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Scratching Out A Simple Tune…

Fiddler On the Roof is probably one of my favorite plays/movies/soundtracks…. ever. I learned the words and music, from a record we bought at a yard sale when I was maybe six? It was two records, in a yellow and white sleeve, with a cartoonish fiddler in a blue coat. I can still see it in my mind, I can still hear it scratching out on the little, orange, portable record player, my sister had. It was goose-bump inducing, heart soaring, then crashing in sorrow, mind-blowing and inspiring for a child to hear. It was also, not a common thing for a 7-year-old to listen to all the time, I know this now.

I didn’t see the movie until I was a little older. It was on HBO, I think, in the late seventies.  I only saw it that once, until the mid-80s, when we got a VCR. But, I still had that album, I was still listening to it.  As the years passed, I’d rent the movie sometimes, when renting a VHS movie was a thing.  A couple of years after I got married, my husband bought me a copy as well as a cassette of the music. Friends from a church here in Texas, bought me a DVD shortly after my husband was wounded because they knew my affinity for Tevya. Even now, I have it in my iTunes library and bought the digital version. I can listen to or watch it whenever I want to. When I’m struggling and questioning everything, or just feeling nostalgic, it is what I turn on. In many ways, it is the soundtrack to my inner life.

Even now, the music in Fiddler On the Roof makes my spirit soar and I promise you, the words of Sabbath Prayer have been whispered late in the night, when I didn’t know what to pray, over my children, with an earnestness, only a mother’s heart can have. The story is a distinctive thread in my life almost as far back as I have memories. I am not sure why that is the thread I picked up and carried, I just know I clung to it from an early age. Never underestimate the power of entertainment, especially on children. Pay attention to what stories and narratives are influencing your children’s lives…  but that’s another post altogether.

There is something in the character of Tevya that I relate to, I have no idea what it was when I was so young, but now he represents how I try to model my relationship with God. I don’t want to preach at you, but my choice to pursue a Christian faith really does define who and what I have become. It is the same for my husband. Our faith is the tool we used, to help us climb the mountains, life put before us, and to reach the place where in spite of it all, we find joy. So, this isn’t to try to persuade you to think as I do, although that would be good, too. This post is to give a glimpse into something, from a story, that for some reason, impacted my heart so deeply, that even in the hardest things, I still walk in the security of my faith. And it all started with a great story.

Tevya, the main character in Fiddler On the Roof, taught me to pray, and for those with very rigid beliefs, it was before I was “saved.” He modeled the type of relationship I wanted with a father, both earthly and heavenly. He was a benevolent dictator to his family as he struggled with the changes happening all around him. He did not wait until he was in the right place or mood to talk to God, he did not disregard God’s sovereignty or cast away His love, he just plainly spoke his heart, one full of doubt and pride and sorrow and strength. He always returned to the place of, I don’t get it but yet, I’ll keep going. That is true faith, it cannot see, but it believes.

As I got older and began my own spiritual journey, I continued to follow the model of prayer and faith I had been drawn to in Tevya’s story. I’m pretty sure this is not what the average church leader would want to hear someone refer to as their prototype, for a strong spiritual life, but it is what it is… The idea of communing with God, of not being afraid to question what is happening around us, but continuing to rely on His sovereignty, even when things make no sense, is still the most profound sermon I’ve heard, and it was in a story. I think in many ways, it is an accurate depiction of how I approach God because, I do question and doubt, I am frustrated and angry, at the injustices of life, but I believe.

Imagine my surprise, when the pastor we found in our first real foray into grown-up spirituality, just outside Ft Stewart, GA, in 1993, loved Fiddler On the Roof, too? And for many of the same reasons I love it. And then, the couple that became our mentors, they loved the play, and their kids could quote it! I believe God used that common thread, from that story, the one I had been holding for years, to begin weaving a new tapestry for Terry and me. And that bond, with the Byler’s and Hodges, was the bond that opened my heart to change, and to a different way of living; emotionally, spiritually and physically.

See, whether in church or the workplace, the military support world I lived in, or the local community organization you participate in, we have relationships with people. In those relationships we are given opportunities. Opportunities to grow our strengths or feed our weaknesses, in both following and leading.  And sometimes with those opportunities comes the risk of being hurt, but there are people that will see an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the investment, that is you, and they do.

Those who invest in you, who love you through those awkward, difficult and messy stages of life, that pray with you and talk with you, and confront you when you’re being stupid, those are your Tevya’s. They are the characters in your story that leave such a mark on your heart and mind that you never forget, and you never let go. Those are the characters that over the years, have that place in your heart that regardless of time and distance, is still warm. They are the characters in your story that you can look to in difficult times, and trust their model.

As Terry and I moved to where the Army sent us after leaving Hinesville, more than 20 years ago, it was with the many life lessons we learned from these two families. We made a few mistakes and failed in our choices a few times. Other times, people misused us and our trust. There were people I’m sure we offended and still do, and ones who offended us. In 2005 we landed, once again, in a place where we could ‘build our village’ our ‘Anatevka’ here in Texas. For us, our church, Faith Point, became the family that we did not have but especially at that time, needed. They have nurtured and loved us, lived our lives with us, brought meals during countless surgeries, and provided a safe place as we battled to get our footing again.  And, they continue to do so. In our Pastors, Scott & Marsha Hoxworth, we once again found that Tevya character of authenticity, of real questions in real life, with lots of, I don’t know why’s,  but I believe. Is it a coincidence, that they too, like Fiddler On the Roof? I think not.

A couple of years ago, Terry and I made it a point to see Ed & Libby Hodge, in Hinesville, GA, where they still pursue opportunity and give of themselves in their community. And over the past couple weeks, Terry and I took a trip to the mountains of Tennessee & Georgia with an intention to surprise the “real life” Tevya in our life, Pastor Phil Byler, and his wife, Judy.  They too are still, even in their “golden years” continue to seek opportunities to invest in the people and places where God puts them. They inspire us to continue to give of ourselves to others, even if it feels complicated and hard.  Because, usually,  it is.

Is it strange to intuitively build a life around a fictional character? Maybe. I didn’t realize I did it until very recently, so it’s not an intentional obsession, it’s a subconscious thing, where I seek those who represent that type of raw, vulnerable faith.  In all of this, I see the continuous thread of hope God handed me, as a young child was one that started with a great story. It reminds me, He speaks to me in ways He knows I will hear.  What more does a person need?

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Sláinte Daddy

I think in life, it’s easier to point out what someone has done wrong, and be angry than it is to try to understand why they were the way they were. August marks the 22nd anniversary of my father’s passing. When he died in 1996, he was a very changed man, from the one who raised me. He was changed in all the best ways. I wish he had been the same in the early years of my life, but he had his own demons to exorcise.

My father had a heart the size of an ocean and was generous to the point he’d give away his last dollar. This is noble but can have a negative impact on a family. My father worked, he worked hard. His trade was a chef but he did whatever was needed. For a while, he sold cemetery plots to support us.

For many years, my father’s generosity was the cause of lack sometimes, in his children’s lives. I’m not sure why he was so willing to part with the resources his family needed. Maybe, early on, it was his drinking but, he had the belief he could figure things out for his family and willingly parted with money, time, food, and energy. I believe, maybe I’m wrong, this was a source of tension, at times, between my parents. We already had so little, to begin with. I’m also pretty convinced, my father’s own childhood that was shaped by poverty, made him want to help others who had needs.

I’m all about giving, but because I often went without, I’m careful to be sure, for the most part, the needs of my home are met first. If God doesn’t tell me to give sacrificially, I admit, I limit myself to giving responsibly. As a Christian, this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s the result of a life of without and as often as I try to beat it down, it still stands back up. Those nights in houses that weren’t heated, the endless mounds of government surplus spaghetti noodles with canned pork and surplus cheese, the clothes that never fit, the winters without a coat… But, my father, he’d be late with rent to cover the cost of a friend’s bus pass or filling their pantry.

Tonight, as I get ready to mentally toast the memory of my father and the huge heart that was Berny Kenny, I think about that his strange juxtaposition between his own need, and his calling to give. At Dad’s funeral, so many young people he worked with, told us stories of how he paid their rent or gave them enough to stay off the streets. People spoke of his willingness to go the extra mile to support them. It’s an incredible legacy for a man to leave behind, and in the end, I think that may have been his motivator. I think he wanted his legacy to be leaving people in a slightly better place than where he found them.

Sláinte, Daddy. You were loved for all your strengths with full knowledge of your weaknesses.

 

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Simple Pleasures

Tonight, as I halved an avocado for a quick snack, I thought about my childhood. Reminded of my choice to be more transparent about how I grew up, the struggles of poverty and other difficulties in our lives, I also see the random treasures of those days.

My father always worked, he worked hard. This did not mean we had much in the way of material goods. My father’s actual trade, he was a chef. But in those days, it wasn’t an admired profession… you were deemed a cook and it fell under ‘domestic’ work, for the most part, but, because of that, our family was exposed to interesting foods. My mother, in those days, could coax life out of Dracula’s coffin and turn dust into beautiful produce. She had a gift for bringing seeds to life. We always had a garden. Whether we lived in town or the country (and we moved every year or so, so it was rarely in the same place twice). We also raised meat rabbits and my parents traded their skills in butchering and breaking down animals, for meat. I’m a foodie at heart but I can eat nearly anything if I need to, and by the way, I can swallow canned peas, whole, so I don’t have to taste them… same with small bites of organ meat. I don’t like kidneys, livers or gizzards…  At all.

But tonight, I thought about a good thing, my incredible love of produce. It’s not many people who become enraptured by perfectly crisp radishes or the rare find of a ripe mayapple. It’s an unusual person who would rather eat tender young cucumbers from the garden, instead of fries from the closest drive through… but I still have a mad love for produce.

Easter. Each year at Easter time, our parents pulled out an odd assortment of baskets and buckets. We did not get a ton of chocolate, my mother was crunchy before it was cool, we got carob, not chocolate (so you know, carob has a lot of laxative like properties!). We did get dried fruit, nuts and fruit. The prized, most exotic thing of all… an avocado. A whole avocado for each one of us. Four children. Four children who eagerly awaited that creamy, green perfection. Because in Pennsylvania, in early spring, in that time, avocados were unheard of…

Look, I can’t say my parents got a lot of things right but in Pennsylvania in the 70s and early 80s, avocados were unicorns. They were an exotic, Mexican, import. Very few knew what they were. In a world where guacamole is a given, that seems hard to believe, but it’s true. But, those avocados, they were blissful. I fell in love with the cool green creaminess the first time I had one. I think I was 4, it’s possible I was 5, but I knew it was special. I swore, as I got older, that there were things I would always have: all the pickles and olives I could dream of, celery with cream cheese whenever I wanted, and avocados. These were life goals. All goals I have obtained, by the way.

Tonight, in my kitchen, I stood there, slicing through the pebbled green skin of an avocado I got for 58 cents and I thought about the time when it was an exotic luxury. I slid my spoon into the flesh of that fruit and remembered when I thought only wealthy people could eat them regularly. I stopped for a moment and saluted a childhood that although it was driven by poverty, offered moments of peculiar escape, and I saluted the unusual, little, girl, who dreamed of such things. Today, I live in Texas, where avocados are a staple item, but each time I scoop a bite, I think of that child, who awaited her exotic, Easter basket treat. 

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Woman Before Her Time

So tonight, I’m doing my ‘looking back’ thing and I started thinking about my grandmother. My father’s mother. She was a one of a kind, woman. I’d like to share a bit of her memory with everyone.

My father is from Castle Shannon, obviously, it was the Irish part of Pittsburgh. I’m not exactly sure how my grandmother ended up married to Bernard Kenny, but she did. And she was by all accounts, happy with him, but poor.

The things about my grandmother that I ponder the most? Her way of life. Widowed in 1951 with two young boys, what made her decide to be a police officer? How did she manage to make a living and survive at that time? All stories I’ve heard of her, she struggled with poverty. She struggled to survive in a time when unmarried women couldn’t get ahead, yet she persevered.

My grandmother was a cop. This was long before female officers were a norm. She was a tough old bird but she was also fun. I remember her dancing to the song Nothin’ Gonna Break My Stride, in her living room with the scratchy, green, plaid, sleeper sofa. I will never forget the smells I associate with her. She smelled like cigarette smoke, waxy, old-school lipstick, Jean Nate After Bath Splash, and hot tea. A woman of habit, breakfast was toast with cold butter curls and hot tea. Lunchtime was at home, and always 12 to 12:30 so she could watch Search For Tomorrow as she ate chipped ham sandwiches with miracle whip and sweet pickles.

Grandma loved Pittsburgh Pirates, the Steelers, and KDKA radio. She was a regular caller on the Jack Bogut show in the 70s and early 80s and had a vocabulary that could make a sailor blush. We liked to refer to her language as ‘colorful.’

Grandma lived over The Willow Superette, home of the softest and most amazing molasses cookies ever, and would send us there to get her cigarettes, Winston 100 Ultra Lights. I’ll never forget that she always told us to tell George we wanted a cookie. I don’t recall her ever actually baking a cookie. She had a neighbor, Mr. Fisch, that carved birds from wood, that even the Audubon Society recognized. I have a blue jay he carved. It’s a prized possession for me, but most of all, I remember grandma’s strength. She had a core of steel, forged in the dust and smoke of the city of Pittsburgh.

I wish I could have asked her then when she was alive, the questions I have now, but that’s not how life works. So,I sit here wondering. Wondering about a woman who faced the hard things and beat them. A woman who knew difficulty but found joy in spite of it. How did she do it and what kept her moving forward? What strength, deep in herself, did she draw on, to keep going? In a world where we can discuss the disparities women face in the workplace etc, I can hardly fathom the challenges she faced in the 1950s, especially as a police officer. I think, if I could relive a part of my life then, I’d like to think I’d ask her about these things and treasure the wisdom she must have had…

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Poverty

So aside from the writing job I get paid to do, the sewing orders to make some extra cash, and the overseeing of the man who rocks my world, I’ve started writing about my years before Terry was blown up. Right now, I’m very focused on poverty…
This might be long but bear with me.

This is my 8th grade ID card. It’s the 80s, so it’s bad fashion all the way around. Don’t judge me, but look at those glasses AND the sweater (because redheads do NOT wear lavender).

In February 1984, the second half of 7th grade, my sister got sick. Erin was a normal, healthy, 13 yr old. But we lived in a home with one adult, he worked 13-14 hour days. My father left home as we went to school around 7:15 AM in the morning and came home at 10 PM. Even with those hours, we barely survived. It was a desperate time in the Rust Belt. My mother had left the year before. We were 4 kids, left to our own devices. My sister did not survive.

Let’s return to the picture. I’m wearing some rather odd, upside down glasses. They don’t suit my face, they are too large, even by 80s standards, and they aren’t mine. The summer before 8th grade, my father took us to Pymatuning Lake for a few hours. There’s a dock there with tons of carp around it. You can throw anything into the water, the fish eat it. My glasses had a broken frame, and no joke, the wind blew the lens out and it was eaten by a carp. I can’t make this up. It’s ridiculous. But, we were poor. Like, so poor we didn’t have basic necessities, like running water, in the trailer we lived in. We only had a car because my father sold cars, he got to use demo cars, so Dad didn’t have the money to replace my glasses (that my grandmother had bought).

In this picture, I’m wearing my dead sister’s glasses. My sister had an astigmatism, I did not, at that time, but due to our situation, my father’s solution to me not having glasses, was to wear my dead sister’s. There is NOTHING character building in poverty. There’s nothing noble about this kind of lack. There’s nothing that builds character in not having the basic needs of life. Bootstraps are a fallacy and children are the ones who suffer… for the record, the sweater also belonged to my sister. I hate this picture but it reminds me of the things I’ve learned in life.