Author Mary Ellen Stepanich, with tongue firmly in cheek, answers the question, “How do you turn a normal, happy-go-lucky, poor, small-town girl of the Midwest into a push-me-pull-me, multi-married, mass-of-inner-conflicts schizophrenic?”
In her memoir, she shares the personal (and mostly true) story of her family’s dysfunction. The eldest daughter of the family, she started out as an average, happy, and innocent little girl. Her voice was soon crushed, however, by disastrous value programming—the tacit and implicit lessons taught by parents, teachers, peers, relatives, and even the geographical and cultural environment. These learned values can become immutable unless the person receiving them can finally recognize that these behaviors do not benefit their lives—and then boldly choose to ignore them.
All Mary Ellen has wanted out of life was someone to listen to her, and now her voice is finally heard. Her tale, one of systematic abuse and silence, is told with refreshing honesty and humor. She was one of a generation born on the cusp between the Great Depression and the New Deal, and as a result she was programmed to become anything but the confident, assertive adult she has fought to create. In her story, there is hope.
Prologue—Looks Like We Made It
Success is a journey, not a destination. Ben Sweetland
“Mom! Guess what? I can’t believe it. You’ll never guess what just happened!” I suppose the excited edge to my message was dulled somewhat by the thousand-mile trip over the telephone lines from Arizona to Indiana. My mother’s reply sounded rather matter of fact. “Well, what happened?” “Kenny Oldham just called me. Remember Kenny? One of my classmates, Heddy, married his younger brother …” Mom cut me off with her usual family tree gossip whenever anybody from my rural Fort Branch hometown was mentioned, whether I knew him or not (or even cared.) “Oh, yes! Wasn’t it awful? Roy died way too young. I don’t know why Heddy got married again. You know, there was a lot of talk going around town about her second husband … what was his name? You know the story, don’t you? He took some of that new male hormone medicine … is it Niagara? And he got caught trying to seduce this young girl. I think she was the babysitter. Anyway, he got sent to prison as a sex offender! I just felt so sorry for Heddy. You know, she was so ashamed of what that man did, she took back Roy’s last name after the divorce …” It was my turn to cut off the flow of gossip. “Mom! Listen, will you? Kenny asked me to be the guest speaker at the next Fort Branch High School Alumni Banquet! Me! The class nerd! Can you believe it—after all these years? I’m just … flabbergasted!” Here I was sixty-four years old, with a bachelor’s degree, an MBA, and a doctorate, and I was as excited as I was the first day of grade school. Unfortunately, when I get excited, everything I ever learned in my twenty-plus years of schooling leaves me, and I resort to the language of my youth, growing up in the backwaters of Gibson County, Indiana. “Well, that’s fine.” As usual, my mother didn’t waste needless time on useless praise or congratulations. With her laser-like skill, she got right to the heart of the problem. “What are you going to talk about?” I was too thrilled to let Mom’s lack of enthusiasm get to me this time. “Kenny said they wanted me to talk about Academic Excellence. The Alumni Association is pushing a program to get contributions for college scholarships, and they wanted someone who had—and I quote—‘a history of achievement in academe.’ I just can’t get over it! They want me!” Actually, when Kenny called and asked me to be the guest speaker, I couldn’t help but ask him why I was chosen. “We wanted somebody with a Ph.D., preferably a woman.” He confided in me that the male speaker from the previous reunion, who also had a doctorate, was a trifle boring. I guess my reputation had preceded me. * * * * *
The second week in June arrived before I was totally prepared for it. While I was booking the airline ticket for my trip home, as the reservation clerk completed the paperwork I suddenly thought to ask, “Does the airline offer a senior citizen discount?” “Yes, we do,” she responded. “How old do you have to be to get the discount?” “Sixty or over.” “Great! Then I qualify – I’m sixty-four.” She confirmed the flight schedule and fare, and then asked, “May I reserve a rental car for you when you arrive in Evansville?” “No, thanks, my parents are picking me up at the airport.” I heard a moment of silence, and then a choked laugh. “You are sixty-four years old and you still have living parents who drive and can pick you up?” “I’m luckier than most, I guess.” Like so many who retire to a new and different location, my parents had moved to Cherokee Village in 1978 when Daddy retired at age sixty-two. But they soon felt the tug of family and home, and wanted to return to the place of their birth as well as the birthplace of their children. In 1982 they concluded that retirement in Arkansas hadn’t worked for them, mainly because most of their new friends were dying of old age. They returned to Lafayette, Indiana, where both their children were professors at Purdue, then moved back to our hometown of Fort Branch in the early 1990s. What pleased them even more than coming home was the fact they could now afford to buy the Romerhausen place, a ranch-style home built of Bedford Limestone, just around the corner from uptown. Mr. Romerhausen had been a successful life insurance agent. I believe I still have a policy he sold my mother for twenty-five cents a week. Mom would say with pride, “I always dreamed of living in a stone home.” I should explain that uptown Fort Branch was two blocks of family-owned shops with western-style false fronts that looked like they might have been transported from 1880 frontier days. Many of the storefronts were made of hammered tin, which was probably worth more than the entire stock of merchandise in the stores. When my younger brother arrived at our parent’s house to attend the reunion (Bill was also a graduate of Fort Branch High School), my mother told my professor sibling that I had been asked to speak at the reunion. He said, “Oh? Why?” (Brothers! Why couldn’t I have been an only child?) Perhaps the reunion committee may have expected something a bit more esoteric in my presentation. Nevertheless, I related all my experiences with the Fort Branch public school system in my humorous speech entitled, “Academic Excellence: Who Needs It?” However, I concluded with the tales of my ultimate success in higher education and answered that question, “We all do!”
* * * * *
While I was gathering memories of my early value programming to relate in this memoir, I began to realize it was some sort of miracle that I was now relatively happy and content with my life. From the day of my birth (which I always claimed to remember) to the present peak of success, there have been struggles—struggles to be accepted by peers; to be heard and heeded by parents, teachers and relatives; and to be appreciated for the person I was, deep inside, by a multitude of husbands and lovers. With a little bit of mental mining of memories, I was forced to come face-to-face with the cause of my life-long struggles for normalcy. I had been programmed, not for success, but for failure.
Dr. Mary Ellen Stepanich, a retired professor from Purdue and Western International Universities, has published articles in academic journals, show scripts for her barbershop quartets, and “Voices from the Front,” a radio play that was honored as the 2010 Program of the Year from the International Association of Audio Information Services. She currently lives in Arizona.
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