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It has been over twenty years since the publication of The Ragamuffin Gospel, a book many claim as the shattering of God's grace into their lives. Since that time, Brennan Manning has been dazzingly faithful in preaching and writing variations on that singular theme, "Yes, Abba is very fond of you!" But today the crowds are gone and the lights are dim, the patches on his knees have faded. If he ever was a ragamuffin, truly it is now. In this his final book, Brennan roves back his past, honoring the lives of the ...
It has been over twenty years since the publication of The Ragamuffin Gospel, a book many claim as the shattering of God's grace into their lives. Since that time, Brennan Manning has been dazzingly faithful in preaching and writing variations on that singular theme, "Yes, Abba is very fond of you!" But today the crowds are gone and the lights are dim, the patches on his knees have faded. If he ever was a ragamuffin, truly it is now. In this his final book, Brennan roves back his past, honoring the lives of the people closest to him, family and friends who've known the saint and the sinner, the boy and the man. Far from some chronological timeline, these memories are witness to the truth of life by one who has lived it.
My mother had prayed for a girl. What she got on April 27, 1934, was a boy, me, Richard Manning. My name has not always been Brennan.
It was the Great Depression in Brooklyn. My brother, Robert, had been born just fifteen months earlier. Over the years, I've seen many mothers grin and talk about a second child born so quickly on the heels of the first as "my little surprise." But not my mother, not back then. To her, I was one more disappointment, one more unanswered prayer.
My mother was born in Montreal, Canada. At the age of three, both of her parents died within six days of each other in a flu epidemic that swept the city, killing thousands. Those were days when the bedtime prayer "If I should die before I wake" actually had teeth. There was no one to take her in, so my mother was sent to an orphanage. Her stay lasted ten years. God only knows what happened to her in that time. I've wondered if anyone was there to help a three-year-old grieve? Did anyone remember to celebrate her birthday? Did they even know her birthday? What about Christmas—were there gifts for her? Who were the adult females behind those walls and what kinds of mothering impressions, if any, did they make on her? And what about the men? Was my mother abused? Raped? All of this and more are probabilities for that bruised decade of my mother's life. But my questions have no answers because what happened there stayed there. Then again, maybe she would have answered my questions in the same way she answered so many others: You don't always get what you ask for.
When she was thirteen, my mother was adopted by a man known as Black George McDonald. Why he adopted her, or any of the details surrounding the adoption, I do not know; I do know that his name sounds like it came straight out of a novel. I've been told that he had made some discoveries of gold and was involved with building the town of Alexandria, between Montreal and Toronto. So Black George evidently had financial means, but I don't know his intentions. He must have had some kindness, however, because my mother wanted to become a nurse and he funded her nursing education. His gift led her to Brooklyn, where she completed her nurse's training, met and married my father, birthed my brother, prayed for a girl, and got me. Although you can clearly deduce that knowing of my mother's disappointment over my birth is painful for me, I have nonetheless committed to try to express gratitude in these pages. So in that spirit, I say, "Thank you, Black George McDonald. I'm not quite sure what all I'm thanking you for, but your grace toward my mother led to my birth, wanted or not. So thanks."
The nurse's training my mother received was based on the popular methods of the 1920s. The word parenting, if you can believe it, did not become commonplace until the late 1950s; prior to that it was childrearing. The rule was discipline, regimentation, sternness, and a minimum of affection. Early behaviorists like J. B. Watson influenced the thought and approach. Here's a quote that speaks volumes as to the mood of the times: "Mother love is a dangerous instrument that can wreck a child's future chance for happiness." Watson advocated a brisk handshake every morning between parent and child, nothing more. As alien as that sounds now, that was the world into which my brother and I were born. In many ways it was also the world in which my mother grew up.
As I try to understand the mysteries of my life, I must consider the voices and experiences that shaped my mother. Her odyssey from orphan to registered nurse to young mother was nothing less than heroic survival, but heroes don't always make the best parents.
* * *
Add to this story a man named Emmett Manning, my father. He and my mother were, in many ways, a pair of contrasts. Unlike my mother, he was not orphaned as a child. In fact, from the time my parents were married, my father's parents lived with us. My mother's father figure was some shadowy benefactor, Black George, but my father's father was a very real alcoholic. I have no idea what my mother lived through as a girl, but I saw glimpses of the rages my father endured as a boy. I learned then that there is more than one way to orphan a child.
Against my mother's nursing degree stood my father's rickety eighth-grade education. Her status as a registered nurse made her quite marketable, even during the Great Depression. She held down two jobs, actually—eight hours a day at St. Mary's Hospital, followed by another shift of private nursing. My father's employment, when it happened, was always described as temporary or part-time.
Temporary and part-time also describe the conversations I recall having with my father. Our words revolved around the subject of correction, my correction to be specific. In fact, the word conversations is a stretch; they were more like monologues with the same painful ending. I was sent to my room to drop my pants, and my father would whip me with his leather belt. Such displays probably made my father feel a semblance of power, but I knew that even his role as disciplinarian was defined only because my mother, the matriarch, willed it.
Day after day, my father would go out walking, always looking for work, wearing out his shoe leather. But I can't help but believe he was also out looking for something more, something he couldn't have put into words but felt on a daily basis. Maybe he was looking for himself and he knew his father back at the house was no help. Maybe he was looking for dignity, a belief that someone was proud of him. But my mother refused him that kind of respect. I don't know for certain what he searched for, but I do know that every day, he went walking.
You don't always get what you ask for, but you get what you get. Amy was a survivor; Emmett was a searcher. Together they made up the tallest trees in my forest—mother and father.
The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird"
Excerpted from All is Grace by Brennan Manning Copyright © 2011 by Brennan Manning. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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