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.

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)

Surprise Ego Strokes

“Okay, do you want a softcover or a hardback?” I asked, flattered the woman wanted to buy my book. But I wasn’t expecting the impact of her answer.

“A hardback! I want to keep it.”

Suddenly, my emotions soared higher than the happiness that another person was buying my book. This woman had stroked my ego beyond her awareness. To tell me she wanted my book was one thing. Desiring it in a hardback propelled the sale to another sphere. I had not yet written my blog post “Durable by Design“; so there was no way she knew of my enduring love relationship with the hardback. However, Someone did know, and that Someone had used this woman as a conduit to tell me I was not the only one who preferred a hardback and that I had not been wrong to pay for its inclusion in my self-publishing package.  I knew it and He knew it.

He stroked my ego again on a recent Sunday morning when I stepped out of the garage in a red suit and matching hat. Yes, I wear a hat to church even though I am the only one. I am not trying to make a statement other than I love hats. My mother did and my daughter does and my granddaughters do. So maybe it’s genetic. Regardless, let me miss a few Sundays without one and I’ll hear a church member say, “Judy, where is your hat?” or “Judy, I miss your hat.” Once a man asked my husband, “Is your wife wearing a hat today?” Hearing an affirmative answer, the man declared, “All is well with the world.”

My own world improved while standing in front of the garage that Sunday after I lightheartedly called to my neighbor, “You’re doing such a good job washing your car, when you finish, you can do ours.”

“Oh, Mrs. Simon,” he grinned, “you’re beautiful!”

His comment unintentionally stroked my ego on three ascending levels. First, a female inherently likes to hear she is beautiful. Second, the eyes of a man young enough to be my son assessed me as beautiful. Third, he gently salved a childhood wound from my dysfunctional father-daughter relationship.

Was that why I never heard him say I was pretty?

He often said it of my curly blond-headed sister. I was eleven years older and I wasn’t jealous, but I wanted to hear him say it of me too. Wasn’t it natural for fathers to think all their daughters were pretty?

I hated the mirror’s reflection when I was a teenager, and I avoided it as much as possible. Yes, I was thankful God had blessed my face with not a pimple. For my part I was doing the best I knew how with my straight, limp brown hair and the sample of Tangee lipstick.

And there were times when I thought the end product wasn’t any worse than what I saw on some of my peers. But no matter how hard I tried, I never heard the stamp of approval ‘pretty.’ (Before the Door Closes, pp. 53-54)

“Beautiful” is better than “pretty,” my heart responded to the neighbor’s compliment.  He and the book purchaser had unwittingly traversed hidden passages in my life’s labyrinth. Their spontaneity had stroked my ego, but they could never understand what it  had meant to my emotional well-being.

“You’ll never know what that means to me,” a fresh friend emailed. No, I wouldn’t. All I did was give her a couple of magazines and suggest she look them over as a place to submit her writing.

Haven’t you, too, had the mysterious moment of  “You’ll never know what that means to me,” whether your lips sent it or your ears received it? Did you, like me, feel the event was orchestrated by Someone outside yourself? Someone who knows our secrets and the needs they conjure? Someone who tenderly touches them?

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was written by William Cowper, a contemporary of John Newton (composer of “Amazing Grace”). If anyone can identify the soloist, I would appreciate the information.