i was seven years old. we'd been living in the minneapolis area for three years and my father had started a new congregation for the church.
in outward appearances, my father was a great pastor. charismatic, good public speaking skills, could give a fine "hell fire and brimstone" sermon one sunday and the next cover you with grace.
his secret was that he was self-destructive. and his acts of self-destruction was to have affairs with the women in his congregation. often times, women that he had been "counseling". (i think that's one of the reasons i was never a bill clinton fan. he reminded me of my dad).
my mom did a relatively good job of shielding us from dad's indiscretions....well, me at least. my brother discovered his secret during this little story. hannah chose to deny my father's indescretions.
i remember being awakened late one night by an argument in our living room. i could hear my parents yelling at each other.....but there were other voices i didn't recognize. i got up and teary-eyed, walked into the living room to see what all the ruckus was about.
my brother caught me, picked me up and returned to my room with me. drying my tears, trying to soothe my soul, he sat with me until i fell asleep.
the next day, my parents took me to a friend of my mom's. mom wanted me to meet them. they had a daughter just a year older than me. i was game.....new friends were fun!
mary and i played as the adults talked. we left after a couple hours.
a week later, my parents sat me down for a serious talk. things had happened and they had to move to illinois. they couldn't take me with them. they were setting up legal guardianship with this couple and leaving me in minneapolis. then they packed my things and piled me into the car.
being seven, i didn't really understand all this. what i did understand was that my parents drove me to the home of relative strangers, unpacked my things, kissed me goodbye and drove off.........
i remember standing on the slate steps of the house, where i would spend the next year plus, watching my parents drive away, wailing.......refusing to go into the house. my parents were deserting me......and leaving me with total strangers.
ruth had to drag me into the house, crying and screaming......wondering why my parents didn't want me anymore.
to complicate matters, ruth's daughter mary had been adopted. mary knew that. but as i moved in and needed some extra attention, mary got jealous. we had terrible fights sometimes. she was afraid i would take her place. i was afraid nobody would ever love me again. after all, my parents just dropped me off and left. if they didn't love me, who would?
i remember one morning as ruth was changing the sheets on my bed (i'd started to wet the bed....something i'd never done in my young life), mary came in crying about something. and she yelled at me for taking up too much of her mom's attention.
ruth, patient ruth, sat us both in her lap. she carefully explained to mary that nobody could ever take her place in ruth's heart. mary was lucky.....they'd picked her from many little babies to be theirs. but, ruth explained, rose is feeling very abandoned right now. we have to help her understand that she is loved and that her parents still love her even though they are far away.
that particular memory is so very clear in my head.....i can see the three of us as plainly as if this all happened yesterday.
while adjusting to my parents' desertion, i also had to get used to a new home, rules, school, find new friends, new piano teacher. but the other thing i noticed was that in this house, nobody yelled, slammed doors, walked out, left me cowering under the dining room table.
my grades in school initially dropped, then went back up as i adjusted to my new life. i remember life becoming almost carefree. they had this big backyard that abutted the apple orchard of the neighbor's house. he let us pick apples if we asked.
mary and i became friends. i finally had a "sibling" my own age. it was fun. life was all of a sudden not such a frightening prospect. except when my parents called. those calls always snapped me back to the reality of my parents deserting me. i was hurt and it showed in our phone conversations. mom would talk to me about being a good girl for ruth and her husband merrill, i would cry and dad would get angry that i cried.
the only time my parents came for a visit was at christmas. again, a strong memory for me.
i can see the church, plain as day.....the glass windows that surrounded the sanctuary, the chairs instead of pews.....and that night, snow was falling outside. i can hear my mom singing "silent night". all i could do was cry. (up until last year, every candlelight service when "silent night" came up, i cried. i don't anymore).
i don't remember how long my parents stayed. i remember them leaving and going through the same horrible scene.....me crying as they left me again. wondering why they didn't love me enough to take me along. what had i done that was so awful?
yet, ruth, merrill and mary seemed to care. it was too much for a seven year old brain to wrap itself around. after adjusting to my parents' leaving again, life returned to some semblance of normal.
at least i had become accustomed to living with the tommerasans. they watched out for me, cared for me, seemingly loved me, even. they became my family. hannah was still in the twin cities and never visited (maybe that was the beginning of the end of our relationship). gerry visited occasionally. he was in college and working his way through. he came when he had the time.
but the tommerasans became my family. i understood their rules, i felt loved, i had a "sister". i became pretty comfortable there. my fantasy became that they were my real family. i cut my own out of my mind. they didn't exist.
yet, they did. and when my parents came to take me home with them, to illinois, it was as traumatic for me as their leaving me the year before. i was being uprooted again, by two people i no longer trusted. forced to leave a family that had loved me and made me feel safe.
my sister hannah chose to move to illinois with us. i don't know why.
so, there we were.....a "family" again. but not really. i remember hearing my parents argue through the paper thin walls in the duplex we were living in. i'd cry and cry, afraid they would desert me again. hannah would tease me......if you keep crying, they will leave you.
that certainly helped bolster my confidence. it took me a couple years to finally trust that my parents weren't going to take off again. but, as a family, we never discussed this time in our lives. it was years before i knew why they needed to leave me. sadly, it didn't come from them. i had to hear it from my brother and his wife.......a month before my wedding.
here's what precipitated the desertion:
my father'd been caught having an affair with a woman in the congregation. her husband showed up at the church president's house with a rifle, threatening to kill my father if the church neglected to deal with this. (nobody can ever say life was dull at our house).
the church's solution: my parents had to enter into therapy. not just any therapy. but intense therapy at lutheran general hospital in park ridge, illinois. they would be required to live in subsidized housing, work factory jobs and attend several different types of therapy: group, individual, couple.......
my mom decided it wouldn't be a good place to have her "baby". it seemed to make more sense to her to leave me with strangers. when i finally confronted her about the whole issue, mom denied it ever happened. to this day, i don't know why she refused to discuss it......guilt i guess.
the sad thing is that my father refused to complete the counseling. he was banned from the church (well that segment of the church). he went back to being an electrical engineer. that is, for two years, until the other faction of the lutheran church came to him and offered him a church. and the pattern continued.
i look back on that time in my life and can't help but wonder what life would have been like if things had been done differently. then i remind myself that wondering about the "what if's" won't ever change what happened. our family broke then......badly and because of the silence, the denial by my parents, things were never really put back together.
we limped along as the pastor's family......seemingly happy and healthy to outside observers. the secrets, fear, mistrust and anger......well, they came out over and over in different areas.
as an adult, when my insecurities surface, it's this time in my life that i think about. the feelings of being unlovable by my own parents.....and for a brief moment i feel like that seven year old again, standing on those slate steps, watching my parents drive away.