I’ll never forget the first day I knew something was wrong with my family. I’d walked home from school to our little home attached to the church my dad pastored. I stopped in my tracks when I noticed the shattered windshield on our Dodge Ram van. Rushing into the house, I was surprised by the darkness- the curtains were pulled in the living room, and my dad was asleep in his recliner. A few minutes after my arrival, my father woke up and told me to find a medical book my mom was using for nursing school. I searched, but when I couldn’t find it I wasn’t prepared for my father’s reaction. My normally kind and fairly quiet dad shouted at me, telling me I’d get a spanking if I couldn’t find the book.
I burst into tears, searching even more frantically. A minute later he got up from his seat, and it was obvious something was wrong with him. He was shouting, mumbling and swaying around like a drunk man- not like the man I knew at all. He knocked over a hanging plant on his way down the hall to search for the book himself. I sat on the floor and cried. I was only 9, but I was permeated with the sense that my life was not going to be the same after that day.
I was right. Within months my dad accepted a pastorate in Illinois, and he, my mom and the five of us girls made the move. 15 months later, my father resigned and quit ministry work completely. There’s no simple answer to why it all happened, but I think it’s fair to say the stress of everything had finally caught up with my dad. Being a pastor at that time was, in some ways, much tougher than it is today. Between the meager salary ($13,000) and the unrealistic expectations of parishioners, being a small town pastor was a thankless job.
We’d always lived in a parsonage, so we had to find our first “real” house. This also meant that my mom, who was finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in nursing, needed to work as many hours as possible to provide for our family. So, we moved to the house that changed my life.
We moved mid-December, a few days before my twelfth birthday. And just when it seemed life couldn’t get worse, it did.
Our only vehicle broke down, so my mom walked miles to the hospital in the snow and we lost contact with the few friends we’d made in our old town.
My father succumbed to severe depression. While home he was in a shroud- so far from all of us. I’ll never forget seeing him on the side of the road hitch-hiking to work.
We couldn’t afford a refrigerator or stove. We kept food in a cooler or outside in the freezing weather, and we received donations from well-meaning friends. The donations were almost always expired food, sometimes with cobwebs on them from sitting in a warehouse for months on end.
I struggled to sleep at night. I remember lying awake, terrified to fall asleep and be victim to nightmares I couldn’t shake, even during the day. Finally, one night I discovered a little Smurf radio and found the local Christian station. It was old school, but the sermons and songs brought peace to the shaken little girl within me.
For the first time in my life, I started to attend a local church that wasn’t led by my dad. The pastor there had befriended my father when he was struggling, so I figured he was trustworthy. One of the college guys in the church would pick me up and take me to a youth group comprised of about 10 teenagers. We really didn’t have services. We had prayer meetings, and that’s exactly what I needed at the time. This little group solidified my faith. I held strong to the belief that no matter how bad things got, God still offered me His friendship. Maybe He wasn’t taking away the bad things, but He was staying with me. Somehow that was enough for me.
Our new old house became a strange hideaway for me. Although I can still remember the tangible darkness I felt while living there, I also recall the adventures I created in my little head. I would pretend this house was part of the underground railroad- loaded with secret passageways and hidden letters from long ago. I always wanted a room with a window seat, so I would pile up pillows in the little cove of windows in my room and pretend I was a character in a mystery novel, searching for clues to solve.
We only lived in this big, old house for about 4 months, but my soul still feels a strange, bittersweet attachment to it. Although I lived within 20 minutes of it until college, I never went back to visit it until last week. Even now, 23 years later, looking at the picture of this house brings tears to my eyes. Of course, it wasn’t really the house that changed my life, but it stands as a symbol of the sadness, breakdown and eventual hope I found within its walls.
Its big drafty rooms mirrored the cold emptiness I was feeling when all I’d ever known disappeared in an instant.
Its large windows that let me see well into the cold white winter outside allowed me to feel a certain, small level of protection from the emotional winter within me.
Even its location on one of the busiest streets in Moline reminded me that the busy world was moving on without me while I hid away within.
I’m thankful for my brief stay in this house. It was difficult, cold- even frightening at times- but it gave me a place to mourn what had been and prepare for what was to come…
[For more info about me and my family, feel free to visit the My Story page.]