Life

Barbara

barbara tieken 1940s

My Mom, Barbara Tieken, 1940s

Born in rural Missouri to parents who were drunks and constantly fought

Barbara suffered the indignity and shame of being molested by her father

A heinous act he never acknowledged or apologized for

When he became a Christian his past was under the blood

God may have forgiven him

But she never did

barbara and steve tieken 1940s

Barbara and Steve Tieken 1940s

She was a beautiful child who grew up to be an attractive woman

A woman who attracted the attention of men

At seventeen she found herself pregnant

At the age of eighteen she married

Did she marry the father of her baby

There are doubts

barbara gerencser 1956

Barbara Gerencser, 1956

She found her husband to unreliable, never able to keep the bills paid

He moved her from house to house, town to town, and state to state

Along the way she birthed another boy and then a girl

She loved to read and was passionate about politics

She wrote letters to the newspaper, a staunch defender of  right-wing Conservatism

She campaigned for Barry Goldwater and George Wallace

Like so many white, rural Americans of her time, she was a racist

She loved to cook

When her oldest son started playing baseball she came to his games

Her son’s father couldn’t be bothered

When she was thirty-one, her brother-in-law raped her

Her oldest son was home sick from school when it happened

So much trauma

Is it any wonder she had mental problems

Psychiatrists

Pills

Mental hospitals

Attempted suicides

Rage

Depression

Slit wrists, the kitchen floor, a pool of blood, her oldest son found her

Yet, she lived

Over time, her body collapsed rendering her an invalid

barbara gerencser 1957

Barbara Gerencser, 1957, Holding her newborn son Bruce (Butch)

By then, her oldest son was a preacher

She was proud of him

He was not proud of her

She was an embarrassment, a pill junkie, she just needed to get right with God

Four marriages

Numerous men in and out of her life

Yet, she never lost her mental acuity or thirst for knowledge

She watched the news days and night, ever ready to rage against those she disagreed with her

She told her oldest son she wanted him to do her funeral and she wanted everyone to sing the Star Spangled Banner and say the Pledge of Allegiance

barbara tieken 1950s

Barbara Tieken, 1950s

Over time, her oldest son came to accept her as she was

He would come to Columbus and take her shopping or to the doctor

She didn’t like his driving

Her phone was often disconnected

Her latest husband, just like every one before him, couldn’t keep the bills paid

The oldest son’s father died from surgery complications at age forty-nine

He called the police to give her a message since her phone was disconnected

Awhile later, in a pouring rain, she called from a phone booth

They talked and wept together

And then she moved to Quincy, Michigan, six hours away

Her oldest son only saw her a few times after the move

They talked on the phone every month or so and wrote to one another

After church one Sunday, her oldest son answered the phone at his house

His aunt was on the other end of the phone

He heard what he never hoped he would hear

His mom was dead

She had turned a Ruger .357 on herself, pulled the trigger, and ripped a hole in her heart

In a moment, her heart stopped and the life drained from her body

Her oldest son wonders why, but he knows the answer

The graveside service was an exercise in profound, excruciating grief and denial

The preacher son could barely speak

There would be no singing of the Start Spangled Banner or saying the Pledge of Allegiance

Even in death she was ignored and denied

Her father spoke of Jesus

Her son saw only a father who molested his daughter and scarred his mother

She was fifty-four when she died

Her son misses her

Oh how he wishes for a do-over

To tell her, I love you

To proudly show off his grandchildren

But all he is left with is emptiness, pain, and regret

And memories

barbara gerencser 1978

Mom and Bruce, Rochester, Indiana, 1978

Fundy World Tales Part 5

bruce gerencser 1975

Bruce Gerencser, Arizona 1975

In May of 1974, two weeks before the end of my 11th grade year at Findlay High School, I moved back to my Mom’s home in Bryan, Ohio. During the year I lived away from home, my brother and sister had left Dad’s home in Arizona and moved back to Bryan.   After returning to Bryan, I attempted to enroll at Bryan High School for my senior year only to find out that because I left school two weeks early, Findlay High School was denying me credit for the entire 11th grade year. This meant I would have to repeat the 11th grade. Rather than do this, I dropped out of school and went to work at Myer’s Marathon as a pump attendant and mechanic.

Mom had a new husband, Chuck Jones. Chuck, a lifelong resident of Bryan, was a meat cutter in Fort Wayne. When sober Chuck was a decent enough man, but when drunk he was mean, violent, and dangerous. I tried to stay out of his way when he was drunk, but there were times we crashed into each other and the result was not pretty.  One time, Chuck and Mom were fighting and he pulled a gun on her. I quickly stood between them and Chuck pulled the hammer back on the revolver and threatened to shoot both of us.  In a moment of utter foolishness, I said, go ahead! Fortunately, Chuck didn’t shoot. A year or so after this incident, Mom filed for divorce, citing his drunkenness and violence.

In October of 1974, Mom was committed to the Toledo State Mental Hospital.  This was her second committal. Mom had mental health problems her entire life.  Sexually molested as a child by her father, Mom had a long and bitter love/hate relationship with her father, John Tieken, Their relationship took a turn for the worse after John found Jesus. When, years later, Mom confronted him with what he had done to her, he refused to acknowledge what he did and told her that God had forgiven him and that it was all under the blood. (please read Dear Ann)

During her stays at the Toledo State Mental Hospital, Mom underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Combined with the drugs they gave her, Mom turned into a zombie.  When Mom was committed in October of 1974, I was seventeen and the responsibility for my brother and sister fell on me. Not telling a soul about Mom being absent from the home, my siblings went to school and I went to work. This went on for several months before Dad found out about it and drove from Arizona to pick us up and take us back to his new home in Sierra Vista, Arizona. I still remember the gut wrenching feeling I had as we pulled away from Bryan. Mom was still in the hospital and I could only imagine how she must have felt returning to an empty house after her release.

bruce gerencser 1975-001

Bruce Gerencser, Arizona 1975

Once settled at Dad’s house in Sierra Vista, I found a church to attend, Sierra Vista Baptist Church. Sierra Vista Baptist, pastored at the time by Fred Taylor, was affiliated with the Conservative Baptist denomination. Adjacent to Sierra Vista was the strategic air command base, Fort Huachuca. Many of the members of the church were stationed at Fort Huachuca.  Just like I did at every stop along the road of my life, I immersed myself into the life of the church. I taught Sunday School and worked on a bus route. During this time I also became romantically involved with Anita Farr, an attractive woman two years my senior. While remaining chaste during this relationship, Anita proved to be a real challenge to my commitment to remain a virgin until I was married.

Late in the summer of 1975, Anita left to go Southwestern College, now Arizona Christian University. It was not long after that she and I broke up and I moved back to Bryan, Ohio. While I was in Arizona, Mom had bought a mobile home and placed it in a mobile home park on Route 6, a few miles outside of Bryan where the Mansion Mobile Home factory now sits. I quickly found work at Foodland as the dairy manager. One week I would work 40 hours and the next week I would work 37.5 hours. By scheduling me this way, Foodland was able to classify me as a part-time employee. This meant I was not eligible for the benefits that full-time employees had.

I started attending First Baptist Church. Our family had attended First Baptist for several years in the 1960’s. Jack Bennett, married to my uncle’s sister, was the pastor of the church. For a time, I went through a rebellious spell, hanging out with other rebellious teenagers/young adults that attended the church. Members at First Baptist still tell stories of the rebellious Bruce Gerencser. While I was certainly rebellious when compared to the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist norm, I still didn’t smoke, drink, use drugs, or have premarital sex. I was more of an opinionated, angry, temperamental redhead who liked to have fun.

bruce gerencser 1976

Bruce Gerencser, 1976

My rebellious stage was short-lived, and in the spring of 1976 I got right with God and decided it was time to act on God calling me to be a preacher. I went to talk to Pastor Bennett about going to Bible college, but he proved to be quite unhelpful. To this day, I wonder why he was unwilling to guide and help me. While he was cordial and polite to me, he always kept me at arm’s length. Left on my own to decide where to go to college, I decided to attend Prairie Bible Institute in Canada.

Unable to come up with enough money to attend Prairie Bible Institute, I decided to attend Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. My fundamentalist grandparents, John and Ann Tieken, lived in nearby Waterford Township. John owned and operated T&W Engine Shop, an aircraft engine repair shop at Pontiac Airport.  Like my mother, I would have a love/hate relationship with John and Ann Tieken. Fundamentalist to the core, my grandparents were hypercritical and judgmental. In 2000, our relationship finally collapsed under the weight of their oppressive judgmentalism and I told them I was no longer interested in having a relationship with them. Grandpa later died of colon cancer and Ann remarried.

car I took to bible college

Car I took to Midwestern Baptist College, 1976.

In August of 1976, I packed my belongings into my car and drove 2 1/2 hours northeast to Pontiac, Michigan so I could enroll for classes at Midwestern. I was on my way to being a pastor.

I Refuse to Accept This

accepting things as they are

Several weeks ago, I watched a sports documentary about a boxer who had brain damage from his last fight. No matter what doctors did, his condition continued to deteriorate. Finally, doctors told his wife that they had done all they could do. Both the boxer and his wife would have to accept that he was not going to get better. In fact, his health would likely get worse.The wife said, I refuse to accept this. Surely, there is something else that can be done. A new drug, treatment, or therapy, surely there is something that can be done.

While I understand the wife’s unwillingness to accept that her husband was never gong to recover, her statement reflects a common misconception about life and the tragedies that come our way. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes, there’s nothing more that can be done. Sometimes, there’s not an answer or a cure.

I have been criticized, often behind my back, for the stoic attitude I have about my health. Since 1997, when I was first diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I’ve seen numerous doctors, had more blood tests than I can count, and have had repeated scans and procedures. Just this past year alone, I’ve had an endoscopic ultrasound, colonoscopy, CT scan, MRI, and 3 x-rays. Several months ago, I tried using Lyrica again. As before, it helped, but I gained 17 pounds of fluid in one month. Not good when you are already overweight.

Earlier this week I saw the orthopedic doctor. He told me my body is like numerous wildfires. Put one out and others pop up. He gathered up my x-rays and MRI scans and we looked at them. He was quite blunt, telling me that I have arthritis in EVERY joint and that some of the damage is severe. Knees, shoulders, feet, hands, and back, all have arthritis that is causing joint damage. The why is unknown. Some days, the pain from the arthritis is severe, some days it is tolerable. Added to this is the muscle pain I have from Fibromyalgia. Every day is a pain day with some days worse than others. I haven’t had a pain-free day in almost twenty years.

We talked about options. He was quite frank with me, saying that because the arthritis is so pervasive that I was not a good candidate for surgery. Even with my knees and shoulders, scoping them could actually make things worse, resulting in more pain. I like this doctor because he doesn’t bullshit me. His advice? Live with it. Unless I want to have total joint replacements, surgeries that have a huge risk of complications for someone like me who has a compromised immune system, I must learn to live the pain, debility, and the ever so slow loss of function. All that he and other doctors can do for me is help manage the pain and try to improve my quality of life.

And I am fine with this. As I told the doctor, sucks to be me, but it is what it is. Unlike the boxer’s wife, I know there is nothing more that can be done. All the whining, complaining, praying, wishing, and hoping won’t change the fact that I have a body that is failing. All I can do is make the most of what life I have left.

A Personal Reflection: The Rhythm of Life

plant going to seed

Cicada  sing their early evening song and crickets add their chirp, reminding all who stop to listen that summer is almost over.

Farmers wrap up baling straw and hay, soon they will harvest corn and beans. Like every other year of my 58 year existence, the harvest will remind me that fall has arrived.

The baseball season winds down and soon football will vie for my attention. The Reds won’t make the playoffs. Will this be the year the Bengals win a playoff game?

The garden soon will be spent. The sunflowers are beginning to seed, offering a sumptuous meal to birds that frequent the yard. The Indian corn stalks have ears. Once dry, they will provide colorful decoration for Halloween.

Apples are starting to turn red. Last year, a freeze killed all the blooms, but this year there should be plenty applesauce to can, a fact the grandchildren will certainly appreciate.

The last cabbages are shredded, put into brine which will yield sauerkraut in a few weeks. A pungent odor wafts through the kitchen, one that is endured for the sake of hot dogs and spareribs.

The pumpkins are turning orange, and come Thanksgiving the queen of the kitchen will turn their meat into pie. What possibly could be better than a pumpkin pie heaped with whipped cream and family gathered around the table, grateful for the life they share with one another.

Summer flowers start to die and drop their seeds, while mums begin to flower, offering the year a last splash of color before the cold temperatures of winter claim their beauty.

Where has time gone, I ask myself. It seems the days pass so quickly now. Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas?

Life is short, I remind myself. Enjoy the rhythm of changing seasons and let them be a reminder that no one is promised tomorrow.

What Have You Been Reading Lately, Bruce?

 

calvin and hobbes reading

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Lydia asked:

What have you been reading lately, Bruce?

One of the frustrating side effects of my declining health is that I am no longer able to read like I used to. Gone are the days of devouring one book after another. This has been hard for me to adjust to. By the time I do the necessary reading and research for my writing and try to keep up on the magazines I subscribe to, I have very little physical and mental energy left to devote to reading books. If I had to put a number on it, my ability to read and comprehend has declined by 50% or more. This decline has been a daily force of irritation and a subject I talk to my counselor with on a regular basis. While he encourages me to keep active, he also encourages me to accept things as they are. Instead of trying to read a 600 page book that at one time took me a few days to read, I now choose books that are 300 pages or less, allowing myself several weeks to read it.

My primary care doctor thinks that the pain and health problems wear me down mentally and physically, making to harder for me to read like I used to. While I accept this as the new normal for my life, I don’t like it.  That said, here’s my  book list. The first book is what I am currently reading. Those that follow are what I intend to read next.

varieties of scientific experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan

mortality

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

our only world

Our Only World by Wendell Berry

faith vs fact

Faith vs. Fact :Why Science and Religion are Incompatible by Jerry Coyne

and god created lenin

And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs. Religion in Russia, 1917-1929 by Paul Gabel

karl marx

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

After I am Dead

walking by graveyard

As soon as Christian fundamentalists read this headline they will shout at their screen:

  • You will be burning in hell!
  • You will know there is a God!
  • You will know I was right!

They will see my death as vindication of their belief system. I wonder how many of them will say to themselves, I bet Bruce wishes he had listened to me!  I can hear a Calvinist saying, now we know Bruce was not one of the elect!  They will speak of the preacher turned atheist who now knows the TRUTH. (please read Christopher Hitchens is in Hell)

If they bother to read beyond the title of this post they will see this post is not about my e-t-e-r-n-a-l destiny. I have no concern over God, judgment, or hell. I am confident that hell is the creation of those who want to control people through fear. Fear God! Fear Judgment! Fear Hell! Since Christianity and the Bible no longer have any power over me, I no longer fear God or hell. I am reasonably certain that ãthis is the only life I will ever have, and once I die I will be…drum roll please, d-e-a-d.

Here’s what I want to happens after I draw my last breath.

First, I do not want a funeral service. Waste of time, effort, and money. No need for fake friends or distant family members to show up and weep fake tears. No need for flowers. I want Polly to spend as little as possible on disposing of my dead carcass. Trust me, I won’t care.

plus size cremation

Second, I want to be cremated. No special urn. A cardboard box will work just fine. If Polly wants to show her love for me, a Hostess cupcake box would be sweet.  As I jokingly told my children, when I am cremated I will go from ass to ashes.

Third, I want my ashes to be spread along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Polly knows the place. I hope my children, daughter-in-laws, grandchildren, and close family will be there. I want no prayers said and as few tears as possible. Perhaps those who are gathered will share a funny story, one of their many Butch/Bruce/Dad/Grandpa stories. I hope they will remember me for the good I have done and forgive me for those moments when I was less than I could or should have been.

And that’s it.

Life is not about dying, it’s about living. Since I am on the short side of life, I dare not waste the time I have left. When death comes, the battery in my life clock will be depleted. Like the Big Ben clock beside our bed, the one I listen to late at night as it clicks off the seconds, I know there is coming a day when I will hear CLICK and that will be it.

How about you? As an atheist or non-Christian, what do you want to happen after you die? Have you made funeral plans? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Mighty Maple and Pine Tree

house 2014

House 2014

Sometime in the latter part of the 19th century, someone built a small farmhouse on the edge of the small, bustling community of Williamstown. In time, Williamstown became Ney and these farmers planted a maple tree and pine tree in their front yard, near the dirt road local residents used to travel  between the communities of Defiance, Bryan, Farmer, Sherwood, Williams Center, and Mark Center. Over time, these tree grew and by 2015 they became two of the largest trees in Ney.

pine tree 2012

Pine tree 2012

The pine tree, eight feet in diameter at its base, towers above the south side of the farmhouse, providing shade for the new family who lives there. Throughout the year, the pine tree drops cones that litter the ground and plug the gutters.  The tree seems healthy, year after year producing buds that turn into cones. Its fallen cones and needles require frequent removal to the compost pile, but the shade provided by this majestic tree makes this work of little importance.

The maple tree, now seven feet in diameter, sits to the west of the pine tree, near the edge  of US Hwy 15. Its vast branches provide plenty of shade on a warm Ohio summer day, and every morning the songbirds sit in its branches serenading anyone who takes time to listen.   Every year, save one, since the new owners have lived in the farmhouse, the maple tree has thrown its seeds to the wind, plugging gutters and taking root in the gravel parking lot around its base. And every year, its seeds find out-of-the-way spots to take up root, hoping the new owners will let it live.

The maple tree is not as healthy as the pine tree. Its age is evident, and every thunderstorm drops a dead branch from its vast expanse. Towering twenty feet above the peak of the farmhouse, the maple tree has seen ten or so decades come and go. People in the farmhouse have lived, moved, and died, and its current residents expect the mighty maple tree will outlive them too.

house 2013

House 2013

Five years ago, knowing that someday the inevitable will happen and the maple tree will die, the new owners of the farmhouse planted a new maple tree, just like the unknown owners did a century ago. This wisp of a tree, now twelve feet tall and seven inches in diameter, will one day tower over the northeast corner of the property. That is, if the future owners of the farmhouse see beyond the present and let it plug their gutters too. The current farmhouse dwellers think like this: enjoy the present by planting bushes and flowers, but don’t forget the children of children of children.  Plant trees that future generations will admire and enjoy. They will be a living reminder to all who dare to pay attention; that a man and woman and their mentally handicapped daughter cared about the world they lived in.

maple tree 2014

Like the maple tree, someday, sooner than later, the man and woman in the farmhouse, will die. Like the maple tree, there’s a rot growing slowly inside of them. It will one day consume them, returning them to the earth from whence they came.

Focusing on What Really Matters

focus on what matters

As a Christian, I viewed life this way:

  1. Life is given to us by God.
  2. Life is a preparatory time for life after death.
  3. Troubles, trials, and adversity will certainly come our way but these things are part of God plan for us. He is testing us, trying us, and developing a longing in us for Heaven.
  4. While pleasure and happiness have their place in the human experience, it is far more important to know the joy of the Lord, and if need be deny oneself pleasure and happiness for the sake of God’s Kingdom and the eternal reward that awaits those who run the race God has set before them.
  5. While there is nothing wrong with material things, they do have the power to corrupt and distract us from that which really matters. As the Westminster Catechism says : What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
  6. Life is to be lived with God, his will, and eternity always in the foreground.
  7. Death is a promotion from this life to the next. While we will leave our loved ones behind for a time, we know that if they are followers of Jesus we will see them again in Heaven.

As an atheist, I view life this way:

  1. Life is given to us by our parents.
  2. This life is all we have. There is no life after death, no second chances, no do-overs. This is it.
  3. Troubles, trials, and adversity will certainly come our way. These things happen to most everyone, and it is the price we pay for being among the living.  Sometimes these things happen due to our bad choices or rash, foolish decisions. However, many things befall us simply due to luck. Wrong place. Wrong time. Wrong circumstance. Bad genetics.
  4. Pleasure and happiness are to be sought after since this life is all we have. In seeking pleasure and happiness, we should consider how seeking these things affects others,  but we should not allow others to stand in the way of our pursuit of pleasure and happiness. Life is too short to allow others to dictate the parameters by which we live our lives.
  5. We should seek after those things which give our life meaning and purpose. While there is a place in the human experience for living for the sake of others, this should not be at the expense of our own meaning and purpose. While narcissism is not a trait most humans value, neither is living a life that belongs to everyone but the person living it.
  6. Since life is defined by the space between birth and death, it is important for us to live each day to its fullest. Every day we live means we are one day closer to death. While death may provide a release from pain and sickness, it is bittersweet. Bittersweet because we are leaving behind those things which mattered to us. Above all, we are leaving behind those we love.

A year or so ago, I watched the final show of the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. (created by True Blood creator, Alan Ball)  The show is about the Fisher Family and their funeral home business. For five seasons viewers are taken on a journey with the Fisher family and death. I found Six Feet Under to be one of the best dramas I have ever viewed. In the final show the writers tried to tie together all the loose ends. A few episodes back Nate Fisher had a brain aneurism and died at age 40. He left a wife, two children, and a complicated life. The last several shows focused on Nate, his contradictory life, and its effect on everyone his life touched.

The last few moments of the show were the most powerful moments I have ever experienced while watching TV. I wept as the show moved through the lives of all the Fisher family as they aged and one by one died. All of them dead. No one escaped. While it would be easy to say “how sad”, I found it to a reminder of how important it is to value and cherish the life we have. We spend so much time doing things that are meaningless or add nothing to our life. I know it is very easy to get sucked into normalcy, to just go with the flow. We tell ourselves, Tomorrow. Perhaps a Bible verse is appropriate here:

Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. (Proverbs 27:1)

Perhaps each of us need to ask ourselves:

  • Am I happy?
  • What is it I want to do with my life?
  • What brings me pleasure and happiness?
  • What do I want to do that I have not yet done?

What are your answers telling you? What are your thoughts on what I have shared here?