Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain…
–John Henry Newman
“I know you may find this hard to believe,” my dad said, “But, I’m perfect.”
He stared hard into my 15-year-old face as his eyes, faded from the years he spent out to sea, drilled holes into my doubt. “I know you don’t believe me,” he said, “But, it’s true. You’ll never find a more perfect person than me.”
My father, who cherished me deeply when I was a child, had just taken his thick-as-ham hands and slapped me in rapid succession on each side of my head. He pinned me against the bathroom wall, spit in my face, and told me I was disgusting. This, for defending my mother.
In the 1940s, my father boxed with the Golden Gloves. In 1947, a career-ending injury became a halo of sorrow that encircled his right shoulder. Sometimes, when he wore a wife-beater, I traced that scar with my index finger. It looked like a tiny crown of thorns.
My father never stopped grieving that injury, and in life, he never left the ring. He kept everyone on the ropes. Pulled no punches. Drove us down for the count. One day, in the winter of 1984, he delivered a particularly low blow.
It was about 20 degrees that day in Northeast Oklahoma and the streets were covered in a thick layer of ice. Six months earlier, he’d resigned his pastorate in Southeast Kansas. He and my mom moved 15 miles down the road where they rented a house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood filled with small brick homes and 1950s cracker-box houses. Built on the outskirts of town, it was a planned community replete with uniformity. There beneath the low-pitched roofs, below the surface of America’s suburban intentions, seeped the wounds of recession.
On that particular day, the wind chill factor was in the single digits and our car was running on fumes. Nevertheless, my father decided to head into town for milk and bread. My mom and I tagged along as we’d been cooped up in the house for several days. We were so hungry.
We weren’t a half a mile from the house when my dad eased our jalopy to the side of the road. We’d once again run out of gas. After a few minutes of hem-hawing around about who was going to make the trek to get some fuel, my mother finally got out of the car, slammed the door, and started walking. I got out of the car and followed after her. I listened to her cry and curse my father the entire way home.
The ice on the street was so thick, my mom and I had to take tiny, measured steps all the way back to the house. On a good day, that walk would have taken six minutes, but the weather conditions were so bad, it took us at least 20 minutes to cover five blocks.
Once we got home, my mom dug a milk jug out of the trash, scrounged for some change, and set out for the convenience store, the UtoteM that was more than a half-mile away. It took us nearly an hour to traverse the slick streets on foot. When we caught the first glimpse of the store’s yellow sign it beamed like plastic sunshine against that otherwise Plutonian day. It was the best thing ever, especially since my mom was so distressed by the cold.
After we paid for a gallon of gasoline, we discovered the pump nozzle was too big for the milk jug opening. I borrowed a pair of scissors from the convenient store clerk and my mother cut the top off the jug. She filled it with about 40 or 50 cents worth of gasoline as that was all the jug would hold.
The walk back to the car was very difficult. It took us over an hour to go a little more than half a mile. Still taking baby steps on thick sheets of ice, we took turns carrying the gasoline. The fumes were overwhelming and the fuel sloshed and spilled on our hands and clothes. It soaked through our gloves and burned our freezing fingers. By the time we reached my dad, my mom was sick. Looking back, I’m sure she had hypothermia. She was nauseated and her breathing was shallow. Her fingers were bright red.
When we finally got back to the house, I laid my mother down in front of the furnace in the hallway and covered her with blankets. She was as white as the snow that had dusted the ice, giving us a tiny bit of traction. She cried like a wounded animal. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.
I cursed my father, “Why didn’t YOU go get the gas!?”
And he replied with a kittenish smile that has haunted me all my life. “Because it was cold,” he said.
My mom suffered several heart attacks during her life here on earth. Near the end of her days, I started to lose track of them all, but the first one I would always remember. It was that spring after all the ice had melted. She was only 51.
We didn’t revisit the events of that winter day for more than 30 years. Then one day, while my father lay dying in a nursing home, I recalled the wintertide that nearly buried us. I told her he was terrible and did not love us. She didn’t disagree.
I unpacked this truth like a balm and applied it to her wounds, believing as I do that the lies we tell ourselves are what kill us, not the painful realities we avoid. My sweet, beautiful mama, by then in her 80s, shrugged her shoulders and said, “I know, but I loved him.”
When I think of all my father put my mother through, I am overwhelmed with sadness. Abuse is too soft a word to describe what he did to her. I always did what I could to make her happy, but it is easy to fail people when you are human.
I miss my mom so much and it hurts so bad not to have her with me anymore. I try not to think of her too often because I don’t want my memories of her to fade. I want her to remain vivid in my mind and I always look for her in my dreams.
My father, the hellfire and brimstone preacher, took me to church twice on Sunday and every Wednesday for the first 15 years of my life. He pointed me to the cross, and I became a believer in the very Lord he claimed had made him perfect. I never believed that nonsense, though he managed to trick me for a while.
Today, I am a happy convert to Catholicism. The incense, the Latin, the priest’s regalia, the Rosary, the dear Mother Mary – none of these things reminds me of my father.
But, I loved him, you know.
There are days when it’s hard to believe in heaven and yet, my faith requires it and it is also the only solace I have left. My mother was the most humble person I have ever known. She was grateful the day I took off her old coat and wrapped her in blankets. She was grateful I carried the gasoline most of the way. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I pray now through the spitting-ice winds of my unbelief that she is with God, our Father, and that the cold wind of the wintertide is forever at her back.
I love you, Mom.
Photo Credit: The Jennifer Chronicles. All Rights Reserved.
In 2020, I joined hope*writers with the intention of completing a Generation X memoir that I started many moons ago. This post, Wintertide, is a section from one of the chapters about my teen years in the recession-ravaged Heartland.