What follows is a letter I wrote to my Fundamentalist Christian step-grandmother, Ann Tieken, in 2012. She was married for many years to my grandfather John Tieken. They lived in Pontiac, Michigan and attended Sunnyvale Chapel. As with the previous letters I have posted, I want this letter to be a part of the historical narrative of my life.
Grandchildren don’t get to choose who their grandparents are. When we are born they just show up and we have to accept them.
My Dad’s parents died when I was five. I really don’t remember very much about them at all. I remember the Gerencser farm, the outhouse, the wood cook stove, and the funny language Grandma and Grandpa spoke.
My Mom’s side of the family “blessed” me with two sets of grandparents, Grandma Rausch and Grandma and Grandpa Tieken.
I don’t know how old I was before I realized that Grandma Rausch used to be Grandma Tieken.
For most of my life, Grandma Rausch was the only grandparent I had. She wasn’t perfect but she loved me. I was, after all, grandson number one. She taught me to love baseball and to be passionate about life. She had her faults, but I never doubted for one moment that she loved me.
Here is what I remember about you and Grandpa Tieken.
I remember every Christmas being a day of anxiety and turmoil. I remember the fights, and you and Grandma Rausch not being able to be in the same room together. This was resolved by having two Christmases, two of every holiday
I remember Grandpa’s nasty and violent temper.
I remember Grandpa slugging your son David, my teenage uncle, knocking him off his chair onto the kitchen floor. I saw Grandpa hit him more than a few times.
I remember Grandpa beating the shit out of my brother and me because we took apart an old telephone that was in the garage.
Wonderful childhood memories.
Do I have any good memories of you and Grandpa Tieken?
I have two.
I remember Grandpa taking us up in an airplane he had just overhauled, and I vividly remember Grandpa taking me to a Detroit Tigers vs. Cleveland Indians game at Briggs Stadium in 1968. I got to see Mickey Lolich pitch. He bought me a Tiger’s pennant.
You were always a church- going Christian. What were you thinking when you married the drinking, carousing John Tieken? But you won, and Grandpa Tieken found Jesus.
For the next 30- plus years you and Grandpa were devoted followers of Jesus. I remember going to Sunnyvale Chapel every time we came to visit you. I remember singing the Countdown song (see notes) in junior church.
As I got older I began to understand things from my Mom’s perspective. Her relationship with you and her Dad was always strained. Lots of turmoil, lots of stress. Lots of angry words and cussing.
She showed me the letters you and she traded. So much anger, so little Jesus.
Mom told me about her younger years. She told me about what went on and what happened to her. Awful things. Shameful things. She told me about confronting Grandpa about these things and he told her that God had forgiven him and they were under the blood. Not one word of sorrow or admission of guilt, not even a sorry. A new life in Christ wiped the slate clean.
I have often wondered if Mom’s mental illness found its root in the events that took place on a Missouri farm when she was but a youth. I know she felt she could never measure up and you, and Grandpa had a real knack for reminding the family of their shortcomings. After all, we were Bob Gerencser’s kids.
When I went to college I lived a few miles away from you. For the first time I learned how controlling and demanding you and Grandpa could be. Now I know I wasn’t the perfect grandson; I remember charging to your home phone some long- distance phone calls to Polly. That aside, you did your best to manipulate and control my life.
When I started pastoring churches you and Grandpa started sending us money through the church. We really appreciated it and it was a big help. And then it stopped. Why? The church treasurer didn’t send you your giving statement when you expected it and just like that you stopped sending the money. Did our need change?
When I was pastoring in Somerset, Ohio you and Grandpa came to visit a few times. Polly and I will never forget these visits. How could we?
I remember you and Grandpa sitting in the last pew in the back, on the left side. The building was packed. This was during the time when the church was growing rapidly. After I preached and gave an invitation, I asked if anyone had something to share. Grandpa did. He stood and told the entire congregation what was wrong with my sermon. I wanted to die. He thoroughly embarrassed and shamed me.
I remember when you came to visit us in Junction City. Again, how can I forget the visit? This was your last visit to my home, twenty-three years ago.
Grandpa spent a good bit of time lecturing me about my car being dirty. Evidently, having a dirty car was a bad testimony. Too bad he didn’t take that same approach with Mom.
After dinner — oh, I remember it as if it were yesterday! — we were sitting in the living room and one of our young children got too close to Grandpa. What did he do? He kicked him. I knew then and there that, regardless of his love for Jesus, he didn’t love our family, and he would always be a mean son-of-a-bitch.
I think we saw you and Grandpa once or twice after that. I remember driving to Pontiac to see Grandpa after his cancer surgery. He was out of it. If I remember correctly, you took us to lunch at a buffet.
For his seventy-fifth birthday you had a party for Grandpa. You called a few days before the party and told me that if I was any kind of grandson at all that my family and I would be at the party. Never mind Polly would have to take off work. Never mind the party was on a night we had church. All that mattered to you was that we showed up to give Grandpa’s birthday party an air of respectability.
I remember what came next like it was yesterday. The true Ann rose to the surface and you proceeded to tell me what a terrible grandson I was and how terrible my family was. You were vicious and vindictive.
Finally, after forty years, I had had enough. I told you that you should have worried about the importance of family twenty years ago. I then told you that I was no longer interested in having any contact with you or Grandpa. Like my mother, I decided to get off the Tieken drama train.
And that is where things remained for a long time.
In 2003, I moved to Clare, Michigan to pastor a Southern Baptist church. In what can only be a cruel twist of fate, our family moved to the same gated community that you and your new husband lived in. What are the odds? You lived less than two miles from my home.
You came to visit the church I pastored and invited us over to dinner. I didn’t want to come, but I thought, what kind of Christian am I? Surely, I can forgive and let the past be the past.
And so we went. Things went fairly well until you decided to let me know, as if it was a fact that everyone knew, that my father was not really my father. I showed no reaction to this revelation, but it stunned me and cut me right to the quick. I knew my Mom was pregnant when she married Dad but I had never before heard what you were telling me.
Why did you tell me this? What good could ever come of it? Believe me, I still have not gotten past this. I have come to see that what you told me is probably the truth, but to what end was the telling of this truth?
Church members were excited to find out that I was the grandson to Gramma Clarke (her new married name) , a fine, kind, loving, Christian woman if there ever was one, they told me. All I ever told them is that things are not always as they seem.
Of course I understood how this dualistic view of you was possible. You and Grandpa were always good at the smile real big, I love Jesus game, all the while stabbing your family in the back. It is a game that a lot of Christians play.
Nine years have passed since I last saw you in Clare, Michigan. Life moves on. I have a wonderful wife, six kids, and eight grandchildren. And I am an atheist.
You must have done a Facebook search for me because you “found” me. You sent me an email that said:
What ? An athiest ?? Sorry Sorry Sorry !!!What happened ? How’s Polly & your family??
Nine years and this is what you send me?
Ann, you need to understand something. I am not interested in reviving any kind of relationship with you. One of the things I have learned in counseling is that I get to choose whom I want to associate with, whom I want to be friends with.
My counselor and I spend a lot of time talking about family and the past. He told me, Bruce it is OK to not be friends with people you don’t want to be friends with. No more loving everyone because Jesus loves everyone. I am free to love whom I want.
I don’t wish you any ill will. That said, I don’t want to have a relationship with you, especially a pretend Facebook friendship. Ooh Look! Bruce got reconnected with his estranged Grandmother. Isn’t God good!!
Not gonna happen. I have exactly zero interest in pursuing a relationship with you. It is too late.
My “good” memories of you and Grandpa are few and far between (and I haven’t even mentioned things that I am still, to this day, too embarrassed to mention). You really don’t know me and I don’t know you. And that’s okay.
Life is messy, Ann, and this is one mess in aisle three that no one can clean up. I have been told that I have a hard time forgiving and forgetting. This is perhaps a true assessment of me. I told Polly tonight that I am quite willing to forgive but it is hard to do when there is never an admission of guilt or the words I am sorry are never uttered. How can there be since the blood of Jesus wipes away every shitty thing a person has ever done? Talk about a get out of responsibility for sin card.
I am sure you will think I am just like my mother. I am.
You know what my last memory of my Mom is? After I tearfully and with a broken heart concluded my 54-year-old Mom’s graveside service, Grandpa Tieken took the “opportunity” to preach at us and tell us that Mom was in heaven. Just days before she had put a gun to her chest and pulled the trigger. We all were reeling with grief and pain and Grandpa, in a classic Grandma-and-Grandpa-Tieken moment, decided to preach instead of love.
The Countdown Song
Somewhere in outer space
God has prepared a place
For those who trust Him and obey
Jesus will come again
And though we don’t know when
The countdown’s getting lower every day.
10 and 9, 8 and 7, 6 and 5 and 4,
Call upon the Savior while you may,
3 and 2, coming through the clouds in bright array
The countdown’s getting lower every day.
Jesus was crucified, suffered and bled he died,
But on the cross He did not stay
He made this promise true, I will come back for you,
The countdown’s getting lower every day.
Soon will the trumpet sound, and we’ll rise off the ground
With Christ forever will we be
Children where will you be, throughout eternity?
The countdown’s getting lower every day!