, and MTV would replace its 24-hour video programming with a parade of increasingly meaningless reality shows. But for 14-year-old me, curled up in front of the flickering TV set late into the night, MTV welcomed me into its world with unwavering acceptance—until I would finally turn it off and go to bed. But first, just one more video.

Left Behind

Author's note: This is an excerpt from my master's thesis, Honest to God: Confessions of a Pastor's Wife. It has also been published in the 2014 edition of Quills & Pixels, a peer-reviewed, student publication of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Writers' Network.

I started losing my dad in September 2011. One Friday morning that month, my parents, my two girls, and I set out for Huntsville, Alabama, for my cousin’s wedding. We stopped for lunch in Memphis. Mom and Dad had never been there. We walked up Beale Street, where the bars were already livening up for that night. Music poured out of open doors. Beer trucks lined the street, and men pushed dollies loaded with cases of beer around us as we walked at a slower pace. Dad took Mom’s hand as we made our way up the street. He loved music. It spoke to his soul in a deep and profound way.

“We’ll come back here and spend a weekend—just the two of us,” he told Mom.

We ended up at Hard Rock Café, where Dad and I posed for pictures on the stage. In one shot, he’s kneeling on the floor and holding a guitar by the neck with both hands high over his head like he’s channeling Jimi Hendrix. It’s a great picture.

That night, we rolled into Huntsville for a weekend of sweet celebration with Dad’s sister and her children. Her son Sid was getting married to a wonderful woman named Evelyn. They are both professional musicians, and they had gathered an ensemble of bass violins and flutes—their respective instruments—to perform at the ceremony. Sid had asked Dad, who had been forced to abandon a much-desired music career decades earlier, to conduct the ensemble. Dad did his job proudly.

After the wedding, we talked and ate and laughed and drank with the family and friends who were gathered there. Ann, my dad’s sister, was in the process of moving far from us to Sid and Evelyn’s home in Indiana. Dad and Ann knew this could be one of their last times together. They sat and laughed and clung to each other. The Alabama humidity settled on the festivities, and by the end of the evening, our faces shone and our hair drooped with the heavy moisture in the air. Someone looked at a clock, and we were all surprised that it was 1:30 a.m. It had been a beautiful night.

Less than a week later, Dad was in the hospital with double pneumonia. This diagnosis led to the discovery of interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, an inflammatory lung disorder in which fibrous tissue forms between the alveoli in the lungs. This condition is irreversible. Dad never smoked, but he did grow up on the Texas Gulf Coast, where huge refineries belch filth into the atmosphere in the name of profit. We’ll never know exactly what caused Dad’s illness. And more bad news was to come.

Dad was also diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which had been brewing under the surface until the pneumonia seemed to throw it into full force. Worst of all, accompanying the Parkinson’s was dementia with Lewy bodies. This type of dementia, caused by abnormal protein deposits that form inside the brain’s nerve cells, is characterized by confusion, hallucinations, lack of facial expression—things that had become obvious in Dad’s behavior. When he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia in early 2012, there were no medications approved by the FDA to treat it.
I never accepted that Dad’s changing personality was permanent. I thought it would somehow go away or he would learn to manage it, and then my old Dad would be back.

On Feb. 25, my seven-year-old daughter Jenna and I were gradually getting ready to go to my parents’ house. It was a Saturday morning, and we were planning to spend the day with Dad while Mom ran some errands. I had been on the phone with Mom, who said Dad had slept uncharacteristically late, and she was going to wake him up to give him his meds. Jenna and I were in no rush. I hung up the phone and plopped down on the couch for a few games of Words With Friends on my Kindle. Ten minutes later, the phone rang, and it was Mom again. Maybe she was calling to tell me to come later since he had slept so late. But I had a faint suspicion that something was wrong.
I picked up the phone, and she was sobbing. She couldn’t talk. I yelled into the phone above her sobs, “Mom! What is it?”
I could make out something about 911.

“Did you call 911, or are you telling me to call 911?” I asked her.

She had already called 911. So maybe he had fallen. Maybe his oxygen level was dangerously low.

Maybe he didn’t wake up.

I tried not to act too alarmed as I rushed Jenna into her clothes and to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor offered to go with me, but I wanted to go alone. Once I was back in the car, I realized I should have had him drive me. The people of Saline County, Arkansas, were out for their morning drives, creeping down the roads in their pickup trucks at maddeningly slow speeds. Or maybe it was just my panicked state that made everyone else seem to slow down. Tailgating them didn’t work. Neither did yelling obscenities and banging on the steering wheel. Where were the hazard lights on this car? I had never had to use them before.

I finally got to my parents’ street and saw an ambulance in front. A couple of EMTs were milling around the vehicle. They were in no hurry. I parked half a block away and ran the rest of the way. The front door was open, and there was Mom. Weeping, she reached for me.
After running down the hall to Dad’s room, I was confused to find his bed empty. Then I nearly tripped over the bulging sheet on the floor. The EMTs had moved him there to try to revive him. I collapsed on the floor next to him.

When I was four years old, my family was getting ready to leave for our summer vacation. Summer vacation consisted of driving 14 hours from southeast New Mexico to Houston and Beaumont, Texas. We would spend one week with each set of grandparents. The week in Houston meant driving the sprawling freeways, shopping at gargantuan malls, and going to the beach. In Beaumont, I would play in my grandmother’s garden and swim in the neighborhood pool. The car was loaded, and I had run back in for one more bathroom trip before we left. As I came out of the bathroom, I fell in behind Dad, who had made one last walk through the house to check everything. I followed him to the front door and he opened it, pushed the button on the doorknob to lock it, walked outside and shut the door firmly behind him.

As the sound of the closing door shuddered through the house, I realized he had not known I was behind him. He thought I was in the car. They were going to leave me. I was going to be in this house alone for two whole weeks. I slumped against the wall, absorbing this reality and giving in to the convulsing sobs that seemed to explode out of my little body.
Suddenly, Dad burst back through the door and scooped me into his arms.
“I would never leave you,” he said. “I would never leave you.”

I heard a sobbing voice saying, “Dad… Dad…” and realized it was mine. I reached a shaking hand to the part of the sheet covering his head and started to pull it back. I saw his ear and his hairline, but I did not want to see his face. I dropped the corner of the sheet and just sat there. He really was not breathing. The oxygen machine, which had filled the house with its humming for the past five months, sat eerily silent. The only sounds were EMTs talking in hushed voices and neighbors consoling my still-sobbing mother. No one was in a hurry.
In a few minutes, I would call my husband and tell him what happened. In a few hours, I would tell my children their beloved PaPa was gone. In a few days, I would slip a plastic razor cover into his casket. But for a little longer, and for the last time, I sat with my dad.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Why I Write

I’ve been asked to be part of a blog tour. I’m not actually going anywhere; instead, I’m just blogging about a certain topic and featuring other bloggers who will write about the same topic next week. After traveling most of the summer, this is the kind of touring I like. Many thanks to my friend and editor Erin Casey for inviting me to be part of this blog tour. Please check out her blog at My Writers' Connection, and also check out Get Personal: The Importance of Sharing Your Faith Story, which is a book she just published. You will be blessed by both.

I’ve been writing since first grade, when I first tried my hand at creative writing. My teacher must have been impressed, because she told my parents I was going to grow up to be a writer. At the time, I was planning on becoming either an astronaut or a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. (My dad was really hoping that of the two, the astronaut thing would work out.)

Since first grade, I’ve written for yearbooks, newspapers, magazines, blogs, journals, radio, and other media. I even teach college students how to write. But why do I do this? Why do I write?

Here are a few of my “whys”:

I write because I don’t like not writing. When I became a stay-at-home mom in 2000, I thought I was “just” going to be a stay-at-home mom. (I put “just” in quotes because I know there is nothing “just” about being a stay-at-home mom.) I thought I would take care of my daughter, take her to the library and the park, and maybe join a moms’ group in my community. And I did all of those things. But I missed writing. I missed it so much that it surprised me. One night, I could not sleep. My 30th birthday was coming up, and thoughts were racing through my head about reaching that milestone. I finally got up and, in just a few minutes, wrote a piece reflecting on coming of age in my hometown. I sent it to my hometown newspaper, where it was printed as a guest column. That experience told me that while being a stay-at-home mom was great, I also needed to keep writing. I contacted my local newspaper and began writing features and a weekly column. I ended up writing throughout my stay-at-home-mom years. It was nice to have a little extra money, but much more importantly, it kept that part of my brain working while the rest of my brain was absorbed with play dates, Caillou and Goldfish crackers.

I write because we live in a time in which writers can be more independent than ever.
Gone are the days of having to convince a publisher or editor to publish our work to get it out to the masses. We can write, publish and promote our work with just a few clicks of a button.

I write because I am a believer in the power of the written word. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a pastor in my town decided to take Texas barbecue up to the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, where workers were going through the unimaginable task of sorting rubble from the Twin Towers. I wrote an article for the newspaper about what the pastor wanted to do, and the morning the article was printed, he was still several thousand dollars short. By noon that day, he had more than enough money to make the trip because people had read my article and flooded the pastor’s church with donations. My writing had moved people to action. This happens all the time. People read something and act, and the world can become a better place as a result. Words have power. Knowing this, how can we not write?

I write because it’s what people do. Think about it. People have been writing things down since the beginning of time. We have the Bible and other ancient texts because people have always been writers. When one of my students says, “I’m just not a writer,” I say, “Yes, you are. Because you are a person.” Writing is a central part of the human experience, and it’s something in which we ALL participate—whether we realize it or not.

I write because people have always encouraged me to. By college, my dreams of being an astronaut or Dallas Cowboys cheerleader had given way to something else (thankfully). I began writing for the campus newspaper, and it wasn’t long before I became a journalism major. One week, I had a few days off from class and drove to the town where I had gone to elementary school. My first-grade teacher—the one who predicted I would be a writer—was still teaching there. I walked into the school, showed her some of my newspaper articles and said, “You were right.” She was one of many along the way who have been supportive of my writing. If people in your life are telling you to write, listen to them.

Next week, watch for my friends Meagan McGovern and Mary Beth Picker to publish why they write. Here is a little about each of them:

Meagan McGovern is a writer, homeschooler, gluten-free chef and cat-herder extraordinaire.
She has lived all over the country but has finally found home, in a 1950s farmhouse in an idyllic town called Ferndale, Washington, complete with a barn, a silo, cows and a slew of barn cats.

She had a hideous childhood as the oldest of four girls and had a wild ride of it, marked by insane parents, horrible events, lots and lots of moving about the country, and long stretches where they all had a lot of fun. She writes a little about that, too.

Meagan used to be a writer for newspapers, and a copy editor, and she loved every minute of it. Now she blogs about farm life, having a happy childhood in your 40s, homeschooling and her son's recovery from autism.

She still loves every minute of it.

Well, OK. There are few moments involving chickens that aren't so hot. But most of it is wonderful.

She is passionate about clean food, dirty politics, thoughtful, kind parenting, growing and cooking the food you eat, homeschooling and travel.

She is not easy. She is not always on time. She channels Mrs. Weasley, Gloria Steinem and a dash of Scarlett O'Hara. She has red hair and an Irish temper and she is the messiest person you will ever meet.

She and her husband Mark have three children, a couple of cows, and goats and sheep and chickens and dogs and cats. None of them listen. Her family calls her husband "Saint Mark," and they're not far off.

She blogs about life on Stone Soup Farm at

Mary Beth Picker graduated with a BA in English from Harding University in 2003 and then returned a year later for graduate school, completing her MSE in English in 2005. She's been a life-long scribbler of words, from notebook ramblings to blog posts, though these days her scribblings are most often in the form of grocery lists. When she finds a quiet moment, she loves to blog about the things God is teaching her, but she still hasn't given up her dream of someday being a "real" writer.

She and her husband, Casey, have three young kids and are about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

Follow her blog at

Monday, February 17, 2014

When the Right Thing Means Everything

Like everyone else, I am outraged and disgusted by what has been going on at Bob Jones University. Because of BJU’s history of extreme fundamentalism and blatant racism, I’ve had issues with this so-called school long before now. But this time, I had to write.

If you are wise and usually avoid all headlines referring to BJU, let me summarize the latest news so you will know what I’m talking about. Like many institutions of higher education, BJU has an on-campus counseling center. Last year, it came to light that some students who had sought counseling there for sexual abuse that had occurred earlier in their lives were told not to report the abuse. Doing so would, if the abuser had been from a fundamentalist Christian community, harm the body of Christ, the students were told. For instance, if a young woman reported being raped by a pastor at her home congregation, exposing him would damage the cause of Christ. So it would be best to keep quiet and let him get away with it protect the body of Christ.

Christ, who stood for truth and love. Christ, whose churches are supposed to be, among other things, refuges for the lost and hurting.

Anyway, BJU initially appeared to do the right thing. They brought in Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (or Grace), a Christian consulting group that empowers Christian communities, through education and training, to recognize and respond to the sin of child abuse. The investigation was to take about a year. But last week, BJU acknowledged that just before Grace was to have concluded its investigation, BJU fired the consulting group. Stephen Jones, current BJU president and great-grandson of the school’s founder and namesake, eventually explained that “…Grace had begun going beyond the originally outlined intentions.” He has not elaborated. Meanwhile, people are outraged, and rightly so.

In eighth grade, I was attending a conservative Christian school in the South. It was not a fundamentalist school like BJU, but there were rules that our public-school friends thought were ridiculous. We couldn’t have dances. Cheerleaders had to pay extra to have their skirts made longer than they way they came from the uniform company. All school employees had to be members of the denomination with which our school was associated. We had daily chapel that was mandatory. We could not worship with musical instruments during chapel. We had a strict dress code. Girls who became pregnant had to leave. (This particular rule had an unfortunate by-product. When any girl abruptly transferred to another school, rumors spread that she was pregnant—whether she was or not.)

During the spring of my eighth-grade year, a boy who was older than me began showing me extra attention. I liked it at first, because I was suffering from that typical middle-school awkwardness and was not used to attention like that from a guy. I was 13, and when he went out of his way to talk to me, it made me feel good. Attractive, even.

One night during a function away from school, he got me alone. He wanted to touch me in ways I knew he was not supposed to. He said everyone at school was saying that my best friend and I were lesbians. If I did what he wanted, I would prove the rumors were false, he said. He was older and more popular than I was. So I believed him. And it happened more than once. I knew it wasn’t right, but as is typical, I thought it was my fault.

Eventually, I told my two closest friends. We ended up writing a series of notes about it to each other. (That’s how teens communicated in school before texting.) Someone found one of the notes, read it, and had the wisdom to take it to my parents. The boy’s dad was in a position of leadership at our school. My parents met with him and told him what they had learned. He and his wife were mortified, assured my parents it would never happen again, and made the boy apologize to me. It was a forced apology, and he was seething as he spit the words out, but I took it. I had realized he had never found me attractive, and I was feeling more horrible about myself than ever. The whole thing had been hurtful and confusing, and I just wanted it to be over. A year or so later, the boy and his family moved away.

Should more have happened? Should he have been kicked off the sports teams he was on? Suspended from school? I don’t know. What he did to me would have been impossible to prove. But what did happen was that truth came to light. There was confrontation. There was acknowledgement that what the boy did was wrong. There was an apology.

And all of these things were right and should have happened.

You can have a conservative Christian school with uptight rules. And that conservative Christian school can respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. If an institution is truly seeking to follow Christ, doing the right thing will be the only option.

Bob Jones University is completely indefensible. The school’s leaders have no excuse. If BJU wants to show that Christ is truly its focus, its leaders will respond to this tragic situation in a Christ-like way, the way my own school did.

Responding in truth and humility is BJU’s only option. If the school’s leaders fail at this, BJU can remain open and function as a college. But they need to remove all references of Christ and Christianity from the school’s identity. Because the way they have gone and are going is not the way of Christ.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Honest to God: An Accidental Minister's Wife

Like me, my mother didn’t know she was marrying a future minister. When she married my dad, he had an accounting degree and worked in banking. There’s a photo of them at a charity event in the mid-’60s. My dad is in a tux and my mom is wearing an evening gown. Her hair is up in a fashionable '60s style and her smile reveals a row of perfect teeth. Both my parents look like movie stars. To me, this photo is a glimpse into a life that I never knew—before my dad went into the ministry and my parents’ social standing took a significant hit. I never knew if my mother resented trading in those society evenings for teaching the toddlers’ Bible class in the church nursery and hosting all those church bridal and baby showers. As I remember, she adapted to the role of minister’s wife well. Everywhere we lived, she made friends with church women, and she gladly hosted youth group gatherings at our house. If she ever felt that her individuality was being stifled or that she couldn’t be genuine with people because of my dad’s job, she never showed it.

During the early years of my childhood, Mom was a homemaker who sewed and organized playgroups with the other young mothers at church. But years later, I would learn about the enormous pressure she sometimes encountered. At my dad’s second church, he was the associate minister. This was an ambiguous title that, in this case, meant he did everything but preach. Visiting the sick, organizing the youth group program, coordinating Bible classes from infant through adult—all of this and more fell on his shoulders. My brother and I were eight and four, and my mother was at home with us every day and most evenings. When their marriage began to suffer under the strain, she realized she had no one to confide in. Her closest friends were church members, and what if they knew the associate minister and his wife were having marriage problems? After all, their children were in the Sunday school classes he was coordinating and teaching. So when my dad came home at night, my mom would put my brother and me to bed, get in the car, and drive the streets of our neighborhood, silent tears streaming down her face. Eventually she would come home, and get up the next morning to start another day. We stayed at that church only two years. When we moved away, I thought we were off on another adventure. But now I know my parents were trying to escape an incredibly stressful situation with their sanity and marriage intact.

By the time we moved to my dad’s fourth church, Mom seemed to get restless. She began working as a substitute in the public schools, and after we moved to the next town, she went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree in education—just as I was beginning fourth grade. I noticed something that unnerved me at the time. For the first time, my mom was enthusiastic about something that didn’t have to do with home or church. She loved school. She came home from class and spoke endlessly about projects, professors, and her career options for the future. At her graduation, she was presented with the Dean’s Award for her academic achievement.

Mom taught first grade for several years before getting her master’s degree. As I was entering college, she became an elementary-school principal. At the time, I thought she had simply done what a lot of women had begun doing in the ’70s by pursuing her own academic and professional interests. But she was also following a trend that had been predicted by Shirley Foster Hartley in the Review of Religious Research in 1978. Hartley had conducted a study in which 448 clergy wives from six mainstream Protestant denominations were asked 138 questions regarding their satisfaction with being married to pastors (Hartley 178). The study found that the wives’ satisfaction levels increased with higher education levels and employment. As for the idea that clergy wives should strive to be nothing more than model homemakers, Hartley found clergy wives moving toward fulfillment outside the home.
Overall satisfaction tends to… decrease with the average hours of housework reported by these respondents. The myth of the joys of homemaking is exploded even for (or especially for) those who might be expected to be most fulfilled in those tasks (Hartley 186).
As the study found more satisfaction in pastors’ wives who embraced their own individuality rather than finding identity in their husbands’ ministerial roles, Hartley predicted that clergy wives would continue to gradually shift away from the roles traditionally expected of them.

Greater variety in acting out the role of ‘minister’s wife is to be expected in the future. Not one stereotypical pattern, but many possibilities within the general role are anticipated… As clergy wives have been in a most extreme, stereotypical, traditional, wifely role in American society, they can be expected to move only slowly into the more individualistic roles (Hartley 189).

Years before this article was published, my grandmother—the proud preacher’s wife—had done her part to break the mold of the stereotypical ministers’ spouse. Having never found much fulfillment in homemaking, Annie operated a private kindergarten in her home and worked as a newspaper columnist. She volunteered for the Red Cross at the local hospital’s emergency room, where she picked up a thorough knowledge of first aid. The house she shared with my grandfather sat at an intersection where car accidents were frequent, and the sound of screeching tires and crunching metal would send her into action. It was typical for my grandfather to step out of his home office into the living room to find the couches and chairs occupied by bleeding accident victims who, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, had been bandaged up by my grandmother. Annie was busy with church life, too, but something led her to create a life and identity outside of church. By the late ’70s, the ship of clergy wives’ changing roles was beginning to set sail, and my mother had jumped on board by going back to college, finishing her degree, and starting a career. In creating a life for herself outside of church and my dad’s job, she carved out her own individuality. I didn’t think much about it back then. But my grandmother’s and my mother’s examples would one day help guide me away from an unseen monster of my own.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Honest to God: Sister Hamby

When you are the youngest of your grandparent’s grandchildren, and the only one of them to have reproduced, you can count on at least one thing. One day, several boxes will arrive at your house. Boxes of stuff. Stuff that your cousins believe should be passed down to future generations of the family. Two weeks before Christmas in 2012, this happened to me. I thought my cousin had gone overboard on Christmas presents for my family until I opened the boxes. And there it all was. Photos and letters and yearbooks from my grandmother’s side of the family. There seems to be a genetic tendency in my family to attach emotional value to inanimate objects, and these boxes were filled with supporting evidence. There was even a yellow wire hanger with a note from my cousin attached: “Meemaw took this with her to college in the 1920s, and I took it to college with me in the ’70s. I wish you could have taken it to college with you so the tradition could have been continued.”

A wire hanger. I’ll never know if my grandmother intended for this object to become a cherished family heirloom when she hung it in her dorm room closet in 1925.

Annie Bryan Whittington Hamby, my grandmother, died in 1996. I knew her as a physically-frail, but mentally-sharp, white-haired wisp of a woman. She weighed 88 pounds the year she turned 88, which made her the only person I ever knew to weigh her age. After my grandfather died, Meemaw spent her last years in a retirement center, where she made a host of friends and even had a couple of boyfriends. The Old Testament speaks of the woman who “… laughs at the days to come” (Proverbs 31:25), and that was my Meemaw. A sweet, devout Christian woman who wore white every day to honor my late grandfather, who had loved that color on her, she also had a wicked sense of humor. My dad and I took her out to lunch one day, and, when she tried to tell us about something funny that had happened at the retirement center, she dissolved into a fit of giggles that rendered her teary-eyed and breathless as my dad and I stared at her from across the table—unsure if we should join in laughter or administer CPR.

In the spring of 1996, Meemaw went into the hospital with complications from congestive heart failure, which she had fought for years. She nearly died during that stay, and when hospital personnel ignored her DNR and revived her, she was mad. She had been blessed with a good life and, like my Peepaw, she was ready to go. That August, she returned to the hospital. As she began to slip away again, my aunt called out to her, but Meemaw would not let anyone stop her from dying again. This sweet, funny, and determined Christian woman opened her eyes, said, “You talk too much,” and was gone.

As I lifted large brown envelopes out of the boxes and slid their contents onto the floor in front of me, I didn’t see my Meemaw. I saw Annie, a young, optimistic woman—one for whom becoming a grandmother was a lifetime away. In these photos, Annie and her three sisters are children growing up on their farm in Glenmora, Louisiana. Then they are teenagers who wore the shorter dresses and bobbed hairstyles of the ’20s. Annie’s smile shines through the grainy quality of the aged photos. She had been the first young woman in their rural Louisiana town to cut her hair short, a decision that prompted the family’s preacher to visit her parents out of concern for her soul. Her sharp eyes and knowing smile reveal that, while she did all the “right” things, like going to college and marrying a good Christian man, she didn’t mind shocking people now and then. Her college photos are my favorites. At Louisiana State Normal School (now Northwestern State University of Louisiana) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Annie edited the campus newspaper and seemed to have a myriad of friends. Her father died during this time, and one of her yearbooks is full of notes of sympathy from her classmates. I knew her father had been an alcoholic, and that his death may have been related to this, but there was no mention of his drinking problem in the contents of these boxes. During these years, her eyes were bright, her hair was short, and her smile was daring and genuine. Within the next several years, she would become the wife of an accountant/preacher and the mother of two just as the Great Depression strengthened its chokehold on the economy. But in the late ’20s, her future was a crisp, blank page.

I think Meemaw was proud to be a preacher’s wife. After she and my grandfather settled at South Park Church of Christ in Beaumont, she was known to everyone as “Sister Hamby.” Traditionally, preachers’ wives are expected to be fabulous cooks, but this was not Meemaw. She had suffered from a number of illnesses as a child and was kept out of the kitchen so she could rest while her sisters did the work. So she never really learned to cook, and she did buck the minister’s wife stereotype in that way. But with her high moral standards and careful attention to her family’s image, she clung to it in other ways. Meemaw believed the families of church leaders should set examples for parishioners’ families.

This was a common school of thought in mid-20th Century church culture, and not just in the Church of Christ. As the nation thrived in post-war prosperity, pastors’ wives were upheld as ideal wives, mothers, and supporters of their husbands. In 1946, San Francisco Theological Seminary hosted a Presbyterian ministers’ wives’ conference that concluded:
… a foremost qualification of a minister’s wife is that she should preside over a well-ordered attractive home. Furthermore, she should be a woman who takes the time, forethought, and care necessary to insure good health for her husband, her children, and herself (Boyd and Brackenridge 83).

While I’m relieved—and somewhat surprised—that this edict includes the admonition for the pastor’s wife to take care of herself, the rest of it is troubling. It’s natural for wives and mothers to take care of their families, so I’m not sure why this had to be spelled out for ministers’ wives by a convention. And the “well-ordered attractive home” was not limited to the minister’s wife’s physical dwelling. Implied here is the idea that her family and life should be well-ordered, clutter-free, and—what no one had to say aloud—perfect.

People seem to find security in these stereotypes, so they have staying power. In the 1970s and ’80s, the ministers’ wives I knew outside my family during my childhood still seemed to fit these expectations. There was Sister Stevens, who always appeared at church with everything in order—from her hair to what her four children wore. At another church, there was Sister Tyson, who doted on her pretty teenage daughter and opened her immaculate home for youth group events. Another church was led by a preacher whose wife, Sister Cauley, was a sweet, loving soul who would let me sit on a barstool in her kitchen while she shared sunflower seeds, her favorite snack, with me. I never saw her without a smile. But looking back, I know now that these women’s families and marriages were far from perfect. Sister Stevens’ husband was controlling and insisted his wife have dinner on the table by a certain time every day. Sister Tyson’s husband had remained in his pastoral role past retirement age, and the church members were getting frustrated with his refusal to step down—criticism that had to have reached her ears. And Sister Cauley’s husband shocked everyone when, after 30 years of marriage, he left her for his secretary.

As for Meemaw, I know her life wasn’t perfect, either. There was tension and pressure and arguments—just as there are in every family. I guess I’ll never know how she coped with the pressure. Even if she were still alive, I doubt I would have the nerve to ask her.

The last time I spoke to my grandmother, she was in the hospital and nearing the end of her life. I pulled a chair up next to her bed and took her hand in mine.

“Meemaw,” I told her. “Chad has decided to become a minister.”

She managed a weak, but classic, Annie smile. She was proud.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Honest to God, Part V

My dad’s mind worked a lot like his father’s had, but my dad was a different kind of minister. Having grown up in an ultra-conservative church environment, Dad grew so disillusioned with the church that, as a young adult, he considered leaving it altogether. But once he discovered how much faith could thrive when the bonds of legalism were removed, he hoped to inspire young people to foster a healthy view of God and faith. Dad carried this vision with him as he entered youth ministry. He was the accessible minister, the one teens could talk to when their parents failed to understand them. And he was funny. When people were standing around my dad after church services, they were laughing. But still, while he was a minister to them, he was Dad to me.

Dad was an “old” dad—35 when I was born. Growing up, I got used to hearing, “Deana, your grandpa is here to pick you up.” At his college reunions, some of his former classmates already had grandchildren while I was still hoping for the Barbie Dream House for Christmas. He was a good ten years older than the fathers of kids my age. In a way, he was my very own, less-bookish Atticus Finch. When I was little, I loved watching him shave. He used an electric razor and the sound of it brought me running every morning. Standing in the bathroom watching Dad move the buzzing gadget all around his face, I would slowly reach a hand into his razor case and snatch the plastic razor cover. Hiding it behind my back, I giggled as Dad finished shaving, clicked off the razor, and reached into the case for the plastic cover. He pretended to be surprised that it wasn’t there and I thrust it out to him, laughing at my own sneakiness. I continued this throughout my childhood and, as an adult, would still run into the bathroom and snatch the cover while he was shaving. When Dad gave me away at my wedding, I handed him a plastic razor cover that I had hidden in my bouquet. He seemed taken aback, and then smiled and put it in his pocket. I found out later that he had one in his pocket to give me at that moment and was caught off guard when he realized I’d had the same idea.

During my childhood, I felt a kinship with Dad. He had been the youngest in his family, so when my older brother hurt my feelings, I knew Dad understood me. He was the cool dad who made all my friends laugh. While my friends’ dads stayed hidden behind newspapers at their houses, my dad followed my friends and me around our house, playing his ukulele and singing, “Five-foot-two, eyes of blue, but, oh! What those five foot could do, has anybody seen my GAAAAL!” I inherited his sense of humor, and we shared a restlessness that comes from the urge to always question things, to keep searching for meaning yet to be found, and lessons yet to be learned.

As I got into my teen years, Dad and I began to clash a little. He had been a teenager in the ’50s, and, even though he worked with teens and tried to relate to kids my age, ’80s teen culture sometimes mystified and alarmed him. But he still tried, and I think I made a little progress in my quest to convince him that Madonna wasn’t as evil as he thought she was. We survived my teen years, which included Dad being my youth minister. Then I went away to Abilene Christian University, which was then a somewhat progressive Church-of-Christ college in Abilene, Texas. In the middle of my junior year, my parents called with shocking news. Consistent with a pattern in conservative Churches of Christ across the nation at the time, the membership at our church in Beaumont was dwindling. With more elderly people than families with young children, the church elders could no longer justify the need for a youth minister. So they had to let my dad go. My dad was no longer a minister, and I was no longer a minister’s kid. After a rough year financially, my dad started another career—this time in funeral sales. “I don’t get as much backtalk in this job,” he joked.

Dad had been burned out on ministry for years by that point, and I think his forced vocation change came as something of a relief, despite the stress it caused. But I found it unnerving that a church family would reject one of its own. My dad’s father had helped start this church decades earlier and had preached for it until it could hire its own preacher. My family had at least a 30-year history with that church, and it forced my dad out. So when my husband Chad announced to me one day in 1995 that he wanted to become a minister, I was less than thrilled.

In fact, I cried. A lot. We would become one of those families who lived in the glass house my dad had always reminded me of. People would expect me to be a certain way, to believe a certain way, and to act a certain way. Our parents would have to pay for our children’s Christmas presents. We would invest in a church, and it could reject us. I kept crying, and we sought advice from older couples who had been in ministry for years. I finally arrived at a cautious peace about Chad’s decision, he completed seminary, and we began interviewing at churches. A Church of Christ in southeast Texas, 60 miles from my hometown, hired Chad. Once we got there and I saw Chad in action, I knew he was in the right job. He naturally related to teens and was always looking for ways to make the youth program more effective for them. He built a successful program and recruited volunteers to join him in mentoring the young people in the church. Chad was great at his job, and I was proud of him. And while money was tight, the pay scale for youth minister in Churches of Christ had improved considerably since my dad’s ministry years. But an inner voice nagged at me. I felt a duty to go about being a minister’s wife the way my mother or grandmother had. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t like either one of them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Honest to God, Part IV

I’m sure one reason I identified so deeply with church is because the men to whom I was closest in my family were church leaders. Our congregations were not huge—ranging from 250-500 members—but I believed the church work the men in my family did was important. I remember sitting on a wooden pew at my grandparents’ church in Beaumont and listening to my grandfather preach from the pulpit while I admired the shine on my black Mary Janes. At our own churches, my dad was the youth minister, and I was proud that all the teenagers—who I thought were the coolest people on Earth—liked him. When he would preach, or even make a simple announcement to the church about youth group activities, a proud voice in my head said, “That’s my dad.” As an adult, I’ve listened to my own husband from the pulpit, been proud when people complimented him, and have silently raged when he has been criticized. All my life, my last names have brought reactions of “Oh, you must be related to Brother Hamby,” or “You must be Winston’s kid,” or “You must be the youth minister’s wife.” Some church members stand on the fringes of a church body, content with minimal involvement. But because of the tradition of church leadership in my family, I’ve always been in the thick of church life. And for a long time, I liked it that way.

W.J. Hamby was known as “Brother Hamby” to the church people who knew him. He had a stern demeanor and spoke with a booming voice through the church P.A. system when he preached. He didn’t have an easy childhood. Born in Leesville, La., in 1907, W.J. grew up picking cotton on the family farm—and hating it. One brutally hot day, W.J. finished picking a row of cotton and turned to start on the next row. His eyes traveled down the row of cotton that was so long, he realized he could not see the end of it. He vowed to do whatever he could to leave that way of life behind. So he dove into his studies and ended up graduating from high school as valedictorian of his class in 1924. The ’20s didn’t exactly roar for the Hambys. They couldn’t afford to send W.J. to college, so he moved to Detroit and worked on an automobile assembly line to save money for his education. Even then, he was able to pay for only one semester at Louisiana State University. After marrying my grandmother and moving to southeast Texas, he studied for the CPA exam through a correspondence course, and passed the Texas State Examination in 1940. He went on to enjoy a successful career as an accountant and was probably the first in his family to make a significant amount of money. He never earned a college degree.

My grandfather was probably the smartest person I have ever known. His brain was always working on something. He was in his 70s when the Rubik’s Cube craze hit, and he worked on it for hours in his home office until he solved it. In 1987, he published a commentary on the book of Revelation. This book of the Bible tends to make Church-of-Christ people nervous, so this was a daring and admirable task for him to take on. The Church of Christ upholds an extremely literal view of scripture, and it’s difficult to do that with a book of prophecy that deals with a seven-headed beast emerging from the sea (13:1), and a dragon with an appetite for newborn babies (12:4) Not to mention all those pesky references to musical instruments in heaven. With God handing out harps (15:2) and angels playing trumpets (8:6), it’s hard to back up what the Church of Christ sees as a scripture-based ban on musical instruments in worship. So the last book of the Bible is often ignored, or at least approached by Church-of-Christ folks with the caution one would use in the presence of a rabid pit bull. But my grandfather tackled this project with vigor, hiding away in his home office during his retirement years as he studied and wrote about this mysterious book of the Bible. The result was a 111-page book that was published by the Church-of-Christ-owned Star Bible Publications publishing company. The book breaks Revelation down, chapter by chapter, in a style of prose that has never succeeded in holding my attention. Regardless, I still got a kick out of browsing through Church-of-Christ resource catalogs and seeing the book with “by W.J. Hamby” across the cover.

“Brother Hamby,” with his voice that boomed God’s word through the pulpit microphone, was how church members knew my grandfather. To me, he was “Peepaw.” We spent hours in his office assembling the jigsaw puzzles he loved, and when something funny was said at the dinner table, his deep, stern voice gave way to a high-pitched giggle. When I was young, I sat in Peepaw’s lap as he read to me. Once, he stopped reading to listen to something on TV, and, trying to regain his attention, I took the book and hit him across the face with it—launching his glasses across the room. If my parents had witnessed this, I would have been in the biggest trouble of my life. But Peepaw, after recovering from the shock and reclaiming his glasses, thought it was funny. He retold that story for years, punctuating it with his high-pitched chuckle.

In my copy of The Book of Revelation, Peepaw wrote, “To Deana:” and then pasted this typewritten poem by Charles Kingsley, the English priest, historian, and writer:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long;
And so make life, death and that vast forever
One Grand Sweet Song.
Then, in his own handwriting:
From “Peepaw”
W.J. Hamby

Peepaw was 79, and I was 15. Over the next 18 months, a resurgence of cancer gradually robbed him of his health and strength. I would visit my grandparents’ house in the evenings, and help Peepaw walk to the bed when he grew tired. One night, he said, “I’m probably going to die soon, and I’m ready.” And that’s what he did two weeks later. Hundreds of people came to his funeral, and someone said the only man who had been a better preacher than my Peepaw was the Apostle Paul himself. That made me proud.