Shortly after my father’s funeral I contacted our local church about my son receiving his Confirmation. They encouraged me to get him involved in the youth group that had just formed upon Fr. Ken’s arrival at the parish. It sounded like a good way to help him get a sense of belonging in the Church. It had been a long time since I’d been involved in parish activities and I had been finding spiritual support in other ways that gave me strength to get through the challenges I was living through. The Church didn’t give me that sense of support.
It was right at the start of our settling into my parents’ home that I received a clear indication that I was expected to follow their routine of our strict Catholic tradition. In some ways I found it reassuring and centering, while in other ways I found it to be an intrusion on my own style of religious expression that I’d developed through the years as an adult. I had distanced myself from some of the church’s rigidness when faced with my own reality and learning experiences. The responsibilities and changes that filled my life during this time gave me a new awareness of God’s transforming love in my life. I was finding this awareness in other ways outside of institutional religion.
My job search commenced during that first week, via the county newspaper and employment office. After two jobs that didn’t work for me (one was in a personnel office and the other one was in banking), I found what seemed a desirable position in the registrar’s office at the branch campus of a private college. The branch campus was a ten-minute ride so getting to and from work didn’t take a lot of time away from my son, and I was close by in the event of emergency. The only drawback was the hours which involved being there four days during the week from 11 am until 8 pm. Things were going well between my son and his grandmother so I thought that this could work out well. I would have Fridays off and was required to work a half day on Saturday.
My involvement with the hometown parish increased when Fr. Ken asked me to be on the Youth Ministry Board as a representative and a voice for single parents who were in a divorced situation. This was a nice attitude adjustment from the general view of divorces by the Church! My son was getting involved with the youth group activities and it seemed that we were both finding a good place to find a sense of belonging. I was able to arrange for a professor from the Jesuit college where I was working to come and speak at one of the youth group meetings. He was very inspirational for young people who were dealing with a complex society.
As an outreach of the youth ministry, a few of us got together and formed a support group for children dealing with loss and grief due to death or divorce. It was based on the international organization Rainbows for All God’s Children.[i] I met with the local coordinator of the organization and also with a counseling service that was on the property of the campus where I worked. Together we set up a series of support and educational workshops for parents. We had enough interest with about ten people attending each weekly workshop.
At one of the workshops, a participant revealed that she had been abusing her child. This was an area where I had no experience and was glad that one of the therapists from the counseling service was there. Afterwards, I went over to the rectory to mention it to Fr. Ken. He was in his office with one of the other youth ministry board members. He indicated to me that it was okay to talk in front of her which gave me the impression that she was in a position of some authority. So, I proceeded to tell him about what the mother had disclosed at the workshop. The woman immediately interrupted me, saying that this was not an area that the parish should be involved in. I felt shut down and silenced, and because of my lack of experience I backed off and let it go. Looking back, I’m hoping that, in some way, there was follow-up for that mother and her child, either by the therapist from the counseling service or by Fr. Ken. This is another area where I felt that the needs of vulnerable families were not being met by those in positions of authority on a parish level.
The support group fell by the wayside after that series. The openness and willingness to offer the series seemed to me to be an honest attempt by the principal of the parish elementary school, the deacon, and Fr. Ken to try something that might bring more life and stability to an already struggling school fighting for its survival. I was told that more and more of the students were dealing with families that were at risk and looking for some kind of support. The elementary school has since closed down. A very painful and sad event for so many who had grown-up in the parish and attended the school, just as I had.
These experiences increased my awareness of the struggles within some conservative parishes that were caught in changes that Vatican II had brought. The Pre-Vatican II (closed-off-from-the-world attitudes) and the post-Vatican II (opening-up-the-windows-to let-the-fresh-air-in attitudes) clashed as they attempted to connect to the realities of the world around us. This struggle still exists and has grown.
Vatican II was an ecumenical council within the Roman Catholic Church held between 1962 and 1965. It brought about many changes during the Sixties and forward. It allowed Catholics to pray with other Christian denominations, encouraged friendship with other non-Christian faiths and opened the door for languages other than Latin to be used during Mass. Pope John wanted to reinforce that missionary mandate, but he also wanted to create an environment of dialogue, where the church would engage in all the forces of the modern world.
I welcomed the new ideas and critical thinking that Vatican II introduced. It was a time when the gospel message of Jesus became a call for action and a time where the role of our own conscience and intuition became central instead of blind obedience. The changes of Vatican II may have swung too far, just as they do in political changes within government. Even today there exists a polarization between conservatives and progressives within the Church, just as there is such polarization in our country as a whole. Somewhere in the middle of all this there is truth and hopefully neither the Church nor our country comes to a schism while we’re searching for that truth.
One of my brother’s friends was a lawyer in a town nearby. I asked him if there was anything that I could do to get some financial support for my son while he was still in high school and under the age of eighteen. Don’s medical situation had been stabilizing over the years and, while there were bouts of set-backs off and on with his heart, he continued to work in upstate New York as a physician’s assistant.
Don was getting divorced from the woman he married at the time when I had left the area to move down to New Jersey. He was now living with a nurse he met at work. They were planning to move to Florida and buy a condo on the gulf coast. It seemed reasonable for me to pursue some consistent support payments for our last child and this support would surely help now that I was finding the cost of living in New Jersey even more out of reach than that of upstate New York.
The lawyer took down all the information and said he would look into it. Once again, my self-esteem plummeted as I sat there and relayed some of the ugly details of my situation, still sensing that my reality was so out of reach from the awareness of those who have never experienced it. I didn’t hear back from the attorney for a long period of time. I finally received a letter from him informing me that he had heard from Don’s lawyer who had said that due to Don’s medical issues it would be impossible to get any support from him. So, I let go of all effort to ever receive any consistent financial support for my youngest child. It was going to be no different than it had been in the past years and it was up to me.
The Nineties were also the beginning of an increasing and bitter clash between partisans on the left and right of the two political parties in our country. This has escalated to the great divide of today. Talk radio became more of an influence on those who got into the battle between conservatives and liberals. For my Republican family, Rush Limbaugh became the voice of the discontent that they felt and shared. I didn’t have the time to even know who some of these talk radio people were and, on the few occasions when I did tune in, was very turned off by the aggressive, vitriolic tone. It encouraged ‘in your face’ rants instead of the thoughtful discussions that I’d come to believe in for conflict resolution.
My oldest brother was the only one in the family who took a stand for liberal positions within our family’s political discussions and his views were fairly well dismissed and mocked now that Rush Limbaugh was empowering the others to ‘fight the libs’. Not that he didn’t give it right back to them.
I remember listening to one heated discussion about taxes and welfare. I have never been partisan so I attempted to listen to both sides in the discussion. My own experience, knowing I couldn’t have fed my family at one time if it were not for food stamps and other assistance from the government, gave me a unique perspective on this. I couldn’t understand why there would be resentment towards some of our taxes going to help people get back on their feet after a crisis. I’ve come to understand the abuses and mismanagement of many government programs and think that’s where reform needs to happen. It seemed to me that the vulnerable and powerless were being used as scapegoats for the arrogant and powerful. Taxes are there to provide for the common needs of American citizens and their communities. They aren’t an evil in themselves and we take for granted all that taxes make possible.
The election of Bill Clinton as president during the Nineties intensified the hostility between conservatives and liberals, creating some of the nastiest polarization that we’ve ever seen. Many of his policies reflected a centrist political philosophy. I found myself settling into a centrist position when it came to politics yet couldn’t bring myself to register and make a full commitment to either party. My conservative Republican family, meanwhile, moved further to the right and rallied around each other during family gatherings that inevitably evolved into frustrating political disputes. It was beginning to register with me that the distancing by my family that I felt at the time of the early Eighties crisis wasn’t just in miles. I now believe that political ideology can serve as a means to distance oneself from the harsh realities of other people and can result in preventing us from responding and intervening in effective and caring ways.
My social life, now that I moved to my hometown, consisted of family events and church related events. I’d set aside any thoughts of finding new dating possibilities. I sensed that I had so much more to work through before I’d be able to choose wisely when it came to any new commitment with a man. Down the road I would learn through counseling just how much the effects of abuse and trauma can impact a person’s life over the long term. The understanding of the narcissistic personality and how to deal with it wasn’t in the mainstream yet. Post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t go away and you need to learn how to cope with it. Becoming aware of this and understanding that healthy boundaries need to be set to protect yourself has helped to make me stronger in navigating through relationships.
I reconnected with two high school friends who lived in New Jersey and we got together off and on to go to craft fairs or luncheons. We talked mainly about the past. Nostalgia was a common theme in my life now since I had moved back to the roots of my past memories. I learned that each person sees the past from different perspectives. It was fun to reminisce, and it also made me long to leave it behind and see what the future held for me.
What was central in my mind was staying connected with my sons. Financial restraints and living a distance apart became a challenge. They were all busy pursuing their own goals and moving on with their lives too. One was in the area attending college in a pre-med program so he was close enough to be a support for his youngest brother, and my brothers also reached out in different ways to show their support for him. Each of my older sons were developing relationships that were leading to long-term commitments.
The son who lived nearby traveled with us up to Maine to connect with two of my other sons who were living up there. They had jobs in restaurants in Bar Harbor so it was exciting to visit them. We explored Cadillac Mountain and Acadia National Park, and I realized how much I loved to explore and travel. My regrets that I’d not traveled turned into resolve that I would make room in my life for foreign travel in my future and that I would find a way to do it.
Trip to Bar Harbor, ME ~ Me, D &G on Cadillac Mountain at sunrise (l) and J and me (r)
The Nineties were a busy time for me, with work, school, and important events to attend involving my sons. Two of my sons got married during the 90s and my youngest graduated from high school. One son graduated from medical school and another graduated from the police academy in upstate New York. All of these events were wonderful experiences for us. During these events Don and I would come face to face, and sometimes it was not too comfortable. I still carried anger over the effect his actions had on my life.
One incident I had trouble dealing with was when he brought his third wife-to-be to our son’s graduation from medical school. Of course, she had no idea of our history so I held no ill will towards her. It was just hard for me to treat him as part of the family even though I fully understood and encouraged my sons’ relationships with him.
Although I found it tolerable to be with them at the event itself, I found it impossible to attend the small private dinner afterwards at a local restaurant, so I declined. I had brought my mother and younger son with me to the graduation, and I was feeling angry and jealous that he was in a relationship and I wasn’t. He was free of the day-to-day stresses of raising our family yet he appeared to welcome and harvest all the accolades of being a father. These were feelings I had towards him that I didn’t like, and I worked to overcome and rise above them.
My mother had just had another joint replacement surgery and she was thrilled to be included in her grandson’s celebration. Because of her mobility issues we were slowed down while navigating the area and the University campus. Instead of going to the restaurant where Don and his new fiancé would be, I made reservations at another restaurant for my sister and her husband, my mother, my youngest, and I. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling allowing myself to wallow in this decision. I just wasn’t able to do anything else no matter how hard I tried to rise above it. I guess this was my way of setting healthy boundaries when I felt the need to.
The two weddings were difficult for me also, though I was filled with joy for each son and his bride. The experiences brought out all the memories and sentiments of our life together raising our little boys. The couples wanted and deserved to see us getting along even to the point of planning that the two of us would be together in parts of the ceremony. Don picked me up and took me to both weddings. I realized there were still nice feelings there. It also felt like I would never be free of the anger and hurt feelings and the grieving I went through because of this loss.
I continued to become more involved with activities at my hometown church even though my son had dropped out of youth group, in favor of the skate-boarder persona of a restless teen. It seemed that both of us couldn’t shake the image of being from a divorced family with all the negative stereotyping that small town communities and a conservative Catholic parish can apply to that image. A lot of church and school events evolved around the family with both parents involved and it can bring home, over and over, your feelings of isolation and loss when you’re unable to fit in. Most of the focus seemed to be on supporting traditional marriage and ignoring the needs and the increasing struggles in all of today’s families. Putting myself in the Catholic parish environment seemed to drive home the old negative stereotype of being in a broken home.
I became more aware of the Church’s strict rules and isolation where divorced Catholics were concerned. The difficult annulment process and jumping through hoops that people had to go through in order to remarry and receive Communion seemed unjust to me considering the good people I’d come to know who had years of ‘true’ marriages. It was a difficult journey they’d already come through and a very painful experience when that marriage ended. It favored those with status and money. The vulnerable fell through the cracks and were powerless. This was particularly brought home when Sheila Rauch Kennedy appealed the Church’s decision to annul her twelve-year marriage to Joseph P. Kennedy. I followed this closely and even bought her book, Shattered Faith, which brought the whole process into the light and exposed the further damage the Church did, not only to its own credibility, but to the people involved. In most cases it was the woman who was abandoned or left for another woman and then had to watch the church provide loopholes for the other woman to be free to marry him as if their marriage never existed.
The [annulment] process was very dishonest and it was a process in which I was being bullied. But I was very lucky. I had help from outside of the Archdiocese. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known about appealing to Rome and how to do it. I feel for the people who don’t get help. Sheila Rauch Kennedy.
The Kennedys’ annulment was over-turned in 2007, vindicating Sheila, after years of standing up for herself and her family.
I was invited by Fr. Ken to participate in a weekend retreat at another parish. The Emmaus experience was put on by parishioners for parishioners and during the weekend a team shared their individual faith stories. I really liked this idea because we got to know each other better throughout the weekend. Some shared difficulties that you’d never know they were going through and it gave a human touch to their faith story. One of the leaders of the retreat shared that she was divorced and it gave me a feeling of acceptance that being divorced didn’t prevent her from being a leader for a church event.
When we returned back to our parish, we were ready to do something similar for our church community so I volunteered to be co-leader with the deacon because it appeared that no one else seemed interested. It was a pretty intense experience leading up to the weekend retreat. We would meet and read to each other our faith story that we planned to present to the people who attended our retreat. We picked a theme and wrote our talks around that theme. Ours was Companions on the Journey. It was the first time I had put pen to paper and written something about what I’d come through in recent years. One more step towards letting go and moving towards healing. And not only one step towards healing! It was one more step towards realizing my passion for creativity through drawing and painting and writing and sharing with others. I loved the communal aspect of the Emmaus Retreat where each person brought their gifts and talents to the whole experience. Looking back, I believe the church was negligent in not using this experience as a way to put people in touch with counseling services when their sharing revealed that they might need more follow up support. Still, I felt it was a step in the right direction. Our theme song was Companions on the Journey.
We are companions on the journey,
Breaking Bread and sharing life;
And in the love we bear is the hope we share
for we believe in the love of our God,
We believe in the love of our God.
I still kept in mind my hopes of finding my own place to live. I envisioned a small apartment with two bedrooms that I could afford for the time being. My youngest son would be moving on in his life soon and I yearned for some privacy in my life. There were things going on in my life that pushed the feeling of immediacy for this change. There was an incident at home that made me think it would be best to find another place for my son and I for the remainder of his teen years, and it convinced me it was time to let go of my hometown and the past, and work on putting in place things I’d like to try in my future.
I saw the possibility of a less demanding life coming up, the second half of my life.
My mother had overheard my son and a classmate talking about the bullying that the classmate was going through. The friend said his father had a gun and he was thinking of using it on himself. My mother met me at the door with this news when I came in from work. I immediately went to speak with the boy’s father who was also divorced and who seemed to really care. He thanked me for telling him. My son also went to school officials to talk with them and their approach was to bring the bullies in on the situation but it only made things worse. The bullying intensified and the classmate blamed my son for telling.
Through my experiences as a parent in trying to work with high school professionals I’ve come to recognize the extremely difficult job they have and how there needs to be more awareness of the mental health issues and difficult situations that teens are going through. One high school counselor shared with me that they were overwhelmed and felt powerless.
I continued my involvement with youth group and Emmaus. We were encouraged to use the rectory office for copying and collating when planning events. One evening when I came into the rectory, it seemed that no one was there and it was very quiet and empty. As I proceeded to the main office, I glanced over at the small reception office by the door and saw Fr. Ken sitting on a bench with one of the youth group members. Fr. Ken was holding him and the teen had his head on Fr. Ken’s chest. It appeared that I had interrupted them. When they saw me, they didn’t move or say anything, and looked alarmed. I proceeded into the main office to do my work and Fr. Ken immediately came to talk with me. He said he was telling the young man that girls just aren’t worth his time and that they’re nothing but trouble. I thought that was weird.
I had already heard rumors from some in the parish that Fr. Ken had been accused of sexual abuse before by a youth in the parish where he’d been previously assigned. My family hadn’t mentioned this to me when I moved down, so I didn’t have this information when my son and I got involved with the youth group. When I learned of this, along with the beginnings of reports on the growing scandal within the Catholic Church as a whole, I held space for the possibility that this could happen here too. What I saw wasn’t totally alarming yet it was enough to trigger a red flag of uneasiness within me.
There were lots of jokes about Fr. Ken’s behavior and many innuendos floating around the parish. I had never participated in innuendo and gossip so I attempted to remain neutral and not over-react. The sex abuse scandal of the Catholic Church had not yet become a public sensation. There were, however, the beginnings of revelations about sex abuse circulating about priests who had been transferred and reassigned to other areas of ministry for undisclosed reasons.
Another Youth Ministry board member and I had previously contacted a popular priest who was a great speaker for youth ministry. After he spoke, she told me that he had been one of the priests that had been removed because of accusations of sex abuse of one of the teens. She laughed about having contacted him on her own instead of seeking a speaker through the diocese. She brushed it off and said she went through her own channels to get him as a speaker for our event. I was uneasy with being drawn into this little bit of deception.
I wasn’t sure what to do with what I observed that night at the rectory. I also wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Could he have been counseling the boy? Was there anything to be concerned about? I just knew my instincts were alerted and I was uncomfortable about it.
There were other red flags that gave me pause about his behavior. I attended a social gathering at the rectory, hosted by Fr. Ken, for the board members, and some of the youth group members. Fr. Ken brought out a box full of photos of some of the boys he had taken to his Jersey Shore home, and he showed us a few. Some boys were clowning around with towels wrapped around them while they were shaving. I just thought to myself that I wouldn’t, as a parent, be comfortable if my son were one of them.
There were also rumors about the bishop of the diocese taking young boys to the beach house in South Jersey that was diocese owned.
There was no official pastor yet assigned to the parish who you could go to in confidence to talk about it. The current pastor was very old and I didn’t feel I could approach him. Fr. Ken was the only other priest at the rectory. He would have youth group board meetings up in his suite and he was much more casual with the youth than the older pastor was comfortable with. It just seemed to me that Fr. Ken was pushing boundaries.
I decided to mention it discretely to the other board member who was closest with him and who appeared to have influence in the parish. This was the same board member who arranged the speaker and who was present when I went to Fr. Ken about the abuse situation.
She had Fr. Ken over to her home a lot and considered him family. Her reaction was pretty immediate. I understand now what it feels like when you’re the target of a smear campaign and gaslighting. You’re unsure of how to protect yourself or who you can trust. You’re unsure of what’s being said behind your back and who you can turn to. It felt like a cult.
One of the women from the youth group board phoned me at home out of empathy for what I was experiencing. She told me that she had been through the same treatment by Fr. Ken and this other board member, indicating that others in the parish had also. I appreciated her kindness in reaching out to me.
I began to withdraw from my involvement with the parish. It was not easy. It felt like this cult-like situation was going on where people were following a charismatic figure and if you weren’t in step, you were isolated and alone. I learned who my friends were, and who the supportive people were during that time, both within the parish and within my family.
Shortly after I stopped being involved in youth ministry, the boy I’d seen Fr. Ken with was found dead on the streets of New York City. There was a huge funeral for him and I remember standing outside observing Fr. Ken with a large group of the youth-group kids around him who were hugging him and crying. They said at his funeral that he had died from an aneurysm in the brain. The kids in the youth group said it was heroin and they all knew he was in trouble. This was never confirmed one way or another.
This experience brought home to me a full realization that the church was not addressing openly the real needs of people, especially young people in vulnerable circumstances, and that a lot was done by the church to impress, and to cover up, to maintain the Church’s image. There was no connection at that time between the church and professional counseling (or with the law enforcement authorities). There was no easy channel to privately air a concern without it becoming fodder for scapegoating.
The unfolding revelations about sex abuse in the Catholic Church over the years showed us that there is a need for more openness and accountability. While there is a risk of accusing innocent people, there’s also the higher risk of ruining the life of a young person who will remain forever damaged and vulnerable. Recognizing the reality of mental health issues and the need for intervention, even within our places of worship, seems to be a good first step toward providing help to those who need it.
In the early 2000s, I stopped by a local pharmacy to pick up prescriptions for my mother. There was no one in the pharmacy except myself and another person. I was amazed when I realized the other person was Fr Ken. We stood there and talked for a while about the years that had passed since I last saw him. He told me that he had been removed from his priestly duties and was staying at his home in the country. An allegation had been made against him and he was waiting for a diocesan trial. He was still saying Mass with friends. He didn’t go into any details and I didn’t ask. I only know I felt a mixture of compassion and anger for this man who was part of a culture of rapid changes both in life and in the Church. Later, when I retired to Virginia in the mid-2000s I came across a newspaper clipping that reported that he had been removed.
X has been out of ministry since 2002 when an allegation was made, the diocesan spokesperson said. His church trial has not yet been scheduled. X was one of nine priests whose accusers settled with the Archdiocese for $1.07 million last fall, the diocesan spokesperson said. In the settlement, the archdiocese did not admit guilt on the part of anyone, he said. The diocesan spokesperson would not discuss details of the accusations made against the priests. He also would not reveal their whereabouts.
In August of 2018 the Cardinal who had been the archbishop of the diocese that Fr. Ken belonged to during the late 80s and early 90s was removed from active ministry because of accusations of sexual abuse. He was also accused of moving predator priests from one parish to another parish when there had been a credible accusation.
As reports of this news began to appear, Fr. Ken was publicly accused in an article written by an alleged victim who was in the youth group while I was attending the parish there. It was discovered that Fr. Ken had been returned to ministry and was in residence at a parish that had an elementary school associated with it. When this new public allegation was made, he was removed once again from active ministry. The New Jersey District Attorney has begun a grand jury investigation of the diocese which is ongoing. In many cases, criminal charges will be difficult because of the existing statute of limitations. (a) Just recently, the NJ Catholic Diocese released the list of names of those priests who were credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. Fr. Ken was on the list, accused by multiple victims, and has been permanently removed from ministry. (b)
“While this is a positive first step towards transparency and accountability, I hope this spirit of openness continues during the course of our ongoing investigation and in response to our requests for records and information,” said New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
I felt in my gut it was time to begin to make changes.
My first step was to seriously look for an apartment. My mother’s medical problems improved and, with the assistance of all five of her children within reasonable access, she would be fine in her home. Although I had mentioned to friends and family that I was looking for an apartment, that seemed to fall on deaf ears with no helpful leads coming my way on how to find affordable housing in the area. One of my brothers dismissed it by saying What are you going to do? Sit in an empty apartment with no furniture except for your son holding his boom box? My older brother and his wife, who had both come through their own trauma of divorce, understood my needs a bit more. For a period of time, they became more involved and moved in with our mother to assist with her needs at the time. My sister mentioned the possibility of bringing her to live with them in their home if the need arose. One brother, who lived in town, was close enough to stop by and check on things often.
After finding nothing within an affordable range in town, I found a converted upstairs apartment in a one-family home in the next town over. It had two small bedrooms. I had a ‘fight or flight’ feeling in the decision-making again, so I took it. Just do it!
The students who lived in this other town still went to the same high school located in my hometown so my son would finish out school without a change. It was a slow removal from a bad situation. During his last year of high school, he commuted by bus. Then came his decision that he was ‘out of here’ once he graduated and he moved out of New Jersey back to upstate New York.
Once my son had graduated and moved upstate, I looked around for another apartment that would be more comfortable and affordable. The current apartment was small and uncomfortable. It never really became home for me. My son was itching to get out of the area, and pretty quickly moved upstate to live with his brother. He was closer to his father’s home and could go there off and on too.
The year that we lived in the current apartment there was a major flooding of the area that stranded everyone, restricting them to their homes and many people needed to be rescued. It was a low-lying area that attracted flooding from the nearby river. On top of that, my landlord was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died that year, leaving his wife and daughters with uncertain plans about the future of the house moving forward. It was time, once again, to make a move.
I made a list of what I would like for my own cozy apartment, looking more to the northern area of New Jersey near the New York border. Although not much was coming up that I could afford, I did spot an ad that sparked my interest. It was in a quiet bedroom community near a very quaint town. In my explorations, I found a wonderful county park within a short distance that had a walking trail around a beautiful man-made pond. When I went to see the place, I was greeted by a friendly and welcoming woman who took me on a tour of the basement, mother/daughter apartment. It was lovely, with custom made curtains and wall-to-wall carpeting. The kitchen was modern with an island that separated it from the dining room. If I wanted, I could have a garden in the back yard. It was a bright and cheerful apartment, and the rent was doable for me. So, I signed the year lease with them.
I stayed 11 years at this address. It was a place I could be comfortable and continue my steady path to healing and growing. I had my privacy and was still able to get to my mother’s home and travel to work within 10-20 minutes. I established some personal routines that I knew I needed. One of those routines was to get together with a counselor and talk about what I’d experienced over the past years in a more detailed way. I found that meeting with the counselor for a year was enough to give me the confidence to continue to move forward and trust the decisions I was making. She recommended a book by Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, so that I could explore different ways to strengthen my faith without being totally immersed in the Catholic Church. She also recommended books by Alice Hoffman and I devoured all of her books. The counselor also helped me to see that my voice would be heard better in a wider community than the parish setting of a traditional background within the Catholic Church.
During those eleven years, I visited the County Park as often as I could and walked around the pond, not only to exercise and listen to books-on-tape but also to meditate and calm my anxieties. It was a place to escape to and restore my soul.
© Mary Lou
I explored wider ideas of spirituality and heard about the Omega Institute. The mission of the institute is to provide innovative educational experiences that awaken the best in the human spirit. Omega provides hope and healing for individuals and society. I felt pulled to go there and forced myself to attend some of their day workshops. It was in a beautiful area and once I got there, I felt I was spiritually home. Some aspects of Omega were far beyond what I’d experienced in the Catholic Church. I chose workshops I was comfortable with and that would benefit my spiritual growth at this time of my life. I couldn’t afford the cost of their weekend events so I signed up for day workshops that included lunch. I began to feel myself opening up to a promise of more growth and healing.
I also went to a few singles events with a group and felt hopeful that maybe one day I’d be able to begin another relationship.
My job at the college offered me secure benefits and also free tuition to finish my bachelor’s degree. The small traditional pension was something that settled my commitment to stay with this position as it would guarantee me a steady monthly income along with social security when I retired.
The undergraduate courses I took were very interesting and offered me another means of expression for my questions and curiosity about the church and life in general. The Jesuit education required that we take theology courses and this gave me a better grip on what I was experiencing within the parishes where I was recently involved. I saw the same issues that I had been questioning being explored and debated in a deeper, more thoughtful way. I graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1996 at the age of 54.
Meanwhile, the college I was employed with was struggling like so many other private colleges. There were rumors that the satellite campus where I was Assistant Registrar was going to close and annual raises were put on hold. The staff at the satellite campus was a small one which cultivated a clique that created personality problems. Some of the staff members considered themselves more important than others and would cause trouble and stir up drama. Although it wasn’t the happiest place to be, I stuck with it. Often the top administrative staff would be down at the main campus attending meetings on how to keep the struggling school in the competitive realm and improve the outreach in the community. This would leave the mid-level staff alone on the branch campus where the more controlling and manipulative personalities would attempt to seize full reign. It wasn’t a pleasant environment, but I made a commitment to myself to hang in there until I had the full pension that had been offered. I would also be able to keep my healthcare coverage which at the time had been promised through the school.
It was a tough decision to stay in a position I was unhappy in and I continued to actively look for other positions now that I had my bachelor’s degree. Nothing came up except a position in Wisconsin as an Assistant Registrar for which I had a phone interview and I was offered a flight to come and meet with the Registrar. I weighed everything and came to the decision that I was too old to take that leap so far away from my family and friends. So, I compromised and looked for a condo to buy in an area on the East Coast that would be a good place to retire when I left the college.
The internet was an amazing source for information on buying a home and calculating mortgage payments. There were many articles on the best places to retire that were affordable yet offered quality life for your retirement. The housing market was booming and mortgage interest rates were unbelievably low. People were purchasing condos as investments and refurbishing them only to sell them again for a profit. The fact that I was living in New Jersey kept the brakes on me jumping on the band wagon and impulsively buying a place for my retirement. There was no way I could afford a home there, much less the rent for an apartment, once I retired and was on a fixed income of Social Security plus my small pension. So, I had fun exploring, both through the internet and through small trips to see what interesting areas there were for retirement and what kind of condos there were out there. South Jersey had a few senior communities that had low cost condos to purchase although they were still above the price range I had targeted as affordable for me without sinking every bit of income and savings into my housing.
My mother was approaching 90 years old and that added to my decision to stay in the area to be nearer to her and my four siblings. There were more surgeries and I was there with her at the doctor’s office visits and for surgery. I valued this time with her and learned a lot about how to face the inevitable challenges that come with aging. Mom was very connected to her church for social and spiritual needs. She had never moved from her childhood town and had lived in our homestead for more than sixty years. She felt a real sense of belonging which was something that I didn’t feel with all the moving and resettling in my life. I felt a need to leave behind some of the nostalgia that wasn’t serving me in my present life. Looking forward and planning for the second half of my life gave me a sense of purpose in putting together and creating a life that offered a chance to do some of the things I’d wanted to try.
In 1997, two people that I had admired, John Denver and Princess Diana, died. I was obsessed with everything that I could read and watch about them. I now realize that I was grieving my own losses right along with my sadness of the events of their deaths. John Denver’s music, from the 1970’s on, had touched my soul and seemed to speak to me at times when I needed inspiration. Diana was a woman who transformed the image of the royal family in a human way. She left an amazing legacy to her two sons in a very human and compassionate way.
John Denver ~ On the Road to Experience
The Nineties ended with the downfall of William Jefferson Clinton and his near impeachment because of the scandal with Monica Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton wound up in the end ‘standing by her man’ which I felt was her personal choice.
The Nineties also brought the gift of five of my eight grandchildren. It was a time of traveling by car and plane to meet and be with them. It was so good to see my sons building their lives and moving forward. It was also a time, for me, of more letting go.
Their relationship with their father eventually disintegrated with each one of them coming to their own decision about him and how much they wanted to have him in their lives. One son experienced an upsetting revelation about his father that caused him to totally sever ties with him. His father’s third marriage ended in a disturbing and distressful way. It involved abusive behavior, and Don went missing for a while and was feared to be suicidal. The experience left my son convinced he was better off without him and he’s stuck with that decision. The other sons came to this similar conclusion for their own sets of reasons. Going forward, each of them need to do what they feel is best for them. It has broken my heart that our family has been so disrupted and at the same time it confirmed what I was unable to see until later in my life. This was an extremely unhealthy and toxic relationship that we were all dealing with, and we weren’t to blame. We didn’t deserve the way we were treated.