Liz, Mom, and the Witch

Today’s post is written by Dr. Teresa Burns Murphy, one of my writing mentors and former professors. Every time Dr. Murphy contributes to this blog and sends me a post, I cannot wait to read it. I know I’ll enjoy the story–and I know the story will speak to me. 

Bethany asked us to share stories about love during the month of February.  While this isn’t a typical February love story, I believe there is a kind of love in it.  This love is present when someone in an older generation takes the time to teach those in a younger generation a thing or two about how to live. There is, however, a link to the month of February.  One of the major players in this story is my grandmother, Ona Burns, who was born on Valentine’s Day in 1905.  Not only was she a sweetheart, she was also pretty clever when it came to keeping my sister and me in line. I am grateful for the life she lived and for the opportunity I had to spend time with her during her lifetime.

Liz, Mom, and the Witch

By Teresa Burns Murphy

The chickens strutted and clucked, pecking for bugs in the dusty barn lot just beyond my grandparents’ fenced-in backyard where my big sister, Liz, and I lingered.  Mom, our grandmother, had told us to come inside the house, but Liz decided we didn’t have to do what Mom said.  As I placed my chubby little hand on the back door handle, I cut my eyes over at Liz.  She pulled her shoulders back, tucked her chin to one side, and shot me a menacing look.  I froze, not sure whose wrath I preferred to incur – Liz’s or Mom’s.

I had known them both for six years, in other words, my entire life.  At eight, Liz was slim, agile, and fearless.  I admired the way she could stroll out into our grandparents’ pasture and coax the horses (huge horses!) into coming to her.  When one ambled over, she’d take hold of the horse’s halter and hoist herself onto its bare back, her long, brown curls bouncing to the beat of the horse’s gait as she rode across the field.  Mom sometimes gave us sugar cubes to feed the horses when they came up to the backyard fence.  When I saw those giant horse teeth coming toward my outstretched hand, I always dropped my sugar cubes on the ground, causing the horses to have to lick them up out of the dirt.  Maybe this is why they always bucked me off when Liz caught one of them and boosted me onto its back.  Liz, on the other hand, held the sugar cubes in her unwavering palm and waited for the horses to slurp them up.  I cringed watching those horses’ tongues whisk the sugar cubes from her hand, but Liz never flinched.

Mom and LizIn contrast to Liz, Mom was short and plump. For the most part, she stayed indoors – doing needlework, reading the newspaper, or putting together jigsaw puzzles once her household chores were completed.  I’d heard stories about how Mom’s father had been required to take her to an elementary school that employed a male teacher after she’d proven to be too feisty for the female teacher at her old school to manage.  I’d also heard about how she’d staked out her territory at the new school with a few choice words delivered to the other girls who believed they could bully her. Though I was aware that Mom had been pretty fearless herself, I figured most of her pluck had been used up now that she was in her late fifties, which, at the time, I thought of as old.  So, I cast my lot with Liz and released the door handle.

Clearly, I had forgotten the course these battles of will between Liz and Mom generally took.  I’d heard about one of their first clashes enough times to believe I remembered it even though I was a baby when it happened.  On the day that skirmish occurred, Liz and I were spending the day with Mom, and Mom had placed me in a playpen while she prepared our lunch.  A pocket door that could be made to disappear into the wall with a gentle push separated Mom’s kitchen from her den where I’d been situated.  As long as that door remained open, I could see Mom and I was content.  Liz, always one to shake things up, decided she’d close the door.  When she flung it shut, I set up a howl.

“Liz,” Mom said.  “Keep the door open so the baby can see me.”

“No!” Liz said, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at Mom in a way that only a defiant three-year-old can.

“Liz Ann, now you open that door so the baby won’t cry.”

Liz shook her head.

I don’t know how long Mom’s cajoling campaign continued before she issued Liz an ultimatum – either open the door or get a spanking.

“You better not spank me,” Liz said.  “If you do, I’ll tell my mother, and she’s really a fighter.”

I guess Liz figured threatening Mom with our mother was more effective than threatening her with our father since he was Mom’s son.  Somehow, without cracking up laughing or swatting Liz’s little behind, Mom lifted her eyebrows, opened her dark eyes wide and said, “Well, I’m really a fighter too.”

Seeing that Mom wasn’t going to back down and possibly realizing she had met her match, Liz opened the door.

I have a more vivid memory of the next incident of Liz’s pitting her will against Mom’s.  Mom’s house was a treasure trove of fascinating things for Liz and me – mahogany gargoyles whose mouths were open just wide enough for a couple of little girls to pretend to get bitten by their pointy teeth when they jabbed their fingers into the gargoyles’ mouths; boxes of fancy, old-fashioned Valentine cards Mom’s mother had sent to her during the first half of the twentieth century; and always – wonderful food.  Usually, Mom’s food was something she’d prepared herself – a pot of hamburger soup chock-full of vegetables, a pan of thick cornbread, a pedestaled plate of three-layer coconut cake.   One day, when we arrived at Mom’s house, Liz and I spied something Mom generally didn’t have – store-bought candy.  On that day, a candy bar was lying on her kitchen countertop, and Liz and I both wanted it – all of it!

“I just have one,” Mom said, unwrapping the candy bar, placing it on a plate, and pulling a knife from a drawer.  “You can each have half.”

“I’ll cut it!” Liz said, reaching for the plate and grabbing the knife.

I watched as Liz slid the knife through the skin of that chocolate bar.  It didn’t escape my notice that one piece was more-than-slightly larger than the other.  Apparently, it didn’t escape Mom’s notice either.

When Liz finished cutting the candy bar in “half,” Mom took the plate from her and said, “Okay, Liz, you got to divide it.  Now, Teresa, you pick the piece you want.”

A picture (sweeter than any candy) of Liz’s face is permanently etched in my memory.  Her brown eyes widened and her mouth popped open as Mom held the plate out to me.  Having raised four children, Mom had been down this “sharing” path before.  The only word I have to describe the feeling I had as I snagged the larger piece of candy and bit into it is joy.

Considering this history with Mom and Liz, I’m not sure why I chose to side with Liz when Mom told us to come back inside the house, but I vividly remember what happened next.  In the little Arkansas town where Mom lived, there was an old woman who wore long black dresses and old-timey black boots.  Not many people scared Liz, but she was scared of this woman whose pinched face and beak-like nose gave her a witchy appearance.  We didn’t know the woman’s name, so we simply referred to her as “the witch.”  Having listened to far too many fairy tales and having overactive imaginations, we had no trouble at all envisioning the witch flying through the air on her broomstick, scouring the town for little girls she could swoop down on and possibly eat.

Standing outside Mom’s house that day, we had forgotten all about the witch until the air was saturated with the sound of a spooky voice that shrieked, “I’m gonna get me two little girls.”

Liz almost knocked me down as she made a beeline for the back door.  In a flash, we scurried across the concrete floor of the screened-in porch and into the den where Mom sat in her rocking chair, calmly crocheting.

For days afterward, Liz and I puzzled over how Mom could have thrown her voice in such a way to make it sound as if it were coming from outside her house.  We thought maybe she had gone to an open window at the back of her house and screeched out that threat, but we dismissed this notion because we didn’t think a woman of her advanced age could have possibly made it back to her rocking chair so fast.  That left us with only one logical explanation – Mom must have gotten the witch to do it, which meant she actually knew the witch.

Liz and I never asked Mom how she managed to send us that witchy threat.  I suspect as we got older, we realized that Mom was much faster and shrewder than we’d given her credit for being.  But on that long-ago day, the belief that our grandmother had enough power to convince a witch to do her bidding was enough to keep the two of us in line.

Day 25: Dear Need

Day 25 in the Dear Gratitude project is submitted by yours truly :).

Dear Need,

I first remember meeting you, Need, when my father fell from his heroic platform in my mind. Grappling with drug addiction, he stood in our living room in Augusta, Kansas, in 1984, and admitted that he had fallen for Caroline. I remember my mom crying, scorching, angry tears spilling over, commanding him to explain himself to his four daughters. He tried to. And then he left.

And I didn’t shed a tear, although I was surrounded by four emotionally distraught females.

My dad, circa 1984, who I've grown to love again

My dad, circa 1984, who I’ve grown to love again

I didn’t know then how much I needed a daddy and how much the lack of having one would alter my path in life. I didn’t know that, as Naomi Shihab Nye claims in her poem The Traveling Onion, “It is right that tears fall for something small and forgotten.” I didn’t know these things, but I would learn them later. Because of you, Need, I spent years trying to replace my dad with insufficient substitutes. I can’t say that I’m proud of that, but I know that you, Need, are often something I can’t even detect in myself—but God can. Thanks to you, Need, I eventually found a Father. Thank you, Need, for leading me to create a path of destruction uglier and more harmful than the mess left behind in Wichita after a tornado. Seeing myself realistically finally led me to accept and love my dad again.

Need, you became a part of our daily family life. We needed food, clothing, and shelter, our little family of five, a single mom with four daughters under the age of seven. You, Need, introduced us to welfare. You acquainted us with embarrassment and shame. You moved us into a trailer park. You are the reason I cried for an entire afternoon because I did not have a denim skirt to wear to my friend’s birthday party, and you are the reason my mom could not purchase one, even though she wanted to.

But you, Need, are also the reason that my mom went back to college and pursued a career in dental hygiene, something she is still passionate about. You are part of the reason that I studied so hard to try to obtain a scholarship myself. You are the one to thank for the circumstances that led to my mom becoming best friends with Kay Egan, a woman with a gigantic golden heart. You’re to thank for the chance to grow up with near-cousins and to be loved by near-grandparents, for the chance to climb trees, explore barns, and ride tractors. You, Need, are who taught me that I’m no better than anyone else. That people in poverty aren’t always stuck in the mud as a result of poor choices. Thank you for making it impossible for my mom to take care of us on her own. If she’d been able to, I wouldn’t have received countless gifts of kindness and selflessness, like my Sunday School teacher in first grade who offered to pay for me to learn gymnastics, which is still my favorite sport.

Kay and John Egan, 2000

Kay and John Egan, 2000

Need, I could choose to hate you. But I don’t. I’m thankful for your place in my life, even today. I’m thankful for the irritability and negativity that rises up in me when I don’t focus on the Solution. That need prompts me to change. I’m thankful for the times when I have to spend less and save more. This keeps me humble and dependent on the Giver. I’m thankful for the times when I can’t make my daughter feel better and for the times when I can’t figure out how to get her to eat more, nurse less, or go to sleep. It keeps me from attaining parental perfection, and that leads me to accept help and input from my Wise Dad who knows my child better than I do. I’m thankful for my own powerlessness and lack of ability to manage every situation solely.  This keeps my egotistical, self-righteous self from bragging and annoying everyone I meet, and it keeps me coming back for help from the Ultimate Guru.

I need you, Need, to get me to gratitude.

I need Need to get me to God.

 

Day 9: Dear Pate

*Thanks to Mary Agrusa, a fellow blogger, for writing the entry for Day 9 of the Dear Gratitude project!*

I’m honored to contribute to Bethany’s blog this month. I dedicate this post to my sister.

Dear Pate,

Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography at www.phoopla.com

Photo courtesy of Phoopla Photography at http://www.phoopla.com

As one of the two remaining members of our immediate family, I’m happy to spend these final chapters of my life with you. You’re amazing.

Opposites can attract; however, as kids we often withdrew to our respective corners to avoid the weird one. You’re probably right on this point. Today, our differences add depth and dimension to our relationship. I love you exactly the way you are.

Despite personal experiences to the contrary, you remain unswervingly devoted to your family. You’ve never been afraid to enter the arena and take the bull by the horns. I’m more apt to stay safely behind the wall to venture out only if and when the dust settles. You are one brave woman.

A true champion of the underdog, you’re willing to spend yourself and your resources to help others despite your own needs. You have the heart of a giver.

Circumstances beyond our control kept us apart for too many years. Mom’s death brought us back together. Although we can no longer traverse the Metro D.C. area as before, any time we spend together is priceless. You are a treasure.

I thank God for giving me a person of excellence, courage, determination, generosity and love for a sister. I am truly blessed.

I Love You,

Mary

 

 

Mothers and more mothers

*Thanks to my pastor, Paul Seay, for serving as today’s guest contributor.*

“For women, though, without children of their own, who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us, we pray to the Lord…”—Book of Blessings, USA., United Methodist Book of Worship, page 438

My own mother, Clora Lee Walker Seay, went home to heaven a little over 30 years ago.  She was a saint of a lady who put up with my father longer than she should have, but that’s the way she was.  She vowed before God that she would take him for better or worse and she lived that commitment until her death.  She also put up with my five brothers and sisters and me, which I know had to be a struggle also.  In the years since her death I have been able to witness other women who have been wonderful mothers although they never had children of their own.  I want to mention a couple of them.

Paul and his sister, Sue

Paul and his sister, Sue

My older sister, Sue Ann Seay Smith, has always been a rock for our family.  Although she and her husband, Larry, have no children of their own, they have helped raise us younger brothers and sisters along with countless nieces and nephews on both sides of the family.  Sue Ann also taught fourth grade in the Jackson, Missouri, school system until she retired after 30 years of service.  When I visit her, we run into former students in the grocery store or Wal-Mart, and I am amazed how they always want to visit with her and share with her about their lives and the influence she has had on them.

Another lady is our Children’s Ministry Director at Central Avenue United Methodist Church, Dennie Story Baker.  Whether it is the children’s message on Sunday morning, directing the Ringing Cherubs or Allegro Ringers Bell Choirs, or the Heavenly Hallelujahs children’s choir, she is always on the top of her game.  The girls and boys love Ms. Dennie, they pay attention to her, and they learn from her.  In the many years she has worked here at CAUMC, she has been a wonderful influence on hundreds of our children, youth, and young adults.

Dennie with some of her kids

Dennie with some of her kids

As I was writing this there were many others just like Sue Ann and Dennie that crossed my mind.  I just want to say that mothers are not always defined as those who have given birth, and we should thank God for them all.

Counting on Counting Bob

*Thank you, Teresa Burns Murphy, for stepping in as today’s guest contributor. Check out Teresa’s website for information on her novel.*

Author Teresa Burns Murphy’s father

My dad has a reputation for being good with numbers.  This is one of the reasons he has been the official attendance taker at church and Sunday school for many years.  He also has a reputation for being good with children, and that’s how he got the word Counting affixed to his first name, Bob.  He frequently allows one of the children to help him sound the bell to signal that Sunday school is over and church is about to begin.  This is a coveted honor among the children of the church, and several years ago one of the children remarked to her mother that she wanted to help “Counting Bob” ring the bell.  Before he was “Counting Bob,” he was “Mr. Burns” to hundreds of students at Batesville High School.  In addition to helping students find their way through the often-murky waters of adolescence, he taught mathematics. Mathematics has been defined as “the study of quantity, structure, space, and change,” a discipline that “seeks out patterns to form new conjectures.”  Always the mathematician, my dad was and continues to be a problem solver.

I strongly suspect my sister, Liz, and I presented my dad with many of his greatest problems.  One problem in particular occurred when were we small and shared a bedroom as well as a bed.  As all parents know, sending their children to bed doesn’t equal their children’s going to sleep.  Liz and I could be counted among those youngsters who are sleep resistant.  In fact, we developed a nightly bedtime “pattern” of behavior that began with whispering and crescendoed into a full-blown giggle-fest.  For us, this was so much fun we wanted to stay awake and keep the party going.  Night after night, we fervently fought sleep, but exhaustion ultimately overpowered us.  Still not wanting to give in to sleep, we resorted to arguing and tussling, leaving our bedding in a tangle and our parents in a less-than-pleased frame of mind.

One evening when we had wreaked particularly violent havoc with our bedding, my dad decided to put the quietus on our late-night antics by giving us a spanking.  While my dad has never been a fan of corporal punishment, I suspect this was an action of last resort brought on by the exhaustion of an early bird who had to contend constantly with two rambunctious night owls. I’m not sure about Liz, but I believe this is the only spanking I ever got from my dad.  I’m pretty sure it didn’t halt our nightly roughhousing, but it set my dad to speculating about a more viable solution.

First, he looked at the “quantity” of the entities involved and came up with the conclusion that one bed and two girls were never going to add up to a restful night’s sleep.  Soon thereafter, we received a set of twin beds.  While that change in “structure” didn’t totally solve the problem – we still argued – it kept us in line until we were in junior high school and my parents built a new house that included enough “space” for us to have our own bedrooms. We still managed to have a tiff now and then; but, when we did, my parents could send us to our respective rooms.  This “change” in our sleeping quarters kept our house much more peaceful.

I’m grateful that my dad is good with both children and math and that he has for years put his expertise to practical use, solving problems in and out of the classroom.  Early on, he adopted the philosophy of another mathematician – Benjamin Peirce –  who defined mathematics as “the science that draws necessary conclusions.”

 

Cool Hand Liz

*Today’s blog is written by my friend, former professor, and talented author, Dr. Teresa Murphy, for her sister Liz. Happy birthday, Liz!*

Today is my sister’s birthday.  I won’t say how old Liz is, but she’s two years older than I am.  Consequently, just about the time I was making my debut, Liz was hitting the terrible twos.  Luckily for our parents, Liz was an unflappable and take-charge kind of girl.  Though I’m sure she initially regarded me with a healthy measure of contempt, she quickly realized that I was someone she could (ahem) mold.  Liz’s careful attention to my character manifested itself in all manner of situations, and I think it’s safe to say had it not been for Liz I would not be the person I am today.  In fact, I might not have survived childhood at all!

One of Liz’s greatest accomplishments was helping me become more patient.  An early lesson in patience occurred when Liz was five and I was three.  Liz was a fearless kid, and she’d been a tree climber pretty much her whole life.  I was a nervous Nellie and preferred to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.  When Liz decided it was time for me to branch out, she chose a very tall tree in our backyard.  Reluctantly, I agreed that it might be time for me to brave up a bit and at least try to climb that tree.  Liz was lithe and lean.  I was more Winnie-the-Pooh shaped, and it took a lot of coaxing and tugging to get my tubby little cubby body into the upper branches of the tree.

When we finally got to a branch we could sit on, Liz proudly exclaimed, “Look how high up we are!”

I was not aware that I had acrophobia until I looked down and indeed saw how high up we were.  It didn’t take long for my nervous Nellie nature to kick in, and I started to cry.

Always the optimist, Liz went to work immediately trying to convince me that I could climb back down. “Just grab the tree branch and turn around.  Then put your foot on the lower branch.”

“I caaaaaan’t!” I wailed.  “I’m stuck!”

Initially, Liz was calm. “Sure you can.  Just try.”

Eventually, she realized I was not going to budge and went inside to fetch my grandmother.  It wasn’t long before my grandmother came bustling out of our house, taking up where Liz left off and trying hard to convince me that she’d be there to catch me if I slipped – which she was sure I wouldn’t –  but just in case.  Unfortunately, my grandmother was around five feet tall, and there was about a three-foot gap between her outstretched arms and me. That was way more space than I could imagine navigating.

After spending some time pleading with me to come down, my grandmother finally realized I wasn’t going to and said, “Hon, you’ll just have to wait until your dad gets home.”

I assured her I could wait.  My dad was much taller than my grandmother, and he got me down when he got home from work.  Liz, I believe, received a talking-to about how things might seem like a good idea at the time, but often require further thought.

In addition to patience, I learned other lessons from Liz.  When she noticed that I was singing a bit too enthusiastically at church, she leaned toward me and whispered, “Don’t open your mouth so wide when you sing!”  Back then, I was insulted.  I now realize she was merely trying to save me from the humiliation of looking like a big-mouthed Muppet.  Without Liz’s constant admonition, “Don’t be so stupid,” I’m pretty sure I would never have made it out of elementary school.

There were other times that had Liz not been nearby, I quite likely would have perished.  One such incident took place a year or so after the tree-climbing debacle.  Liz and I were playing our game of crawling through our dad’s spacious Ford sedan.  We found it great fun to hoist ourselves up to the open window on the passenger’s side, scramble into the car, crawl across the front seat, and finally vault out the driver’s side window.  This was during those loosey-goosey days of car-making when seat belts and airbags were considered superfluous, and gears could be shifted quite easily even though the engine was turned off.  As I was scrambling across the front seat, I managed to kick the gear shift into reverse, sending the car rolling down our steep driveway.  Luckily, cool hand Liz was close on my heels and put the gear shift back in park.  Once I started breathing again, we resumed our game.

So, here’s to big sisters everywhere who have taught their little sisters so much and have occasionally saved their hides.  I’m certainly grateful to mine.  After all, Liz could have easily jumped out of the car as it lurched toward the busy street in front of our house leaving her scared stiff sister hurtling down the hill alone.  Instead, she stood by me.   For this and a million other reasons, I’d like to wish Liz a very happy birthday and many happy returns!

 

*To check out more by author Dr. Teresa Murphy, check  out her website.*

 

Touchstone people

My stepsister Sarah lived with us from the time I was in first grade until the end of fifth grade. My three sisters and I loved having one more girl around. That’s not to say we didn’t have our typical childhood squabbles. But for the most part, we were happy to be together, and we shared everything sisters share–clothes, Barbies, gymnastics lessons, dogs named Misty and Watson, a cat named Ralph, and even a duck named Quackers.

After Sarah left to go live with her mom, we didn’t keep in touch very well. But when she moved back in with us her sophomore year of high school, it was like no time had elapsed at all between the two of us. We picked up where we left off, although both of us were crazy, messed up, grunged out teenagers. That year in high school was one of the hardest years of my life personally, but in some ways it was one of the best. Sarah being around had a lot to do with why it was better. We had common experiences and feelings and were able to support each other through all of it.

Then she left at the end of the spring, and again, we didn’t keep in touch well until she had her first daughter, RayAnne. And every year since, we’ve grown closer. I’ve watched her become a more beautiful, complete, spiritually grounded, and mature woman. And along the way, we’ve had a whole lot of fun.

It seems that the best people in my life–whether friends or family–are the ones I can call after six months of no communication and pick up right where we left off, with no hesitation, awkwardness, or lack of topics for conversation. They’re the people who are my touchstones in life, who mark the best and worst of times for me, and who were there for me through all of it. I’m lucky to have several.

Those touchstone people, like Sarah, are the people I’m most grateful for.