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“Normal” is a Just a Setting on a Washing Machine


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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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  1. Avatar

    That is so sad how ridiculous religious belief can be used as the excuse to drive a wedge between people.

    My mom was a fundie and believed a lot of the fundie garbage (not all but a lot), but one of the best things she ever did when she found out she had cancer was to get ALL her affairs in order. She set up her will, made and paid for all funeral arrangements, drew up a medical directive – all my brother and I had to do was sign paperwork. It was seamless and is the best thing to do for those left behind.

    Polly’s parents might not just be choosing the other family over yours. Some older people refuse to move come hell or high water. My mother in law is I’ll, lives in a house much too large and expensive to maintain, and lives over an hour from her nearest son. She flat out refuses to move despite several different great scenarios being posited to her regarding selling the house and moving closer to a son so that someone could take care of her when necessary. She used to rely on a neighbor who went above and beyond, but he moved 2 years ago. It’s just stubbornness, or fear of change, or something…..

    I am sorry that Polly’s parents are being so difficult in their final years.

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    I disagree that there will be a colossal mess after your in-laws die. Without a will, the assets (if any) are distributed according to state law, which is most cases is a rather common sense hierarchy of relatives. It is likely with a will they’d give a sizable portion to the church that hasn’t been there rather than the family that has been.

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      Bruce Gerencser

      There’s no money, so nothing to leave the church. The reasons it will be a mess are many. One, Polly’s dad likely has dementia. Yes, everything passes to him, but he will be in a nursing home, and on Medicaid. Everything will have to be sold to pay for his care. Second, Polly’s mom has been telling the family in Newark to tag the things they want to own after she dies. This puts Polly in a difficult spot of having to handle these give-a-ways. Polly did tell her to give the things away NOW, that way she doesn’t have to deal with it. Third, there is some family backstory I’m not comfortable sharing that will most certainly lead to conflict when it is no longer necessary to be “godly” before their grandparents.

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    Dementia? (I live with a loved one who has dementia, so I see symptoms everywhere. You may not be in a position to see her other symptoms.)

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      I thought of this too Darcy. I watched my parents in some form of mental decline. One minute they appeared okay, the next, not okay. My mother is still here and I often say, if I could just figure out what part is the dementia and what part is still her, it would be easier. Her mental decline caused all sorts of issue. The rest of my siblings don’t see it.

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        For those of you who have a Facebook account and are dealing with someone who may have dementia (of any kind), I recommend joining one of the dementia caregiver groups. Just don’t make a steady diet of reading the posts. Too depressing. There are other caregiver resources, online and in books. I don’t know what dementia plus narrow religiosity would do in combination. The former might overwhelm the latter.

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    mary g

    so sorry. this is a sad story that is all too common. the best Polly can do is leave them to their own devices. they are adults and making their own decisions. sad that they are making poor decisions due to religion. I have seen this w/my own parents and my inlaws. we have minimized the impact on us and they are living w/the results. we are not obligated to make it all better.

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    My heart (also broken in my own situation) goes out to you Polly. It hurts when a loving, compassionate, kind and common sense daughter is ignored.

    Bruce, she may be way past the ability to do a will. Not just because of her personality but also due to fear and the deterioration occurring in her brain due to her heart failure. It’s probably way past the time of even scratching the surface of existing in a world of common sense for her.

    As for the other side/rest of the family, if they have influence over her (it sounds like they do) and she’s never really accepted you (it sounds like she/they didn’t) it wouldn’t matter about the fairness of it all or the common sense or the unfair burden on Polly when she passes. She was unreachable in the past and certainly won’t/can’t be reached now. I hope you don’t mind me being this personal publicly. As you know, my own situation has been hellish and I let it all take years off my life with the stress of it all. It took a terrible toll on my health. 🙁

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    Life is so messy … and when the blinders of religiosity stay on, this is what happens. I am glad you are all free, and very sad about Polly’s mom. Mostly, I am sad for Polly.

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    Your statement: “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.” This makes me think she is trying as Polly’s parent to sort of continue playing the parent from the power position in YOUR home, since apparently she believes this authority continues into later generations even after they are grown. I’ve seen this tendency in my own parents.

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    Bruce, my mom finally said, later in her life, that all she really wanted was for me to be happy. I assured her that I was indeed happy and that though it appeared to her that I was troubled about things quite often, this was my choice of engagement with the world. Her definition of my ‘happy’ was of course quite different than mine and it saddens me that she carried a worry in her heart for me right ntil she died. She was concerned that I was being stubborn towards God and refusing to obey. She lived in fear of God her whole life. I often repeat that Chritianity is a harmful force in the world. I look for basic, foundational good in Belief but I constantly find myself disappointed and disturbed by world faiths and how they are used. Religion is a human adaptation, or perhaps more accurately a maladaptation. I invented God so that I could fit, so that I could be loved. My parents showed me how to cope (their whole lives) and how to evade basic logic and feeling by overlaying it with ‘scripture’, with woo. I memorized KJV script and collected yearly attendance pins for showing up at Sunday School. It was a shared lie, a club and it took my parents before it took me. It still owns most of my extended family. Nevertheless, I must choose against the lie and go with my skeptical path because it is the right thing to do. My feelings have been used for half my life to cover myself and to adopt a faith that was fed to me from the breast onward. When I decided to say no to my lie, when I stopped believing, it was as if a huge wieght was lifted from me. It was in a weird way like a ‘saved’ experience. Perhaps that is because I only know that way in feeling, have never been free to just be me. After my initial falling away was final, I did not feel that weight return to me. When I was saved as a Christian, the weight of life always came back, the cycle of suffering, sin and forgiveness was endless. And the offering plate kept coming around. Now both mom and dad are gone and you know what I miss? I want to ask them to talk about their human lives, their own histories instead of telling me that the past does not matter and that serving the Lord is all and everything. I will always wish for what was hidden under their service to God, the people not the servants.

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