I have always had a contentious relationship with my wife’s mother. She never wanted me to marry her daughter, and she went to great lengths to frustrate our dating relationship. It was not until Polly told her mother we were getting married with or without her blessing that she grudgingly gave in and helped Polly plan our wedding. We’ve been married for forty years. Polly’s mom was certain that marrying someone from a divorced family led to divorce. I assume, by now, we have put that bit of nonsense to rest. Over the years, Polly and I butted heads with her mom over how many children we planned to have, how we raised our children, ministerial moves, choices of secular employment, how we celebrated Christmas, and a host of other things.
Polly’s mom is now on the last leg of life. She’s has congestive heart failure and has been give six or so months to live. In 2005, Polly’s younger sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle crash (If One Soul Gets Saved It’s Worth It All) leaving Polly alone responsible for her aged parents. In 2004-2005, we lived in Newark, Ohio, not far from Polly’s parents. Our plan was to live there and care for Polly’s parents as they got older. Unfortunately, they made it clear that our help wasn’t needed. Message received. We returned to northwest Ohio so we could be close to our children and grandchildren. Two years ago, Polly’s dad had botched hip replacement surgery that left him crippled. We offered to move them up here so we could help care for them. Our offer was rebuffed. Polly’s mom told her that they couldn’t move because their church — the Newark Baptist Temple — was very important to them. This sentiment is strange considering that their church has pretty much ignored them since Dad’s hip surgery. Out of sight, out of mind.
It will be left to Polly to take care of everything after her mom dies. Common sense says that Polly’s parents should have a will, but, unfortunately, common sense seems hard to find these days. Polly’s mom refuses to have a will drawn up, leaving Polly a colossal mess to deal with after her mom dies. Polly calls her mom every Sunday at 10:00 PM. They talk for one hour. In recent weeks, I have listened to Polly gently try to explain to her mom why having a will is important. Finally, I had enough and asked to Polly to put the phone on speaker. Bruce, the son-in-law she wishes she never had, is more blunt and direct than his wife. I let my mother-in-law know exactly what she was leaving behind for her daughter if she died intestate. In no uncertain terms I let her know that her view of the family was naïve. (She believes everyone will just get along after her death and there will be no problems settling the estate without a will.) She said nothing, thinking, I’m sure, “here’s another one of Bruce’s lectures.” Polly told me later that her mom let her know that she was putting her dad in a nursing home in Newark BEFORE she dies! I suspect she heard from one of her local grandsons that Polly and I had been talking about what to do with/for her dad after Mom died. One idea was to put him in a nursing home near us so we and children could provide for his needs. It seems that, even to the end, Mom intends to maintain the wall between us and her church and “godly” grandchildren in central Ohio. Her behavior has broken Polly’s heart, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Polly has always been the dutiful daughter, yet it seems her mom has chosen the rebellious daughter’s family over hers — much like in the Bible story about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In the end, it’s Mom’s loss. She has an awesome daughter, and we have wonderful children and grandchildren; people with great empathy and compassion; people who value family. She doesn’t know this, of course, because she has chosen her dead daughter’s family over Polly’s. Such is life . . .
I realize that if Polly had married a “normal” Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher boy things might be different. Instead, Polly married a “bad boy,” a man who has always marched to the beat of his own drum, a man who has rarely been afraid to make hard, controversial decisions. In Mom’s eyes, I am an “odd duck”; I’m “different.” Why couldn’t I have been like other IFB preachers? Why couldn’t I have kept the faith? You see, the underlying issue is my unwillingness to hew to IFB belief. We left the IFB church movement years before we deconverted. Polly’s mom was upset with me numerous times during my years in the ministry; upset over decisions such as: me not wearing the IFB preacher uniform (white shirt, tie and suit), letting Polly wear pants, allowing my children to listen to Christian rock, not preaching from behind a pulpit, not sending my children to a Christian college, removing the name “Baptist” from our church name, using praise and worship music during church services, and not using the KJV when I preached, to name a few. Nothing was as bad, though, as me leaving the ministry and the two of us walking away from Christianity. I suspect that Mom believes that if I were out of the picture, Polly would come running back to Jesus and the family faith. Little does she know how independent her daughter really is and how anti-religion she has become. She may not be as vocal as her husband, but Polly has no use for anything associated with organized religion. She is, in every way, her own woman. The days when Bruce, the IFB Patriarch, ruled the home are long gone. Most of all, Mom blames me for what our children have become. According to her, I have RUINED them! Actually, what I really did was set them free. Each of them is free to be whoever and whatever he or she wants to be. Yes, to a person each has abandoned IFB/Evangelical Christianity, and some don’t believe in gods at all. Yes, they have abandoned the social strictures of their Fundamentalist youth. OMG! They drink beer and cuss. They are so “worldly,” and it is all MY fault. I am, after all, in her IFB worldview, the head of the home, even though all my children are out on their own with families, well-paying jobs, and own their homes. Mom might lament their worldliness, but I am quite proud of who and what ALL my children have become.
It’s Thanksgiving 2005. We are living in Bryan, Ohio, five miles from where we now live. Polly’s parents came to our home to join us for the day. Mom, as she often did, blew into our home like a tornado, moving furniture and changing meal preparations. It was noticeable to me that Polly was quit stressed by her mom’s behavior. She, however, said nothing. As the day wore on, I became increasingly agitated by Mom’s behavior, so much so that I reminded her that she was a guest in our home and asked her to please STOP micromanaging everything. Well, that went over well. Mom and Dad didn’t stay long that day. A day or so later, Mom called to apologize. During our conversation she said, “Bruce, we have always accepted you. We knew you were ‘different.'”
Different? Sure, but does that make a bad husband, father, grandfather, or person? Since when is being different a bad thing? My mother had many faults, but she taught me to think for myself and be my own person. I carried her teachings into my life and they continue with me to this day. I refuse to follow the well-trodden path. I refuse to do something just because everyone is doing it. I choose, instead, to walk my own path, even if that means I am walking alone. I realize that Mom will go to the grave saddened by what has become of her daughter and her son-in-law. Instead of seeing that we are happy and blessed, all she can see is our ungodly disobedience and lack of faith. Instead of seeing what awesome children and grandchildren we have, all she can see is their faithlessness and worldliness. Her religion keeps her from truly embracing and enjoying our family. In mom’s world, the wash can only be cleaned if the washing machine is set to “normal” and Tide is used for detergent.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.