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The Beauty of Broken
My Story, and Likely Yours Too
By Elisa Morgan
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Elisa Morgan
All rights reserved.
I Come from a Broken Family
When I was five, my father sat in a white upholstered chair in his home office and told me we needed to have a chat. I loved my daddy, and daddy time was rare—so I scrambled atop his legs as they stretched out on the ottoman before him. He put his hands on my scrawny shoulders, looked into my eyes, and stunned me with his words. "Elisa, I've decided I don't love your mother anymore. We are getting a divorce."
In that moment my family fell and broke. I wondered what I had done to break it and what I could do to fix it.
My fractured family—my mother, sister, brother, and I—moved across the continent to the hills outside of San Francisco. I'm not sure why Mother moved us so far away. Earlier in their marriage, I'd been born there. Perhaps it held memories of happiness she hoped to reclaim. In any case, we lived in the 'burbs and Mother worked in the city, driving the dramatic span of the Golden Gate Bridge there and back each day.
A peek at her pedigree revealed that Paige, my mother, was the adventurous type. After she survived polio as a seven-year-old, it's no wonder her parents doted on her as their precious, gifted child. She went off to college, double-majoring in mathematics and airline administration. (There were airlines then?) From her home in Texas, she moved to New York City, where she worked for the C. E. Hooper Company—the company that invented the earliest television ratings system. A single girl doing single things in the big time. Eventually she hosted her own radio and television shows back in Texas, where she met and married my father and then settled down to housewifery. It wasn't a role that suited my ambitious mother, and soon she began to lose herself in the husband-focused era of the 1950s.
After the divorce, my mother courageously returned her attention to her career, but her heart wasn't in it. Or maybe her heart wasn't whole enough to invest it anywhere after the rejection of my father. Instead of receiving joy from her work, Paige began a long decline.
For me, those fun and free early-elementary years were filled with ballet and Girl Scouts and hours of make-believe. One of my favorite imaginings was the Old West, where I would gallop around in our yard on my broomstick pony, gathering mimosa pods, and then squat to crush their seeds into a pulpy pretend food, mimicking what I imagined about Native American life. I'd tie long garden stakes together at one end to become the form for a teepee and cover them with an old bedspread. Or I'd take my plastic horse collection out to the flower beds, where I'd prance them about under what I imagined to be sequoia-sized azalea bushes.
Aside from the shattering announcement made by our principal over the loudspeaker that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and the repeat act against his brother Robert a few years later, I remember this season as "happy with a hole."
About every six months my father visited from Florida, where he'd transferred with his "now" family of a new wife and her daughter. We'd so been replaced. My baby brother was too young to accompany us out to dinner. So it was always just my sister, Cathy, two years older, and me—along with my father's new wife, now our stepmother. I kinda hated her. No, I did hate her. She'd stolen my father from me. In twin petticoated dresses with matching black patent leather shoes, my sister and I would wait at the front window until his Cadillac pulled in the drive and the dog barked his arrival. All the excitement of seeing Daddy twisted into turmoil as we sat in grown-up, fancy restaurants and tried to cut through the awkward silence, lumped up emotions, and well-done steaks with knives we could barely manage.
As far as I could tell in those early years, Mother kept all the balls in the air. In fact, in typical Paige flair she went way beyond the norm in many instances. There was always food in our pantry, but she rebelled against everyday cuisine and instead offered us dishes like "Weenies in a Cloud" (a casserole created from cut-up hot dogs, mashed potatoes, and Velveeta) and "Petit Morceau" (after consulting her French dictionary, Mother christened "scrap stew" with this fancy title). There were always clothes in our closet. Often matching clothes for my sister and me, but also some fun items. I remember muumuus brought back from our grandparents' trip to Hawaii. We called Mother's parents Munna and Bop, and they pronounced Hawaii "Hawaya."
Mother embraced our need for a dog with a black cocker spaniel named Lacy—whom we all discovered was pregnant when she pawed at the door, crouched the second she hit the patio, and then raced around the yard, trailing a tiny puppy still attached to the umbilical cord that attached to the placenta that was still inside her. Of course at the moment I didn't know such things existed. It just looked to me that Lacy had pooped a puppy and ran from it, appalled.
Even if she was a bit unusual in some ways—Mother insisted on giving out apples and raisins at Halloween because "children needed a healthy alternative to candy" (how embarrassing!)—she brought all the holidays to life. Christmas morning was a department store window display of toys for each of us. Our birthdays were celebrated with a homemade cake and a party—like the dress-up bridge party where we all wore our moms' old ball gowns. And to her credit, she fostered our relationships with our two older half brothers from my father's first marriage to the degree that they became safe harbors for us in the tumultuous years of trying to make sense of our broken family reality.
Looking back, though, I can feel her weariness. She spent evenings in her chair or on the couch, smoke circling up from her cigarette, condensation forming on her ever-present highball of Scotch. Her bathroom shower remained untended, mildewed scum forming in its corners. Her car ashtray overflowed with cigarette butts, some still lit and burning holes in the carpeted flooring where they had fallen. There were signs.
Either because Mother was over the adventure of the city or due to the cost of living and living alone, the summer after fourth grade we moved "home" to Texas, where she had grown up. Selecting a distance close enough for our connection to grandparents in Fort Worth but far enough away for her independence from her parents, she bought a traditional house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Houston and enrolled us in school.
Settling into our new world began happily. We were allowed to select paint, carpet, and even new furniture for our bedrooms. I went with robin's-egg blue paint; shag carpet stranded with blue, yellow, and green; and a modern and sleek walnut-stained bedroom set. With complementary paisley-patterned floor-to-ceiling drapes, my room became quite the showcase. It would eventually become my sanctuary.
It's around this time that my memories start to shift. Mother's juggling hands shake. The balls begin to fall to the ground. They are glass balls now, and I cut my feet on their shards.
* * *
EEEERRRRRRRRRRR! My days started with the sound of my mother's alarm down the hall. I pushed back the covers and padded into the kitchen, where I grabbed a glass, plunked in some ice cubes, and poured Coca-Cola over them. With a handful of chocolate chip cookies from the cookie jar, I made my way down the hall to my mother's bedroom. There I placed "breakfast" on her nightstand, turned off the alarm, and began the process of getting her up and ready for work. As a single mom, she needed to work, and it was my daily job to wake her up. Even though I was only about eleven, I could see it: my mother struggled with alcohol.
My mother was broken. I wondered what I'd done wrong and what I could do to fix her.
In my middle school years, I vacillated between good girl and not-so-good girl. Mine wasn't a long disobedience, but rather one where I carefully evaluated who I wanted to be and what road would take me there. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back now I can see that I, too, was broken. I stole cigarettes from my mom's skinny cigarette drawer and snuck down to the bayou in our neighborhood to smoke them. At one sleepover I sampled alcohol and ended up sick on bourbon and Coke. Eventually I looked at the other kids in my class, those experimenting with all things rebellious and those who weren't. There were "popular" kids in both sects. I decided to go the nonrebellious popular route and cut out most of the bad stuff.
Most of it. I still had my moments. Once I hurled raw eggs through my good friend's open front door on Halloween night, ruining her mom's wallpaper. At one of my mom's friend's weddings I downed eleven glasses of champagne—eleven—only to arrive home in my date's arms, launching my insides that were reminiscent of raw eggs. Ugh ...
When I was sixteen I became a Christian—but I'd been becoming a Christian my whole life. Way back when I was a kid in California, my mom dropped my sister and me off at the neighbor hood Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings. We went to Sunday school and sang in the adult choir because we needed something to do to fill the time until she picked us up again. "Lo how a rose e're blooming." I had no idea what those words meant, but I sang them with feeling in my oversized burgundy choir robe and creamy satin stole. Once, walking down the long church hall toward a portrait plate collection of Jesus and the disciples hung on the wall, I felt an eerie-perfect draw of his eyes to mine. He was real.
In my teen years, when I heard that there was a specific process to becoming a Christian, I was dismayed that I'd been so slow to know and respond. My heart grieved that I'd somehow done even this—loving God—wrong, and I wrestled with whether he'd felt somehow slapped in the face by my ignorance. Blinded, praying for forgiveness, I plunged ahead and gave my life to Jesus. Maybe now I'd get it right? Maybe now life would heal up?
One night Mother and I argued over just how great a dad my dad was. (I think this was the season when I began to refer to my mother by her first name: Paige.) My position: he was not so great. Paige defended him: He provided. He cared. He just didn't show it. To her credit, she never said anything bad about him.
That very night I had a dream in which I saw myself falling off a high cliff, into what looked to be flesh-colored rocks far below. But as I landed, the rocks surprised me with their softness. They were not rocks after all, but rather the huge hands of God. I heard a voice saying, "I am your heavenly Father—I will never leave you nor forsake you."
I tucked these words away, wondering, Could such a thing be true?
I looked longingly at the seemingly perfect families of my friends. The fathers who predictably left for work in the morning and returned each evening. The moms who dressed in pretty outfits, sprayed their hair high, and wore lipstick, pearls, and pumps. The on-time family dinners around family tables in family homes. I wanted what they had. I determined that one day I would make a family immune from the brokenness and pain my first family had experienced.
It was a tough go, though. My mother continued to weave down the hall late at night, pinballing her way between the walls, glass of Scotch in hand. Smashed.
On one visit in my teen years I remember looking my father in the eye and asking if we could spend more time together. He raised one eyebrow and said, "As long as you are dependent on me for money I will never love you." Crash.
After college, a six-year relationship with my high school love ended—one that I'd assumed would culminate in marriage. Broken. Symbolically now a divorcée myself, I wincingly realized I shared this state with my mother. I hadn't thought such a thing would happen to me. I increased my determination to avoid creating a broken family—of any kind—myself.
In the aftermath of the breakup I struggled to figure out just what to do with the rest of my life. (I was at the tail end of twenty-one.) After all, for six years my life had been connected to a guy who planned to be a doctor, so I'd planned to be a doctor's wife. What training did that require?
A friend presented me with an embroidered plaque that read, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV). I took the verse at face value. God knew: the plans—for me—for good—for hope and a future—for me.
Gradually I clarified God's call on my life and enrolled in seminary, where I explored and confirmed God's call to ministry. I dated pretty much every unmarried student and then called a moratorium on men. Surprisingly, I then met and later married my husband. Precious, stable, rock of a man. We pledged to each other a no-matter-what kind of love. For keeps. Forever. Because Evan had incurred and survived cancer a few years prior, we knew we'd be unable to have children biologically and so immediately began the process of adoption. I continued my determination to make a whole family, one not marked by the pain and brokenness I'd experienced, though postponing it for a while.
The forever process of adoption dragged on, and I cried out to God that I could hardly wait to give to my child what I'd never received: wholeness. I longed to love into their lack. To fill their void. In a hushed heart-whisper I heard God's gentle prodding, Elisa, by the time you receive your child, he or she will have already experienced the greatest wound of his or her life. I knew this was truth. It vibrated through my soul with reality. My baby would inevitably be wounded by the choice of his or her birth parents, even in a very loving decision to relinquish their baby. But I shushed the whisper and clung to the hope that I could create for another the family I'd never experienced myself.
Finally—after a long wait—our adoption came through, and I mothered first one and then another child. Motherhood! A baby! Love! At last! I lapped it up, licking around all the edges. We thrived in those early years of parenting and familyhood. Church was our second home. We had "Jesus time" every night. Great friends modeled mothering for me and fathering for Evan. Family dinners around a family table in a family home.
I happily hunkered down into those early mothering years, investing my skills and gifts in my kids—at last! But I struggled in some ways that surprised me.
One afternoon naptime revealed a reality of my mothering—of me. I loved that waking time of cuddles and kisses. But when I gathered my three-year-old daughter up in a hug, I discovered her pants were wet. Again. Like so many other mothering moments, I defined my success by her actions. I felt I'd never get this potty training thing down.
I sat her in front of the TV—Sesame Street in those days—balled up the wet sheets again, and made my way to the basement laundry room. There I stuffed them in the washer and then was stunned to watch above my head an arc of detergent whirling in the air. Coming straight from the box. Making a mess! The box was attached to an arm. I followed the arm down and discovered—amazingly—that the arm was mine! I was hurling detergent in my basement all the while yelling like an adult in a Charlie Brown cartoon! Wa wa wa wa wah wah! As I listened intently I translated: "Why do I have to be the one to have all the answers? To be in charge? Why can't I be the one to ask the questions?" I refer to this moment as my Suds Slinging Incident. Motherhood revealed me to myself. I was needy and broken. Such a thing surprised me, as I'd expected to be better at this. More confident. I knew God, after all.
A few years after this moment, my phone rang and a member of the board of MOPS International was on the phone asking me to consider applying to become the first president of this then fifteen-year-old grassroots movement for moms. What were they thinking? What was God doing? Me? The daughter of divorce and alcoholism? Sure, I'd been to seminary. Yes, I had been ID'd as a leader all my life, and I knew God had called me to ministry. But me and mothering? I laughed! So Sarah-like, when as an old woman she was told she'd have a baby. Ha!
Nevertheless, I agreed to pray about the request and doubled up on my therapy sessions. In line at the grocery store I looked around at the other mothers—in sweats, in work clothes, with their kids in various forms of obedience and disobedience—and I saw in their eyes the same Swiss cheese holes I had experienced in my soul. I felt God was saying to me, Elisa, let your deficits be your offering. Terrified, I accepted the invitation, applied, was offered the job, and then served as CEO of MOPS International for twenty years, touching over a million moms during those decades.
Even as president of an international organization for moms, there were other mothering moments that underlined my inadequacy, my Mother Inferior reality, my stature as Mother Elisa, not Mother Teresa.
Monster Mom made her appearances—once over cat vomit on the stair landing where I screamed, "Is the mother the only one in the house who knows what cat vomit looks like? Is the mother the only one in the house who knows where the paper towels are?" I slammed my way to the garage, where I crashed metal garbage can lids together in cymbaled rage, all the while hollering at the wide-eyed family members on the other side of the closed door, at the air, at God.
I wondered, Would I be enough? As a mom? As a woman? In my heart of hearts I wanted desperately to create an unbroken family. What if I couldn't? What if I actually contributed to further breakage?
Excerpted from The Beauty of Broken by Elisa Morgan. Copyright © 2013 Elisa Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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