The Shadow of My Parents

 

John M. Hull

in Joan King (ed.)Birmingham, NCEC 1998, pp. 79-91 ISBN 0 7197 0933 4

 

An Australian Childhood Remembered

My father kept a cow, and although he usually did the milking himself, my younger brother Keith and I took it in turns to collect Daisy from the fields where she grazed with other cows during the day: We would bring her up the drive through the avenue of peppercorn trees, between the wooden shed that served as the garage and the wood-heap, round the back, where one of several outhouses was Daisy's home. Sometimes we climbed the peppercorn trees, collecting the small, hard green berries that we used as pea-shooter ammunition. Then Mum would call us for our jobs: tomatoes, celery, green-beet, figs to be brought in from the garden for the evening meal, buckets of wood-chips to be collected for the heater in the bathroom, or kindling for the big stove in the kitchen. My favourite job was the separating. Mum would pour the warm, frothy milk directly from the bucket into the top of the separator, and turn the heavy handle. As it gathered speed, it would start to whine and vibrate. Then from one spout would come the cream, rich and thick, while from a second spout the skimmed milk would pour into a pail. The separator was the most complex piece of machinery I knew about, and it always delighted me to take it apart and wash the dozens of little metal cups that fitted into each other so beautifully.

Sometimes I watched my father cutting the wood, although he made me stay at a distance, in case a flying chip should hit me. The axe sank into the wood with a clear ringing note, and I was always amazed at the precision with which he drove the axe in, first on this side and then on that, while the chips flew from the middle. He used to compete in the axe-man sections at the local agricultural show. He had learned the craft working in the Victorian timber industry before he became a Methodist minister, although his main job was not with the axe, but operating the winch which hauled the fallen trees down the hillside to the sawmill.

As I look back, I realise that our home must have been virtually self-supporting. Of course, I had no idea what he earned; such a thing never occurred to us four children. Many years later, when I got my first teaching job, my father remarked, perhaps a little grimly; that my salary as a first-year teacher was more than he had ever earned in the ministry.

We kept hens, in a yard next to Daisy’s shed. One of my jobs was to collect the eggs from the nests. They were often still warm. With Daisy; of course, we had our milk, butter and cream. Vegetables and fruit came from the garden. My father made soap for the family in trays, and cut it into slabs. He saved on toilet paper by cutting up newspapers into small squares. These were threaded with string and hung on nails in the outside toilet. My mother used to call it ‘the lav’, which was a misnomer since there was no running water in it, but we children knew it simply as the dunney house. It was spooky on clear, silvery nights, running across the backyard in bare feet between the shadows. There was also a mounting anxiety each week as to whether the night soil man would come in time.

My mother did all the cooking, although on Sunday evenings, after his final church service, Dad would make coffee for himself, and settle down over his stamps. Philately was his main hobby: He regularly attended meetings and gave talks at the local society. Mother cooked on a huge wood stove, which contained two fireplaces and seemed to have innumerable compartments. On winter days, clothes were dried on the oven rails and were ironed with flat irons, kept hot on the top of the oven. My mother had a great collection of these irons. Food was kept cool either in the icebox (the iceman came once a week) or in the Coolgardie, a hard metal box that hung by a rope from a tree in the yard. There was a shallow tray on top of the box or safe, which was kept full of water. Towels were hung from this tray, down the sides of the safe, with stones or bits of brick to hold them in place. As the water seeped down the towels and evaporated, the contents of the safe were kept beautifully cool.

Mother, Father and Faith

My mother, Madge, had been a teacher. Having trained at Melbourne Teachers’ College, her first appointment was as the only teacher in a one-room school, in a little saw-milling village called Beenak. The timbered ranges known as Mount Beenak,were the source of the Bunyip River and the Tomahawk Creek, north-east of Melbourne. Here she met Jack Hull, the machine operator for the saw-mill company: He was a militant atheist; she was a convinced Christian. When his company moved him to a new mill in the Otway ranges, in south-west Victoria, she gave him a New Testament and made him promise to read it. He had read parts of the Bible before, but only in order to make lists of contradictions. For the first time he found himself reading the Bible with a sense of curiosity and respect. Many times I heard him tell the story of how week by week, as he read the Gospel of Saint Luke, he was gradually impressed by the beauty of the prose. Almost despite himself, he found himself thinking that nothing so beautiful could be entirely false, and one evening he knelt beside his bunk in the cabin which, as engineer, he had to himself, and offered his life to God through Jesus Christ. Finding out that there was a small bush church six miles away, with a service once every six weeks, he walked there next time there was a service. It turned out to be a little Methodist church. Unable to come six weeks later, and noticing Jack in the congregation, the preacher asked him if he would preach next time. Jack agreed. A year or two later he was reading Theology in Queen’s College in the University of Melbourne, preparing for the Methodist ministry.

My father received Christian faith through the agency of my mother. In 1984, when I was with them both for what turned out to be the last time, I got chatting to her about the origins of her own faith. Although my father had emigrated from Leicester in England during the First World War, my mother was third generation Australian. Her grandparents, named Huttley, emigrated to Victoria from Plymouth in the early 1870s.

Madge was brought up in Stawell, a country town in north-western Victoria, not far from the beautiful Grampian mountains. I have no memories of meeting her parents, who must have died when we were still children. Her father was a garage owner, importing cars from England. They were Congregationalists, and regular churchgoers, but it was not until Madge left home for Melbourne, to study at the Teachers’ College, that she encountered a more lively Christian faith. She lodged with the Treloar family: Mildred Treloar was a fellow student, a friend and an enthusiastic Christian. It was through this friendship that Madge made a personal appropriation of faith. Mildred Treloar had, in turn, received faith from her father. As my mother was telling me this more than sixty years later, she gave a sudden start and exclaimed, ‘Well, I never! I've just remembered old Mr Treloar was blind.’ Mr Treloar was a Baptist lay preacher and mother told me how much she was impressed by the radiance of his face as, reading the New Testament in Braille from the pulpit, he spoke about the glories of the life of the world to come.

Passing on the Faith: a Mystery

So now the circle was complete. A blind Baptist preacher from Melbourne in the mid- or early 1920s had passed on Christian faith to his daughter, who had shown her friend from the country how to read the Bible in faith. The friend had fallen in love with the engineer in the saw-mill town where she had her first appointment, and had succeeded in passing on her Christian faith to him, although not until they had temporarily parted. That atheistic, winch-driving, axe man became the Methodist minister whose second child was me.(1) The mystery of the passing on of faith remains, however, impenetrable. There were four of us children. Alison was the firstborn, just over two years before me, and my younger brother Keith followed a little more than eighteen months after me. Our youngest sister, Jan, was born seven years after me. All four us have in various ways contributed to society: Alison became a primary school teacher like her mother and, in the later stages of her career, a school librarian. Keith left home at an early age, became a sheep-shearer and then entered the Victorian police force. Jan became chief sales manager for an educational film company but, for all this, I was the only member of the family who retained an active commitment to the Church.

Teenage Religion

No doubt our parents did their best to pass on the Christian faith to us all. When I was thirteen, my father was posted to Eaglehawk Circuit in the old gold-mining area of Bendigo. There were three main Methodist churches, each of which maintained a full programme of activities, and there were two or three smaller churches. Alison was now at boarding school in Melbourne and Jan was a young child. By the age of fourteen, my own lifestyle was clear enough. Sunday began with a meeting of the young people's Christian Endeavour Society at the East Methodist Church. Here we were taught to lead meetings, prepare talks under headings, and to organise and to present Bible study; We had a youth preaching team, and I was a regular member of it. At 11 a.m. the Sunday morning service began, with my mother playing the organ. She taught me to play and I spent many an hour pumping away at the pedals, while going through the hymnbook. Lunch followed with Sunday School at 3 p.m. The minister's family had to spread its attention around the churches, so Keith and I went to the West Eaglehawk Methodist Church. Soon I was teaching a class of younger children, and I suppose this marked the beginning of my work as a teacher. I was already learning how to make models of a Roman soldier's armour to illustrate the sixth chapter of Ephesians, and collecting items around the house and the garden to illustrate the parables. Sunday School anniversaries were hugely exciting with weeks of rehearsal, a small orchestra with at least one trumpet and a tiered platform or stage, erected in great excitement a couple of weeks before anniversary Sunday. Five o’clock saw us back at the East, with the youth tea and a visiting speaker. The evening service was either at the East, or the third main church, California Gulley. This was an enormous auditorium with a brilliantly painted ceiling depicting a blue sky with stars. I remember it well. The evening service would be followed by a hymn-sing, either at one of the churches or back home at the parsonage. Mother would serve tea and cakes, and the competition to get your favourite hymn selected was intense. This was, perhaps, the time of day when I felt closest to my father. He was more relaxed and loved to hear the young people sing. He also seemed more human, eating a big slice of cream cake, than he seemed in the pulpit.

Father and Son

In spite of all this I was never really close to him. I think he may have been the sort of man who found intimacy difficult, and relationships were more formal between parents and their children in those days. Only once can I remember going into my parents’ bedroom, at my mother’s instruction, to borrow one of my father’s handkerchiefs. I can still remember opening the door and seeing his clerical collars neatly stacked at one end of the drawer and an incredibly large pile of beautifully pressed white handkerchiefs at the other. Saturday evening was the time of greatest distance and reverence. There was a double door fitted to his study, and on Saturday evening we children would creep past, knowing that on the other side of that mysterious green felt door, my father was meditating on the sermons he was to preach tomorrow.

The greatest mystery was that study. I had always been aware of a sepia photograph of Leicester, father’s home town in England, taken at, about the turn of the century; which hung above the fireplace. I was always fascinated to stare into that city scene, which showed trams or trolley buses in the streets and buildings three or four storeys high. On the mantlepiece, next to this, was a bust of John Wesley. In the centre, between the scene of Leicester and his framed degree certificate, was a reproduction of the painting of St Veronica’s handkerchief, which was used to wipe the brow of Christ as he carried his cross up Calvary. Legend says that the handkerchief carried the imprint of his face, and the artist painted the face deadly pale, with eyes that followed you around the room in an uncanny way.

My father almost never talked to me. In reply to a question, he would usually only grunt or raise his eyebrows, then a couple of days later he would give me a book, an article or a newspaper cutting about my question. By the age of fourteen I was exploring his shelves for biblical commentaries, since I had recently experienced a religious awakening which had internalised Christian faith for me in the most vivid manner. My first attempt at serious theological study took place at this time, reading various commentaries, from my father’s shelves, on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I.also came across B B Warfield, Harry Rimmer and other conservative evangelicals, together with Leslie Weatherhead and Karl Barth. I can vividly remember some of my father’s sermons, but I can never remember a single occasion when we discussed them together.

Mother and Son

With my mother, it was different. She and I developed a close relationship. If I were to enquire more closely into the question why it was that I alone internalised the faith of my parents, the answer would lie in the closeness I had with my mother. The reason for that intimacy lay in my continual sickness. Within a couple of weeks of birth, so she told me later, my skin broke out with inflamed and weeping sores. My childhood was a physical misery: Bandages and ointment were my daily companions and every night was a torment of scratching. They tried everything: faith healers, diet, hospital. As a small child, I spent many months pulling myself around the house on a tricycle, unable to walk since I could not straighten my legs without pain. For some time, I went to school with my face painted in blue lotion, but I do not remember my friends at school taking much notice. In better periods, I would play cricket with two or three friends, but often sport activities were difficult. Reading, the radio and conversation with my mother were my daily occupations. When temporary blindness came along, and the threat of permanent blindness a little later, the. intimacy deepened. (2)

Could this be the reason why I experienced this home and family so differently? For the other three, Alison, Keith and Jan, the home was a place where affection was mixed with rigidity, and support was tempered by oppression. Each of them felt, in their different ways, that our parents had valued the standing and reputation of the manse above their own individual worth. They felt that if they did not meet the parental expectations, they would be sacrificed to a fundamentalist correctness, which could never be challenged.

To England

I suppose that I also had to escape. Someone has said that homes must be good enough to nurture normal people and bad enough to make us leave them. That was true of our family: At the age of twenty-four I left Australia and set out for England to study Theology at Cambridge. I did not see my parents again for thirteen years and only three more times after that.

The strange destiny, or perhaps it was the accidental patterning which is the finger of God, which was foreshadowed in old Mr. Treloar, and which had rumbled threateningly around my life since the age of thirteen, was finally fulfilled in 1980 when I became a registered blind person. I had remarried only the previous year, when I was forty-four and Marilyn was twenty-seven. Her mother was Catholic but not regularly practising, and her father was a sincere Anglican with a Jehovah’s Witness background. This sometimes came out in a certain apocalyptic gloom that overcame him after a few glasses of whiskey: She was their only child and the apple of their eye.

Within less than a year of the wedding, I had become a registered blind person and Thomas had been born. Imogen, my daughter from the former marriage, was eight years old at the time. Eighteen months later Elizabeth was added, and by that time I had the merest flicker of light sensation. By the time Gabriel was born in 1985 that flicker had long since disappeared and I had entered total blindness. Joshua, the last of the younger generation, was born in 1988.

Boy and Man

The experience of the family life into which I was born and the family I fathered : have naturally been as different as a country life in Victoria in the 1940s from life in Birmingham in the 1980s and 1990s. They have been as great as the difference between being a sighted child and a blind parent, and between the rather restricted intensity of Protestant fundamentalism and the complexity of inter-faith existence in a pluralist city. On one of my rare trips back to Eaglehawk I was surprised to find that directly opposite the East Methodist Church, now a school library, was an Anglican church. The Methodist parsonage was next door, but I could not remember ever having noticed it. I seem to remember that, now and then, we children made a short cut through the grounds of the Anglican church to our backyard, but I am certain that we never went inside the church. Such thoughts : did not enter our heads. We were Methodists.

As I stood on the forecourt outside the former Methodist church, looking back over I the busy road with the Anglican church on the other side, a remarkably vivid triple rainbow lit up the sky like a bridge joining the roofs of the two churches. There was a central arch, and on either side a fainter arch. It is the one and only time that I have seen a triple rainbow. As I gazed at it, astonished, I felt the challenge coming to me from the fourteen-year-old boy who had played the organ and been in the Christian Endeavour Society nearly thirty years earlier. What had happened to the hopes and ideals that that boy cherished? Could he forgive me? Then I thought, ‘Bother him!’ (‘Bother’ was the second strongest expletive in my father’s vocabulary of profanation.) The question was rather whether I could forgive that boy. I thought of the narrow sympathies, the semi-fanatical religious life, the sexual oppression and the mental intensity of that boy, and of all that his diseases had inflicted upon me. I wondered if I could forgive him. Then it seemed to me that the rainbow was bridging not only the two churches but also the two halves of my life, 'my life as a boy and my life as a man, my life in Australia and my life in England. Perhaps a mutual acceptance was called for.

My Sighted and My Blind Life

Of course, that was in my sighted life. Now I have two more lives to integrate my sighted and my blind life. To some extent, Marilyn holds the key, because she is the present, and contrary to some schools of psychology, I believe that the key lies in the present, not in the past. Marilyn belongs to my blindness. She is the context within which I learned how to be blind, which means not how to go blind but how to live as a blind person. The potential alienation of blindness, with its threat of isolation and its acute introspection, was overcome, at least partly, through re-imaging the darkness itself. We speak of fears as shadowy, and it is characteristic of the shadows to present all sorts of hidden threats. Darkness, however, I is the place of intimacy, and it is in the intimacy of human relationships that the limits of both blindness and sight are overcome. This does not mean that blindness has enriched our marriage; if it has, it is an enrichment that we could have certainly done without. It has been a burden, a nuisance and a bore. The consequences have been as great for Marilyn as they have been for me. I do not know whether in my presence she no longer feels sighted, for I have never asked her. She did once remark that she was always aware of looking at me except when we were deep in conversation. Then, she said, she is aware of the conversation. Perhaps there is some sort of analogy. When I am with her, I do not feel blind, unless she is struggling with the suitcases, and the children are not being helpful. Then I feel really disabled. Generally; however, in her presence I am not blind, and I think I have a glimmer of a thought that in my presence she is not sighted. In a way she has taken blindness upon herself through me and I have re-experienced the sighted world through her.

 

Awareness of Parental Influence

My mother died on 30 March 1987 at the age of eighty-two and my father on 22 February 1990 aged ninety-one. My awareness of their influence upon me seems to have passed through three phases during my adult life. My first understanding of what they have given me came through realising its limits. At first, in childhood, it. was like being a mouse on a table. One did not know that there were limits. One did not know what was on the table. The awareness of limits came first subjectively and then objectively. By subjectively; I mean that I gradually became aware of the limits of the theology and the spirituality into which I had been inducted. As far as I can tell or remember, my father did not see it as part of his responsibility to nurture my mind into critical awareness. Whether this was because his own mind had never been critically awakened, or whether it was just that he did not know how to talk to me about such things, I do not know. That he was an educated, scholarly person, there is no doubt. One of his interests was in making his own English translation of the Greek New Testament. He loved to lecture on the Pauline letters, especially Romans and Ephesians. Occasionally; as a young adult, I attended his classes, and was impressed by the way he gave careful attention to every word in the text, every expression had its nuance explored.

Nevertheless, he never discussed theology with me, or perhaps I never gave him a chance. During the years of adolescence, when I was reading commentaries from his shelves, I do not remember that he ever asked me what I thought of them.

By the time I was nineteen or twenty, my theological explorations had become more or less independent, I suppose. I was reading the books that were regarded as authoritative in the Christian circles in which I moved. These included the Evangelical Union of Students in the University of Melbourne. I was elected to the committee and became prayer secretary. The commentary of Martin Luther on Romans, Calvin's Institutes, Charles Finney’s lectures on revival, the sermons of Dwight L Moody and the autobiographies of such missionary heroes as Wilfred Grenfell of Labrador, Henry Martyn, Hudson Taylor and David Brainerd were my companions. A couple of years earlier, while preparing for the local preachers’ examinations set by the Methodist Church, I read the essential sermons of John Wesley. An old local preacher gave me a grant to purchase books. I went to the Epworth Book Room in the city centre and bought the entire collected works of Wesley. I never read them all, but it was great to have them. There were two or three of us preparing for the examination and my father was tutor to the class that met in the vestry of the church. I appreciated his teaching, and discovered to my interest that I the various Gospels presented different points of view upon the life and teaching of Jesus, but the deeper significance of this did not occur to me, and my father and I t never discussed these matters at home. There was, in a sense, nothing personal about it at all, in contrast with Mother who loved to sit up with me over the open fire chatting and drinking coffee.

Mother was influenced by the dispensational theology of J. N. Darby; and the Schofield Reference Bible. I am not sure if my mother realised that this was a particular type of Christian theology with its own history. As far as she and I were concerned, it was just the gospel. My experiences as an undergraduate taught me that there were controversial areas. There were Armenians and Calvinists, and this was a legitimate choice, a kind of approved controversy: There were also disagreements between conservative evangelicals and those whom we described as modernists or liberals. This was not an acceptable controversy. Instead of being a disagreement between us, it was a disagreement between ‘us and them’.

A Wider Outlook

The first sign of a wider outlook carne through the study of the book of Daniel, during my undergraduate years. A friend invited me to use his theological library, and I discovered biblical criticism. The library was mainly of conservative works but I soon discovered that the arguments for the original authorship of the book of Daniel were unsatisfactory: I ventured to confess my doubts at an interstate Christian Union conference, to an evangelical leader. He agreed that it was a bit of a problem, but he did not offer any further comment. Five or six years later in September 1 959 when I arrived at Cambridge to study theology, I had already stored up a large number of such questions, all awaiting resolution.

An equally profound impact was made upon me when I took up my first teaching post, by the discovery that men who were not Christians could nevertheless be excellent teachers, good companions, and people of compassion and sense. This discovery disconcerted me, since I had never really made friends before with non-Christians, as we call them.

These reflections came to a head at Cambridge. Once again, it was during the study of the Greek text of Romans that my confusion and frustration boiled over. ‘What is it you don’t understand?’ asked my tutor, Jack Newport. ‘Is it the text or is it the experience?’ When I confessed that it was both, he remarked that I had been brought up to understand only one kind of Christian experience, only one outlook upon the Christian life. The day would come when I would understand that there were many experiences and many outlooks. During those years the voice that kept me within the Christian faith was that of Paul Tillich. Somebody gave me a copy of his collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations. Although I had given up the practice of private prayer, every evening I read one of Tillich's sermons. Here I discovered a grace that was greater than my fears, and a wide-ranging critical mind that anticipated my doubts. Tillich was the first of many masters of the spiritual life who have since then led me on. They include not only Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth and Charles Hartshorne, but also Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Ernst Bloch.

A Different Kind of Christian Experience

Although I had now entered into a very different kind of Christian experience, I was still related antithetically to the faith of my parents. Although I could lecture, I was almost unable to preach, because I found it impossible to escape the language of my own childhood and adolescent faith. Somehow, under the conditions of proclamation, that language came rushing back. Although I had realised the limits of that faith, I had not been able to transcend it by synthesising it. I saw my parents for the last time in 1984. By that time I was completely blind. Getting to know them all over again as a blind person knows a sighted person was not easy. There was no alternative to speech. My father, who had never been a great conversationalist, found himself baffled, and we failed to make real contact with each other. It then occurred to me that my lifelong love affair with God was an expression of my lifelong effort, interrupted geographically by my life on the other side of the world, to get to know my father. Then I understood why the organ music of Olivier Messiaen appealed to me so strongly: The music spoke of some vast Being going about its strange work in the galaxies, in whose scheme of things I was but a tiny fragment. I was privileged, like a church mouse, to creep in under a pew and listen to it from a distance. It did not care whether I heard it or not. It had its own business. In some such mood, as a child, I had tiptoed past the double door of my . father's study on Saturday night. In the same year, 1984, I had a remarkable experience in the Old Cathedral in Montreal. Through the majestic organ music that filled the place, I sensed that God had approached me, and flung over me a cloak of darkness. However, instead of speeding away on his mysterious inter-galactic business, he had hesitated. In that slight hesitation, I sensed the ineffable grace of One whose love had never failed, in spite of the mysterious pain with which it was sometimes associated. God hesitated. God waited for me to say, 'Go on. I'm all right. Off you go.’

Once, during my period of cataract blindness, when I was perhaps thirteen, I happened to ask a question about the church we had been in. My father said, in a bewildered voice, ‘But couldn’t you see for yourself?’ Muttering with embarrassment, unable to explain to him, I managed to stammer, ‘But, Dad, I...’ He moved towards me instantly and put his arms around me, ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I forgot.’ It was the only time he ever embraced me.

In the Shadow of My Parents

Since their death, I feel a kind of peace about all this. They were strong people, who never deviated. My mother, in particular, was a person of Iron will.

Through bush fires and floods, through the demands of a busy professional life, with four children, one of them chronically ill, she never faltered in her energy or her faith. Their words and their faith come back to me today with renewed power. I can still hear my father preaching about the cross of Christ. His favourite text was, ‘And sitting down, they watched him there,’ Matthew 27.36. He had, through his own personal experience, grasped the wonder of God’s unspeakable grace. He had been touched by it, whether through the love of my mother, or through the evangelical Christian theology in which that love was somehow expressed, and he caught it in the pages of the New Testament. That vision had changed his life, as it has changed mine.

Now I find that I can preach again. Well, I am not saying that I am a good preacher, but at least the shadow of my parents no longer bothers me. I can sense that the language of faith is still charged with parental processing, yet it is mine. I have also filled it, from my side, with the problems of my people, with a new meaning that is at least as old as the meaning it had for my parents. When I stand to sing in church beside one or more of my own children I feel a sense of pride. Yes, Mother, Father, I have brought this child here for you to bless.

‘Jesus confirm my heart’s desire

To work, and speak, and think of thee;

Still let me guard the holy fire,

And still stir up thy gift in me.'

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