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DOING LIFE DIFFERENTLYThe Art of Living with Imagination
By LUCI SWINDOLL
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Luci Swindoll
All right reserved.
REMEMBERING THE VOICES OF THE PAST
My father gave me my first road map-the way to Momo's. At the end of the journey, he had drawn a picture of her house, a large, two-story, white wooden frame with tall columns on a big front porch. I loved that house, and I loved my grandmother. She could do everything. Play the piano like a house afire, sing, laugh, encourage and lift my spirits when nobody else could. When we came to visit, there was always cold pop in the refrigerator and Momo's arms were open to greet us.
My family lived in Houston, Texas, at the time, and I remember going to El Campo to visit when I was eight years old. World War II had just started, and Daddy had a 1941 Ford. He drove, Mother sat beside him, and we three kids lollygagged in the backseat. My older brother, Orville, was nine; my younger brother, Chuck, was six; and I was the eight-year-old girl in the middle. The Swindoll kids: Bubba, Tutta, and Babe. On many of those trips, we stood on the floorboard of the backseat right behind Mother and Daddy (driving them crazy probably), waiting for the first glimpse of El Campo's "skyline"-a big cotton gin. Whichever one of us said aloud, "First one to see El Campo" got a nickel from Daddy. This, of course, caused us to stay quiet and watch the horizon. That nickel was a great reward.
We had lived in El Campo before moving to Houston. On Saturdays, the three of us went to the Normana Theater and spent the afternoon. Daddy gave each of us a quarter, which bought a hamburger for a nickel, a Coke for a nickel, a bag of popcorn for a nickel, and the movie for a nickel. We always gave a nickel back to Daddy as change-maybe the same nickel he gave us for seeing El Campo first.
And the movie wasn't just a movie. It was Disneyland before there was one! We saw a double feature (Westerns, usually), cartoons, two serials, and RKO News. Sometimes there was even a live talent show. Afterward we rode imaginary horses all the way home across the lawns of neighbors, clacking out mouth noises as horse hooves stomped the grass, holding tightly to the reins so they wouldn't get away from us. Worn out by the long ride, we'd flop down on the bed when we got home or stop by Momo's for a cold pop. Often she was playing the piano when we got there or working in one of her dozens of scrapbooks, pasting in black-and-white photos or articles she had cut out of newspapers or magazines.
Momo and I talked often about life, the little things that mattered to her and to me. I would tell her my problems or concerns, and she would say, "Let's sing. You take the melody, and I'll take the harmony." I didn't want to sing-I wanted to pout. So she'd let me pout awhile then fix a sandwich and cold drink and tell me something funny about a neighbor or somebody in the family, and before long I kind of forgot my problem and we'd sing. Usually a hymn or something patriotic. Maybe a campfire tune. In the middle of our rendition, she often got up from her chair, went to the piano, motioning for me to follow (not missing a note), and started playing in the key in which we were singing. We'd stay there for maybe an hour. Singing and singing and singing.
I don't remember Momo ever correcting or scolding me for my little feelings of disappointment. She rode them out with me and was generally very cheerful and encouraging, ignoring my pout, continuing her happy spirit ... listening to my concerns all the while.
Momo never met a stranger. She had her fingers in every pie. She'd plan a gathering, and somebody would tell her they couldn't come after all, because their brother's family had arrived unexpectedly with six kids and it would just be too much. "Absolutely not," Momo would laugh. "You pack up that family and bring 'em all over here for dinner. I'll add another bean to the pot." We often sat around the dinner table at Momo's with complete strangers and, on rare occasions, with other nationalities.
My mother also enjoyed entertaining. She set a beautiful table, was a wonderful cook, and knew how to make folks feel welcome-young or old, educated or uneducated, happy or sad.
Mother's thoughts were close to home, while Daddy thought far away. As I grew older and was in college, Mother's letters told of neighborhood happenings; Daddy's quoted Scripture and poetry. Mother mailed a new blouse or skirt, and Daddy sent books and my allowance. Both had their place. She kept my feet on the ground, and he helped me dream.
"You can be anything you want to be," Daddy would say to me. "You can go anywhere you want to go, achieve anything you like. You just have to line your desires up with the Lord's and go. You have to take a few risks and head out."
Once when I was really little and spending the night at a friend's house, I got very homesick at bedtime. I called Mother and Daddy and asked them to come get me. Immediately, Daddy got in the car and drove the few blocks to pick me up. I was embarrassed and told Daddy how sorry I was that I wasn't able to stay. I felt like a baby and asked him if he was mad at me because I called.
"Honey," he said, "of course I'm not mad at you. You can always call when you're afraid. I will always come get you if you need me to. But remember this-you are never alone wherever you are in life. God is with you. God will take care of you. Never be afraid to talk to God when you get homesick."
As we drove home that night, Daddy tucked into my heart a seed thought that has over time and travels grown into a giant tree, enabling me to go far and wide, high and low, across the world, virtually unafraid and excited about what lies down the road or over the horizon. And when I'm homesick, I talk to God about it.
Last year when I was landing in Europe, I whispered to myself, "First one to see Paris." Thank you, Daddy.
* * *
During childhood I wish somebody had said to me these three loving words: "Please take notes." I often heard "I love you" or "I'm so sorry"-phrases most kids long to hear-but nobody ever said to me, "Write this down." And now that I'm looking back on those years and want to draw up information, it would be wonderful to have notes. If I were to encourage kids with a simple message with regard to their childhood, it would be to write stuff down, even the bad or difficult things. Once you grow up and your brain fills with reams of data, you really have to crane your brain to go back that far.
There are a couple of biggies, though, that I'll never forget about growing up in the Swindoll house. For one thing, my parents were very strong on "performing." By that I mean they wanted us to feel comfortable in front of people. (Certainly, they longed for us to behave, but that's another kind of performance.) To encourage this, Daddy often took us to Mr. Helmashack's Pharmacy. How old was I then-maybe six or seven? I don't know, but I remember being short, a little kid. The three of us were stairstep in height, so Daddy would line us up according to height on top of the counter, where we sang everything we knew. The prize for singing was dips of ice cream-the more verses, the more dips. A very cool reward!
Coupled with those little neighborhood performances, we also had frequent theater gatherings at Momo's house. Captive family members. Babe would quote poetry, Bubba would play piano, and I would act the fool. Literally. During those years, Danny Kaye was big in the movies, and he was my hero. I watched his performances then did my best to mimic him. The bigger the crowd, the more fun I had. Even though it was in a small living room, it might as well have been Carnegie Hall. You've hit it big-time, Tutta.
Oh, and Babe was absolutely fabulous at quoting poetry. We had between us a small book called Poems Every Child Should Know (red cover, frayed edges-I can see it in my mind's eye), which we often fought over, but somehow Babe got it more often than not. He memorized poems right and left and performed them to perfection during those evening soirées. I well remember the night he was quoting from memory Longfellow's poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus," and doing a fine job, I might add:
It was the schooner Hesperus, That sailed the wintry sea; And the skipper had taken his little daughter, To bear him company. Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax, Her cheeks like the dawn of day, And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds, That open the month of May.
When Babe paused to take a breath, I whispered to Mother, "Babe said 'bosom.'" Mother sort of shrugged her shoulders and muttered something like, "Shhhh, just let him go on," looking at him approvingly and me disapprovingly.
Bubba's piano virtuosity was well known throughout the neighborhood. To me the sheet music looked like an undecipherable language, but to him it made perfect sense, and with the touch of his hands, he entertained us all. I remember my parents used to lay "grocery money" aside so Orville could take piano lessons from the best teacher in Houston. One night a week Mother drove him to his lesson, waited till he was finished, then drove home. To my knowledge they never missed-for years. We used to think he was going to be a famous concert pianist-because he kept telling us he was.
When I was about twelve, something interesting happened that impacted my thinking about the future. My folks gave me elocution lessons (probably to cure me of the Danny Kaye syndrome), and I absolutely loved that. Betty Green Little, a respected drama coach in Houston, taught the classes. She was probably the first person outside my own home who encouraged me to aim higher than the norm-the expected. Schoolteachers inadvertently conveyed that thought, of course, but this woman did it in a more personal way. Miss Little passed out sheets of paper that taught us proper pronunciation of words. We were given one sheet that had only the word "Oh" on it. She said, "When I call on you, please say 'oh' in the manner I tell you. Think before you speak how this 'oh' would sound, and then with all your heart, say it with that inflection."
I was in heaven.
"Lucille, please say 'oh' as though you're in pain."
I let out a cry as though I were dying. She smiled then said, "Now say 'oh' as if you were handed the baby to whom you had just given birth."
I let out the same cry. Miss Little laughed, as did the rest of the class.
On and on this exercise went with each of the five students saying "oh" in a dozen different ways: "Oh, how beautiful." "Oh, you can't mean it." "Oh no, not again."
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind that day I must have envisioned giving birth and disliked the idea. That guttural response to Miss Little's request was more than an answer to her question. It was a metaphor for things to come. Why? Who knows? It just seemed clear that getting married and having children-a most natural longing and certainly the course "expected" from girls of my generation-was simply not on my radar. I don't want to follow the traditional path, I thought. I want to do life differently. Can girls do something besides get married and have kids? In my twelve-year-old brain, I pondered that idea a lot. Of course, it was too early in my physical and emotional development to know exactly what I wanted in place of what most girls my age were aiming for. But I believe the seed thought Daddy had planted earlier began to grow heartily during those days: you are never alone ... God is with you. Unwittingly, I had already left the dock on a unique journey the Lord had charted especially for me.
* * *
The second major positive thrust in my maturation process was an innate love for school. This I can't explain either. It was inside me. Neither of my parents had degrees of higher education, but both encouraged all three of us to enjoy school. I loved learning. Maybe I would have enjoyed it just as much apart from their prompting, but to have them cheer me on made an indelible impact, I'm sure. I wasn't a crackerjack student. I studied hard and applied myself but often came up with average grades, while both brothers were always on the honor roll. I had a lot of fun though, and that was more important in my way of thinking. Learn something new while having a good time-this was my mantra. If I can do this all my life, I thought, I've got it made.
What turned my crank most was figuring out how things work-gadgets, the world, my mind, problems, ideas-I spent a lot of time thinking about what I read or drew, investigated or discovered. Why didn't somebody write that wonderful book by David Macaulay, The Way Things Work, during my childhood? I would have memorized every word. I own three copies now. Friends who know me well have given them to me.
Taking Daddy at his word made me think I could accomplish anything, so I tried it all. I built model airplanes and boats, played cello, swam in competition, dissected frogs, made up games, took calculus. (Got a rotten grade in that last one, but at least I tried.)
Going to the library was like a holiday. I checked out books about other countries, art, music, and anything that had to do with building things. I decorated my little bedroom bulletin board with notes from friends, letters from Momo, simple drawings, and magazine cutouts of faraway places with strange sounding names that I dreamed of seeing one day. When I sat at my desk at night doing homework, I imagined myself in another world, another time or place. I was an inventor. Explorer. Naturalist. Musician. Artist. Anthropologist. Singer. On and on. Interestingly, none of these visualizations ever included the white picket fence, the husband, three kids, and a dog. I saw myself as free to roam the world without any attachments, meeting people from everywhere.
There is much about me that is not transferable to anybody else. That's true of everyone, of course. But as I write this today, I see again how God had his hand on my future from the very beginning. For the life of me I can't tell you what primary ingredient made me who I am. And surely there isn't only one. If there is, I can't separate it out from everything else. The only thing I can do is say for a fact that God creates each of us uniquely by his design and for his purpose. He readies the path that beckons us in the direction he has in mind. And when we step onto the path, the adventure begins.
What happened today or recently that you loved and want to remember always?
Chapter TwoHEARING THE BEAT OF THE DRUMMER
Being reared in a home like mine had its challenges. While we were a loving, patriotic, upstanding, Christian family, there were patterns and mores that governed the thinking of my parents (especially Mother), and one didn't deviate from those without unpleasant consequences. It was 1950 when I graduated from high school and time for me to consider college, then of course, marriage. Many of my friends skipped the college part, got engaged and married right off the bat.
I talked to my dad about wanting to go to college and some of my dreams for the future, which still didn't include a wedding. He was very supportive, and I felt that support, but it was hard to escape the overriding petulant moods of my mother when I mentioned these things to her. Because I was young and had no autonomy, and because peer pressure was rampant among church and school friends, as well as from Mother, I began dating a Christian boy who was sort of the "catch" of our group ... very handsome and kind. Eventually we began "going steady," and I was given an engagement ring the summer before college began. These were confusing months for me because my heart was torn. I didn't love this young man the way one should when marriage is in the offing, but I so wanted to please Mother that I accepted the ring and went away to college, engaged and insecure.
After a few months on campus, it was obvious to me that the world was an enormous place, my dreams were very different from "settling down," as Mother used to say, and this engagement had to be called off.
I went home for a weekend, told the boy I was not the one for him, returned the ring, and apparently broke his heart and (more importantly) my mom's. Once again, Daddy came to my rescue, but Mother's disappointment with me was apparent for a very long time. The boy recovered; it seemed Mother never would!
During these tumultuous months, an important principle began to build inside me: No matter what, you have to be yourself. These minuscule threads of thought started roping together over time to become the fiber of my person. I learned it was okay to be myself and like myself-and survive-in spite of my mother's strong disapproval. She had no category for me because I thwarted her domestic dreams for her only daughter. What was to become of me if I ended up without a husband?
Excerpted from DOING LIFE DIFFERENTLY by LUCI SWINDOLL Copyright © 2010 by Luci Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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