Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another sneak peek at "When I'm 64"

The book is really rolling along right now, and we even got a couple of wonderful unexpected questionnaires back from Lauren Koskella Farley and Gene Bacon.

We're on track right now for 29 chapters -- an introduction, a conclusion and 27 chapters about people. I've been promised questionnaires from Dale Abrahamson, Barbara Lanzer, Carla Rieker Cloninger and Nancy Abt White that are included in that total, and I still have to touch base with Bill Thomas, Scottie Gibson about his sister Paula and Susan Morales.

Here's another first look at a chapter, about Ellen Baeshore McFarland of varsity basketball and "Eight Dates a Week" fame.

Hope you enjoy it.

"Inside I was a child that could not mend a broken wing; outside I looked for a way to teach my heart to sing."

If there was one thing Ellen Baeshore McFarland really loved in high school, it was playing basketball. She excelled on Woodson’s junior varsity team as a sophomore and was an outstanding player for the varsity as a junior.

But when the 1966-67 girls basketball team won all 12 of its games and was the first unbeaten team in school history, McFarland wasn’t there. It wasn’t that her interests had changed, and it wasn’t an injury or academic problems. It was far worse than any of that.

She had lost her No. 1 fan, and with it her enjoyment of the game.

"Sports were always a part of my life from the time I was very little," she said. "My father encouraged that in me. He would go outside with me and teach me how to play baseball and kickball, and whatever I was involved with, he was always behind me 100 percent. Having a wonderful father who loved me unconditionally set the stage for me having self-respect. Knowing my father loved me deeply made me feel solid in life no matter what transpired."

In fact, when McFarland won the award as the most outstanding player on the junior varsity as a sophomore, Charlie Baeshore was the first person she wanted to share it with.

"When my name was announced, I burst into tears," she said. "It wasn’t only for feeling honored to receive the award, and for feeling totally shocked, but also knowing that my father could share in my glory."

It made a huge difference to her. The security of her father’s love meant she wasn’t constantly looking for something to make up for a lack of love at home. She liked boys and she wanted to be popular, but she didn’t have to cross the lines she didn’t want to cross, the lines that some girls found themselves ignoring.

Her parents attended every game she played, and she could always single out her dad’s voice in the background, cheering her on. She hadn’t really played much basketball before high school, but she found that her physical skills – quickness, agility and aggressiveness – were well suited to the game.

Girls’ basketball was different then. Most players saw action only in half the court, with offensive players at one end and defenders at the other. McFarland and Gail Schultz MacLeod were guards, which meant they played only at the defensive end.

"I was good at stealing the ball," McFarland said. "I used to say I had a 'winning mentality and a winning streak.' I was always a little nervous when the game began, but then I would lose myself in the activity and the challenge. The real high for me on the court was letting go, living up to the challenge and knowing I was pleasing my father by doing my best."

She and her friends were close off the court as well. Eight of them started a sort of informal club they jokingly called "Eight Dates a Week." The Beatles song with a similar name (“Eight Days a Week”) was popular around that time, and Ellen and her friends were spoofing the fact that they weren’t being asked out all that often.

Their lack of dates probably says more about the shyness of teenage boys than anything else. A look at the pictures of the eight girls – McFarland, MacLeod, Whalen, Carol Pallesen, Marguerite Adams, Nancy Haberstroh, Deborah Donlon and Sandra Donlon -- in the Woodson 1967 yearbook would make it obvious to any observer that every one of the eight was at least pretty and at least half of them beautiful.

"Our group was very eclectic," MacLeod recalls. "It was a great and beautiful group of women who were much more comfortable hanging out together than dating. We all dated some, just not as continuously as the popular folks seemed to do."

McFarland herself probably gives part of the reason for it when she describes one of the members, Adams, as a “very pretty, outgoing, feminine girl” who actually did get asked on dates. In high schools then and now, it’s all about confidence. The extroverts who seem to have it all together may not be any better looking or more inwardly secure than the other kids, but their ability to appear so gives them almost the status of demigods.

The others take what they can get, and often what they have winds up being more lasting. More than forty years after high school, McFarland still has close friendships with some of her fellow "Eight Dates" members.

"The best part of being in the group was just our ability to share our hearts and know that we were loved and accepted as we were," she said. "A snotty air never penetrated this group, and even though we didn’t have many dates, we had among ourselves our own connection group. In recent years, whenever Cathy, Gail, Carol and I get together, we still laugh, accept, encourage and enjoy each other.

"We have all taken different directions in our lives, but the one constant is our concern for one another."

Early in her junior year, everything changed for Ellen McFarland. One Sunday morning, her father told her he wanted the family to go to church. That seemed odd to her, since they hadn’t been to church in years. She was in a bad mood that day and told him in no uncertain terms she didn’t want to go.

She went downstairs to listen to music and to dance, and a few minutes later her mother came downstairs and said something was wrong. Ellen ran upstairs and outside the house to see her father hunched over in pain and climbing into the Pallesen family car to go to the hospital.

She knew something was horribly wrong and she tried to bargain with God.

"I told God that if he let my father live, I would go to church every Sunday," she said. "But I knew in my heart he was gone."

Charlie Baeshore was 38 years old when he died of a massive heart attack, and as quickly as all that, everything had changed in his daughter’s life. She was 15, almost 16, and all the joy in everything she had enjoyed so much was gone.

"I was still part of the basketball team, but my desire to win had died with my cheering section," she said. "I lost interest in playing and didn’t want to be part of the team anymore. I don’t even remember if I finished the season my junior year."

A good father-daughter relationship is so crucial to a teenage girl. It has been said that young women tend to marry men who remind them of their fathers, and the approval they get from them has so much to do with the way they transition to adulthood.

For Ellen, the death of her dad – her "greatest fan" – just as she was coming into her own both as a person and as an athlete threw her entire life off track. She still had her female friends, but she shut down emotionally and drifted through her last two years of high school. When MacLeod and the rest of the basketball team reached the ultimate goal of an undefeated season as seniors, she was as far from being a part of it as she could possibly be.

"Playing, competing, winning had all lost their luster for me," she said. "So many things died for me when my father died. I don’t think it was as much about quitting as it was about me not wanting to be part of a bigger picture when the new picture seemed like a shadow of the former one."

MacLeod remembers her friend changing after her father’s death.

"Ellen had been really fun and energetic," she said. "She would dance for hours by herself in the basement of her house. But after her dad died during her junior year, I didn’t see her much. She didn’t continue with the activities like basketball where I saw her most."

McFarland refers to that point in her life and the decade or so that followed as "warming the bench in life," a time when she never really got much of a handle on who she wanted to be and what she wanted to do.

She went to college for one semester and dropped out. She was pregnant and married before her 19th birthday, a marriage she describes as a disaster from the beginning. She says her husband wasn’t loving and she wasn’t always kind. They had a baby, a son, but shortly after that her husband was off to Vietnam and she moved in with her mother.

Her husband wanted her to have her own place, so Ellen and her son Tim moved into a small apartment. She recalls actually enjoying that time, having her baby son to herself and spending a lot of time cooking and baking. She took modeling classes and was encouraged by the instructor to take it further, but confidence – and money issues – kept her from following that advice.

The happiness didn’t last. When her husband returned from the war, they moved with him to Massachusetts. They went north and the marriage went south; she left out of what she calls "sheer frustration," taking her son and returning to Virginia to live with her mother.

She admits now that was a mistake. The two of them weren’t particularly close, and her relatively young mother was more than happy to take charge of raising the son she had never had. Rather than fight her on it, rather than assert herself as a mother, McFarland took advantage of the situation to spend a lot of time going out.

"I was becoming something I didn’t like, but I felt powerless to do anything about it," she said. "I felt so alone and unequipped for the task before me. Having a small child and not being married is not being single, yet not being really married. It was something I hadn’t planned on."

She worked various jobs, mostly secretarial, but none of them gave her the satisfaction of accomplishing anything or working toward a career. She found herself caught in somewhat of a vicious cycle. She wasn’t making good choices in her life, causing more confusion and deeper depression, feelings that only resulted in her making more bad choices.

She kept hoping things would change, but they didn’t. She says she never considered herself attractive, and she hadn’t felt loved since her father died. Her feelings of aimlessness and unworthiness mounted through most of the ‘70s.

She started having a recurring dream, one in which she was standing in the middle of a field and watching airplanes come at her from all directions. Each time she had the dream, she was convinced that when they got close enough, they would hit her and kill her.

The fear started closing in on her in other areas. She was becoming more and more unhappy with her life, but she couldn’t see any solutions to her problem. She said at one point she actually saw a psychiatrist, only to come away feeling bad about the greater understanding she had of herself.

It all came to a head when he was 28. An old friend invited her to come to Reno, Nevada, for a visit. McFarland had the dream again before she left, and she was terrified at the thought of flying. When she got to Reno, the visit quickly turned into something of a disaster.

"She got really angry at me over something I said, and it deepened my sense of fear," McFarland said. "She had always been very compassionate, but this time she unkindly told me I was 'boy crazy,' and she was right. I wanted to leave early, but she talked me into staying."

Over the next few days, she realized that she was coming to loathe herself for the bad choices she had made in life. She felt trapped within herself, someone she didn’t like or even know.

On the flight back, she panicked. She tried to talk to people she didn’t know about her problem, getting nowhere. She finally prayed to "a God I didn’t know anymore if he existed" to help her make it through the rest of the flight.

More than 12 years after her father had died, years in which she had desperately been trying to hold her life together, everything was falling apart. Just as alcoholics or drug addicts often can’t address their problems until they sink as low as they possibly can, McFarland had reached the absolute depths of her despair.

"When I got home to my son, I grabbed him in my arms and burst into tears," she said. "I told him how much I loved him and how sorry I was that I hadn’t been a better mother to him. My mother looked on with total disdain and I knew we had to get out of her home."

That night, she had the dream again. It was a little different this time, though. The many planes that had looked so menacing merged into one plane that landed gently on peaceful farmland.

The very next day, she put her hand on a Bible and prayed. "God, if you exist, help me, because I’m going crazy."

Her situation was anything but uncommon. After the excesses of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s resulted in too many young men and women overindulging in sex, drugs or other aspects of a wild time, the movement toward religion served as a reaction to the counterculture. Whether they were hippies becoming "Jesus freaks" or suburban kids who just found themselves in too deep, it was very natural for them to ask if there wasn’t something more to life than the latest high or the most recent loveless encounter.

Some became "more Catholic than the Pope," as the saying goes. They turned into fundamentalists who in the ‘80s became part of what we now know as the Religious Right. Others just found peace and happiness.

Some found it faster than others. McFarland doesn’t recall that first prayer bringing her any great sense of satisfaction; her moment came two days later when she attended a PTA meeting at her son’s school.

"I sat in the only empty seat beside a very loving, caring woman whose face shone with joy and tranquility," she said. "She actually listened to what I had to say. I remembered my earlier prayer and I asked her if she was a Christian."

She was, and all of a sudden McFarland could literally feel everything falling into place.

"I knew then that God had sent me a human angel," she said. "Shortly thereafter, I was given the gift of inviting God into my heart – to be born again – and I knew that something marvelous had happened."

If this were a movie, we would have reached the climax. All her hurts and pains would have melted away, and she would have spent the last thirty years being happier and happier as she readied herself to climb a stairway to heaven.

Life isn’t like that, though. While she was filled with inner peace and joy at being a "child of the King," and able to push away her sorrow whenever she read the Bible and witnessed to others, McFarland still had problems in her life.

She hated her job, her relationship with her son wasn’t great and she still felt a desperate need for a relationship with someone who would really love her for who she was.

"The one issue that just wouldn’t go away was wanting to be close to someone else," she said. "Years passed and I still had a few bad relationships. I began to realize how codependent I had been and I knew I had to learn to set boundaries in my heart. I longed to be whole and I believed it would eventually happen, but there were still more trials and challenges ahead of me."

One of those challenges was another bad marriage. At age 36, McFarland married a man from her church, even though she had friends warning her that it was a bad idea and that he only wanted to marry her to strengthen his custody case from an earlier marriage.

It turned out to be true. Once her husband’s two children moved in with them, things got ugly. He picked fights with Tim, now 17, and got nasty with Ellen as well. She realized her son would be better off living with his grandmother, which hurt a lot since the two of them had been getting closer as she matured emotionally.

After three years, her second husband said he wanted a divorce.

"I felt instant relief," she said. "I knew the relationship wasn’t working, but being divorced twice really cut deeper. One mistake like that was bad enough, but two seemed inexcusable to me. Whatever self-righteousness I may have felt in my lifetime, that second divorce showed me that even Christians make bad choices for the wrong reasons."

After that, McFarland decided she needed to examine why this kept happening to her. Other people made good choices and wound up in loving relationships, so why couldn’t she? A few years later, after one more long dating relationship that didn’t work out, she figured it out.

"The men I was choosing didn’t really love me, or didn’t know how, and I was trying to make it happen," she said. "Such a simple revelation, but I finally woke up to the reality that love is a give and take, and a gift. I needed to learn that I didn’t have to do all the giving and the hard work, and that it’s not selfish to want to be on the receiving end."

There is a happy ending to the story, although perhaps not the expected one. Forty-plus years after high school, Ellen Baeshore McFarland is at peace with herself. She lives in Clearwater, Fla., and runs her own business cooking and baking, cleaning, caring for the elderly and whatever else she can think of.

Her life isn’t without problems. She is involved in a very unpleasant court battle with her son over her late mother’s estate, and the two of them have no relationship at this point. She says the problems go back to his youth.

"I may not have been the best parent, but I am an honest person," she said. "I have asked him countless times to forgive me and he has refused."

McFarland's finances are also shaky. She lost her main source of income when the economy turned down and she has been scrambling to replace it. She recognizes that she probably will never be either well-off financially or in a position to retire, that she will "probably have to work until I am underground."

"Did I plan my life?" she asked. "Probably not the way I should have, but I didn’t have someone guiding me along during the crucial years. I made wrong choices out of need, confusion and ignorance. I guess I can also throw in stubbornness."

She chooses to see many of her problems as designed to test her faith, to prove to her that the Lord is in control and watching over her and to make her submit to His will.

"It may seem to some people that I am viewing my life through rose-colored glasses, but all this is very real to me," Ellen said. "The problems, while they may be true, don’t steal from my joy or my desire to continue on to finish the course of my life through the power of God.

"I think right now I am being tested more than ever, for I am getting down to the wire, and what I hear from my Lord and Savior is, 'Now you must totally depend on Me, and I’m going to see if your faith is as real as you claim.’"

Faith like that often makes it difficult to live in this world, and McFarland believes her reward will be in heaven. At least, she says, she finally understands who she is and what she has to offer the world. Right choices have replaced wrong ones; joy and tenderness have replaced bitterness and anger.

She dotes on her six grandchildren – three boys and three girls, living with her son’s ex-wife – and just thinking about them brings delight to her heart.

"It was a long, hard road, but I can honestly say that I have a deep sense of who I am and what I have to offer," she said. "For years I felt lost and alone, emotionally confused and depleted. But since becoming a Christian and receiving the gift of eternal life, I now have the strong sense of security I lost when my earthly father died."

She certainly hasn’t forgotten Charlie Baeshore.

He was her greatest fan at a time when life stretched out ahead of her as a marvelous journey with new joys around every bend.

He was the first person to make her feel really special, truly unique.

All that disappeared when he died and it took so many years before his daughter could look at the world in anything resembling the same way.

"I sometimes still cry and get frustrated when things don’t move fast enough," she said. "But in the depths of my heart I know my Heavenly Father loves me and is leading me and cheering me on every step of the way. His Word says He has a plan for my life, but it’s His timing and His way. I eagerly await His unveiling."

He’s her No. 1 fan – now and forever.

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