Family Stories

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I grew up with stories my mom told about her own childhood. Most of them were oft repeated, yet they were more like parables than stories with a plot, characters, and a central conflict. Nevertheless, I’m reluctant to just let those stories fade away. They form a part of the backdrop to my own childhood. They carry a meaning, at least for me, that goes beyond the simple events they often recount. So I plan to tell some of them, as much as I can remember of them.

My mom was born Iva Lorraine Green, the first girl after four boys. Her older brothers were Marshall (named after her dad), Herman, Hershel, and David. She had two younger sisters, Emogene and Donna. As the first girl, she got teased a lot by her brothers and had to shoulder the responsibilities of “women’s work” on the farm as soon as she was old enough to stand at the sink and scrub dishes or boil water on the stove. Her brothers used to have real pissing contests. They would take turns pissing on the side of the barn. The one who could make his mark highest would win. I can imagine Iva, her green-eyed round face framed in dark curls, peeking around the corner of the barn to watch them. On the farm, there wasn’t much place for the prudishness of city life. She saw hogs castrated, kittens drowned, chickens butchered – all the normal business of farm life so foreign to urban and suburban dwellers.

I don’t know how old she was when Hershel was killed. It may even have happened before she was born, or she may have been too young to remember it. Herman and Hershel had been out sledding. They were on their way home, Herman trudging along the country road to their home, pulling Hershel on the sled. A car came hurtling over the hill. The driver, a neighbor who was drunk, did not see the sled with Hershel on it. He ran it over, killing Hershel. Herman blamed himself the way children do when anything bad happens.

Some time later—months or years, I do not know—Herman developed appendicitis. It’s a condition that runs in my family. Some of my siblings and some of my children have had it. Like them, Herman endured the pain uncomplainingly far longer than most people do. By the time he acknowledged being in pain, it was too late to get him to a hospital. His appendix burst. Before he died, he cried out to those around him, “I see Hershel and the angels coming for me.” I’m sure that this is one of the incidents that made Iva so certain of her faith in later life.

I think Iva was in fifth grade when she first saw Chuck, a boy a couple of years older who went to the same school. I don’t know know where or how they first met. At one point she was at a school program with her parents. She turned to her mother and said, “You see that curly headed boy in the second row? I’m going to marry him some day.” That boy was my father. They fell in love in high school, and she quit school to marry him when she was only sixteen. They eloped to Kentucky, where she didn’t need parental permission to marry. She still needed to be eighteen, though, so she wrote the number 18 on a slip of paper and put it in her shoe, all so she could claim without technically lying that she was “over eighteen.”

While Chuck and Iva were dating, they went with some friends to a swimming hole in a nearby river. Anyone who has ever gone swimming in a river knows that the water is not clear, especially after a few swimmers have stirred up the muck from the bottom of the river. Another feature of river swimming is that one was sometimes joined by other swimming creatures, particularly snakes. Iva wore a modest, black swimsuit with a top that tied around her neck. As she was swimming, she saw a long, black ribbon slither by in the water near her. Screaming in horror, she jumped up out of the water only to find that the top of her swimsuit had come undone. With every eye on her, she ducked back into the water to put her swimsuit top back on.

One of Chuck’s classmates, another boy named Ray, also admired Iva. The three of them went on a hayride together along with other friends. Snuggled down in the hay, Chuck reached his arm around Iva. Ray likewise reached his hand toward Iva, hoping to hold her hand without anyone noticing. Instead his hand met Chuck’s, and he grabbed it thinking it was Iva’s. Chuck and Ray held hands through the whole hayride, Chuck never letting on that he knew the hand he was holding was Ray’s.

These are some of the stories I heard from my mom during my childhood. They were told over and over, so I’m sure my brothers and sisters also remember them. My dad will also recognize them. I invite them along with Donna and Emogene to comment, share other stories they might know, and correct me where I’m wrong.

 

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8. No Stealing

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You shall not steal. —Exodus 20:15

It is hard to imagine a society with no sanctions on taking for your own use what does not belong to you. Some have tried, but even the wildest flights of fancy cannot come up with a sustainable culture that has absolutely no regard for personal property. I think the closest we come is in imagining cultures without individuals, such as the Borg in Star Trek: Next Generation. Each of us has a property in our own body, and much of our law is predicated on the notion that our bodies are our own and that we have certain rights bound up in our bodies that cannot be taken away by governments or other human institutions. The rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” specified in the Declaration of Independence are such rights. They pre-suppose individual freedom and personal accountability. They pre-suppose that each person has a property in their own body, that they have a right to sustain, protect, and defend that property against those who would try to take it. So the right to property—to own things and keep them for your own use while excluding others from having or using them—is an extension of the right to be secure in your own body.

But is stealing taking what does not belong to you, or is it taking what does belong to someone else? A lot of our history in the United States is predicated on the notion that taking what does not belong to you is not stealing, but taking what does belong to someone else is stealing. Consider the First Nations who were here when Europeans first arrived. Many of them did not consider land something that could be individually owned. It was a common property, owned by no one and everyone. Europeans, however, regarded land as a principle form of wealth. If the land belonged to no one, it was free for the taking.

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Meditation on Psalm 131

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Psalm 131 is only three verses, but the second verse has always nagged at me.

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Why a weaned child? At first I thought it meant a child who had finished nursing. Clearly, such a child is calmed and quieted and content. But a little research soon dispelled that notion. The NIV Study Bible, for example, notes that it refers to “A child of three or four who walks trustingly beside its mother.” How is that a better illustration of contentment than a younger child who is still nursing? What, I wanted to know, does a weaned child have that a nursing child does not?

Then it occurred to me that it is not what the weaned child has but what he does not have that makes the difference. The weaned child no longer has access to his mother’s milk. His calm and quiet and contentment come solely from his mother’s presence, not from anything she gives him. So the weaned child is a picture of perfect trust with nothing but his mother’s presence to secure his comfort and contentment. The psalmist’s trust in God is so deep and well-founded that God’s presence alone—rather than anything God can or might do for him—is the source of his peace and contentment.

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