If there is one thing I’ve learned in my life, it is that what I always thought of as a mundane and normal upbringing was anything but that. In my 22 years, I have never heard of anyone who had an upbringing like mine. Sometimes I am frustrated by that, but more often I am thankful for my life experiences thus far, no matter how difficult they were or to deal with at the time.
It is often joked that the average American family has 2.5 children. My family really did have 2.5 children. I was the second born child; the first female. My brother and I often tease that mom and dad had children until they got what they wanted, and that was me. The other .5 came from the fact that there was always another child in our house. We often had a foster child, and most of the time that child was one of my cousins.
I feel that I must explain a bit about my mother’s upbringing in order for a person to understand my childhood. My mother, named Vanessa, was one of four children. She was born in 1955 in Grover Hill, Ohio to a family who lived in a two room home with no indoor plumbing. She often told us stories of her days in high school and her preparations for a romantic date. If she wanted a bath, she had to walk one half of a mile down the road to her grandfather’s house. Her family was beyond poor, and she always knew it. Her father (from what I’ve been told) was a very loving man, but his job in a factory was not enough to provide for their family. He spent most of his time at work, and therefore she did not see much of him. Her brothers, lacking a strong male figure, often beat her and her sister. Her mother simply looked the other way saying, “Boys will be boys.” None of her siblings graduated from high school, and the only reason she did was at the urging of her mentor, Adelphine, for whom she worked. It was because of Adelphine that my mother attended and graduated from the University of Findlay. It was Adelphine that reminded my mother that she was a beautiful, smart, and talented young woman. No other person told her these things growing up. Adelphine also instilled the importance of education in my mother’s life. Because of Adelphine, my mother took it upon herself to make every child she encountered know that he/she had potential and that someone loved him/her. This is how my cousins often came to live with us. When my aunt, her sister, failed to provide for her children, my mother graciously took them in while her sister got back on her feet.
Education was always the top priority in our home. I was always the youngest child in the house and took it upon myself to catch up to what the bigger kids were doing. When my brother (3 years older than me) learned to read, I learned too. If Bradley could do it, so could I. My brother learned because he had to. I learned because I wanted to. While many of our friends spent summers on exotic vacations and on cruises with their families, my family never took vacations. My mother viewed a leisurely vacation as a waste. Vacation in the Barrett household was a day at C.O.S.I. or a trip to the Ohio Historical Society. At the time, I felt robbed of the typical experiences of a family, but in retrospect I see that having a teacher for a mother was about more than having a mother who spent her days in a classroom with third graders. My mother’s job was to teach, and her most prized students were her biological children.
My father was one of ten children. His family could not afford to send him to college. If attending college was something he would like to do, he would have had to fund the experience on his own. He decided to work and keep his money rather than attend college and throw his money away. He spent most of my childhood working in a factory, and when the factory laid him off, he took up the profession of driving a semi-truck. I, like my mother, did not see much of my father, but I knew that he loved me. I would even go as far as to define myself as a daddy’s girl.
My parents loved one another. I only remember them fighting once in the entirety of my childhood. I did not know that parents existed who did not love each other. The parents of my friends all loved one another as well. Perhaps this was because I was raised in the church, or maybe it was just luck. Divorce was a distant word in my childhood mind. It was an abstract concept that only other children at school had to deal with. I thought my childhood was perfect.
My spiritual life was always fostered. Both of my parents were faithful Christians and I followed suit. Baptized as an infant, I was raised in the church, and often I felt as though the church was just as much a home to me as my house. My parents chose to raise my brother and me in the United Methodist Church. When I was confirmed at age 12, and I felt as though no other church could be home to me like the United Methodist Church was. I was one of the few 12 year olds in my confirmation class that took the vows of confirmation seriously. At confirmation, I was a proud member of the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I quickly fell into a leadership role in my church. I loved serving on the district and conference youth councils, and the highlight of my year was always the West Ohio Annual Conference.
I attended my district youth camp when I was in high school, and the first time I remember having my own theological thought was at this camp. The camp coordinator asked all the youth pastors to stand up and share the date on which they were “saved.” After all the youth pastors had shared, the coordinator stood up and said that if we didn’t know the exact date that we were “saved,” we were not truly saved. This was a problem for me, because I didn’t know an exact date. As far back as I remember, I had loved Jesus and considered myself a Christian, having been raised in the church. This man would not devalue my upbringing. I felt that this date was the date that I was called to ministry. I knew that it was my task to raise people up in the church like I had been, whether they were infants or elders.
Upon graduating high school, I was set to attend Ohio Northern University to major in education, just like my mother had at her college. I knew that I was called to work in a church, but at that point in my life I believed my calling to be a professional educator first and a pastor part-time. I attended one education class and knew immediately that I was not going to cut it as a teacher. I called home to tell my parents that I was switching majors, and the change was welcomed after a bit of conversation. I felt at home in my religious education classes. I knew that the tug to educate was meant to be in a church setting. I felt that I was making my family proud.
Later on in my freshman year of college my world began to fall apart. My mother, since my childhood, had suffered from a degenerative kidney disease. We always knew that at some point she would need a kidney transplant or be bound to a life of dialysis. Her sister felt like she owed my mother her life for taking care of her children, and so she offered to donate her kidney. We were all elated at the prospect of having the real Vanessa, my mom, back. In my high school years she had grown tired and lethargic, and we knew that after a transplant her body would heal itself and she would be the spunky woman that we had all known. The surgery date was set, and things went according to plan. The transplant team kept all of us gathered in the waiting room posted on the surgery. It was when we noticed that we hadn’t been updated by the surgical team that we first knew something was wrong. When the surgeon stepped into the waiting room, we knew that the news he was going to deliver was not news we wanted to hear. He began by telling us that both my mother and aunt were in recovery. We all breathed a sigh of relief, but he went on to tell us that the kidney lost its blood supply and had as a result died. My mother would still be sick, and my aunt was now one kidney short.
After my freshman year and the transplant ordeal, I decided to move to Connecticut for the summer to work. My family supported me, and I packed up my car and left. I experienced an extreme case of homesickness, and spent all of my free time on the phone with my mom. She told me that she was feeling more and more tired, and she felt like her body was shutting down. The blood that was not being cleaned by her dying kidneys was poisoning her earthly body. I knew it was serious, but she refused to let me quit my job and come home to be with her. She assured me that she would be waiting for me when I got home. I received a phone call at the end of my summer telling me that my brother had been found to be a match for her, and that a second transplant was being arranged.
I came home from Connecticut hopeful that this time it would be different. My mother said many times that she didn’t want to go through this surgery, but she went forward with planning at the urging of my father, my brother, and me. The day the surgery was scheduled, she spiked a fever and the surgery was postponed for a week. She joked that she would do anything to get out of this surgery. Finally, the surgery went on as scheduled. My father and I waited to hear word on how my brother and mother were doing. The surgeon stepped into the waiting room, beaming, and told us that the surgery had gone perfectly. Life seemed to be back on track. As soon as my mother was in recovery, I went to see her. She and I chatted and then she told me to go back to school so that I didn’t miss another day of class. I obliged, knowing how much my education meant to her. I kissed her goodbye and told her I loved her. That was the last time I would speak to her. She died from complications from the transplant a few days later.
I dealt with my mother’s death a bit differently than some. The day we buried her, I returned back to school and went to class. I attempted to deal with the situation by putting it out of my mind and returning back to life as usual. That worked for a while, but I always felt like half of me was missing. I always knew I was like a carbon copy of my mother, but having her presence gone from my life was a kind of emptiness I had never experienced. Often people would look at me and say, “You look just like your mother.” Each time I heard this, my heart broke a bit more. I saw sadness in the eyes of people as they spoke these words, and it hurt me to know that every time they looked at me, they were reminded of how much they missed my mother. I felt my family falling apart. My father, who had always had issues with depression, became removed and quiet, and my brother felt as though her death was his fault. Bradley became more hostile to the idea of God than he had been previously, which was hard for me to witness. I used my college as a refuge from the home life that went from perfect to destroyed in a matter of days.
I never really lost my faith in God through the whole process of grieving, although I did take plenty of time to question why a God who was so loving would let my heart experience so much pain. I became frustrated with everyone feeding me empty religious clichés, and I chose to seek a new friendship with someone outside of my circle of friends. This person’s name was Garrett. He was an acquaintance of mine from freshman year, and through a few conversations on the internet, I found that he was the only person who would just listen to me. Many nights I spent the evening sitting next to him in his dorm room crying. It was my opportunity to vent my frustrations of my newfound motherless life and have someone tell me it was OK to cry instead of urging me to stop crying and try to move on.
I was at a point in my life where I was grasping for any stability I could, and I found that in my faith. Though I spent a great deal of time questioning, it was easy for me to recognize that the questioning I was doing was necessary for my growth. Garrett took our newfound friendship and asked me (multiple times) if I wanted to take our friendship and turn it into something more, and (multiple times) I told him, “No.” I felt as if I needed to continue processing without a boyfriend adding an opinion, when really, his presence had calmed and reassured me in ways that I had not understood. One night I was heading to Garrett’s apartment when my roommate called me out on turning him down. It was then that I realized that I was foolish to turn this wonderful man down when I had been in an intimate emotional relationship with him for months. I walked into his apartment and told him that I would like to date him. The rest is history.
His proposal was perfect, but that is another story in itself. Garrett and I committed our lives to one another in June 2008. Since our friendship began, he has been my rock. He is the person that allows me to truly be myself. Spiritually, I needed him, and he is one of the few people I feel comfortable talking with about my spiritual doubts. I feel as if I have been a spiritual leader to so many that I cannot appear empty or questioning in front of them. Garrett is the person I turn to be filled up. He has been the person that took on the role of encourager for me when my mother died.
The most interesting thing in my mind is that Garrett never met my mother. While to some that may cause tension in a relationship, for us, it has been a blessing. While others that knew my mother may tire of hearing stories about her over and over again, Garrett takes those stories and uses each one to put another piece into the puzzle of who she was.
All of the long and drawn out story of the death of my mother and my relationship with Garrett has allowed me to understand that God works outside of the church. Before the death of my mother, faith was an activity that was lived out in church and at church functions. Faith was a happy activity that was never hard. I feel that now I have a faith that is life encompassing. My faith is now a faith that lives in my home and in my marriage and in my family (however broken).
With all of my life experiences, I am preparing myself for a future in a broken church and in a broken world. The value of my personal experiences has shown me that each person has a story in which God has had a hand in. The stories of two people are never exactly the same. Part of the wonder that the world holds for me is just that. God works individually in each life, and therefore, in each church. No two churches are alike. The future in store for me is full of wonder and excitement as I get to be a part of many churches in which God is moving and working.