A Christmas to Remember
During the winters our curtains billowed out into the bedrooms when the cold wind blew. Mom boiled water to pour into quart Mason jars, and wrapped them in a towel for each of us to take to bed for a little warmth. In the morning there would be snow on the window sills and frost smeared on the windows. We danced across the freezing floors as lightly as possible to avoid contact with the cold linoleum. Only the huge old coal-fed kitchen cook stove heated the drafty five-room house. To conserve coal, we allowed the fire to burn down during the night and only when we dressed in the icy morning cold to go get more fuel did we get heat. I hated the cold, but perhaps I hated having to make a quick trip to the outhouse before bed even more.
After crops were harvested in the late fall, our dad found work where ever he could to help supplement income for the family. One winter I remember thinking that he had abandoned us because we didn’t see him for days. At last I asked Mom where he was and she declared he was in their bedroom sleeping. When I expressed doubt, she must have asked him to show himself because he occasionally came into the living room to see us. Later I discovered that he was working to fire the kilns at a brickyard and listened as he told Mom how awful the heat was and how heavy the work.
The winter when I was twelve there was no money for Christmas. If we children would allow them, our parents would buy us a small gift after the first of March when the landlord paid Dad for the coming spring planting. We could ask for whatever we would like, so I asked for a doll that opened and closed its eyes. Although I was getting too old for dolls, perhaps I felt the need to be comforted. My dad loved Christmas, so this situation was probably harder on him than on us children. Mom saw that we each got an orange on Christmas morning, which was a treat, and I don’t remember feeling disappointed.
It’s funny what kids remember and how they respond to difficulties. My sisters valued stylish clothes as adults, but to this day I remember hating the cold while not caring about the latest styles.
When our rural school closed all the students were bused into a town ten miles from our house. The town kids were different and often a girl with a French name would bully and tease me. Finally one day during P.E. I’d had enough of her and grabbed her to pound a little sense into her thick head. “Here comes the teacher,” the girls whispered urgently, so the two of us raced up the stairs to the girls’ bathroom to finish our business. There wasn’t time for either girl to “win” but a townie against a farm kid wasn’t an even fight. I lost a button off my shirt but Frenchy looked pretty mussed up. To my relief, after that incident my classmates were respectful of me.
When I was about twelve years old my father and mother beat me severely for being disrespectful. I was reading the daily newspaper and my dad wanted it. When I said I wanted to finish reading it and would then give it to him, he was incensed. Mom and Dad both took turns using a belt to strike my legs and I screamed in pain and anger. More than my own pain, though, I remember the screams of my terrified little brothers and sisters who thought our parents were killing me. When Mom and Dad were finished they had to drag me into my bedroom and throw me on the bed because I couldn’t walk. When I showed Grandma B. the bruises and welts on my legs above my hemline where they could not be seen she laughed! “What did you do to deserve that?”
Another time, I remember Dad getting so angry with my brother that he jumped down off his tractor to beat him. My brother was possibly 16 years old, tall and gangly as a teenager, but it was fight or be brutally beaten, so he fought. They wrestled and rolled on the ground for what seemed like an hour, and my brother never once struck our Dad. At last youth won over age, and Brother pinned our father to the ground. Dad must have been shocked that he took on more than he could handle and was man enough to concede defeat. After that there was a fragile respect between them.
My First Crush
I had a fierce towering anger against Mom in addition to the above. When I was around 12 years old I began to enjoy male popular singers heard on the radio and TV. One of my favorites was Jan Arden to whom I wrote asking for his picture. When it came in the mail Mom quizzed me about it and cried as she verbalized her fear that I would go wrong. I was so disgusted with her that I buried the photo in the soil of the drive between the corn-cribs rather than burn it as she insisted. As a result of this incident I determined to never say or do or write anything that could be questioned until I was able to do it on my own, away from parental control. Mom even read my personal mail that came to her house when I was in China if she is curious enough. Nor has she ever felt the need to apologize or explain.
By the time I was fourteen I had shut down emotionally and betrayed no feelings at all. My own stony heart concerned me so I made a deal with the Lord. (Yes, God makes deals, but you had better keep your end of the bargain.) At that time we lived far from the county seat and our parents went grocery shopping every Friday while we stayed home. Our church was having a revival and I asked the Lord to move on my parents’ hearts to give me permission to stay in town with one set of grandparents so I could attend the meetings. If He would arrange that, I would go forward at the invitation. Well, He did, so I did. The pastor’s wife was puzzled, though. Why didn’t I show any joy, she wondered? How did I know I was saved? Believe me, I knew, but by this time the walls were so high that expression wasn’t natural to me.
When my two sisters were old enough to be interested in boys they instructed the boys to meet them across a field because they knew they would not be permitted to date until they left home. Fortunately, they realized the need to tell somebody where they were going, with whom, and about when to expect them home – their elder sister being the person they told. I remember one night when our parents missed them and asked me where they were. I wouldn’t tell because I had promised I wouldn’t. When I have told this incident as an adult, people have said I deserved the beating I got as an eighteen year old for shielding my sisters and preempting our parents’ authority.
We Move to Town
When my father’s aunt died she left enough money for him to buy a house in town. He retired from farming and found a job working as the local school unit’s head grounds-man. While living in that house Mom had gall bladder surgery which threw her into menopause and even more emotional turmoil. During those years her father, my dear Grandpa P. died, and temporarily Grandma P. came to live with us. I felt so sorry for Grandma; she was so lost without her lifetime companion. She cut flowers from the lilac bush just outside the back door for bouquets at our meals but Mom was very unhappy that the flowers just on that side of the bush were cut.
During this period of time, Mom became angry with my youngest brother about something and hit him, knocking him across the kitchen into a counter and cutting his face. Blood flew everywhere but she had no remorse. Since my youngest sister had already married, she and her husband invited our little brother to live with them. Although my sister’s husband wasn’t much older than little brother, he was like a father to him, and a bond was forged that still exists to this day.
As mentioned previously, we weren’t allowed to attend school functions except band concerts, which Mom sacrificed to help us with. I remember Mom taking me to a summer parade to march in the band, but after the parade I had to walk home in the scorching heat – maybe six miles. I was in the school plays but I wasn’t allowed to drive because my parents refused to sign for me to get a driver’s license. They didn’t want to take me, but I could ride with another parent or a teacher after they were carefully vetted.
At that time the State of Illinois made a certain number of college scholarships available to high school seniors and I prayed for one because Mom and Dad expected me to make my own way after graduation. Unfortunately, my name was too far down on the list of graduating high school seniors so all the scholarships were taken. But, one by one, eligible students forfeited their right to a scholarship in a state school in order to enroll in a more prestigious college. When my name came up I was thrilled. The state scholarship paid for everything but my books, if I lived at home. I chose to study chemistry because being a woman in the sciences would be advantageous – and my choice proved to be a good one. The classes were hard but Grandpa P. was awesome in calculus and chemistry, and he was pleased to help me. Then, my senior year in college Grandpa dropped over dead the week before Thanksgiving and my world came crashing down. I couldn’t think of anything but Grandpa and failed an exam in my major, thus I failed the course and failed to graduate. This was all the more disturbing because I was far too shy and withdrawn to get a job. For a year I grieved, sleeping all day and reading by night.
One day I took the car keys without permission and drove the family car out to an area, south of town, intending to smash it into a tree. As I negotiated the first curve and accelerated I heard a voice saying gently, “Joyce, don’t do that.” The road was gravel, so I put the car into a skid to avoid the telephone pole I was approaching and drove on home. In all that time no one ever spoke to me about my grief and depression, but my high walls didn’t keep out God’s tender voice – He knew the weeping child within who needed comfort.
After a year of withdrawal I felt stronger and decided to take a state test to get a provisional teacher’s certificate. I passed easily and taught chemistry, biology, general science, algebra, geometry and solid geometry as well as trigonometry my first year in 1962-63. My first year of teaching was difficult but I loved it. While teaching I made application to our church Mission Board as a missionary. Meanwhile, I carefully saved my money to pay my way for a year of college in Oklahoma – the best small premed college in the United States at that time – I wanted to be a doctor.
Back in College
A professor in beginning chemistry allowed me to grade papers since I had teaching experience. As a graduate assistant I marked papers and assigned grades. I didn’t accept excuses for poor or missing work so the girls told the college president that I was a lesbian. I went to see the man and asked him how anyone who didn’t know me could be so sure of my character. Then I suggested that he ask the Lord about me since I had nothing to hide. The next day he said he had prayed and I was indeed guilty. I was shocked. Up until then I had thought that those in spiritual leadership always knew the mind of God, but this man missed the Lord. Badly!
Several of the Mission Board members were located near the college and they declined to even interview me. They warned me in an antiseptic letter that when I was thirty-two I had better reapply because no missionaries were accepted after that. After thirty-two, one was too old and inflexible to learn a foreign language. Since I was just climbing out of the deep emotional hole I fell into at Grandpa’s death, I decided this wasn’t worth another breakdown. By God’s grace and compassion I met another missionary candidate in the girls’ dorm just returning from her interview.
“Have you been interviewed?” she asked. “I heard that you were turned down. I want to give you some encouragement by telling you what happened at my interview.”
Then she proceeded to tell me she had worked two years in Haiti as a registered nurse with another mission. She had come back to the States to update her knowledge of diseases in Haiti and planned to return. The Mission Board said they didn’t need more nurses in Haiti, however, and insisted on assigning her elsewhere. This slightly built but spunky little lady assured those august men that they didn’t speak for God! She was called to Haiti and which mission she went with mattered less than her obedience to God. I was impressed with her singleness of purpose and the memory of our conversation has steadied me many times in my adult life!