What’s in a Starched Shirt?

The club never had a name and it never had a meeting. No one ever asked you to join; it was up to you if you wanted to belong. Well, almost up to you. You needed to have a serious boyfriend and get his permission first. If he agreed, your membership was quietly published when his starched and ironed white shirt appeared on a hanger in your dorm room or in the lobby as you joined him for a date.

Seeing me happily ironing my future husband’s shirt one day, a girl from across the hall announced the dorm mother didn’t want residents doing that anymore. What! I was a second-semester senior and, as far as I knew, the latest initiate from our girls’ dorm into this select club. Not about to relinquish the membership card I had received at the eleventh hour, I kept ironing the shirt weekly.

Back in my college years, all the young men wore white shirts, suits, and ties to Sunday morning church services. Hundreds of them would worship in the church whose property was bounded on three sides by my school’s sprawling campus. Any student could easily walk to it. That’s where I would hook up with my boyfriend at 9:30 a.m. and proudly smile at his polished look in the shirt I had ironed.

Sunday’s clean and crisp shirt was more than a symbol of our serious relationship. It was service in love. Each time I sprinkled with water and pressed out the shirt’s wrinkles and puckers, I imprinted more of myself on the man I would marry and was increasingly convinced I wanted to share in the mundane things as well as in the hopes and dreams of building a home together.

As soon as the marriage certificate was signed, five additional starched, white shirts were birthed. While conscientiously ironing them throughout the years, I felt that I was doing my part in helping my husband put his best foot forward as he worked jobs that brought him face to face with a fickle public. Also, I thought of his appearance as a reflection of me. I wanted to be seen as a wife who took good care of her husband.

Having invested myself in how he presented himself, I felt that he was representing me. In another dimension, whenever I saw the sparkling white, wrinkle-free shirt covering his chest, I knew I had given a gift of my heart to protect his heart while we were apart.

Guarding the heart is what the apostle Paul had in mind when, using Roman armor imagery, he advised the Christian to put on the breastplate of righteousness (Ephesians 6:14). A defensive weapon, the bronze breastplate worn by the ancient Roman soldier was commonly called “the heart protector.”

Ten years earlier, Paul had used the same military metaphor but referred to it as “the breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 5:8). Faith and love, blended together, protect the heart against the attacks and influences of evil and preserve what is vital.

Keep and guard your heart with all vigilance and above all that you guard, for out of it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23 AMP).

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Three Strikes

Three strikes! Peter’s shoulders slumped in disbelief. I’m out!

He hadn’t meant for it to end like this. What went wrong? He was so sure he was ready for this game. For the duration. For anything they would throw at him.

The team recognized him as their player with chutzpah. Some of them probably thought he was too impulsive at times, but they all admired him for his nerve. They could  count on him to step up to the plate and take care of business.

All of them heard him vehemently vow this moment would never happen. Now none of them would respect him. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was he had disowned his adored captain.

Disgraced and humiliated, Peter ran from the courtyard into the dark of night, his burly body shaking with racking sobs. Soon, however, he realized the team was not going to ostracize him. Then in a few weeks, the captain invited him to an early fish breakfast on the seashore. There Peter learned the final score.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Jesus asked three separate times. One time for each of Simon Peter’s denials in the courtyard that fateful night.

One by one Peter matched each denial with a confession of loyalty:  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” After every assertion, Jesus gave the apostle a job to do. In other words He reinstated Simon Peter into His fellowship. He was given a second chance.

Peter had made three strikes during that night of testing, but he was not out! He had become a better man, one who himself would go to the cross for the Son of God  he had once denied knowing.

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Father Manifestation

“What’s for supper?” my husband asked, peering into the kitchen. That was never a simple, face-value question. To me it meant I was not meeting his expectations. I wasn’t going fast enough for him. In the escalating self-inflicted irritation, I picked up my pace from sink to refrigerator to stove to counter to the cookbook and back to the stove.

That day my husband must have lingered a little too long at the kitchen bar, because he followed up with another question. “What did you think I was saying when I asked you that?”

With my eyes fixated on stirring the pot, I answered truthfully. “You were saying, ‘I’m hungry. Hurry up.'”

Immediately, I felt my husband’s body beside mine at the stove. “Judy, in our forty-eight years of marriage, I never thought that. Not once.”

How had I been so wrong for so long? Instinctively I traced the problem back to my father. In psychological terms I had been acting in the Parent part of me. According to psychiatrist Eric Berne, each of us is always acting in one of three ego states: Parent, Adult, Child. My husband’s simple “What’s for supper?” had stimulated a conditioning embedded in me by my father. Everything had to be done in a hurry. He could not be kept waiting. Even when he had driven me to a store on the morning of my wedding, my father told me to “hurry up” as I dashed from his car. (I revealed it and other father-influenced “hurry” incidents in Before the Door Closes.)

Whenever I think about having misunderstood my husband’s innocent question for almost half a century, I remember Jesus’ emotional reply after one of the apostles asked Him to show them the Father:  “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9 ESV).

What kind of Father did Jesus manifest? Stuart Townend shared his enlightenment when he composed “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”

The Son of God displayed to the world the Father’s sacrifice of love in His quest for a personal relationship with you and me. We cannot choose our earthly fathers, but we can choose God the Father.


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Trash Triage

Trash can 2He was sixty-one and at his job when he asked the morning newspaper boy to help him throw it in the dumpster (http://tampa.cbslocal.com/2014/04/03/housing-complex-clerk-mistakes-suicide-jumpers-body-for-april-fools-prank/). The ninety-six-year-old woman’s body hadn’t appeared human. To him she looked like a mannequin. A dummy.

The surgeon made a similar operating assessment when my friend’s father had been ambulanced from a nursing home with a fractured femur. Expecting a routine consult with the doctor prior to surgery, the daughter left the hospital at ten that night and returned at seven the next morning. The minutes ticked by. One by one the heavy hours stacked up. Where was he? Why didn’t he come?

At five-thirty the daughter was beside herself as orderlies wheeled her elderly father out of the room and she caught a glimpse of the doctor. Confronted with her consternation, he explained, “I did not come by because 90 percent of patients with dementia never have anyone with them.”

All too sadly his informed statistic mirrors society’s devaluation of the demented elderly. That 90 percent of them are presented to the medical community as throwaways is a result built family by family. Child by child. Son by son. Daughter by daughter.

What are we thinking? Father doesn’t know who I am? Mother doesn’t remember my name? They don’t know me; so what’s the point?

Why do we make love conditional? Did our parents make it conditional when we did not know their names? when we could not say words? In our helplessness didn’t we sense self-worth through the security of a swaddling blanket, the contentment of cuddling, the soothing sound of a lullaby? They imprinted personal value. We did not have to do anything or be anything except ourselves. Unadulterated.

My father, too, was diagnosed with dementia. His was mania manufactured by the misuse and overuse of antipsychotic drugs. (See http://www.amazon.com/Before-Door-Closes-Daughters-Alcoholic/dp/1490808949/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1396716040&sr=1-1&keywords=judith+hall+simon.) My success in getting the mind-altering drugs eliminated did not restore the spark in my father’s voice that had belonged to him before he was made a zombie and cast off as nursing facility waste. I missed hearing that unique part of him the rest of his life.

The drugs, taking their toll, also left my father’s mental function vacillating between clear and unclear. On one of his hazy days, Daddy asked me, “Who are you?”

“Judy.”

“That’s what I thought. You’re the one who takes care of me.”

I’ll remember that the rest of my life.

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The Opt-Out

“The patience of Job” is a misnomer, for patience implies exercising calmness while under hardship. That wasn’t Job! He was a complainer who endured. When he decided he had finally “had it,” Job demanded his day in court with  God. Once the Almighty heard his arguments, he would  undoubtedly be vindicated (Job 23:1-5)!

When the Judge comes, he opens the case by essentially telling Job he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (Job 38:2). Again and again God makes Job face the evidence of His sovereignty and grandeur. When the examination ends, Job, left speechless (Job 40:1-5), becomes God’s all-weather friend.

That’s how I described the friend  in my post of March 10. She had assured me that no matter what she would learn about me in my book Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father, she would love me. Nothing I had done or been in the past would change that. Job reached that point in his relationship with God when, like her, he opted out of being a fair-weather friend.
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The All-Weather Friend

“I was ‘startled,’ Judy, to receive your book,” my friend emailed me. “You know, we just don’t know people, do we?”

She was one of three out-of-state friends I surprised with a copy of Before the Door Closes: A Daughter’s Journey with Her Alcoholic Father. They had had no inkling of my father’s alcoholism. The friendships were formed and maintained for decades without the trust of my shameful secret. I wouldn’t chance losing a friend who knew the whole truth about me.

Growing up, I wanted to have a best friend. But how could I start? I couldn’t invite anyone to my house. Daddy might be drunk.

The closest I got to having my desire for a bosom buddy was with my college roommate. Whenever we listed our preference for the next semester, I was afraid she would choose someone else. She liked me well enough, though, to stick with me for four years. But if she had known I was the daughter of an alcoholic, would that have changed her mind?

Her relationship with her father was totally different. He drove her back to college after the summer breaks. On one of those trips, she told me, he held her hand all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Strange! My father had never as much as put his arm around my shoulder.

In my forties I developed another close friendship. Her family had ties to my teenage neighborhood. Maybe she knew about my father’s history of alcoholism. I don’t know. We never talked of it, but we had a good time sharing stories about our children over lunch every few months. Then one day her name came up in a conversation with two other people. One of them said, “She is Judy’s friend that I took.” I wasn’t shocked. I had noticed the change in her and was glad I did not need to excuse it anymore.

But the friend who was emailing me about my book gift refused to read it until she laid down her ground rule: “Before I begin, I want to say I love you as a sister in Christ and as a person.”

“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).
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Me Before You

I was fourteen and had my first regular job. My neighbor, expecting twins, paid me that summer to give her a hand with her three toddlers and help with the housework. As soon as I ran home clutching my first week’s cash, my mother reached for the Sears catalog. “See how pretty this is,” she said, opening to an earmarked page. “It would be nice for Gail in the winter.”

My stomach felt sick as I looked at the pretty black-and-white wool coat with matching leggings and hat, realizing what my mother was really saying. She expected me to buy the outfit for my three-year-old sister. Again I had to prove I was not selfish. That time, however, I put up a timid objection.

“You’re supposed to help the family,” my mother replied. Knowing that because of my father’s alcohol abuse, she could not depend on him, I handed her the money she needed and bought my first can of hair spray with the remainder.

As surely as night turns to day, I had been taught over and over I should put everyone before myself. It was drilled in me at church too: God first, others second, yourself last. They were all wrong! God first, yes. But the adults in my childhood had reversed the other two tenets.

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Matthew 22:39 NIV), He repeated verbatim words from Leviticus 19:18. A few years ago I finally understood what both the Old and New Testaments were saying. I could not love the one next to me until I loved myself. I could not know how to love someone else until I knew how to love me. To become unselfish I must first be kind to myself and give to me.

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Unexplainable Conviction

As explained in the previous post, my mother was the pillar of stability in our alcoholic family. She fulfilled Dr. Alice Miller’s definition of “helping witness.” If not for her, our family would have completely collapsed. Although she did not use the word “love,” her acts of service showed it. I saw her literally take food out of her mouth and give it to her hungry teenage son.

We could never count on my father being sober. That was as unpredictable as the box of hand-me-downs the rich girl’s mother in Virginia sent me.

My father also did not say the word “love.” In fact, as I recount on page 53 of my book,  I was forty-four years old when I first heard him tell me, “I love you.” Was he too late?

No. I always held an unshakeable conviction he loved me. I cannot explain it. Can you?
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