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All Is Grace: Book Excerpt
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"