Knowing and Denial, Gifts of Grace

“Knowing is God’s heads-up of the truth. Denial is God’s protection until you can handle it.”

I knew the truth long before I knew the truth.

Since I was four years old, I had this vague yet consistent sense that a man was missing from my life, a man with whom I shared a deep connection. In a deep place within myself that I didn’t understand, I felt his absence, sensing that at one time he was physically present although I had no conscious memory of him. Yet I felt him with me somehow, a warm, constant, accepting presence.

These feelings might have made sense if I didn’t have a father. That perhaps my imagination was creating one for me to fill that aching void. But I had Dad, the sun around whom my world rotated and whose black eyes lit up every time he looked at me. Still this vague sense of loss nagged me like a sharp, elusive pebble that remained in my shoe no matter how often I tried to shake it out.

My favorite summer pastime was lying on a quilt spread across our front yard and staring up at the clouds, intrigued by their barely perceptible shape changing as they wafted overhead. When I tired of imagining what each cloud resembled—a sheep, Santa’s beard, an anvil that Wile E. Coyote tried flattening Roadrunner with—I envisioned what heaven was like on the topside of the clouds. Convinced that Jesus was riding on the cottony cloud-carpet keeping an eye on things, I strained to catch a glimpse of Him surrounded by angels and endless royal blue.

During one of my musings, rather than a Jesus sighting, eyes that matched the vivid robin’s-egg blue sky appeared in my mind’s eye. Kind, smiling eyes that belonged to a man but whose face was shadowed and grainy like a blurry photograph. Who was he? I strained to make out the rest of this blue-eyed man’s features, but they remained inscrutable.

***

My overall favorite pastime was eavesdropping. This was so easy at Grandma Rose’s house where playing with Cheryl and Kathy was the perfect cover. Assuming that we were too engrossed in our play to be paying any attention to their conversations, the adults often spoke without reservation. Grandma’s was a veritable feeding frenzy for gossip, and I sucked up every morsel.

One day, Kathy and I were playing Hands Down on the living room floor while Grandma, her sister SeDell, and Mom chatted at the dining room table.

“I remember running into an old lady in the dime store when I had Diane in the stroller when she was about a year old. ‘Oh, is this Georgia’s baby?’” Grandma mimicked, her voice raising an octave. “‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Oh, she looks just like Jerry!’” Grandma threw her silver head back and clamped her eyes shut as she recounted the six-year-old memory, her round frame jiggling with laughter. “I thought to myself, ‘Right. Looks just like Jerry. With those big black eyes?’” Grandma bugged her small light brown eyes, imitating my large round orbs. Bursting into another cackle of laughter, Grandma took off her glasses and wiped the tears from her eyes.

Jerry, I knew, was Mom’s first husband, a fresh-out-of-high-school nuptial that ended within one year and was months before she and Dad started dating. However, something about that old lady’s comment fanned a smoldering ember of instinctive knowing in the pit of my stomach: Why would that lady think that other man is my dad? I thought to myself.I squirmed, trying to escape the visceral sensation of sand granules under my skin.

Kathy jumped and looked at me wide-eyed when I slammed the fluorescent pink hand down harder than I had intended.

In my gut, I knew that if Jerry were my biological father, Grandma would never have breathed one word of it, especially when I was within earshot. Plus it didn’t feel right. Somehow I knew that Jerry and I shared no connection. Yet no matter how hard I tried to shake it off, the nagging doubt persisted that Dad wasn’t my biological father either.

***

“Daddy, fix this.”

Dad stared at the mangled cereal-box treasure that I’d dropped into his thick hand. “Honey bun, you bring me the most torn-up shit. I don’t know that I can fix this.”

Dad always said that and then proceeded to always fix whatever I’d given him. I waited for him to work his magic. Within minutes, he started tinkering and fiddling with the plastic mess like I knew he would. I stood next to him as he disentangled one piece and straightened another while Grandma’s words from a week ago swirled around in my head. I still can’t believe the words that came out of my mouth next.

“Are you my real dad?”

Was it my imagination or did Mom gasp? I turned to look at her. She stood frozen with a dinner plate in her hand midway to the table. Dad continued tinkering patiently with the toy—now nearly restored to its original condition—but I swore I could hear his mind racing.

Say yes, Daddy, say yes, I pleaded to myself. My pulse throbbed in my temples until I thought my head would explode. What was taking him so long to answer? What if he says no? I regretted having opened my mouth, but there was no taking the question back. I adored Dad, and he adored me too. Mom and I related more like siblings than mother and daughter, engaged in brutal battle on a daily basis. Without Dad in my life—

My stomach lurched at the thought.

If he says no, where did I come from? Knowing my roots on both sides of my family tree was a big deal for me. My throat tightened as uncertainty hovered over my paternal heritage.

“Wahhl . . . I guess I a-em.” Dad had reverted to his lazy, drawn-out Southern drawl, which he did whenever he was caught off-guard and was forming his response on the fly. He continued concentrating on the toy, never once lifting his eyes to mine. “I was thaar . . . the daaay . . . you were borr-en.” Click. The last errant plastic piece of the toy snapped into place.

Ecstatic and relieved that he didn’t say no and thrilled with my restored toy, I hugged and kissed Dad and skipped off to play. As I did, it seemed to me that Mom’s shoulders relaxed as she resumed setting the table.

As the years passed, I hung on to Dad’s answer like a lifeline, refusing to entertain any nagging doubt. Dad was my dad. Period. Still, this specter caught up with me when I least expected.

***

About a year after the divorce, when I was thirteen, Dad and I were headed to our favorite pancake house for breakfast when, out of nowhere, he said, “I need to tell you about my cousin Don. Do you remember him?” A captain in the U.S. Air Force, Don had been killed in Vietnam four years earlier.

I looked at Dad, confused. “Of course.”

Dad grew agitated. “Don was a good man. And smart.” He fixed me with an insistent look, barely keeping his eyes on the road. “He was so smart. If he had lived, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t have done.” Casting nervous glances between the road and me, Dad fidgeted in his seat as if he had seen a ghost. Or was in the presence of one.

I studied Dad, wondering where this was coming from and why. On reflection, I see now that this conversation came a few days after the wife of Dad’s best friend, in a fit of rage, told me, “Your mother may have walked off and left you, but your dad’s doing you a favor by keeping you.” When I told Dad, I expected him to be outraged and to confront her. To my confusion and heartbreak, he was not outraged, nor did he confront her. Rather, he told me to ignore her. Ignore her?? Dad was my parent. Parents, good parents, don’t abandon their children. How was he doing me a favor by “keeping” me??

“Don and Mom were high school sweethearts, right?” I asked.

Dad nodded.

“Then why didn’t she marry him? Didn’t she love him?”

“She loved him, but she didn’t want to leave town when Don went into the air force.”

We rode in silence as I processed this. Then I said, “So then Mom marries his first cousin? How weird is that?” I fixed my eyes on Dad. “Didn’t that cause problems between you and Don?”

“No, not really.” Yet Dad squirmed in his seat.

“How could it not have? They went together for four years and then Mom marries you? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“You just have to know what a good, smart man Don was. Don’t you ever forget that, okay?” Dad’s black eyes pleaded with mine.

I studied Dad before answering. “Okay. I won’t.”

We pulled into the pancake house parking lot. The subject of Don was dropped and was never brought up again.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that Dad feared that his and Mom’s secret was threatening to be shouted from the rooftops. But I didn’t make the connection then. I had lost too much in the past year to handle such a devastating blow. The lid on my denial snapped shut tight.

I’ve repeatedly experienced throughout my life that knowing and denial are gifts of God’s grace. Knowing is God’s heads-up so that I’m not totally blindsided when the truth is revealed. Denial is God’s cloak of protection until I can handle that truth.

I wouldn’t be able to handle this truth for another twenty years.

The True King and I

“Relationship with Jesus Christ–not anyone or anything else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.”

When I was five, Grandma Rose started taking me to Sunday school along with my aunts Cheryl and Kathy. If not for Grandma, I never would have seen the inside of a church. This is Grandma’s greatest legacy in my life, and I am and will forever be deeply grateful to her, for there I was introduced to God and His Son, Jesus. I didn’t know until four decades later that this relationship–not one with Dad or anyone else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.

After Sunday school each week, Grandma took us three girls with her to worship service. The sanctuary held a reverent air. People greeted one another in hushed tones and waited patiently for the service to begin. Reverend Simon Kvaale, an elderly native Norwegian, led the service in his thick, broken accent, his unassuming yet commanding presence inspiring veneration in the congregants. After I had learned to read in first grade, Grandma ran her finger beneath each word in the hymnal she shared with me so I could follow along. Each service concluded with the “Doxology,” which I sang with gusto. The resounding bass of the organ played by Mrs. Kvaale filled the sanctuary as Reverend Kvaale wafted down the center aisle to greet his flock, his long, white robe billowing around and flowing behind him like angel’s wings.

I waited with bated breath with Grandma, Cheryl, and Kathy to greet Reverend Kvaale in the receiving line after the service. When he took my small hand in his smooth, warm one, he emanated kindness and patience, which was reflected in his bespectacled eyes and gentle smile as he bowed down to my level to speak to me. In my young mind, a pastor was privy to God’s mind and heart. As such, I believed that Reverend Kvaale reflected God’s character and His feelings toward me: I was safe and loved for myself.

I loved reading Scripture and the weekly lessons in our workbooks, which I often read weeks in advance. Although I found the King James Version difficult to grasp with all its thees, thous, lests, and verilys, I hung onto every word, knowing in some incomprehensible way that I was on hallowed ground, in the presence of greatness. Although I could not fully understand what God was saying through His Word, something deep within me came alive as I read it.

I felt deeply honored when, in fourth grade, I received my first black leather-bound Bible with gold-embossed lettering on the cover. I delicately held and turned its onionskin pages, relishing their comforting softness between my fingers while receiving comfort through their words.

God also showed up right at our front door in the most unexpected form–Jehovah’s Witnesses. Resembling Boris Badenov and Snidely Whiplash, sans the sinister vibe, these mysterious, grim-faced, buttoned-up individuals clad in dark, professional attire carried black briefcases or satchels, leaving hardcover books on the rare occasions when Mom answered their knock and tracts in our screen door when she didn’t. Mom headed straight for the garbage can with their material, but one day, out of curiosity, I asked her if I could read it. She absentmindedly handed the tract to me. Sequestered in my room, I lay on my bed, surrounded by my favorite stuffed animals, studying every word. I recognized Scripture in these writings, yet much of the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretations struck a false chord within me, although I couldn’t explain why.

As time passed, Mom handed me these tracts without my having to ask, and I continued reading the scripture passages, reveling in every word, embracing what felt in my gut as the truth and discarding what felt off in the interpretations. God brought Himself to me through His Word, providing balm and sanctuary to my lonely, scared mind and heart. Sensing His soothing, constant presence, I instinctively poured out my heart to Him, not in the traditional prayer posture, but rather like having a conversation with a beloved, trusted parent or friend. Although I was often physically alone, I sensed that I was never alone, which soothed me in the most inexplicable way.

After Mom and Dad’s divorce, confirmation class in seventh and eighth grades was the extent of any consistent relationship with church during my adolescence. Grandma’s initiative and faithful transporting me to and from church with Cheryl during my seventh grade year and Kathy during my eighth made it all possible. For one hour every Saturday morning, twelve of us confirmands met with Reverend Kvaale, where we recited our memory work for the week from Luther’s Small Catechism, discussed the lesson, and went over the questions in the workbook. We were also required to read one chapter from Scripture. I soaked up the material in these lessons, relished learning about my Lutheran faith, and diligently memorized every word assigned. Class was held in our damp, austere church basement. What it lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in serenity, which my mind, heart, and spirit craved. This was one hour during the entire week where I felt totally at peace and safe and could just be myself.

At the end of my eighth grade year, I decided to not be confirmed. I knew that confirmation was a sacrament of the church, one in which I would be making a promise to God, but I wasn’t clear as to what exactly I was promising. Grandma Rose explained to me that I would be promising that I would never drink alcohol, dance, or play cards. How could I make and keep these promises given that, first of all, I had already gone to school dances in middle school, fully enjoyed them, and intended upon doing so in high school? Second, never drink alcohol? How could I make such a promise at the age of thirteen? And third, why on earth was playing cards considered a mortal sin? Certainly there were more damning activities. Still, I could not in good conscience promise that I would never play cards. In my opinion, I was too young to make such promises to anyone, especially to God. I held the firm conviction that it was better to not make a promise at all than to make one and not keep my word.

But I did want Stevie and I to get baptized and was resolved we would be. This was a burning issue with me all throughout my childhood. I had begged Mom and Dad to have me baptized, and when that didn’t work, I rampaged about it, insisted upon it, even resorted to trying to guilt them into it, accusing them of banishing me to an eternity with the devil. Nothing worked. Even Grandma couldn’t convince them. All of our appeals fell upon deaf ears for reasons that are still a mystery.

I told Reverend Kvaale about both of my decisions. He sat studying me a long few minutes before responding, “You are such a mature young lady.” He continued studying me, silent. Then he said, “I really would like you to reconsider your decision about being confirmed. But if you don’t change your mind, I respect your decision and would be happy to baptize you and your brother.”

I announced my decisions to Dad, Mom, and Grandma Rose. Neither Mom nor Dad fought me about Stevie’s and my baptisms, perhaps because I had already discussed it with Reverend Kvaale. Maybe they, too, felt that pastors had a main line to God, and they were not going to mess with that. So on Saturday, May 3, 1975, Stevie, at the age of four, and I at thirteen were baptized in a private ceremony with Terrell and Dortha Morris, Dad’s uncle and aunt, as our godparents. Although Grandma Rose never said so, I suspected she was thrilled and relieved.

Nine years later, on December 15, 1984, I was confirmed in that same church on the day my then husband, John, and stepdaughter, Mandi, became members of the church. Grandma and Kathy were in attendance at that service, sitting in a pew near the back as usual. A full-blooded Norwegian, Grandma never was one for physical displays of affection, not even in private. But after the service, with a shy smile, Grandma softly stroked my arm with tears filling her small, light brown eyes as we stood in the narthex afterward. When I got home, I opened the gift she had slipped into my hand before leaving. It was a simple silver cross necklace.