Friday, June 30, 2017

"What Sad Creatures We Humans Are"

Nancy and Gary in Darby Parsonage
As progressive liberal Christians who wanted to make a difference, what better place to serve than in the city? We loved the culture, the restaurants, and the history of Philadelphia and did not want to be in some small town or rural church. So when Gary was offered a pastorate at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Darby, PA, just outside the West Philadelphia city line, he accepted.

Mt. Zion UM Church and parsonage. The parsonage was on the
left side where the enclosed porch is.
We were at a disadvantage having transferred into the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. We knew nothing about the churches. No one warned Gary that two pastors had turned down an appointment to Mt. Zion. One pastor later referred to Darby as 'the armpit of Delaware County!'

The church was established by 1836, the parsonage and church dating to around 1900.The parsonage was nestled up to the church with just a cement alley separating the buildings. There was a small patch of grass between the parsonage and the sidewalk and street.
Roasting marshmallows at the fireplace. Nasturtium loved laying in front of the fire. 
It was a large house with deep-set windows, an eat-in kitchen with a pink refrigerator (that broke twice before it was replaced), a formal dining room (that came with a silver plate coffee set used at church functions), a living room with a fireplace, an enclosed sunroom, and three bedrooms and a bath upstairs. The basement laundry area included a working 1930s gas stove and a cedar lined closet. There was no air conditioning. Gary's office was in the parsonage, situated between the house and church over the open alley below.
Gary's home office
The house was so close to the church that many a morning as Gary and I sat at the dining room table eating breakfast in our PJs and robes, Ed Messick would stop at the open window to chat before he went into the church. There was a marked lack of privacy!

Woodland Ave. is one of the oldest roads in America, originally an Indian trail; it became The King's Highway in 1696. It begins at 43rd St in West Philly and runs to the Cobbs Creek Parkway; at the city limit it makes a dog's leg turn to become Main St, where the church was located. At the intersection, several roads led north to Upper Darby and south into the suburbs.

Downtown Darby in 1980, photo by Gary
Darby had been settled by Dutch Quakers, the Meeting House a block away dating to 1682, and was an important stop between Philadelphia and Chester. Many years later I learned that one of my distant ancestor cousins had stopped there while traveling and was married in that church. Darby was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The Friends Meeting House was a few blocks away. Photo by Gary.
The library was established in 1743, one of the oldest in America. We were a few blocks from a Colonial-era houses and the 18th c Blue Bell Inn, and down Woodland was early American naturalist John Bartram's home and gardens. Darby Creek was a few blocks away.
The trolley Darby stop--before our time.
A trolley ran down the street day and night, picking up speed as it left the trolley stop on the other side of the church. The trolley line dated to 1858 when horses pulled the cars. The bus stop was across from the trolley stop.
Next to the church was a drug store and apartments, with the trolley stop on it's right.
A drug store was next door to the church; the National Bar was kitty corner at Ninth and Main.  W. C. Fields had been born either at the National when it was the Buttonwood Hotel, or at the Arlington House a block away.
The National Bar was on the corner across from the bus and trolley stops
Across the street from the parsonage was an empty lot, and another was next to the driveway that ran along the parsonage to an ancient garage situated behind the church. A corner store was on the other side of that empty lot.

It was brutally hot when we moved in and there was no air conditioning. I unpacked in shorts and bare feet. The previous pastoral family had several dogs. The rug stunk of urine and was infested with fleas. I had red bite marks all up my legs by the end of the day. The church scheduled the services of both an exterminator and a rug cleaner.

There was a matted acrylic shag carpet and 1950s drapes in tatters. I offered to sew new pinch pleat drapes at cost. There were three kinds of cockroaches, but locals claimed one was just a 'water bug.' Although a monthly exterminator came in, at night when you turned the light on we saw them scurrying.

Drunks would pass out on the steps, which were hidden from view, so when I came home I had to be very careful. The parsonage was a magnet for people looking for handouts. Gary made arrangements with a grocery store and a gas station so needy people could be sent there, with the church footing the bill. One time a lady pushed her way into the parsonage demanding milk money for her kids. Meanwhile, I saw a man walking down the driveway to try the back door, which luckily was locked.

Another time a man insisted on seeing the pastor for money. I sent him into the church where Gary was at a meeting. When he was told they did not give out cash he angrily said he was testing their Christian charity, and showed them a full wallet. When the District Superintendent's wife heard about these stories she insisted the church put in a new door with a peep hole.

The Hostetters came for dinner. Ellen was shocked by where we were living.
Me and Mark and Ellen Hostetter at Darby.
I made the pleated drapes for the living and dining rooms for $80. 
Our folks were not impressed, either. Mom was appalled at the roaches.
Me and Dad at Darby
Gary worked on a demographic study and a proposal for church growth, but it was rejected. Mt. Zion's parishioners had moved into first-line suburbs. They did not trust the Darby neighborhood people and complained they did not want outreach ministries that would bring in people who would 'steal the toilet paper.' They did not want a senior center. They wanted Gary to perform the miracle all pastors are called upon to perform: attract young families.
Drawing made by a JOY class member, the class I helped organize
When we arrived, I was asked to start a young woman's Sunday school class. Using my small group training I helped about eight women organize what I thought was a successful year including a Bible Study, social events, and fundraisers including a bake sale and rummage sale. The teacher was an older woman whose favorite teaching device was to ask, "Why did Jesus come to earth?" with the class expected to answer, "To save our sins." As an English major that made no sense to me. Jesus was, what, collecting sins like postage stamps?

The second year the gals told me that they just wanted to sit and talk about kids and daily life. I was told I had been 'corrupted' by my college education in wanting goals and such. When the teacher stated she resented paying apportionments, money that supported the connected church system, I gathered information on how the money was spent. I not allowed to present the information to the class. The gals became angry when I did not sit with them during a wedding, but I had been told that as the minister's wife I was to help the bride. I left that group to fend for themselves and taught Third Grade Sunday School. I loved working with kids.

The entire youth group consisted of two sisters and one other girl. They met in the parsonage on Sunday evening. After Bible study we let them turn the radio on and dance to Disco music. We were criticized, for the older generation believed that rock and roll was the music of the Devil.

In March 1978 my Adrian roommate Marti visited me after interviewing for a job in Center City Philadelphia. She and Jack were divorcing. 

My last year at Temple I commuted from Darby by trolley to Center City and then took the Broad Street Subway north to Temple. I saw things from those trolley windows I had never seen before. All kinds of people came onto the trolley. I was fascinated. 

My graduation photograph 1978
Me and my folks at my graduation from Temple, 1978
After graduation, my first job was working Christmas Rush at the Strawbridge and Clothier department store in Center City. I was assigned to small electrical appliances. Secret shoppers checked our performance and I won a customer service award. I was told if I stayed on I could eventually become a buyer. I spent much of my pay using my employee discount for Christmas gifts, including buying Gary a shearling coat which he wore for twenty years.

The economy was lousy and I could not find work in anything remotely related to my English major. I ended up in customer service for Liberty Mutual Insurance Company in Bala Cynwyd. Two other new employees and I studied together for an agent's license. Mary Lou had dropped out of working on her advanced degree in religion at the University of Pennsylvania. We both loved classical music and books. We became friends, meeting up in Center City for lunch, shopping, and sometimes attending the Arch Street Quaker Meeting.

After passing the agent's license test we shadowed workers to learn how the office operated. This included a stint at the switchboard. Incoming calls were routed to agents or customer service. I was totally flummoxed and apologized to one caller. "Who are you?" he asked. I couldn't remember what the position I was filing was and said, "I'm the call girl." After a moment's silence the man replied, "I didn't know they supplied those in the office."

My job involved taking fifty phone calls a day to make changes to auto and home policies. It was grueling. A previous employee contacted us and told us there was a customer service opening at the insurance agency where she worked. I applied and got the job. It was out on the Main Line, but a coworker lived in West Philadelphia and drove right past our parsonage, so she picked me up on her way to work.

The environment was very conservative; the women on staff made the coffee and picked up the men's mail. My boss was an elderly gent and hated the frizzy perm I got at a posh Center City hair salon. He also hated the Fry cowboy boots which I sometimes wore with a denim skirt. I was fired from the job even though the office was in merger and the man who was to be the new boss had personally interviewed me and liked me, especially since I had an agent's license.
With the frizzy perm that got me fired.
I collected unemployment and looked for a new job. But I kept busy. I was taking classes at the Philadelphia College of Art Saturday School. The teacher had taught at Jane Addams Jr High in Royal Oak, MI where I had attended and she called me "Royal Oak." I had a drawing at an exhibit at the Western Savings Bank downtown. I was teaching myself the recorder. I was researching for a historical novel on the Munster Rebellion which had fascinated me so in Reformation history class.

A drawing project from PCA Saturday School
Also, I was actively trying to publish my poetry. I remember getting a rejection slip saying to send more poems. Parishioners told me I was selfish and instead of looking for work, I should be having children!

The Calling

I think that all the poems
I will ever write
lie somewhere under my heart,
seeds that wait for someone
to come and gently call them out.
They are born
as if I had not labored
like flowing water
from primordial rock.

I was feeling trapped by the role of clergy wife. Expectations were exacting and criticism naturally followed. The parishioners did not understand me, and I met a lot of rejection, as did Gary. I learned it was useless to try to meet expectations; you would fall short.

River Dream

a small flat boat
with wood worn gray
paint long past peeled away
drifting in the water, afloat;

tugging gently at her mooring,
gathers speed, resists not the current,
stretching taught her tether,
by waves is lowered, lifted resurgent.

Reached her limit, caught between
the land’s mastery and river dream
she must decide- to keep her pledge
remain duty-bound at land’s edge,

or break away at river’s calling
a vessel made for ocean sailing.


The end is all knotted and rotted cords
fraying, displaying yellowed cores.
It is empty pockets, hollowed hopes,
dangling movements, memorized tightropes.
And lovely smiles veneered over sorrow
for gone are yesteryears and frightening the tomorrows.

Ends and beginnings are but
imagined delineations.
Our foresight is stunted,
our hindsight clouded,
we see but darkly thought the thickness of tears.

To turn, to turn away!
My arms ache to embrace a new day.

To leave home’s lamp glow in the window frame
for pale moonlight and soft spring rain;
the friendly kiss and the well-known smile
for a tune sung by a wandering child.

The gap between the lives we had hoped to have and the reality of others' expectations created much unhappiness in our lives. Gary was full of self-doubt and became depressed. Our marriage suffered. I was not fulfilling my dream of writing. I looked into returning to school for a library or reading specialty degree. Gary looked into an Urban Studies degree but for him to return to school meant finding a place to live and an income to live on.


There is a misery so keen
and clinging
the passing of many days
can not brush it offering
nor many nights efface
it's markings upon the soul.

It makes itself a burrowed home,
a tick beneath the skin.

Seasons pass, yet it pains
whenever robins fly north again
or chilly morns have skies of blue
or April forsythia bloom.

If the dead could be called to rise
from their cold and clammy beds
we would detect, amazed,
a powerful, ancient pain
wild in their blind eyes,
still quivering their voices.

And the memories of the past still troubled me. I avoided thought of my teenage years, especially the time between the suicide of a classmate and my mother's near fatal illness, the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and the heartache over my high school boyfriend. April still made me sad.


Spring’s cold rain
received like Holy water.
I am awaiting grace
but first must suffer
the resurrection.
Awoken Lazarus
come to greet me.
Dreadful remembrance!
O bitter return!
I fail.
The rain has melted
my fortress of forgetfulness.
I see arms waving in the air;
he comes.
I bend my knee to await him.
He crowns me with thorns and roses.
Cruel sweetness.
I bleed for his sake.
I wish him away,
I wish him buried forever
that he no longer rise
with the advent of spring.

But there were good things during these years. Gary and I joined a community chorus out of Whitemarsh, PA called The Mastersingers. We performed the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes and Schubert's Mass in A flat. It was a joy to be singing again.

We also joined the Methodist Federation for Social Action. We boycotted Nestles over infant formula being promoted in Third World countries and J. P. Stevens for being anti-union.

Gary was involved in a community group that was fighting the opening of an adult bookstore in Darby and he was involved in the formation of a conference Credit Union. We were at the inaugural meeting of a historical society to preserve the Quaker Meeting House.

I was still sewing my own clothes, including a gray dress with lace collar and cuffs, a robin's egg blue silk dress with lace collar, a swimsuit, and the blouse and red jumper in the photo below. I had even made pleated drapes for the parsonage.
Gary and I around 1978, I had made the dress and blouse.
Gary took up photography, taking classes at The Photography Place in Center City. He set up a darkroom in the parsonage basement. I made him an apron with the words "In The Dark" on it.

Gary took and developed this photo from Reading Terminal
Gary's photo of Reading Terminal
Gary at Longwood Gardens
Nearly every month we went to Longwood Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. Gary would photograph the flowers while I stood by patiently.

Gary's photograph of me at Longwood Gardens, 1977-78
At Longwood Gardens, 1980, with my frizzy hairdo and in a dress I had made.
Photo by Gary.
The summer of 1977, and again in 1978, Gary and I went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival in Schwenksville, PA. A classmate in my folklore class had told me about it. We set up our tent and spent all day and night at the many concerts and workshops. We discovered amazing music. The rest of our years in Philadelphia we attended  Philadelphia Folk Song Society and local coffeehouse concerts. We saw Priscilla Herdman, Jean Redpath, Lou Killian, Silly Wizard, Stan Rogers and his brother Garnet, Pete Seeger, and John Roberts and Tony Barrand.
1978 Philadelphia Folk Festival
We were constantly on the go. We went to the Brandywine Museum, Brandywine State Park, and the Wyeth museum. We saw Coppelia, The Nutcracker, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Met perform Tosca, and P.D.Q. Bach. We went to the theater and saw Leonard Nimoy as Vincent; Liv Ullman in I Remember Mama (a flop musical); Dracula with sets by Edward Gorey; Jean Marsh in Too True to Be Good by Shaw; and Twelfth Night and A Winter's Tale. We saw classic movies at a repertoire movie theater near the University of Pennsylvania. We went on nature walks at Tinicum Preserve and Tyler Arboretum. We even had a picnic on the Schuylkill River. 

We would visit Tinicum during the bird migration. We saw thousands of white egrets in the trees and I wrote a poem.


A cluster of trees
            jade green fans brush-stroked against
            blue skies dappled with pearly gray clouds
stood lit by a noon-high sun.
Vivid and verdant, richness of growth,
nature's masterwork swathed in movement:

White flight checkering green 
like phantoms
or gathered angels.
Souls in gala celebration
saluting the season.

Egrets, white flames 
Leaping from cool still green,
darting from depths of green
into shadows of  green.
Hovering, alighting.
Eternity's crown,
nimbus of elms.
The miracle of flight
visiting the permanence of roots.

A visit to Historic Fort Mifflin with my dad and brother resulted in another poem.

Old Fort Mifflin

Wide vistas where once colonial soldiers trod,
with its perimeter of aged barracks,
the cool dark recesses of powder houses,
slit windows looking out into summer sun,
history's memory, empty and still
but for voyeurs peering  on the past's leavings.

Nearby the river ran round like a moat,
catchment of brush and reed, crickets
and frogs singing and leaping,
and looking down in contemplation
sitting on its barren branch, a heron.

Unexpectedly, a mechanical roar disturbed
this Eden of river and fort.
Above us hovered a great silver belly
its mass blocking out the sun,
its labored ascent a mystery.
We believed we could have stroked the silver belly,
it hung so low above us.
Machine made holier than all else
diminishing the heron's tandem flight
parallel under the great belly.
Convergent deities of flight
vying for preeminence.

And when the two had flown
we were left godless on the wide vistas
of a wasteland past.

I read over a hundred books a year. I had bought a condensed three-volume set of Samuel Pepys diary which I read every night before bed. I read Rilke, Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Virginia Wolfe, Trollope, Hawthorne, and Peter Mathiessen. I did not like Wuthering Heights; I found it Gothic, disagreeable, and poorly crafted! We went to see author talks with Saul Bellow, Elie Wiesel, and poets Stephen Spender and Gerald Stern.

Family portrait, with rabbit. The color is badly off as the carpet was green!
Every year we spent two or three weeks camping at Acadia National Park or the White Mountains. One year I sat on the cliffs at the ocean's edge reading Rainer Marie Rilke's Duino Elegies.

Nasturtium had a caretaker who came in to feed and water her and change her litter box, but she hated being alone. She would stomp her feet and avoid us when we returned.
Nasturtium opening her Christmas present
Nasturtium was six years old when her health began to fail. We took her to the University of Pennsylvania Small Animal Clinic where students flocked to learn about geriatric rabbit health. Over several weeks we watched her decline, giving her all the love and medical help we could. Sadly, they could not identify the problem and we finally had to put her to sleep. An autopsy showed complete liver failure. We were told she was 'living on love.'

By this time I was working at Drexel University as secretary in the Upward Bound Program. My boss did not understand why I was crying all day over a rabbit.
Senior photo from Upward Bound student Mark
He signed it, "To Nancy a good friend and a lovely person"
I had applied for work at Drexel University with the idea of studying library science with an employee discount. Because  I had experience working with youth, HR thought I was perfect for Upward Bound, a federal program that helps youth become academically successful, with alumni including Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Donna Brazile, Patrick Ewing, and Viola Davis.  I was hired to be the office manager at $3.64 an hour.

The kids embraced me as readily as I loved them.
Upward Bound tutors
Drexel University students tutored local high school students to prepare them for college.
Upward Bound Students
I needed to earn the trust of the college student tutors. After following through on my promises to type papers for the students, they began to accept me, with one gal befriending me.
Upward Bound staff, tutors, students

On lunch breaks I went to the Drexel library and took out books on fashion history. Dr. Olshin's inclusion of material culture in our Austen studies had brought a new interest.

After three years at Mt. Zion Gary was very discouraged. We had been through so much over the three years: church conflict, criticism, depression, marriage problems, and the death of our dear Nasturtium. Gary asked for an appointment change. Leaving the ministry seemed impossible without good jobs and no home of our own. We had to trust in the Bishop, and in God.
Gary took this photo of me in the parsonage.
We had many houseplants at this time which thrived.
Late on the evening of May 29 I was in my nightgown when the District Superintendent knocked on the door wanting to give the incoming pastor a tour of the parsonage. I was angry he had not made arrangements ahead of time.

On June 1, 1980 I wrote, "At some point during the evening I heard a siren in a quiet moment and I was transported out of time and looking back upon myself. I saw what sad things we human, anxious creatures are, adrift in life with no meaning, our work inherited from Adam, the continual guest, constructing a meaning every day, each of us needing to create their own [meaning]. All the changes have worn out my gossamer garment and I am left graceless, naked, and vulnerable."
Gary at Darby. 
Gary was first offered an associate pastor position at a large suburban church. The senior pastor said Gary could 'kiss his evenings goodbye.' We knew that would be devastating to our marriage. The rental house the associate pastor usually rented was "seedy and unkempt." We had one car, the trusty orange Super Beetle, but the community was so isolated we would need to buy a second car for my use. The salary wasn't much. And the pastor and congregation were conservative fundamentalists and we were progressive liberals. Gary turned it down. Gary discovered that our District Superintendent had never talked about Gary's goals, gifts, or concerns with the Cabinet.

In early June we were packing and working at Vacation Bible School. I was sorry to leave my Third Graders. One girl especially broke my heart. She was smart and pretty, living in poverty with a single mom who had no resources. I hated leaving kids like that, thinking I could have been an influence.

My folks paid my air fare to return home for my high school class tenth reunion on June 14. I enjoyed seeing my family and old neighbors, going to the Detroit Institute of Art, an Irish concert, and shopping and oil painting with Mom. The reunion was interesting, the old social dynamics still in effect. I felt like a failure for having accomplished so little in comparison.
Reunion photo. I am in the back.
During that trip, while playing cards with my folks and the McNabs, Mom made her old comment that I'd be 'so pretty' if only I lost weight. I had maintained my weight for years because I walked everywhere and skipped meals. But I had put on ten or fifteen pounds since graduation. I said I would like to lose the weight, but that I liked who I was anyway. The next day Mom came to me in tears. She had not realized the message she had been giving me all my life. She had been hurt when her father had told her, "you'd be so pretty if you didn't have such deep eyes." It was a turning point in our relationship.

Back in Darby, on the evening of June 21, 1980 I woke up from sleeping when I heard gun shots. I looked out the window and saw a man with a gun stagger and fall to the ground. I panicked. Gary was on the phone with a parishioner and I wanted to call the police. Soon people were rushing to the scene and the police arrived. The man was taken away by stretcher and the street roped off as a crime scene. A fight between two women over a man had started at the National Bar and ended in his being shot.

It was summer and the next morning during Sunday worship the windows were open. Just as the sermon was to begin, a fire truck arrived to wash the blood off the street. The noise came through the open church windows and Gary had to wait until they were done before he could preach.

A few days later, on June 25, my mom called to tell me that Grandma Ramer had suffered a heart attack that required electric shock but she was recovering.

Gary was offered a dual charge in Kensington, in the inner city of Philadelphia. I had once commented, seeing this area, that I never wanted to live there. There were no trees, no beauty, empty factories, just cement and rowhouses. But when we met the Pastor-Parish Relations committees we really liked them.

I turned in my resignation. I was still considering returning to school for library science, but I knew I could not work full-time and go to school, especially with the move and a new church.

Gary's last Sunday was June 29, a hot and humid day. Mt. Zion did not give us a goodbye--no gifts, no after church party or even a cake at Fellowship Time. The next day Gary and I went to Longwood Gardens. And on July 1 we moved to Allegheny Avenue and B St. in one of the oldest industrial areas in the country, a poor area where the houses were valued at a few thousand dollars.


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