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 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.