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.