I came caterwauling into the world in 1951 and exited high school in the spring 1969. For all but four of those years, home for me was Greenfield, Illinois — halfway between St. Louis, MO and Springfield, IL.
Mom delivered me at a hospital in Rolla, Missouri but our family moved from the Ozarks to Greenfield when I was only four. Dad assumed the position as interim pastor for the only Presbyterian Church in town. He held that role for the next 14 years. I think the congregation or Presbytery forgot about the interim part.
Most of the 60 other students in my class lived out in the country. I was a townie and so envied the farm kids. They seemed closer to each other and more connected. And kids in the country always had someone to play with.
I felt very alone living in town — like an outsider. Not so long ago I learned our family roots went deep in Greenfield and in Green County. We Thorntons weren’t outsiders at all. My grandmother’s family went as far back as many of the families in the area. The difference is, we hadn’t stayed in the community.
Grandma married Grandpa and they moved away to exotic places like India and Japan and St. Louis. They returned to Grandma’s home town when Grandpa was dying and just about the time Dad moved his tribe to Greenfield.
I have always felt like I didn’t belong. One summer in the mid-80’s, I was vacationing with my cousin in the Florida Keys. Phil’s mom, my favorite Aunt Elizabeth, was there and spent a great deal of time talking about my childhood. She voiced what I had always felt. “Your parents didn’t mean to, but I think they raised you to be pariahs,” she said. “You had so many rules it was hard to fit in.”
True that. At least for me. I doubt all of my siblings would agree. But her words perfectly captured my feelings.
There were good things, certainly, about growing up in our large family in the small town. Wonderful memories of get-togethers with siblings and their spouses and the ever-expanding number of children. Sunday visits with aunts and uncles and cousins from St. Louis. We’d gather at Grandma’s red brick house and eat curried beef or lamb with mint jelly. On holidays Grandma served money pudding with actual coins tucked inside. Grandma prepared the food and her maiden sister, Aunt Effe, would garnish the dishes to make them pretty. A perfect team of form and function.
We had many happy occasions together. So much laughter and love. But even then, when those city cousins arrived, I felt out of the loop.
We were different.
Dad and Mama held high expectations for their brood. We were to be separate from the world, examples to every one of what a Christian family looked like, obedient, respectful and perfect. We were taught to avoid making money as that would lead us astray. My parents didn’t care about grades in school. They just wanted children who honored them, loved God and lived godly lives.
I didn’t have it in me to be that kind of child. Couldn’t do it. Didn’t want to do it. Sure as hell wouldn’t do it.
As I became a teenager, Dad and I fought tooth and nail. Tempers flared, words were said and punishments doled out almost daily. My anger and resentment only grew stronger.
The battle of the wills came to a head one Saturday afternoon. Watson and I came to blows on the stairs and beautiful, gracious Aunt Elizabeth got caught in the middle. Dad stood at the top of the stairs, my aunt on the landing and I held my place at the bottom of the steps. I shouted up to Dad, “Why do you hate me?” and he replied, “Why do you hate me?” I responded with all my pent-up anger, “Take your god and go to hell!”
Watson had met his match. I had his temper and had turned it back onto him.
The house grew silent. Aunt Elizabeth continued down the stairs and into another room. Mom ceased her work in the kitchen. I waited for the wrath of the Old Testament Jehovah to descend on me. Punishment came, and it was not as awful as I thought.
I lost my record player for months. I moved to the front row of church for weeks. And I no longer could teach the little ones in Sunday School. No belt lashing followed. No hairbrush or fly swatter either.
That day of our fight, dad returned to his study. Mama led me into the music room and told me to sit next to her piano. Then she began to play– hymn after hymn–and I listened, then began to sing. The music soothed me, the familiar words comforted me. When she started in on the first verse of “I Must tell Jesus” however, I began to sob.
I must tell Jesus all of my trials,
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me,
He ever loves and cares for His own.
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.
I must tell Jesus all of my troubles,
He is a kind, compassionate Friend;
If I but ask Him He will deliver,
Make of my troubles quickly an end.
Tempted and tried I need a great Savior,
One who can help my burdens to bear;
I must tell Jesus, I must tell Jesus:
He all my cares and sorrows will share.
Tension existed between Dad and I until his dying day. I loved him deeply but I never felt I was good enough for him. Not Christian enough. Not spiritual enough. With Mama, however, I felt nothing but tenderness and love despite not living up to all she had hoped.
Now I have a 12-year old daughter who, despite being carried in another woman’s womb, is the spitting image of me. Maybe not in looks but we share a red-hot temper, strong will, intense passion and an independent spirit.
All I want for her to know as she grows is that she is unconditionally loved, celebrated for her uniqueness and encouraged to become whatever she wants. I also want her to know that, aside from being able to talk with her father and me about anything, she can always tell Jesus. He comletely understands and cares for His own.
Recently some friends and I got to talking about hymns we sang as children — in particularly, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Despite finding ourselves in a much different place spiritually than our early church days, we all agreed many traditional church songs hold special memories.
Stacey spent her childhood virtually without supervision. “We were feral,” she said. ” We were the wild children on our street.” When her parents divorced, her mother worked and left Stacey and her siblings to fend for themselves. A number of years ago, Stacey went home and visited with some of her former neighbors. “I learned many on the street were deeply concerned for our safety.”
As a child, Stacey found her “home” in church. For one thing, her Baptist church offered snacks and often what she ate at church was all had to eat for the day. Stacey grew to love the sense of community she felt at church — a place where people cared for her and nurtured her. When she was old enough, Stacey joined the choir and sang her heart out. The words of the hymns she sang on Sunday mornings lodged deep in her brain. She particularly remembers facing the congregation and singing the lyrics to “Onward Christian Soldier” with great pride. She felt part of something, connected to others, fully supported and cared for.
Stacey and I could not have more different backgrounds.
My parents, Watson and Mary, were too strict, too strong and much-too-present for me to go wild. They structured my days, beginning to end. We rose to Dad’s wake up call and shared breakfast around the small round oak table in the kitchen. We gathered for Bible reading (each person reading two verses each until one or two chapters were completed) and prayers in the music room every day before school. As a minister and a teacher, I could not get away from his presence.
The summer of my 10th year, I was sitting in church one hot Wednesday evening and thinking how much I wanted to be wild. I longed to be anywhere but where I was — sitting on a hard wooden pew, staring out the open window onto the lawn of the house next to the church. The setting sun streamed through the trees and created lovely shadows on the grass. I heard the neighbor kids playing in the nearby park. I felt real life — the giggling, running about, shouting and playing hard life — resided outside my small church.
Just about the only thing I liked inside church were the hymns. I listened to Mama play with passion the requested songs. I sang along from memory. We Thorntons had very little need of the hymnal because we knew the lyrics by heart. The words flowed with ease and they connected me on some deep level with the men and women in the pews around me.
My personal belief had not yet become an issue with me. All I knew was that singing “Rescue the Perishing,” “Count Your Many Blessings,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and many other songs that represented the faith of my parents helped lift my spirits, soothe my anger and spoke to my soul on some level.
I left home for college when I was 17. There, a boyfriend introduced me to Johnny Got His Gun and Malcom X. I began to question blind patriotism and American Christianity. As more and more male students dropped out, were drafted or signed up for the Vietnam war, I grew more and more uncomfortable seeing the American flag and the Christian flag together on the same podium — especially in church.
Stacey moved away from traditional organized Christianity, as well. Despite going to seminary and earning an M.Div., she does not preach nor does she attend an organized church. She’s found her place and peace in Wisdom theology and contemplative prayer. Stacey structures her life around meditation. She and her partner open their home to people in need of quiet and rest. They offer retreats, courses and counseling to those in search of inner healing.
Stacey’s a far cry from that feral child who roamed the streets. And me? The girl raised in church who went in search of living wild and outside? I’m quieter now. Stacey and I are both discovering more and more about living faith that nurtures hope and love.
I struggle to live like Jesus did. At time I wish I were more like Stacey with her peaceful aura and kind spirit.
However I know she, too, has her personal struggles. We both continue to take steps towards peace, not war, to pursue love not engage in battles.
I feel we’re part of a growing corp of enlisted people of faith who are marching onward, just not to war.
Onward Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before
Onward then, ye people
Join our happy throng
Blend with ours your voices
In our triumph song
Christ the royal master
Leads against the foe
Forward into battle
See His banners go
Crowns and Thrones may perish
Kingdoms rise and wane
But the cross of Jesus
Constant will remain
A beautiful morning here at 8,300 ft in the Andes. Brilliant blue skies dotted with pure white marshmallow clouds provide a backdrop to my landlady’s towering and quite laden avocado tree. Large hummingbirds flit between their feeder to the right and the moira bush to the left. And I see no evidence of any shortage of bees here in Cuenca.
Their existence may be in danger in the US, but down here, they seem healthy, happy and loaded with bzzzz.
Margarita, my friend and weekly cleaning lady, arrived just a little bit ago. She came in bearing a small bag of rolls, fresh from the panaderia. She gave me two. David received just one. “Shhhhh, don’t tell,” she communicates, flashing a huge grin as she heads to the kitchen to get her coffee.
A bright yellow/orange tablecloth hangs on the line outside my window. Not handmade, but still beautiful, the fringed cloth has multi-width stripes of vibrant purples, greens, blues and reds. The weaving is a traditional Ecuadorean design. I had wanted to cut the cloth up to use for curtains, but Margarita would have none of that. “No, no, no,” she insisted some weeks ago. She speaks no English, but she looked like she wanted to say, “It’s a tablecloth, dammit!”
One thing I’ve gathered in my limited time here is that most everything and everyone has its place. People have roles. Things have a purpose. And one shouldn’t try to mix them up.
Getting curtains made for our home, for example.
My former landlady, Susana, has taken me to several fabric stores to select curtain material. At one shop, I found a fabric and design I loved and wanted to purchase it for the living room. But they wouldn’t sell it to me because it is not intended for curtain material. It is for muebles. Furniture. Now, I’m a person that uses what I like for decorating. Corrugated cardboard and brass tacks served as wainscoting in my dining room in Arkansas. Brown craft paper has papered many a wall of mine with amazing effects. I had painted concrete floors before it was cool.
So, when I saw this material, I knew it would work. But I couldn’t buy it because Susana and the sales clerk knew I wanted it for cortinas and this was NOT cortina material.
Our windows remain curtainless.
The same for my bright colorful tablecloth. It is fated to serve one purpose and one purpose only–covering our mesa. Do I dare tell Margarita I’m thinking of buying two more tablecloths to sew together for a bedspread?
This single purpose idea isn’t totally consistent, however. The other side of the coin is to make do. Just make things “good enough”, as my friend Jody says.
When we first moved into our current home we had a few plants in the front of the house that proved impossible for our dog to ignore. Within a week or so, the succulents had been unearthed and left for dead. Josefina (our new landlady and next door neighbor) noticed the bald spot in the garden and offered me something to cover up the blight to prevent more digging from our sweet Punky.
Good idea, I thought. “Thanks”, I said.
Josefina brought over a wooden toilet seat lid, with fake-brass fittings. She speaks no English but her look implied, “That should do it.” I plopped it into place in plain view of our front door and every guest who visits and there the toilet lid sat for a few weeks until new potted plants could be arranged. It remains out there somewhere. I think I hid it behind my towering rose bush.
Now, I imagine in this city of anywhere from 400,000 to 600,000 (who really knows) there are people who wouldn’t dream of using toilet seat covers in their front lawn to protect their gardens. There are the rich who live in enclaves behind tall pristine walls and iron gates. Their shrub and tree-lined streets absorb the incessant barks of neurotic dogs confined to tiny spaces, block the smells of belching diesel buses as well as the tone down the bombardment of car alarms. These people live in a more perfect world. No bald spots in their lawns. They have full-time gardeners who tend to the gardens and mini-paradises that surround the family estates. Not a potty lid to be found.
Friend Jody and I talked not too long ago about the “good enough” attitude that seems perfectly acceptable in our new city. We got to laughing at the ways we see it around us every day. For me, a visit to my hair salon brought me face to face with “that’ll do.” I went to the bathroom and was met with one of those beauty shots that appear in every salon in the world. A stunning woman, a kick-ass hair style and a body that won’t quit. The pièce de résistance was that my stylist had hung the poster up with what looked like duct tape. Good enough, indeed.
I experience less pretense here. People are people. It’s hard to put on airs when a toilet lid sits in your front yard. Or a poster promising unlimited beauty is held in place by bulky grey tape.
And one more thing. Next to almost every commode in this city stands a covered wastebasket. A silent reminder that everyone has crap in their lives and we just have to deal with it.
Toss, not flush. It’s a great equalizer as far as I’m concerned.
I recently read a new science-fiction book, The Reality Thief, written by an acquaintance here in Cuenca, Ecuador.
Paul Anlee worked as a nanotechnologist or some kind of “ist” in his past life in Canada. For all I know, he was a rocket scientist. I haven’t asked him specifics about his career because I figure the answer involves mathematics or light speed, quantum something or any number of lofty concepts that do not register in my brain.
He uses his technology-rich past to whip up some fascinating science fiction. His characters are interesting, the story engaging and descriptions vivid. I’m sold on book number one and look forward to the release of volumes two and three.
Paul told me before I entered his futuristic world that I’d probably not agree with much of the content. Seems he doesn’t believe in God and I do.
Paul writes smart, interesting stuff. Reading his prose ignites little fires in my brain. Thoughts race along and form what-if questions. Thousand-year conflicts rage between believers and non-believers within his book. Worlds rise and fall. New and old religions battle it out on the grandest scale.
Interesting because that’s where I am in my faith.
Well, not battling it out but chewing on, looking at and discarding ideas that no longer seem true to me. Much of my thinking has been prompted by the current political climate in the U.S. and heart-breaking world events all done in the name of religion and worse yet, Christianity.
So Paul Anlee’s book gave me a gander at how a universe might come to be and continue to be without the first action of a creator. While I find it fascinating, I remain on the other side of the aisle from him, God-wise. My personal experience does not allow otherwise. But Paul’s writing intrigues me. Makes me curious to see what more this creator of stories whips up.
So I’m reading futuristic stuff at the same time I’m beginning a series of blogs on how my spiritual life has been partly formed and continues to be impacted by church music penned in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I’ve let quite a bit of the old time religion go but am holding on to many of the classic hymns. Their words have meant (and continue to mean) too much to let them go.
Future. Present. Past.
The mind is an amazing thing, allowing us to create new worlds while being able to hold vivid memories of old ones. My current state of mind is jumbled. Exploring new thoughts, sorting through traditions, putting aside those that no longer fit, seeking to find what does.
**This post appeared the other day under on a different site: First & Third Verse. I launched a second blog (which I now think may be a mistake) to provide space for a bigger project: First & Third Verse This site looks at traditional hymns and how they impacted my spiritual development and how they continue to be meaningful even as I’ve moved from a traditional way of thinking to a much more progressive viewpoint. If you have a love for the old church hymns, I hope you’ll visit the site.***
I feel I was predestined to be smiling and joyful for Jesus, whether I liked it or not.
Not only me, but all nine of my siblings were programmed to be sunbeamers from the minute we were born. And of course we could and would be because, well, we had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in our hearts.
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school, at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.
Sunday after Sunday I gathered with a handful of other children in the damp, cool basement of First Presbyterian Church in Greenfield, Illinois. Together we filled the lower level with loud, off-key voices and occasional outbursts of giggles. We moved in close to the piano and acted out our happy verses, arms to the sky, hands cupped around our cheeks, fingers wiggling in the air. We climbed climbed up sunshine mountain with faces all aglow and, like that wee little man, Zacheus, we climbed up in a Sycamore tree then plopped down on the floor when he dropped down from the tree to eat dinner with Jesus.
Those melodies were campy, peppy and repetitive and the lyrics– definitely long-term memory material. All memories of church were.
Church was my second home. As the preacher, dad was required to be there whenever the doors opened. When he doubled as the janitor, we got there early to open the doors and stayed until the halls were empty.
Sunday morning and Sunday night we were present. No exceptions. Wednesday night prayer meeting was also mandatory. And one Tuesday a month we visited the Prairie Home, the local nursing home, bringing songs, a short message and good cheer to the old folks of our little town.
How I dreaded those evenings.
I cared about the elderly and their loneliness. I often left the building with tears rolling down my face because of the sorrow I sensed and felt within those wall. I ached for the women and men who sat by themselves in their rooms, day after day, without visits from their children.
I just didn’t know what to say.
I felt uncomfortable holding their shaky hands and feeling their paper-thin skin. Shouting to be heard embarrassed me (I mean, what doesn’t embarrass a teenager?) Pervasive smells of disinfectant and urine made me gag. Yet, going there was my duty. A rigorously enforced duty. By the time I reached 16, I had counted the number of Tuesdays I had to go before high school graduation. Freedom couldn’t come too soon.
At the nursing home, at school, at play, I wasn’t much of a sunbeam. I tried. When the music played, my voice rang out clear and strong. During prayer time my head remained bowed , and neither of my eyes would look around. I memorized verses and taught the little kids in Sunday School. With other kids in the youth group, I attended Youth for Christ rallies in St. Louis. I raised my hand countless times for this joy, joy, joy thing to take root in my heart.
But (and there’s always a but in life) faith for me hasn’t been sunny. Over the years the path I’ve walked has been some sun and partly cloudy. Overcast days followed by serious thunderstorms. Maybe it’s the way I viewed them — glass half-empty kind of thing. My dear friend Lauralee has never met a day that wasn’t filled with something good. She sees her glass filled to overflowing in even the darkest circumstance.
Varying levels of serotonin in my brain have created mood swings. That’s a fact. Or it could be I was born with my stars out of alignment. Whatever the cause, I’ve had as many weepy, tear-filled days as I have joy-filled ones. I have grown comfortable with angst.
In the past my gray-sky outlook has left me with a sense of being less than. Not a good Christian. Letting down the Lord. Failing the family. Not giving God God’s due.
So guilt on top of my Eeyore-like world view has done a number on me.
Until this past year.
Moving to South America, a new continent, far removed from family and the land that formed me, I’m discovering a new freedom. Here we experience rain almost everyday and the clouds hang very low. Some mornings, so low I feel I can almost touch them. But in this high place in the Andes, sunshine manages to burst through at least once a day. And those rays are brilliant, warm, energizing and potent. I feel my cells waking up. I feel my spirit come to life.
No longer do I feel I ought to be a sunbeam, much less a sunbeam for anyone.
But I have grown to celebrate and love the sun.
We’ve reached zee end of my April posts on Mary Scott Gash Thornton.
For those who have read the daily blogs, thank you, thank you, thank you. Your responses have made me smile, tear up and thank God for having people in my life like Mary and like you.
Even if you’ve just read one or two, I thank you, too.
For me this exercise has brought back so many wonderful memories of people, places and things that, though centered on Mary, have enriched my life immensely.
Much more can be said about this short, round, rosy-cheeked woman. She had a heart the size of Greenland and brought music and laughter to the lives of so many.
Mary continues to teach me. When she was alive and mothering me, I tended not to listen a lot. Examining her life over the past 30 days I have seen more clearly who she was and what she has meant to me. And to others.
My spirits have improved over the past four weeks. I do believe I’ve fussed less at David, groused fewer times at Katherine, felt less angst, sang more, cried less (except for those of remembrance and love) and generally behaved like a better human being.
Mary continues to have her influence on my life.
My prayer is that one day my daughter will have a fraction of the good things to say or write or remember about me.
Mama will never be remembered in history. Her passing left no mark on our times. But her well-lived life, her laughing spirit, her music-filled days have enriched mine immensely.
Mary Scott Gash Thornton — a woman of exceptional talent, a quiet person who was loud and clear about what she believed and whom she loved, a mom who made every one of her children feel like the most loved person in the world and a wife who loved her husband until her last breath.
I wish you could have known her. But I suppose by now you do, at least a little.
Thank you again for being with me for the A-to-Z Challenge…It’s All about Mary.