What I learned from my parents

This piece was written by my former professor, who I like to consider one of my writing mentors, Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, as a tribute to her parents. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this month. Happy anniversary to a couple who obviously understand what it takes to love others well.

My parents outside their first apartment in Long Beach, California

My parents outside their first apartment in Long Beach, California

My parents were both teachers, so there were lessons galore at our house.  I’ve written the following two stories to illustrate what I learned from each parent before I even “formally” started school.

From My Father

My sister, Liz, and I were tucked in our warm bed when the pre-dawn stillness of our house was rattled by the sound of a ringing phone.  I lay awake, listening to my dad’s voice as he took the call, paying close attention for clues as to the identity of the caller.  Then I heard the sounds of my dad’s footsteps coming into the room Liz and I shared.

“Teresa,” my dad said.  “I’ve got to drive the bus this morning.  Do you want to go with me?”

Did I ever!  I sprang out of bed and into my clothes.  The caller had been the superintendent of the school where my dad taught, informing him that one of the bus drivers was ill, asking if he could take that driver’s morning route.  In those days, there were no requirements for school bus drivers to have a commercial license.  They just had to have enough nerve to navigate the twists and turns of rural Arkansas back roads while ferrying a group of school kids.  I knew driving the bus was an unwelcome chore for my dad, but I was always thrilled when he got the call because there was a chance that I would get to ride with him.

I followed my dad out to his car, and we took off through the streets of our small town.  Lights in the houses along the road that led to the school flickered on as their inhabitants woke up and prepared for the day ahead.  The school building where my dad taught was not yet illuminated when we arrived at the space out front where he parked his car. Together, we walked to the area where the buses were kept and then we were off.

I could barely contain my excitement as I slid into the seat behind my dad.  To me, this was as good as a carnival ride, particularly the moment we left the familiar streets of our town, and the bus lurched onto the gravel road where most of the kids on the route lived.  Sometimes, we stopped for a single kid standing in front of a house tucked far back into the woods.  Other times, we collected a whole family of kids, often having to wait a few extra minutes while one of them, struggling into his or her coat, ran across the yard having perhaps overslept or lingered too long at the breakfast table.  Always, when my dad gave the silver handle a yank, and the bus doors whooshed open, the kids’ voices registered both surprise and delight to see “Mr. Burns” at the wheel of their bus.  As they made their way to their seats, some of the kids even spoke to me, and I basked in the glow of these older kids’ attention.

Those bus rides added texture to my mostly monotonous days.  Since I wasn’t yet old enough to attend school, my dad had to drive me back home when the bus ride was over.  In retrospect, I’m sure it would have been much easier for him to have tiptoed quietly out of our house, leaving me in my bed, garnering a few moments of peace and quiet before embarking on his task of driving the bus.  But he didn’t.  He invited me to go along on the journey, and I am all the richer for it – gaining in those few hours a glimpse of my dad’s world beyond the confines of our home.

From My Mother

The year I turned four, my sister, Liz, turned six.  That fall, she not only got to go to first grade, she also got to move out of the nursery at church and into a regular Sunday school class.  I knew there was no way I could go to school with her.  There were laws against that; but, I felt I had a good chance of joining her Sunday school class.  After all, this was church where you weren’t supposed to be a respecter of persons.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that my mother was going to be teaching Liz’s class.

I was sick of staying in the nursery with a bunch of babies and coloring those Bible story sheets using broken crayons worn down to a dull rounded shape, most of them with their paper wrappers peeled completely off.  Some of the crayons were even pocked with teeth marks where either the babies or nervous preschoolers had chewed on them.  I just didn’t think I could take another year of coloring with those gross crayons or pushing thread through those silly little sewing cards and being lumped in with a bunch of drooling, bawling babies while Liz joined the big kids in a class where they’d have actual lessons.  While my mother was no push-over, I felt it was worth a shot to begin my begging campaign to join her class.

“Pleeeeease,” I pleaded.  “Please, let me move up to Liz’s Sunday school class.”

I’m sure my mother finally grew tired of hearing my pitiful appeals because she reluctantly said, “Okay, but only on one condition.  You have to do the work that the older kids do.”

Even though I wasn’t at all sure I could meet that demand, the vision of myself spending another year in that nursery propelled me to promise my mother that I would do everything the older kids did.

I was beyond excited that first Sunday morning when I got to walk right past the nursery and into the first grade Sunday school classroom.  The other kids eyed me suspiciously, but they didn’t say anything for fear of making a bad impression on my mother.  When my mother announced that our first lesson was to learn the books of the Old Testament, my crisp enthusiasm wilted.  I was hoping we’d learn some Bible verses, preferably short ones like, “Jesus wept,” or even the books of the New Testament.  At least I could actually pronounce those names.  I wanted to whine, but I knew a complaint would send me straight back to the nursery, so I kept my mouth shut and focused on the assignment.

All week, I pestered my mother to go over the names of the books of the Old Testament with me.  This would have been going the extra mile for any mother, but my mother was completing her B.A. in English at Arkansas (now Lyon) College.  So in addition to dealing with regular motherly things – like preparing meals, doing laundry, and refereeing fights between Liz and me, she had tons of homework to do.  Still, she listened night after night as I stammered over all those names until I could say them without missing a single one.

I could barely sit still in my chair the next Sunday morning.  When my mother asked if anybody could say the books of the Old Testament, I shot my pudgy hand in the air.  My mother looked from face to face, but no one else moved except to narrow their eyes at me.

Finally, my mother said, “Okay, Teresa.”

To my amazement, I said them all from Genesis to Malachi, and then I held out my hand.  My mother’s pledge to pay fifty cents to the students who could reel off all those Old Testament books just sweetened the deal.  She smiled as she plopped the two quarters into my open palm, while the older kids looked on with what I’m sure were unchristian thoughts roiling through their brains.

Who cared what they thought?  With my mother’s help, I had learned that tenacity plus hard work could equal success even for an underdog like me.

From Both My Parents

Both of my parents took the time to teach me many other lessons, and they continue to teach me lessons even now.  Some of these lessons have been easy to learn.  Others, well, let’s just say I’m still working on them.  Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from them is the lesson of commitment.  Throughout our lives, my parents have remained committed to my brother, Rob, to my sister, Liz, and to me.  And, they have remained committed to each other for many, many years.  This month, my parents will celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary.  The symbol for that year is a diamond.  This hardest of gemstones was known to the ancient Greeks as adamas, the same word they used for anything that was indestructible or unmovable. My parents’ love for their family and for each other has been both enduring and constant, and that has been the most important lesson of all.

Day 16–Love, courage, and consent

*Thank you, Mark Egan, for sharing your thoughts on love and marriage with all of us. Mark wrote this piece for his sister before her wedding. It really captures the essence of love and marriage and will hopefully inspire all of us to love our partners more fully today and to be grateful for what they add to our lives.*

Kay and John Egan, 2001. Eternal lovebirds :).

Kay and John Egan, 2001. Eternal lovebirds :).

There is no greater decision in life.  No education, job, or achievement is treated with the respect and admiration that a marriage between two people is treated with.  Nor should it be so.  The world is full of those who have this “experience” and sadly those who don’t and perhaps worse those who know nothing of its existence.  People struggle to define it, as do I, but rarely is there any debate as to its existence.  We know of its presence; we feel it as clearly as we do the Kansas winter wind on our bare skin, but it isn’t often spoke of.  Why is that?  Maybe it’s difficult to verbalize, or perhaps it seems self-absorbed to admit, or perhaps its absence in some less fortunate leave the subject unmentioned.  Those who have it radiate it. They move through life with similar difficulties as those who don’t, but they do so with the ease and comfort that having the love and support of God and of a partner in matrimony can provide.

It isn’t marriage by today’s standards that I speak of or that you and Nick are blessed with. It is an inexplicable bond, and it does not go unrecognized by those exposed to it.

To love requires comparatively little courage when compared to that required to marry.  To marry quickly without hesitation is to avoid the painful process of overcoming difficulties, obstacles, and doubts in yourself, your partner, and the idea of an eternal union.  Each obstacle creates friction that only courage and compromise overcomes.  Or perhaps compromise is the successful result of friction and courage.

An old saying, “behind every great man is a great woman,” is not only true today but has also stood the test of time.  This is not to say that a wife in a traditional role is assuming the burden of domestic responsibilities in order for the husband to be a more productive, and thus “great” man outside the home.  This is a very shallow view.  I contend that facing the difficult challenge of truly exposing oneself to another, to accept someone into your life and all of the imperfection that defines it must require greatness.  It is my view that only this mutual love and courage earns the consent and blessing of God.  In Creation, God provides for him a “helpmate.” Take no offense; I don’t think he had in mind a divinely guided servant.

Said another way, marriage guided by the hand of God creates a further courage that is far greater than any one person or any of their combined sums.

The outcome, that we simply call “home,” must be divine in nature; it must be God’s will and hand that allows and nurtures the inexplicable result.  The result, a piece of time spent in this life, on this earth, is an intricate weaving of emotions–happiness, sadness, difficulty, and peace that exist not just due to the love and courage you share, but also due to God’s blessing and consent.  The result is “home” to those blessed enough to be a part of it.  The presence of God that can be felt looking up at the heavens on a cloudless night pales in comparison to the presence felt inside the walls of a real home, and with a family that exists with his blessing.  I don’t need to convince you of this because we were both lucky enough to have been raised in just such a home.  No one exposed to the love that Mother and Father have can deny the consent and blessing of God.  This all may seem a bit odd coming from me, but like all things, I like to do it catastrophically wrong and then try to learn from the failure.

Mary with her brother, Mark

Mary with her brother, Mark

My initial thoughts included both happiness and envy.  I erased envy because it seemed to be selfishness in a moment that demands selflessness.  In retrospect, I think envy in the right context may well exceed happiness in importance.  What lies in front of you both is to be envied, to be sought by those without and cherished by those with.

*Wishing a lifetime of happiness to my friend, Mary Egan Whitson, and her husband, Nick!*

Day 14–Love that lasts

*Big thanks to my friend Judy Woolf, who has lived a love story in front of me and set a great example of what real love is, in good times and bad. Love you, Judy, and you too, George. Happy anniversary to one of the most amazing couples I know.*

Judy and George

Judy and George

This story of love and gratitude began 38 years ago today on Feb 14, 1975, when my sweet Valentine proposed!  It actually began 4 ½ years earlier with a blind date, but that’s a story for another day.  Although he was one of the kindest, gentlest, most compassionate people I have ever known, he rarely showed that through overt action.  This day he came through in spades!  I guess when it is most often subtle, those rare moments are all the more meaningful.  His romance would sneak up on me and just overwhelm.  I remember one day during our first year when he came home from work and said he had to put in days for vacation.  When I looked at his dates, one week was during the time of our one-year wedding anniversary.  What man would think of that? Overwhelmed!  He just made me smile – a lot!

Our life together was not always easy, but always full of joy and contentment and commitment.  I never questioned his love for me, and I think he felt that in return.  I have often told people I was fully committed to living the rest of my life with that man!  But another fateful February day changed that when on Feb 2, 2009, he slipped into eternity.  February now had a whole new feel for me, full of sorrow and grief and questions and . . . I don’t even know how some of the feelings can be described.  How are you supposed to go on when you had worked so hard at this “two becoming one” thing, and now you are no longer whole?  Then I happened upon some writings of C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”, that he had penned after the death of his wife. In it he discovers that we must be careful to separate our emotions of the loss with the memories of the person else those memories become tainted with sadness.  So therefore, I choose to be grateful for the time we did have together. And now you can be grateful that I turn to the gratitude part of this.

George's namesake, Georgia Leigh, with Grandpa's guitar and hat

George’s namesake, Georgia Leigh, with Grandpa’s guitar and hat

George and his girls

George and his girls

I am so grateful for our three beautiful daughters that our union produced.  Each so unique in their own ways, yet to me they each also mirror a little of their father.

Sarah has such a sweet spirit, loyal, tender-hearted; Cindy has a quiet resolve about her, competitive, steadfast, committed (but  not always so quiet); and our February blessing, Amy, is her own self, has a special sense of humor, and has developed into a strong woman and just the best mother around to our next February blessing, Georgia Leigh.  Two years ago, this little sweetheart came along and again changed the feel of February.  We celebrate her life as his namesake and know that he would have been just the best “Grandpa George”.

Little Georgia Leigh

Little Georgia Leigh

I am so grateful for the time we had together, the lessons learned, the things he taught me.  George was content to be at home with his girls around him. Or to be at their ballgames cheering them on and encouraging them and their teammates.  I think he had an extra dose of the gift of encouragement.  And time with family was important to him.

George did not finish college – I did – yet I never felt smarter than him (well, maybe in some things, but generally, no).  God endowed him with a special wisdom.  He became my sounding board, always had a wise word, but never too quickly.  Again, his words carried weight because they did not come fast and furious.

George taught me many things, like maximize the positives, minimize the negatives.  Also, the importance of reading instruction manuals, the most valuable one being that one for life, the Holy Bible.  He spent time there, thus arriving at aforementioned wisdom.

No story of love and gratitude would be complete without focusing a little time on the ultimate Love, and gratefulness for the eternal Hope found in Jesus Christ.

These last four years have not been easy, but my faith has never wavered.  I think maybe the Lord gave George some “Hezekiah days” (look it up).  Three years before, he had a pretty serious health scare that could have resulted in death, but the Lord saw fit to leave him yet a while with us.  During those years we had opportunity to grow in our faith together and spend a lot of time just the two of us together.  I am so grateful now for those days; they are so special to me.  Did the Lord provide that as preparation for what was too soon to come?  Maybe.  It is hard for me to worship now without my soul mate and with a broken heart, yet my faith remains strong.  It is a puzzlement.  I am still at times mad at God, question God, and cry out to God. Yet Scripture promises that His mercies are new every day and I hold to that.

There is a popular worship song that has a fitting message by which to close.

It says,  “Higher than the mountains that I face, stronger than the power of the grave, constant in the trial and the change, one thing remains: His love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me. On and on and on and on it goes. It overwhelms and satisfies my soul.”

And this old hymn speaks to me about that unexplainable peace that passes understanding which only comes through faith and knowing this Great Love:

“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”