October 5, 2004

Getting Up in Green Bay

It was dark as pitch on Saturday, January 16, 1988 when we pulled up to our new home at 3230 Normandy Lane in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was our second day of driving from Plano, Texas and the dog, Murphy, and I were sleeping in the back seat of our Mercury Marquis. I awoke as the car stopped and my mother said, "We're here!"

I opened my eyes to discover that we were in the driveway of a big, awkward brown house. Deep piles of snow loomed at the edges of the driveway. Before I could clear my mind to think better of it I blurted, "This is it?!?" I regretted my words as soon as they slipped out.

I was thirteen and the last child at home, my older brother and sister both having left for college already. My parents were very anxious about moving, especially for my sake. They knew it would be difficult to leave the only home and friends I had ever known in Texas for new ones. We've talked about it since, and my disparaging response to our new home really deflated mom and dad.

It wasn't such a bad house. It was spacious and, in a 1970s kind of way, attractive. If I'm honest, it's the house that hold my most treasured memories of my youth. That two-story cul-de-sac house was the setting for the most formative experiences of my life.

But they begin in an funky smelling apartment a half mile away.

My father, a research food scientist, was the victim of multiple corporate buy outs. Anderson Clayton Foods had first been purchased by Quaker Oats (the parent of Ralston Purina) to acquire the Gains/Cycle dog food line. Having got what they came for, Quaker put the company back up on the auction block and Kraft picked up what was left to get their hands on the Seven Seas salad dressing label. It was the way of the food industry in the 1980s--conglomeration and corporate takeovers of your competition. Kraft retained very few employees so my father, 55 years old, found himself on the job market.

He was anxious. He didn't eat much. He led long family prayers around the dinner table desperately pleading for help for our family. I've never been so moved, before or since, by his prayers. He polished his resume, donned a new suit, and launched into the networking game with determination.

My dad's a brilliant man and a dedicated worker. I don't think I ever really had a doubt that he would find a job, but I certainly felt the anxiety of the uncertainty of our situation. Within a few months of Kraft's announcement to close Anderson Clayton, he had a number of interviews and several good prospects.

Frigo Foods, an Italian cheese company in Green Bay, turned out to be the match. Frigo was excited to have my dad and I think my dad, although he was eager to take any job that paid, was excited about the work as well. But Green Bay threw me. I had no idea where Wisconsin was. I didn't know what people did there. I had no way to know what to expect, but, to my thirteen-year-old way of thinking, if Green Bay wasn't the edge of the earth, surely you could see it from there.

Over the summer we prepared our house in Plano to sell. I started eighth grade and my dad started work at Frigo in October. They put him up in one of these sprawling, one-story 1970s apartment complexes with long hallways that looked like they had been borrowed from a cheap hotel. Its most distinguishing feature was a really odd--and unpleasant--odor that permeated the whole place. The way the timing to close on our new house worked out, we would spend our first week in Green Bay at the apartment.

Arriving that Saturday night, we went to church on Sunday morning. I found it a welcoming place and I genuinely appreciated the familiar structure of an LDS worship community. But I was never really worried about attending church--these were people with whom we shared sacred faith and beliefs. The whole enterprise was about being kind, loving people; I didn't figure I had much to worry about there.

School, however, was another matter. No one went to middle school to become a more generous Christian. To say I was anxious understates the ulcerating pit in my stomach. Sunday night I slept poorly on the couch in that fragrant apartment and I awoke early. For a long time I laid there, staring at the ceiling through the predawn darkness of the upper Midwest in January. I don't know that I've ever seen anything so dark since.

That morning (and every morning for months after) I felt absolutely sick. The nagging nausea that greeted me escalated with my worry to a sense of dread that was absolutely overwhelming to my thirteen-year-old self. I will never forget how, laying on that couch in the unfamiliarity of the clinging darkness and discomforting fume, I started to pray. I had said many prayers before and had been well instructed in the purposes and promise of prayer, but that morning, somewhere around 4:00 a.m. with gloom clinging to my heart, I believe I really talked to God. I needed to.

I needed help to stand up. I prayed for it. I needed help to eat a light breakfast without throwing up. I prayed for it. I needed help to shower and get dressed. I prayed for it. For the first time in my life, I was overcome. I had been afraid before, but nothing had so completely debilitated me. It sounds like melodrama now, but I simply had no power to function. Internally, I was spent.

And because spiritual effort, like so many things, is rewarded in direct proportion to its intensity, my pathetic prayers were answered. I got what I asked for--no more and no less. When I needed to get into the car with my mother to drive across town to school, I did because I had prayed that I would. When I needed to survive the loneliest lunch hour of my life, I managed because I prayed that I would. Though I had been sure of prayer's efficacy before, it became a particularly sacred practice to me that day. It was more than a spiritual exercise, more than a duty of the pious, more than a vehicle to express gratitude. It was nothing less than communication with a God who knew me and, for all of my insignificance in a majestic universe, cared about me.

It was that God to whom my father had pleaded so desperately for sustenance for our family, and while I had been moved by his intense sincerity and honest humility I knew better now what it was to be a participant in a conversation with God rather than just a spectator.

The transition to life in Green Bay was difficult, to be sure. It took time before I was able to prepare for each day without encountering intense anxiety. It took time before I made a few friends and began to feel reasonably comfortable at school. It took time--time enough to cement my relationship with God and to inscribe certain lessons upon my soul.

My parents moved away from Green Bay in 1999. I haven't been back to visit for many years. My wife has never been there. And yet I frequently, even daily, reflect back upon that episode of my life. In addition to--or as a result of--my burgeoning spirituality, I mark those early Wisconsin years as the beginning of the process of maturation that continues to culminate in the perpetual (re)formation of my social and cultural identity. It was an awakening and a struggling that has influenced my life ever since.

Posted by ogde0004 at October 5, 2004 5:04 AM