Saturday, October 28, 2017

Breakdown, Losses, and Crosses: Four Years in Montague

In late April 2005, on a quiet evening, Gary and I were in the Grace UMC parsonage living room reading when a phone call came in. Gary answered it. I could tell it was not from family or a parishioner. As the call went on I set my book down and listened. Gary silently mouthed "D.S.," district superintendent. I was on alert.

I was in the final months of homeschooling our son. He had been accepted by Grand Valley State University for the fall. We were anticipating a big graduation party. We had put money down to return to a cabin in Cheybogan for our last summer family vacation before our son went to college, to take place over the Fourth of July week.

We had ordered new chairs, the first brand new, nice, matching chairs we had ever bought. I looked forward to returning to work full time. I was sure I had the resume and contacts to find a good job.

Grace had just completed a two-year visioning program and was preparing plans for future growth. The word on the street was that Grace was making strides and impacting the community.
Spring tree in Lansing
Our parents were aging. Gary's folks had sold their winter home in Florida. His mother was tired and had a chronic cough and his father developed macular degeneration. My dad had an inoperable bleeding ulcer that sometimes sent him to the hospital. He gave up bike riding for golf and then golf for senior bowling. He was developing peripheral neuropathy. Dad's non-Hodgkins lymphoma had been in remission for about seven years. It was increasingly important to be close to family.
Laura's 88th birthday
The new Bishop had other plans. The D.S. told Gary that he was to replace a pastor who needed to be removed from his church because of controversy. And that there was to be no discussion. A refusal would mean no appointment at all, for the pastor he was to replace would be coming to Grace. The reasoning was that Gary was not controversial and the salary levels were equitable.

We were in shock.

Gary's new church appointment was along Lake Michigan, north of Muskegon. We were disappointed that we would be so far from our families. The church was in a small resort town. Our one experience with small town life had  not been a good one.

There is always a meeting to introduce the incoming pastor and family to the Staff Parish committee of the new church. Gary, Chris, and I drove to Montague, had dinner with the new D.S. and the head of Staff Parish Relations, and went to the meeting. Then we were taken on a tour of the parsonage with the D.S. and one of the Trustees.

It was night time when we arrived at the house, but it was obvious that it was surrounded on two sides by a parking lot and by streets on the other two sides. The parsonage was near a large Reformed church that had been buying up property on the block to expand its parking lot. The parsonage had been built in the early 1950s, a small ranch that had housed both the church office and the pastor's family. The original church was across the street and now housed the city museum after a new church complex had been built just outside of town.
Back yard of Montague parsonage
We entered one of the front doors and came into a rather large entry area. It had once been the church secretary's office! A home office was behind it with a half-bath. On the other side of the entry hall was the opening into the living room of the parsonage.

The living room was small, and the only solid wall had a large brick fireplace. The carpet was filthy. Next to the picture window was a second front door that had been the private entrance for the family. separate from the church office entrance. There was a diningroom,  eat-in kitchen, a  nursery size bedroom, a second bedroom, and a nice sized master bedroom with wallpaper partially torn down, and one full bath. We were told the bathroom tiles had been painted and we could NOT get soap on them or the paint would come off. How does one shampoo and shower without soap getting on the tile, I asked.

This was when I started to cry. I was leaving two full, newly remodeled bathrooms, just completed, for this? A newly remodeled kitchen, for this? This house was half the size, at best, of what we were leaving and obviously in disrepair.

I was soon in panic mode. Where was I to put my piano? The pump organ? My grandparent's diningroom set with the triple hutch and buffet? Where would my sewing room go?

We were shown the basement in which two bedrooms had been added, one with an egress window, but were told not to open the doors to the rooms. The unfinished basement was lit by bare bulbs on strings. It was filled with so many boxes we could hardly walk through it. I disregarded the request to not open the bedroom doors and peeked in but all I saw was more boxes.

The D.S. asked the Trustee if the carpets could be cleaned.

We drove back to Lansing, arriving about midnight.

And then began my breakdown.

I had to leave a city and home and church I loved, a future I had planned, and for what? A troubled church and an inadequate house? I was angry. I hated the bishop. At least once I threw things. But there was nothing we could do. There was no way we could find housing and Gary a job to support us in a few months. In the itinerant ministry and parsonage system you were trapped.

We had to scurry and change the cabin plans because we would move around July 1. The delivery on the new furniture was after our move-out date and we had to change the delivery address. And we had to start sorting, selling, donating, and packing. All while homeschooling and preparing for college.

On the day we moved into the new parsonage I cried all the way there, and bawled when I saw my new home. We had been given the chance to live in a rental house for the summer while the parsonage was repaired and fixed up. I didn't want to live out of boxes and move again. We had no idea how bad the house was. We soon found out.

We were told a new refrigerator had been purchased to replace one that was too filthy to clean.

We could not put our lawn mower and other items into the single car garage because it was filled with trash bags and piles of junk, shards of broken glass scattered across the cement floor. We thought it was trash and started hauling it out on trash pickup day.

The basement had black mold from previous flooding and we could not use the downstairs rooms until the basement was cleaned up. Ladies came with buckets and bleach for days.

There was no air conditioning. We were surrounded by a church parking lot and cement that refected the heat. Our dog came down with heat stroke. I couldn't sleep in the heat.

Every few days something broke down or malfunctioned or did not work. The sink backed up. The disposal did not work. The toilet leaked into one of the basement bedrooms right on our son's dresser. Windows did not open. We asked for a screen door so we could have cross ventilation. Chris and I kept a list that came to twenty things that had gone wrong in a few weeks.

A group of ladies removed layers of wallpaper from the dining room and the torn wall paper from the master bedroom and the rooms were painted. Men worked on painting and fixing up the outside.  Even the basement lighting was improved with a light switch.

After church we would be fixing lunch in the parsonage kitchen, listening to parishioners coming to their cars from the Reformed church service. The parking lot was a few yards away from the house. We could hear what people were saying so I knew they would hear us, too. The master bedroom and bathroom were on that side of the house. There was no privacy at all.

I was walking Kili when a neighbor told me that several dogs in the neighborhood had died of cancer, that it was a high cancer area. White Lake had a history of pollution and Hooker Chemical had left a superfund site just outside of town.
The Montague church building
Everything was different. We went from a church with great music to no choir, from a well-heeled congregation to one that wore shorts, flip-flops, or bare feet to worship: resort town casual.

People were constantly complaining about the previous pastor, rumors and innuendos. I was upset because he was at the church we had left and because I did not want to hear it. I finally told one woman that I understood she was in pain, but since I did not know the man, and it was upsetting me, please don't talk about it. Even a staff person was telling Gary rumors and slanted stories.

Other parishioners were angry 'their' pastor had been taken away. One man invited us to dinner, but we butt heads when he heard we had homeschooled. Another group pushed Gary to continue the book club the previous pastor had led, then criticized the book choice and our opinions. These people left the church.

I don't want to talk about what I don't know. I can only saw that the pastor had family concerns, was a 1960s intellectual idealist, a prophetic voice who was introverted and absent-minded. We learned that he was also dying. Over the next year he was unable to pastor our previous church and an interim was brought in.

We had our last family vacation in Cheyboygan, staying at a rental cabin we had been to the year before. It was a wonderful holiday.
Chris and Kili on the Straits of Mackinaw

Our new family doctor was wonderful and we stayed with her for nine years, even through several moves. She proscribed anti-anxiety medicaton for me. It was to be short-term, but I liked who I was better on the medication and continued it for several years. Statistically, many clergy and clergy wives are depressed.  I started a Yahoo support group for clergy wives and wrote a paper for the Conference about what I learned about clergy housing needs. I heard a lot of horror stories. One young mother lived in a parsonage with no railing on the stairway to the bedrooms! Safety and privacy were top concerns.

One of the United Methodist circle groups invited me to join them and I found like-minded readers and friendship. Books circulated, including Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. These ladies were a great deal of fun, too.

There was a group of quilters at the church and for a while I went with their carpool to a quilt guild in Muskegon.  Then I was told I had to reimburse the driver towards gas because I could not drive at night and take my turn. I stopped going.

After the introduction parsonage tour the D.S. had sent the Trustees a letter saying they needed to provide housing that met parsonage standards. The old parsonage did not meet them, including privacy, a two-car garage, and air conditioning. The church quickly formed a planning committee.

The neighboring Reform church had previously wanted to buy the parsonage but the sale had fallen through. After repairs and cleaning up, the Reform church agreed to purchase the house and our church rented it from them for us to live in while they built the new parsonage. We lived in a 'rented' house for about a year.

Luckily, a clever man figured out how to put several window air conditioners into the house our second summer. He was an important figure in the church and community and he and Gary became real friends and partners in ministry.
the side yard was used to pile snow from the Reformed church parking lot
A committee of mostly men designing a house for someone else's needs, all trying to get in what they desire, is a long process. I was used to being involved with parsonage remodeling and wanted some input, but even Gary was not invited to sit in on the committee meetings at first. I made sure they had the conference parsonage guidelines and an article about parsonage living and needs.

The process and communication was fraught with problems and changes and frustration. The committee wanted a 100% handicapped accessible floor plan, a walk-out basement, and an open concept floorplan. The original design had the front door leading into one huge room. I was not amused. I knew that many winter evenings found me in my robe, quilting. If a parishioner came to the door to see Gary, I sure did not want to be caught in my robe.
The new parsonage
The new parsonage ended up huge and very upscale with oak flooring, doors, and trim throughout. There were two full and one half baths, all wheelchair accessible. There were three big bedrooms, one with a walk-in closet. There was an open concept kitchen/dining area/ living area and another living space with glass doors for privacy. The kitchen was not large, but the space well planned. The laundry room was so wonderful!
The new parsonage front
the new parsonage back

We packed up and moved again. It was so much easier for my brother and father and son to all visit at the same time now. We used a corner of the unfinished basement near the walk out door, put up plastic sheeting, and made a library and put a daybed there for one more sleeping space.
The front parlor/diningroom
The house was built in a wooded area just beyond the church and the landscape was natural. The building site had been raised due to high water levels and the desire for a walk-out basement (although the basement was totally unfinished at this time.) The circular gravel drive went up a hill to the two car garage, and a ramp in the garage led into the house. In the back was a huge wood deck with a Southern exposure.
March, 2008 sunrise view from the house
Several problems arose. Winters along Lake Michigan are harsh with lots of snow. The gravel drive was icy even when ploughed. Our car would slide back down the driveway, often sideways. It was treacherous walking down to the mail box, and after a rain a lake formed at the base of the driveway. The basement walls had been poured over several days and large cracks appeared. We only lived in this house seventeen months, and already the wood windows had black mold from humidity condensing on the windows in winter in spite of my wiping them all down every day. The master bath was huge with a soaking tub and walk in shower, but it was cold! We used a space heater to warm the room up.

I wasn't sure how I would like not being in a neighborhood. But the wildlife entertained me. In the spring a doe and two fawn went through the yard twice a day. A Tom turkey and his harem and chicks made their way through, too.

Every spring brought two fawns
A box turtle returned to her traditional nesting area near the house.
A Box turtle came to lay eggs in the sandy soil. And a tree frog took residence in a hole in the front rail.
A tree frog took residence in the fence
Our Kili was was over sixteen years old when I knew it was time to let her go. She had lost interest in her walks. It was very sad to lose our companion and we hated telling our son, who had just returned to university, that his beloved pal was gone.
Kili at 16 years

We were just over an hour's drive from our son. Chris had a dorm with a kitchen and we would drive down to Allendale and take him shopping for food until he got his driver's license. When he and a friend bought tickets to a concert in downtown Detroit I was concerned because he had little experience driving. I said I would drive them there and Chris would drive us home. When I met his friend I gave him a hug and said he was my son, too, for the weekend. He ended up in Metro Detroit and remains one our of son's best friends.

We got Chris a used car for his second year of college and he would drive home for visits. For July 4 he brought his roommate. They had arranged to share an apartment before learning their dads were both United Methodist pastors! Both boys ended up in the Metro Detroit area and have remained friends and Chris was a groomsman at his wedding last year.

There was a great quilt shop outside of town. I had a nice quilt room set up in the new parsonage had this was a very productive time for me. I was commissioned to make a poodle handkerchief quilt. I made my First Ladies Quilt.
Poodle handkerchief quilt

quilt made for my brother
The local quilt shop had annual quilt shows. I also took quilts to the Coopersville Farm Museum annual show.
Little Women, a pattern from 1952
Remember the Ladies, my First Ladies Redwork quilt
I still miss some of the restaurants we enjoyed, and the ice cream parlor, and an old fashioned hot dog stand with waitresses coming to the car. A short drive took us to Lake Michigan, and the White Lake Lighthouse. There were nesting eagles to be seen, and Pileated Woodpeckers were all around. A half hour took us to Norton Shores where there was a nice mall and shopping area.
our photograph of the White River Lighthouse, a gift from the church
I got a job as church secretary at the United Methodist Church just across the White River in Whitehall. The pastor was nice to work with. When her husband could no longer drive they gave me his car!

Then my father's non-Hodgkins lymphoma became active.
Dad's August 13, 2008  birthday

My brother had noted during August, 2008 that Dad was tired and listless and experienced fevers. Dad finally went to the doctor. Dad had one chemo and I went across state to stay with him. I returned home but two weeks later I took a leave of absence from work and ended up staying at Dad's house for two months while Dad was in Beaumont Hospital. Luckily, I had my own car.

Every day I arrived at Dad's room at 9 am and stayed until my brother arrived after work. I returned to Dad's house and Tom would join me later in the evening. We would wind down watching NCIS or House reruns on antenna TV.

At first Dad's room was filled with friends coming to visit. When the doctors discovered cancer in his brain as well as his body they told Dad they could not treat both. He was ready to return home when one doctor said she thought there was a way, and Dad rallied. He fought valiantly as his body failed. He received chemo in the brain, and after that he lost touch with reality. Dad would tell me garbled stories, laughing about memories I couldn't follow. Or he would ask about something that was not there. People no longer visited, except our old neighbor from Houstonia, Gordon McNab. He came to keep me company regularly. And dad's girlfriend came, but it was hard for her after Dad was no longer himself.

Gary made several trips to Clawson to see me. It was a horrible winter, and traveling across Michigan was a risky and frightening experience.
Winter 2008
Gail Miller, who had lived next to my grandparents and was my first Michigan friend, was a PA with the cancer doctors and worked on the floor were Dad's room was. She was a wonderful support to me. Gail finally scolded the doctors and told them to let us let Dad go. Dad was removed to Hospice and that day he passed while my brother and I were out of the room getting lunch. Dad spent his last hours listening to his favorite music, including Roy Orbison, while his children talked.

My brother arranged Dad's funeral with a service held in Clawson and then in Tonawanda, NY where his remains would rest next to our mother. Gary drove across state for the funeral. It was December and a blizzard kept Royal Oak friends from attending the funeral in Clawson because the roads were not plowed. The airport was shut down and the funeral parlor had to drive Dad across Canada to Tonawanda. Tom and I drove together. Tonawanda was also covered in deep snow, and we were lucky that family were able to get to the funeral parlor.
Winter view from parsonage, 2008
I wanted to be home with Gary and Chris for Christmas. I had only been home two weeks in the last three months. Tom and I drove back across Canada in a snowstorm, spent the night at Clawson, and the next day drove across Michigan in more snow. We arrived in time for Christmas Eve service.

Dad left me his house. We were seven years from retirement and wondered if we could afford to keep it. With a son in college, the costs of taxes and utilities and upkeep would be a burden, but Dad also left my brother and I a tidy inheritance.

I returned to my part-time job as a church secretary.

For Mother's Day, 2008,  I made my mother-in-law a quilt with her vintage
handkerchief and photographs scanned on fabric. She loved looking at it.
In January, 2009, Gary's mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Laura still enjoyed her counted cross stitch work but she had suffered from a chronic cough for a long time. Gary's father was legally blind. The two older boys arranged for their folks to move into senior housing.

The next day, my mother-in-law was in Hospice. Her sudden death left her husband of 69 years in shock. Gary's brothers were out of state and we traveled to Grand Blanc to help Herman arrange the funeral plans. He was confused and kept calling his wife his mother. The funeral was to take place in two weeks to give time for the family to get back to Michigan.
Pillows with Laura Bekofske's needlework
I gathered Laura's tops with her counted cross stitch handwork and turned them into pillows, one for each family. After the funeral we traveled across state to stay in Clawson and go to Grand Blanc to help sort and clean and toss to prepare the house for sale. Gary's father wanted to return to live there, but we knew that would never happen.

Over the next years we regularly made trips to see Chris at college and to Clawson to check the house and visit with Gary's father. We did not even think about replacing Kili with a new dog.

On the bright side, the church held a potluck dinner followed by a meeting. After dinner, I offered to take the children to the parsonage where they could play games or watch TV. We got along very well and I was asked to teach the upper elementary Sunday school class.

They were a bright group of kids with a lot of energy. I had them write a church newsletter. The kids came up with ideas to write about. Some did interviews, others stories about the church, and some did creative writing or art. It was unconventional, as during Sunday school time these kids were running around the church instead of sitting in a class!
My class working on the newsletter
The younger families, whose children were in my class, started a social group and nicely invited us to join their activities. One couple included a woman from Scotland and her husband who was from the same village in England as my Grandfather Greenwood! They held a Robert Burns party every year with haggis and a poetry reading!

Traveling across state every few weeks was exhausting. Gary asked his District Superintendent if it would be possible to get an appointment in the Detroit Conference to be closer to his dad. We did not necessarily want to move from Montague, but it would have been a time and cost savings to live closer to Gary's dad and the Clawson house. The answer was not unless Gary took a deep pay cut, about $20,000. We could not afford that. We assumed we would retire from Montague.
the house in Clawson
Instead, after Annual Conference and new appointments had been set, the D.S. called and told Gary he was needed in Muskegon. The pastor needed to be moved immediately and replaced with an interim pastor. It would be another switch of pastors and churches, two times in a row, which is never done. Gary said we could not be ready to move by July 1. An August 10 date was offered so we had six weeks to pack. The church held a nice goodbye party for us. And we moved a half hour down the expressway to Muskegon.

We had lived in Montague for four years with a move to a new house in the middle. During that time we had lost two parents, our beloved Kili, and adjusted to an 'empty nest'. We had inherited a house we were not sure we could afford to keep until retirement. Gary’s next assignment was for a year, two at the most. We were facing a short-term assignment, and another move before retirement.


  1. Surely challenging times, Nancy. Your quilts are beautiful and create such precious memories for your family and friends.

    1. Thanks, Ann. I’m grateful I had quilting in my life.