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.

Angels unawares

My car angel reminds me of all the people God has used to help me in the past.

My car angel reminds me of all the people God has used to help me in the past.

My whole life, God has used people to help me, serve me, minister to me, and reach out to me without my knowledge and without my permission. These people, whether they intended to be or not, were used by God in my life. Some of them might not have wanted to be used by God, but God didn’t give them a choice, thankfully. He uses whomever, whenever, however He wants. He is God, you know.

If I’m looking for these moments–little miracles when God transforms ordinary people into angels for my benefit–I find that there are too many to count and certainly too many to write about.

When I was five years old, I stayed after school for Brownies–not the fudgy kind. The kind who wear brown uniforms and aspire to grow into Girl Scouts someday. My mom was at home, sick with a cold, and I knew it. Even at five, I felt the need to take care of others. So I abandoned the meeting and raced outside to try to catch the bus. I was too late. The bus was leaving the parking lot, and as I ran after it, I tripped and fell and skinned the palms of my hands on the rough surface of the asphalt. I cried, knowing I’d waited too long to catch the bus and that my indecision about whether to stay after school would mean that my mom would have to drive to school to pick me up in her ill condition.

Thankfully, one of the “big kids,” a high school boy with a rockin’ mullet, saw my plight and asked the bus driver to stop. He opened the back door of the bus (probably without the driver’s permission) and beckoned me to the bus. I was relieved and thankful when he lifted me off the pavement into the bus and wiped the snot from my face. I’m sure he didn’t know that he was helping me help my mom, a single mother of four daughters.

When I was in high school, I worked as a carhop at Sonic. Granted, I quit in December when the temperatures plummeted, and I realized that I could make almost the same amount of money per hour while contained in a heated, dry building serving up hot fries and Big Macs. But prior to quitting, I sucked it up and carried trays of fast food out to patrons while freezing my tail off. One school night, right before closing as the wind wailed and the rain pelted my classy black Sonic jacket, I delivered two Brown Bag Specials to a minivan. A pretty Asian woman was behind the wheel, and she handed me a $5 bill as a tip and thanked me for facing the elements so that her family could have supper without getting out in the storm.

I’m not sure if she was always a kind, generous customer, but God used her that night to remind me that even seemingly insignificant tasks can serve a greater purpose and that there are still good people with compassionate hearts in the world. I still see that lady around town once in a while. I’ve never told her thank you, but maybe I will next time I am in line behind her at our local coffeehouse.

My sophomore year of college with my little sister, Jessie

My sophomore year of college with my little sister, Jessie

As a college student, I blazed a trail between my hometown and Bartlesville, Oklahoma, more times than necessary to visit the man my heart beat for. I’d traveled those highways so many times that it had become second nature. In true irresponsible college student fashion, I often drove on too little sleep, too late at night, with too many things on my mind. One day after leaving Bartlesville, one of my tires blew out just as I pulled away from the tollbooth. I panicked. I called the boyfriend, but he was two hours away. I told him I’d figure something out and would call back if I couldn’t. My version of “figuring something out” was to roll up my windows, lock my doors, and pray for God to miraculously inflate my tire.

He didn’t. But a kind, middle-aged man in a pick-up truck pulled up behind my little Honda Civic. He approached my window slowly, and I cracked it just a tad so I could hear his words.

“Ma’am, I can change your tire for you. You don’t have to get out of the car.”

I hesitated. My mom had warned me about creepy perverts on the interstate and had told me about her near-death experience when one of them tried to attack her after pretending to know who she was and getting her to pull over onto the shoulder. Two truckers used their CB radios that day and helped her escape, blocking the man in and helping police officers identify his vehicle. I didn’t want to go through that kind of ordeal.

“No thanks.”

He had a pained look on his face, a look that told me that he understood exactly why I was declining his offer to help and a look that told me that he felt sorry that he couldn’t help because of all the jerks in the world who’d given men like him a bad name. He walked away.

Then I remembered that I’d seen a sign along the highway in Oklahoma with a number to dial for emergency assistance. I dialed it.

A grumpy state trooper approached my window 20 minutes later. I then learned that the emergency number was for real emergencies, not flat tires.

The state trooper told me that he normally would never change a tire for someone, but since I was a single, white, tiny female so far from home, he would do it just this once. He made me watch him change the tire and explained what he was doing. I told him that my stepdad had taught me the same thing, but that I had barely paid attention. He told me to buy a better car jack and used the one in his squad car instead of mine. After putting the spare on my car, he instructed me to turn around in the median and follow him back through the tollbooth and five miles into Muskogee to buy a new tire. I did exactly as he instructed, and when we got to Wal-Mart, he waved and drove away.

I never thanked him, and I never thanked the man whose help I refused. But God used those men to remind me that not everyone has bad intentions and that He loves me enough to take care of me, even when I have been too irresponsible to take care of myself.

As a young director of career development, 2006

As a young director of career development, 2006

A few years later, as a young professional woman on a business flight to Michigan one cold November, I sat next to a man who, if my memory serves me well, was named Steve Price. He worked for Steelcase, a corporation responsible for designing and selling state-of-the-art office furniture. He showed me pictures of some of the chairs he was designing and told me about his home, his children, and his job. After circling over Grand Rapids a few times, our plane headed to Detroit. The pilot informed us that we were unable to land in Grand Rapids due to rough weather conditions but that we’d  be landing in Detroit and could catch a flight to Grand Rapids the next morning.

This put quite a damper on my business trip, which was a two-day, full-to-the-brim excursion in an effort to better understand the inner workings of the world of career development in higher education. I felt the same panicky feeling I’d felt when my tire exploded in Oklahoma. I was alone, inexperienced, and afraid.

Steve calmly led me through the airport. He negotiated hotel stays for both of us, and he hailed a taxi cab. He paid for the taxi and told me to meet him in the lobby the next morning at 6:30 a.m. He treated me the same way I imagine he would have treated his own daughter if she’d been sitting next to him on that  plane.

God showed me His love and care through the kindness of that man, and He reminded me that He would always provide for me, sometimes without me lifting a finger.

He always has.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.” –Hebrews 13:2