Thursday, January 19, 2012
An excerpt from my new book entitled Getting Over The Four Hurdles of Life
I guess you could say that my story of faith started two days before I was born. Two days before I was born, my so-called father—I’ve always referred to him as “my mother’s husband”—left my mother, two young sisters, eleven and twelve years of age, and me, and he never returned. His departure put my mother in a difficult position. She had an eighth-grade education, came off the farm in North Dakota, and couldn’t get a job during the Great Depression in 1935. In the cold prairies of North Dakota, she had to do two things that were very unpleasant for her: she became a baby-sitter to earn money, and she had to put our family on welfare. We lived in a one-room apartment above a bar and hardware store, and I remember my mother getting $42.50 in Ward County welfare each month. She sat down and meticulously decided what breads and canned goods we could buy for the coming week.
Several times during these difficult times, my mother taught me a lesson that has stayed with me during my entire life. Two times, I saw my mother get on her winter coat, walk down a flight of stairs, and take back to the Red Owl and the Piggly Wiggly grocery stores 25 cents and 40 cents, because the clerks had given her too much change for the groceries she’d brought home. Seeing her dressing in the middle of winter, I said, “Mama, where are you going?” She said, “Oh, I’m taking this money back to the store. They gave me too much change.” It reminds me of a poem by Edgar Guest.
I’d rather see a lesson than hear one any day.
I’d rather you walk with me than to merely show the way.
The eye is a better teacher, and more willing than the ear.
And counsel is confusing but example’s always clear.
The best of all the teachers are the ones who live the creed.
To see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I soon can learn to do it if you let me see it done.
I can see your hand in action, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the counsel you are giving may be very fine and true, But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do.
My mother followed the advise of St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century when he said, “Preach the gospel every day, and if necessary use words.” I saw other lessons in the life of this woman who had no PhD behind her name. Not once, after being abandoned, did I hear my mother talk negatively about the man who had walked out on us and never returned, never sent any money, never wrote. She didn’t drink, and she never smoked. I never heard her swear. She was never bitter, angry, or ever complained about her situation in life.
My mother’s Catholic faith was unbelievable. She brought me to Mass and Communion daily—not just Sunday, but daily. For me, the daily trip to church was a ritual. To my numerous fake illnesses and attempts to avoid going, my mom’s response was always, “Get up, Son. We’re going to Mass and Communion.” The spirit that grew in that little, one-room apartment we lived in, uncomfortable and cramped though it was, made it attractive.
Being a small place, the apartment never provided any place for me to get away on my own. So at night, I often went to sit above the alley on the fire escape. One night, the faith my mother instilled in me deepened when I came back in from sitting out there. My mom asked me to sit in her little rocker. She pulled up the footstool and said, “Son, I notice you go outside at night a lot. What do you think about when you’re out there, sitting on that fire escape?” I said, “Mama, I think of three things. I think of travel.” (We didn’t own a car, a bicycle, or any other form of transportation.) “I think of mountains.” (North Dakota is a very flat state, flatter than the top of a table.) “And I think about learning—I want to learn as much as I can.”
My mother hesitated just a moment and then said, “You know Son, I’m going to tell you something. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I need to teach you a lesson. You know when these people come to pick me up to go baby-sit? I’m so embarrassed. There’s no husband in our house. We live in this little one-room apartment. I’ve just got an eighth-grade education. My clothes smell of mothballs.” (She bought her clothes at rummage sales.) “So I’m so worried about my image when these big shots come to pick me up. I look up big words in the dictionary, and then all the way to their house,” she said, “I inject these big words into conversation to try to impress them. That’s called making an image. When you sit out there on the fire escape at night, just you and God, that’s your true character. And Son,” she said, “If you spend too much time polishing your image, you’ll eventually tarnish your character and be an unhappy man.” That night, my mom taught me that being my true self was far more important than trying to impress people or pretend to be someone I was not. Your character is who you really are and your image is what you are perceived to be.