Good Enough!

My heart sank in front of the hall display. This was the morning the sixth-grade teachers would show off the best notebooks. I didn’t see mine.

Maybe I had missed it at the first look. My eyes moving more slowly this time–left to right, down, left to right, down, left to right–I checked again. Then I zoned in on a particularly scrawny one. It couldn’t possibly contain as much Maryland history as mine. Why hadn’t my notebook been selected? Why wasn’t it good enough?

Wasted were the long nights I had sat alone and straddle-legged on the bare, hard floor cutting and pasting from a stack of Sunday Sun Magazine issues while the rest of the family slept. As my mind and body gave out on that last night, my insides silently screamed for my mother to come into the living room and make me go to bed. I couldn’t stop the project by myself. I didn’t know where enough ended. Finally, the assignment deadline notified me no more would be expected.

Dejected, I walked into my classroom at the end of the hall. As soon as I slumped down in my desk chair, Mr. Viti was squatting beside me. “Judy,” he softly said, “yesterday the other teachers and I tried every way we knew how to put your notebook up, but it wouldn’t stay. It was too heavy. I want you to know, though, you had the best notebook of all. We could see you put a lot of work in it.”

My intention had not been to make the notebook so big it “outdid itself.” As always, I strove to do my best without understanding what that looked like. I kept pushing, pushing, pushing. One more magazine, one more article, one more picture would make the notebook better. Perfect. But where was the point of perfection? Where was the finish line? I was on my own to figure it out, and I couldn’t.

My father, it seemed, could. He had internalized the perfection standard so well that when his expectation wasn’t met by everyone in his world, he took a nosedive into the bottle.

Try as I might during my growing-up years, I felt nothing I did met my father’s approval; for I never heard him say a satisfying “good.” Deprived of that, getting high marks in school became my substitute source of praise.

Then, somewhere in his sober senior years, my father changed. While he was fixing something or other one day, he shocked me with “that’s good enough.” In that moment I understood his “good enough” did not mean he had done a mediocre job. His “good enough” meant he had met a realistic expectation of himself. Also in that astonishing moment, it was as if my father had  cut a cord, releasing me to judge my own efforts as good enough.

My father had learned to recognize and accept the adequate stopping point. Much like a person who understands the exclamation mark.

The exclamation mark (!) punctuates strong feeling. Some people, apparently striving to push the point that they are really, really, really enthusiastic about the meaning of their word or sentence, will attach two or three exclamation marks–or four or five–or more. Theoretically, they could carry the emotional symbol on to infinity. So how do they determine the cut-off point?

There is no standardized chart delineating how much emotional value a specific number of exclamation marks denotes. The initiator and the recipient are left to their own cognitive and/or emotional devices for the degree of happiness or alarm to feel. Pity the neurotic who counts the number of exclamation marks a teacher places behind “nice work” on an assignment and pits it against a different total after the same comment on his peer’s product!

Have you ever seen more than one period at the close of a sentence to convey it is really, really, really finished? Why is more expected of the exclamation mark than its original intent? Why isn’t its stopping point recognized? When we get real, we will accept that one exclamation mark is perfect. It is good enough!
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Crossing the Boundary

“You’ll never go,” she declared within a spontaneous laugh. That laugh wasn’t because I had struck a chord of humor. Nor did it mean my mother would do all in her power to keep me from going to college. No, it reflected the absurdity of my dream. In my mother’s mind college was an absolute impossibility, for it cost every bit of money she could salvage amidst my father’s sea of alcoholism to keep the family afloat.

As her oldest child of six, my mother was counting on me for additional family income after I graduated from high school. She set the boundary when she fenced me into the commercial curriculum.

“Mama, I want to take the academic course.” I knew I needed the math, foreign language, and science classes if I had any hope of being admitted to a college. Without them how could I do well on the required ACT or SAT? My high school, allowing no overlapping, drew indelible lines for each curriculum (academic, commercial, general). I would be stuck for three years on the track I started in the tenth grade.

“Judy, you can’t get a job with that academic stuff. It’s foolishness. A waste of time. You’ve got to get a job, and you’re going to take the commercial course.”

When my hushed voice revealed I wanted to go to college, Mama’s laugh trashed my dream to the ridiculous and defined my boundary. Thus business arithmetic, typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping boxed my borders.

A few days short of my eighteenth birthday, I was assigned an office desk with a manual typewriter at Edgewood Arsenal, Maryland. As I handed my mother money for room and board each payday, her burden was a little lighter.

Every day I worked the clerk-stenographer job I starved intellectually and emotionally, all the while building up my strength to cross my mother’s boundary. Fifteen months later I matriculated at Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

While sitting in general psychology class that fall, I learned my professor had crossed an imposed boundary too. His feat, however, was one that I, having belonged to the National Honor Society, could not imagine.

“I was tested as borderline mental retardation,” Dr. Cook told the class. “But that did not keep me from getting a doctorate. And that is why I’m always advising this college not to require ACT or SAT scores for admission. A student’s potential should not be bound to those tests.”

If anyone could say since David of old “With You I can attack a barrier, and with my God I can leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29 HCSB), it was Dr. Cook. Refusing to let a statistical standard hedge him in, he established his own boundary. Then, using his life experience, he fought for those who might be barricaded from achieving their potential. I was one of them, getting in just under the wire, though. The ACT was a freshman admission requirement when I received my B.A. four years later.

I also got into Carson-Newman because, adhering to my mother’s career confines, I saved enough to pay the first-year expenses and earned the credibility to be rehired during college summers. With God I moved a boundary.
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Unexpected Development

He was a mean alcoholic. My father. I learned early on to keep my mouth shut. Not to say anything unless he spoke to me first. A cocoon of silence was the safest shelter from his tornadic ranting and raving. And not just when he was drunk.

My father did not explore my thoughts–shallow or deep–on anything. I obeyed his creed:  Children should be seen and not heard. His demands were to be met and in a hurry–no questions allowed. When I had a school problem, I took it to my mother. Always off-limits was any talk about the family shame.

This careful childhood engineering shaped my fear of the male authority figure. Thus I limped through life’s unavoidable encounters with male authorities, but Fear of Male Authority Figure immobilized me when I sat scared in the office of the college president. I was there because someone had assured me I could get a small scholarship if I simply asked for it.

Sitting where the secretary placed me—on the far side of the room from the college president—I was ashamed and afraid. Ashamed I was in a situation of having to ask. Afraid the answer would be no.

My replies were honest although they may have sounded timid. As usual, I lacked courage to look a male authority in the eye. No doubt the president behind his massive executive desk concluded I was hiding something. …

… And I would exit the interview still shackled to Fear of Male Authority Figure. (Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, p. 22)

But the days of this debilitating fear, birthed and nurtured in an alcoholic family, were numbered. Ironically and unbeknownst to him, my father was the impetus for its destruction. The demise began when I am convinced my father, warehoused in a nursing center fifteen hundred miles away, is a victim of drug-induced dementia.

Any hope of rectifying this injustice meant I had to confront doctors–the most frightening to me of all male authority figures. Up there next to God in the chain of command, a doctor controlled life and death.

After spending days screwing up courage to make the contact, my heart pounded throughout the first phone visit with Daddy’s primary physician.

‘Those are all good drugs that have been around for a long time,’ Dr. King said with patronizing finality.

My chart! My chart! Where is it? How am I going to know what to say if I can’t find it? I shouldered the telephone receiver and rubbed my clammy hands on my jeans. It’s my turn to talk. I mustn’t keep him waiting. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

My chest felt like a popcorn popper as I tossed papers out of the file. There it is! I grabbed the page of hand-drawn columns. I didn’t take time to return to my chair. ‘Uh, well, Dr. King, uh, I was reading the, uh, side effects.’ (Before the Door Closes, p. 23)

Nine months and several doctors later, I confidently approached a physician on behalf of my father, who again had been given a drug for a disease he did not have.  My father had moved to a nursing facility a few miles from my house, and this doctor is its medical director. Looking him in the eye, I am not intimidated.

‘It has been almost three weeks since Rosie called your office to switch my father to your care. We have not heard anything, and I want to know if you have made your decision.’

‘Is your father better?’

‘Yes, he’s better.’ It was the truth. Daddy no longer had dyskinesia. He was feeding himself again. Although he did not always recall the right answers, he comprehended the questions.

Dr. Murphy gave no hint of what he was thinking.

Is that it? I asked myself incredulously. You’re not going to commit one way or the other? Well, I will.

‘Dr. Murphy, my father is going to have a different doctor. If it’s not you, it will be somebody else.’ (Before the Door Closes, p. 117)

I was not intimidated, because when I was sixty-four years old, something unexpected happened to me. My Heavenly Father, looking at his daughter chained to Fear of Male Authority Figure, decided it was time for her to be unshackled. So God roped me in the ring with doctors, where I kicked and pushed and punched until Fear of Male Authority Figure could not stand up ever again.

God the Father never finishes growing His children. As Paul said, “I feel sure that the one who has begun his good work in you will go on developing it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 Phillips)
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Sticky Friend

She opened the drawer, and I fell drooling into the pit of covetousness.

My father had driven us somewhere–maybe to Washington, D.C. The woman was, I think, a distant aunt. Her only child was about my age, who, like me, was trapped in the boredom of adult talk.

“Do you want to read a book?” his mother asked him, pulling open the chest’s bottom drawer. Sitting obediently quiet by my mother, I had been thinking about that chest of drawers. It seemed out of place in a living room. Didn’t a bureau belong in the bedroom? But when I saw that open drawer chock-full of children’s books–beautiful, wonderful companions waiting to be met and enjoyed–I threw conflict out the window and replaced it for a double amazement. So many books and he told his mother no! Without another word she closed the drawer.

But I can read too! I even have my own library card. I’ve had it since I was six.

I couldn’t read then, but I was old enough to join the library. As soon as my July 3 birthday came, Mama gave me permission to walk to the library for my card. The librarian, though, handed me another kind of card, saying my mother had to first fill it out and sign it. I walked back home, then back to the library.

As she handed me my card, the librarian tainted my pride of ownership with her admonition. “You can only check out one book at a time. You must prove you can take good care of a book and will return it on time.”

I ran home hugging my first book all the way. Mama immediately sat down with my brothers and me and read the story to us. Then back I went to the library for my second book. When I returned home, Mama said she wouldn’t have time to read that one until tomorrow.

My fourth-grade teacher took my appreciation of books to a new level. The school did not have a library as such, but each classroom sectioned off  a small semblance of one. Every week we could select a new book to take home. One morning Miss Snap showed us a dog-eared page in a book. As she smoothed the corner back up, I noticed there was a permanent crease. Then she made the statement that claimed my heart. “Books are our friends. We would never do this to a friend.”

Only once had I seen my father read a book. Someone in AA loaned him Alcoholics Anonymous. I was probably in the fifth grade when I saw him reading the big blue book.

By then I was cherishing books as forever friends. I felt they would never leave me even though I had to return them to the library, for we had shared special moments together. I wanted Daddy to have these lifelong friends too.

When my father finished the last page of Alcoholics Anonymous, my hope soared that he was hooked into reading another book. I watched to see if he would. He never did, and I never thought of what would motivate him. (Before the Door Closes, p. 41)

But I didn’t have to motivate my husband,who is as great a lover of books as I am. We were married for less than six months when we bought our first bookcase, which I still use today in my home office along with one that my father made from a wooden playpen while drunk one night and a barrister bookcase I snatched up at a resale shop because I could stack books two deep on its shelves. We made sure our children had bookcases in their bedrooms. The last time we moved we had a bookcase built on the entire length of one wall. Sometimes my husband looks at me and says, “We have to get rid of some books.” Inevitably I reply, “You first.” Of course, that ends the discussion. Anyway, it’s much easier to buy another bookcase.

The Bible says in Proverbs 18:24, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” I know who, what, and where my sticky friend is.

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Out of Order

In commenting on my previous post, “The All-Weather Friend,” Carolyn revealed that she learned from classmates after she was grown they had similar stories to mine. She regrets not knowing their secret earlier so that she could have been of support at the time.

Her regret reminded me of André Auw’s poem “Out of Order,”  which tells of a little boy wanting to cry because he couldn’t get the popcorn machine to release the popcorn it held. He didn’t understand that his desire and his money were not enough to make the broken machine work. The poem then concludes:

And Lord, I too felt like weeping, weeping for
people who have become locked in,
jammed, broken machines filled with
goodness that other people need and
want and yet will never come to enjoy,
because somehow, somewhere,
something has gone wrong inside.

Many lives cloister wounded feelings, bruising as easily as magnolia petals. We do not always recognize these mangled souls. We may meet them only briefly. In a crowded store. At the gas pump. During a “move on” business call.

A patient word, a thumbs-up gesture, a simple thank you to these nameless victims may be enough salve for them to make it through another day. And what’s the price? A passing moment of stepping outside ourselves.

But what about the life who is harboring undeserved hurts? You do not have to pass them on. You have the power to break the cycle. You can help others not to be out of order too!
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Secret Shame Exposed!

The time had come to expose the family’s secret shame. Daddy is an alcoholic. Although he is now dead, I never stop thinking, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” Probably because I am so much like my father (minus the alcoholism), I never do anything halfway. So I proclaimed the truth to the entire world in my book, Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father.