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Short Stories: 1976: My First Christmas with Polly

bruce polly gerencser midwestern baptist college 1977
Bruce Gerencser, Polly Shope 1977

In August of 1976, I packed my meager belongings into my dilapidated, rust-bucket of a car and moved two hours northeast to the Midwestern Baptist College dormitory. Midwestern, located in Pontiac, Michigan, was a small, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college. I planned to study for the ministry. Well, that, and chase girls. I thought, at the time, that Midwestern would provide me an ample supply of Baptist girls to date. Playing the field, was my goal. However, “God” had different plans. By the end of September, I was in a serious relationship with a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. To say that I was smitten is a gross understatement. In February of 1977, we became engaged, and in July 1978, we tied the knot at the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio.

Forty-five years ago, I met a young woman who altered the course of my life. How we got to where we are today requires a book-length telling, but for today, let me share with you the story of our first Christmas.

Polly’s family gathered for Christmas on Christmas Eve. On a snowy Christmas Eve afternoon, I left my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio, and traveled four hours south to Newark, Ohio — the home of Polly’s parents and aunt and uncle. The family gathering that year was held at the home of Jim and Linda Dennis (both deceased). Jim, married to Polly’s mom’s younger sister, was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple — an IFB congregation. Both Jim and Polly’s father were graduates of Midwestern Baptist College.

Prior to the family gathering, a short, dutiful Christmas Eve service was held at the Baptist Temple. Jim, ever the jokester, pointed out to the congregation that his niece, Polly, had a guest with her. “They have a shirttail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirttail is.” Polly and I were thoroughly embarrassed. No one in Polly’s family, at the time, thought our relationship would last. I was Polly’s first boyfriend, so her family thought I was just a fad that would quickly pass.

After church, we drove to the Dennis’ home. Polly’s mom had her sister and cousin ride with us, just in case we did something nefarious; you know like hold hands or kiss. We safely arrived to the Dennis’ home with our virginity intact.

Until my arrival in Newark, Polly and I had never kissed. That’s right, we had been dating for four months and had not yet kissed each other. The reason for this was simple. Midwestern banned, under threat of immediate expulsion, all physical contact between unmarried dating couples. Called the six-inch rule, this ban caused all sorts of psychological trauma for dating couples. You see, it is normal for couples to desire and have physical contact with each other. “Normal” at Midwestern, however, was determined by the Bible, sexually frustrated preachers, and arcane rules imported from Bob Jones University — the college where the founder of Midwestern, Tom Malone, received his ministerial training.

Getting caught touching a member of the opposite sex was a sure way to get yourself “campused” (grounded from all outside activities, including dating). Repeat offenders were “shipped” (expelled). Polly and I both received demerits for breaking the six-inch rule. Our sin? I played on the college basketball team (not a big feat — think intramural basketball). One day at practice, I slapped at a basketball, severely dislocating a finger. I went to the local ER and oh-so-painfully had the finger put back in place. It remains crooked to this day. I had to wear a finger splint for several weeks. Male students were required to wear ties to classes. The splint hindered my ability to tie my tie, so one morning I asked Polly to do it for me. Keep in mind we were standing in the middle of dorm common area when Polly tied my tie. If we had plans to break the six-inch rule, this would not have been the place we would have done so. Unfortunately, a couple sitting nearby turned us into the disciplinary committee. The next week, we appeared before the committee and were shamed for our licentious, immoral behavior. I suspect the only reason we weren’t punished more severely was because of who Polly’s uncle and father were (Jim Dennis was a college trustee at the time).

As you might imagine, by Christmas, our hormones were raging. We looked forward to getting away from the college and its rules so we could privately and intimately express our love to one another. College administrators warned unmarried students that the six-inch rule still applied while they were home for Christmas break. I thought, at the time, “yeah, right. Catch us if you can.”

Polly’s parents lived in an upstairs apartment on Union Street. I spent a total of twenty-four hours with Polly that first Christmas. Our first kiss came when Polly’s mom asked her to go to the apartment complex’s laundry room to do some laundry. Seeing an opportunity for some old-fashioned necking, I went along, and it was there we had our first kiss. We did a lot of laundry that day. 🙂

Come Christmas Day, it was time for me to go home. Polly begged her mom to let me stay one more day, but she refused. Polly’s mom would spend the next fifteen months doing all she could to destroy our relationship — including forbidding us to marry — which we ignored, telling her we were getting married with or without their blessing. Needless to say, she and I have had an on-and-off-contentious relationship for 45 years. Our relationship has improved in recent years. Polly’s dad died last year, but I suspect Mom will always believe “Polly could have done better.”

Many kisses would follow that first kiss on Christmas Eve, 1976. After our return to Midwestern after the break, Polly and I had a real problem on our hands. You see, we had crossed a physical line, and once that line was crossed there was no going back. We spent the next nineteen months breaking the six-inch rule, only double-dating with dorm couples who had the same “moral” standards we had. Summer breaks allowed us the freedom to act “normally,” but while classes were in session, we had to sneak around to just kiss one another. While we both were virgins on our wedding day, we both knew that if we waited much longer to get married, we would likely have given in to our passions. A week or so before our wedding, Polly’s mom let us go to The Dawes Arboretum south of Newark without a chaperone. We spent several hours enjoying one another’s embrace, coming oh-so-close to rounding third and sliding into home. As it was, Polly was on a strict curfew, and we were late. Boy, did we get a lecture when we arrived home. Here we were, 19 and 21, getting married in a matter of days, and we were being treated like children.

One memory about our first Christmas stands tall in my mind. Polly and I were sitting on the couch, close enough to touch one another, but not so close as to arouse her eagle-eye mom’s attention, watching a TV special starring Captain & Tennille. One of the songs they sang was their 1975 number one hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together.

Video Link

Forty-five years later, that song is still true. Love, indeed, has kept us together.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Ah, the joys of difficult parents. I’m sorry your mother-in-law didn’t approve of you as her daughter’s mate. I was not an approved mate either, but my mom-in-law is a gracious person and never revealed that to me. She did share with my fiance that I was not attractive enough and he would get bored with me. We will celebrate our 40th anniversary in June 2020. I guess he didn’t get THAT bored.

    My mom-in-law and I have grown closer with time, and we are quite close now. I doubt she remembers her initial objection to me. I, however, still do.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Mom believed that divorce was hereditary, so since my parents were divorced that meant I would some day get divorced too. Here we are, still married. ? So much for that absurd idea.

      I love Mom, but I do wish she had been more accepting of me over the years. Polly’s parents don’t talk about or confront problems head-on. We prefer to talk directly and openly about problems/disagreements. We have repeatedly tried over the years to talk about our disagreements. Failure, every time. We eventually took to writing them letters. Mom asked us to stop sending letters, so now we disagree in uncomfortable silence. Our deconversion? 11 years now, and not one honest discussion with Polly’s parents.

      I wish it was different, but it’s not. So, we do what we can.

      • Avatar

        Bruce: I just read a fantastic article written by an ex-serviceman who has returned to college (Yale) to finally get his degree. He’s 52 and admitted to originally being very judgmental about anyone who wasn’t like him, especially if they hadn’t served their country like he had. And then he met the Yale snowflakes 🙂 The article is called “My Year with the Snow Flakes”, and his final conclusion is that to repair what has been damaged in this country we have to get out of our comfort zones and really listen to each other in order to learn and reconnect as a country. It’s a beautifully written piece, and I unfortunately don’t remember where I read it. What you’ve written here about having family who won’t speak openly about important things made me think of it.

        I hope the next year and decade are better to you and your wife and especially your health.. It sounds like you have such a genuine relationship – the best role modeling kids can have in my opinion.

  2. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    My situation in college was very unconstricted. My good, conservative parents (Mom was Catholic, Dad a non-churched Lutheran) really wanted to believe that I would be a virgin on my wedding day. My husband’s good, conservative Evangelical parents knew their son had sinned already as regarded behaving inappropriately toward a prospective mate–though the young lady was Black, my white in-laws were pretty racist at the time, and undoubtedly thought the incident was Her Fault.

    So, with two sets of conservative parents who Don’t Want To Know, plausible deniability works really well. Fiance and I had different studio apartments in the same apartment complex. Neither of us had had good luck with roommates in previous years, so studios made sense for both of us. The apartment complex was on the outskirts of town, so we had a long bicycle ride to campus, and deities help either of us if we left an important assignment home on the day it was due.

    I used the studio furniture supplied with the apartment, which consisted of two daybeds. I might have actually spent the night in one of them half a dozen times over the course of ten months. Fiance rented his apartment unfurnished, and squeezed a double bed and a long sofa into the space. The bed was pushed against the wall. I spent that school year sleeping with my back to that wall, his cat taking up her half out of the middle. and my fiance on the outside. But I carefully kept one of the daybeds in my own apartment ready for sleeping, and did nap there occasionally.

    I really hated that game. I hated the rules that said we weren’t supposed to have sex until we married. I hated the fear I still had of Hell. I wasn’t going to get pregnant, because the university’s medical clinic handed out birth control pills freely. But it was very nice to finally be married and be able to share a bed honestly. Um, at least as far as humans were concerned. The cat pointed out that SHE never signed that marriage license, and it took her another whole year to really warm up to me.

  3. Avatar

    I laughed out loud in parts of this story and at the end silently teared up.

    My mother-in-law probably hated me in the beginning. Is that too strong a word? Not sure. I pretty much hated her for hating me. She judged my family has being from the “other-side of the tracks.” Apparently the “churchy” side, the more prosperous side and the educated side. I can tell you that judgement was a pile of cow pie.

    There came a time in our lives when Biker Dude took a stand and for pretty much three years we went our separate ways. After three years I was the one that said, let’s initiate a slow return and connection. So we did. Not enough time or room to describe the process.

    This past year both of his parents died. It would not be a stretch to report that they were literally other than our own adult children, our best friends. At the end of her life in a private moment with Biker Dude, my mother-in-law said to BD, “what would we do without Zoe?” He cried with her and said, “I did good hey mom? I chose well.” One of the greatest gifts was to hear BD tell me she told him she loved me. Near the end of her days as I continued to serve her at her bedside she told me she loved me. I was able to tell her I loved her.

    I am constantly amazed at how families are literally so broken and why and for what?

    I wish for peace in this regard for you and Polly, Bruce.

    I did not get this peace with my own father though I was there with him at the end.

    Sometimes all we can do is love ourselves and them in spite of them and ourselves.

    Sometimes there are no words and our actions say everything. My dad liked to control the conversation and often that was with silence or avoidance. At the end of his life as do we all, we lose control and it is then that he could not stop me “loving” him. No words were necessary. My presence spoke volumes.

    In that way, perhaps we did get peace.

  4. Avatar

    I love your stories about the rules at Midwestern Baptist College – talk about making students hyper-focused on sex by making it completely forbidden!

    I moved 1000 miles away from my home near Nashville to attend graduate school in NJ. Several months later, my boyfriend joined me in NJ after he graduated from college. Being in such an expensive area, we couldn’t afford 2 apartments so we got one together. My mom mentioned something about sex once (she of course preached the abstinence thing even though she admitted she hadn’t done that herself), and I bit her head off and told her it was none of her business. We did refrain from telling Grandma that my boyfriend and I were living together. This past August we celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary.

    With our kids, we just made sure they knew about safe sex -what that means, why it’s important, how to practice it. I didn’t want my kids going through the same sex-prohibition garbage I grew up with.

  5. Avatar
    Mark R

    Mr. Bruce–Congratulations on 43 years of wedded bliss to your spouse!

    To those of us in the Christian camp, it is a needed wake-up call when a self-professed humanist provides a better example of “till death do us part” than Paula Michelle Furr-Knight-White-Cain (I think I got them all in).

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      Hey, Mark R, it’s a wake-up call whether or not somebody is pigion-holed by others.
      (And to be fair, you will never get them all in because they are us, sir. Christians think they have something more than others with their faith and they are quite correct: They have a huge lack and a tendency to view everything from the pit, the very pit of that lack.
      There is a song that Gordon Lightfoot sang called ‘If You Could Read Between the Lines’. There is a lyric in that that I think of ofen when Christians bend reality to fit their fantasy:
      ‘And if you read between the lines, you’ll know that I’m just trying to understand, the feelings that you lack.’
      Mote pointedly, I try to understand how it is that we who have graduated Christianity or ‘faith’, ever succumbed to the feeling that it would be better to trust a fantasy than to rely on ourselves and one another.
      I do not believe that you were born in sin, sir, and find it offensive that you impart it others as well and then say in response to my protest, no doubt, God did it, I’m just obeying Him!
      Happy New Year!

      • Avatar
        Mark R

        Brian–When I said “I think I got them all in” I meant the numerous surnames that Paula has had throughout the years. (Of course in a few years she will grow tired of her 1980’s musician husband and move to the next one)

  6. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    Mark R, I am really saying that we are all in the same boat, as I see it and that Paula and the change of names is not too terribly different than the rest of us. I am happy that Bruce’s marriage has endured and I suspect it is because Polly and not because God. Bruce was a hardliner and Polly grew up in that ‘camp’ too. Sometimes, a common survival experience brings people together. Sometimes, when I look at the polar opposite extremes of my childhood (Baptist preacher’s son) with that of my wife’s early years (family of working alcholics), I see remarkable similarities for a child in those extremes, the emotional abandoment, the deeply anxious day etc. An evangelical Christian has no idea whatsoever about what I am talking about but my wife (a Bahai!) does.

  7. Avatar

    I’d argue that sex before marriage, quite the reverse of being forbidden, is almost a requirement! I know many would disagree, and not just for religious reasons, but to me it has two purposes. Firstly, making sure that the marriage isn’t just a matter of lust but is based on something deeper (I know many marriages founder for this reason). Secondly, why not make sure that you are both going to make out in this department? If marriage is for life and one, or both, partners find the sex doesn’t suit them well better to have found out beforehand.

  8. Avatar

    What a lovely story! I’m happy that you and Polly found each other and remain very much in love after all these years. Happy Thanksgiving to you both!

  9. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Now I’m going to share one of my dim, dark secrets (really!). You see, in spite of everything I’ve experienced (or maybe because of it), I’m a romantic. I’m a sucker for a good love story, especially if it’s true. Thank you, Bruce.

    It’s funny that for a moment, I thought the woman in the photo at the end of your article was Polly. She really was, and is, a beautiful woman.

    Here’s something that one of you, with a mind greater than mine, might be able to answer. Pretty much every church, and every religion, encourages people to reproduce as amuch as possible. Yet they make sex a bigger crime than murder, or at least a “necessary evil.” So how, exactly, are people supposed to “be fruitful and multiply?”

  10. Avatar

    Love this. Brings back all kinds of memories since we are from the same era, married at 20 in 1976. I was the pastor’s daughter, my spouse the son of missionaries who attended our church. Although I was also church pianist my dad decided not to make a big deal out of my short dresses (we weren’t IFB, we were Assemblies of God and dad was trying not to be ‘legalistic’ as he recalled from his teen years when young people were driven out of the church for wearing lipstick or dungarees), plus a huge planter extending down to the floor sealed off any view.) My soon-to-be-husband’s family at any rate thought I was far too racy for their son (he never cared what they thought of me). Long story short–spent years of ridiculous busy-ness doing all the things at church everyone expected of us– until we left quietly and silently New Years’ Eve 1999 due to the pastor’s Y2K conspiracy theories and controlling ways (he pursued us to our jobs, angry and spewing hate). We spent ten years trying to make other churches work, gave all (including religiously tithing on our gross in every church we landed in–way over 10%). Finally ten years ago we realized it was all a ruse. Once our eyes were open we completely de-converted. Of course our families are livid over this. We have never been happier, are now semi-retired and will be celebrating our 46th Xmas (!!) together this year, just the two of us. (Our children, in the next city are also non-believers.) Happy holidays to you and Polly. Love seeing the old photos of you two lovebirds.

  11. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Out shopping for my friend and myself. I want to wish you and Polly a happy and safe Thanksgiving today. Indoors for the night. I always have one thing to be grateful for most days. I’m appreciative of your blog, Bruce . Life was pretty awful in 2018 . A little better now. I couldn’t say that three years ago. Have a great holiday, everyone !

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Bruce Gerencser