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New Every Morning: Waking up to My Life

New Every Morning: Waking up to My Life

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New Every Morning: Waking up to My Life

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Feb 14, 2012


In this autobiography, D. Gordon Rohman, a child of the Thirties, brings to life in loving detail the world of the small town in which he grew up. He begins his story when he was age three with a mysterious kairos moment in which he was awakened to himself by his mothers singing. Ever since, he has cherished the intuition that he has been on a sacred journey, touched by God, and renewed every morning as he awakened to ever larger life. Raised a Baptist, his faith journey led him to seek God in the self when he discovered Emerson and Thoreau in college. In his 50s, he was awakened to a breathtaking cosmic vision of God and Christianity by the works of C. S. Lewis.
The author fills his journey with stories of the many families who, he says, made me possible. I built my life on the rock of two families, he writes, the one I was born into and the one my wife Pam and I created in which we raised seven children. But I have been nurtured by many other familiesof my hometown, of ancestors, of in-laws, of comradeship, of vocation, of avocation, and of faith.
My story, the author writes, runs like a two-way street filled with the traffic of active and passive verbsgiving and being given, serving and being served, helping and being helped, teaching and being taught, loving and being loved.
Readers of this heartfelt and insightful autobiography will discover one mans road to Heaven filled with loveof ideas, friends, work, soul mates, stories, families and God.
Feb 14, 2012

Über den Autor

D. Gordon Rohman has been writing about his life for nearly as long as he has been living it. When he was in high school, he wrote and published the history of Whitesboro, N.Y., the village in which he and his father grew up. After college, he worked on newspapers in Utica and Syracuse, N.Y. He wrote a book about a man who promoted professional basketball before World War I. After service in the Korean War, he attended Syracuse University where he got his Ph.D. in 1960. For 36 years he served on the faculty of Michigan State University. He played a variety of roles as professor of English, founding dean of a new college, and assistant to former president Clifton R. Wharton, Jr., to develop lifelong education. His special mark at MSU was as an innovator and program designer. He developed a new approach to composition called Pre-Writing which became part of composition instruction nationwide; he led the development of a new college with an innovative approach to liberal education; he created an annual adult study program called Odyssey to Oxford; he taught the art of serious travel to alumni on excursions to many parts of Europe and Hawaii. Although he retired from MSU in 1994, he continues to be a popular lecturer and teacher of literature and history in MSU's adult Evening College where he has been giving courses for over 40 years. He is the author of a collection of essays, Use Words If Necessary, and editor of a collection of his wife's newspaper columns, Family in Towne, both published by AuthorHouse. Readers of this heartfelt and insightful autobiography will discover one man’s spiritual journey filled with love—of ideas, friends, work, soul mates, stories, families and God.

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New Every Morning - D. Gordon Rohman


Part I

Chapter One


In the darkness…a voice had begun to sing.

—C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

A few years after I was born on April 27, 1928, I was born again for the first time. Until that moment, my story belongs to my parents who brought me into the world and saw me safely through infancy. The story of my second birth is uniquely mine. It is a memory, or maybe a memory of a memory. But it really happened.

It was summer and I was perhaps three years old. I was playing alone in the sand pile outside the kitchen window in the back of my home at 14 Wagner Ave. The sky was very high and very blue, the sun was hot but the sand was cool as I dug my fingers into it. My mother started to sing in the kitchen above me and all the sounds of summer joined in—birds chatted, insects rasped, a breeze whispered across my face, cars ground gears in the street out front, roller skates grated on the sidewalk, a train whistled through the village two miles away, a solitary airplane droned overhead. Then Mother finished her song and all the separate sounds slipped back into seamless anonymity.

"I am perhaps 3 years old, about the age

when my mother sang me to life."

In that moment, I became aware of myself as myself, no longer just part of the world but apart from it too and present to myself. As Aslan had done for Narnia, my mother had sung me to life and I was awakened to begin being Me.¹

Tracking a Clue

How shall we understand our life? Choices range all the way from Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Frederick Buechner’s Sacred Journey.²

There are days when I feel like Macbeth. Who doesn’t? We live in skeptical and dispiriting times. But more often I am persuaded by Buechner. That moment in the sand pile planted the seed of an intuition in me that I was born unfinished and something like a journey had begun to awaken me to who I was yet to be. The forms of my religious understanding have changed over the years but my heart has never wavered in its conviction that I’m running what William Law called one of life’s greatest errands: the awakening of the spirit. In this memoir I tell the story of my lifelong tracking of that intuition. Often it has been a stumbling pilgrim’s progress but I still strive to live, in Thoreau’s great phrase, with an infinite expectation of the dawn.³

I have dwelt in possibility and defined my life in the future tense. In the words of J. B. Priestly, I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

Awakening hides in every sunrise. That’s why every day as I raise my garage door to go out for the morning paper, I greet the new day hopefully with the words of e. e. cummings: I thank you God for most this amazing day…I who have died am alive again today and this is the sun’s birthday, this is the birthday of life and of love and wings, and of the gay great happening illimitably earth.

If on some lucky day my spirit is awakened, I am filled with a delight beyond measure and pavillioned in wonder.

Although age now inexorably drags me down, I’m still open to enchantment, still thirsting for transcendence. I cherish a line in an old Welsh hymn: we press on toward glory and our lives our hopes confess.

Why I Write

I have written this memoir to tell the story of my life from the inside. It’s not the side that my children or my friends have always seen. Unlike my father who talked to me endlessly about his life, I did not talk about mine all that much to my children. Naturally, therefore, they and my friends are more familiar with the public Me, the story that will appear as the resumé in my obituary. Their outside view complements my inside story and perhaps corrects what I cannot see. This memoir will be a way for them to learn more about the man they know as father—where he came from, what he did, and what were the habits of his heart. But whether we look at a life from the inside or the outside, none of us ever gets it quite right. That’s because the real I who lies behind any story we tell is always invisible to us like the photographer behind the camera. We can never get off stage where God sits to watch the play. Only He knows who I really am. And he isn’t telling—yet.

I also write to keep the past alive. If nothing else, my story has the usefulness of a tale of times and places in a past forever gone but, with these words, not entirely forgotten. I didn’t make history, only lived it. My life was filled with people and places I loved and I didn’t want to let them die a second death by forgetting them.

Readers whom I will never know may find things in my life that touch theirs. That’s why all our stories are important not just when they are noteworthy but even when they are not. If we tell them right, others will recognize their story in ours. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all on the same journey. We’re all keenly interested in learning how others did their time.

I want to get on with my story. So instead of a Forword I have written an Afterword in which I reflect further on my life and the writing of this memoir.

Chapter Two

Mother’s Child

One way or another [Eden] is where all of us start out if we have any luck at all.

Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

I awakened from that moment in the sand pile into the marvelous morning of an Edenic childhood. In his poem Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas describes the Eden years of childhood as once below a time to separate them from boyhood which is once upon a time. In childhood, time as something to measure has not yet begun. In my childhood I was granted a generous helping of timeless Edenic now—a time of peace, harmony and profound security.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing to say about my childhood in this day and age is that I had one. I was protected from a too-early expulsion from the garden into the world where children are often hurried today.

I was my mother’s child and my father’s boy. I was warmed into life in my mother’s womb and awakened to myself by her song. Later as a boy I was initiated into manhood by my father’s steady example.

My mother was the center of my childhood. That’s not unusual of course. Most of us are closer to our mothers when we are very young. I had the special status of being the youngest child and given the affection and even the indulgence that is often the privilege of the youngest. But for me it was more than that. I was not only the fruit of my mother’s womb, I was also the apple of her eye, her wonder child. It was always clear that she had great expectations for me.

Mom at Sessions Road.

Early on she was sure that I had gifts and she took it upon herself to lead me in those directions she hoped would develop them: to God (perhaps I would become a minister), to music (perhaps I would make a career with the piano), and to books (perhaps I would be a teacher or even a writer). My mother never spoke directly of these possible futures nor did she push any one on me—ever. But she made each one possible. And in ways that neither of us could have imagined, I have fulfilled each of her expectations. Loving God has remained the habit of my heart and teaching has always been a sort of ministry for me; music has always given wings to my spirit even after I decided not to make it my livelihood; and books of course have defined my life as an intellectual, teacher and writer.

In spite of our closeness, I find it harder to describe my relationship with my mother than with my father that came later in my boyhood. Only as an older boy did I begin to sense the depth of my bond with her because it was only then that I had eyes to see it and words to say it.

Most of anyone’s early childhood is beyond recall. We fill the gap a couple of ways—with Kodak memory (the snapshots that fill our albums), and with stories our families tell us. In my childhood, cameras were rare and we took many fewer pictures than families do now. As a result, my album of those years contains only a handful of fading pictures of my family. Most of my family memories, consequently, have come from the stories that my mother and father told. The problem was that my father talked endlessly about his life. My mother did not.

I have barely an outline of her story. Her father, David Davies, was born in Wales where he learned the trade of a tailor. He came to this country in the 1890s and settled in the Welsh community that had flowered in Utica, New York. There he met and on April 28, 1897, married Mary Emma Jones, the daughter of a Welsh grocer. Probably to find work as a tailor, they moved to the small town of Hamilton, New York, where my mother was born July 15, 1898. They named her Margaret Elizabeth. Subsequently they had a son, Milton, born in 1902. The family moved back to Utica where my mother grew up and graduated from Utica Free Academy. Milton also was educated there and became a commercial artist. Uncle Milt delighted us when he visited because he played the piano by ear as we used to say. He married and had one son, John, my only cousin, born in 1932. Uncle Milt died young in 1937. Of Grandpa Davies I have only a few memories. I recall going with my mother to pick him up at the tailor shop in the State Hospital for the Insane at Marcy, New York, where he worked for a while after he no longer had his own shop in Utica. Mostly I remember him as a diabetic old man who lived with us in the front bedroom upstairs on Wagner Ave. until his care became too much for my mother and she put him in a local nursing home where he died in 1938. I have his tailor’s yardstick and the huge shears that he used to cut bolts of cloth. I like to think he used them when he made my father’s wedding suit.

Sometime before World War I my mother and father met and fell in love. He was a Whitesboro boy, she a Utica girl. Perhaps they met at a dance. When America entered the First World War in 1917, my father enlisted and served in France until the end of the war. He returned home in 1919, the year my mother’s mother died. My father and my mother resumed their interrupted romance. They sometimes spoke of the good times they had courting such as riding the open streetcars from Utica to Summit Park at Oriskany, New York for dancing, boating, and spooning. They were married on May 26, 1920. For a time they lived in a flat on James Street in Utica where my brother Hobart was born on July 21, 1921. They moved to Whitesboro sometime later and it was there that my brother Calvin was born on March 1, 1924, and I was born on April 27, 1928.

My mother and father were a good-looking couple as people used to say. She was six-feet tall, my father perhaps an inch shorter. She towered over most men, not to mention most women of her acquaintance. She was full figured as they say in the fashion magazines, but because she stood tall, she didn’t look heavy. Her dark brown hair framed a broad, intelligent face. She had soft hazel eyes, a firm chin, and a mouth that smiled easily but just as quickly could set itself into firm disapproval. She never pampered me or my brothers.

I don’t really know much about my parents’ early married life. In those days, parents didn’t speak about such things in front of the children. In any event, as a young child I was much more interested in her relationship with me than with her husband. She was, after all, my mother. I don’t remember they kissed much or held hands at least in my presence. Again, such overt expressions of affection were not the style in my day that they became later. They had a traditional marriage built on the model of domesticity honored in the world they grew up in—the father was head of the household, the mother was the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31: She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her…

Mine was certainly a happy home if not always an ideal one. My mother and father certainly disagreed about things from time to time. But they didn’t talk about it in my presence. My father had a German temper which he mostly kept underground. He never yelled at my mother or at his sons although he spanked us for cause. When he got mad at my mother or anyone else, he would go off and simmer in silence. Mostly my parents’ love was expressed by the faithfulness with which they played their roles as mother and father. I remember little things like my mother’s laying out my school clothes as I dressed on frosty winter mornings in front of the warm air coming out of the register in the dining room. My father had been up early stoking the furnace so that there would be warmth coming from the register, performing what the poet Robert Hayden describes as love’s austere and lonely offices… I remember that my mother hugged me often and my father would put me on his shoulders when I ran down the street to meet him coming home from work. Never in all my childhood or later in my life did I ever once doubt that I was loved by my mother and my father. (Pam said the same thing about her parents and her childhood.) It’s a legacy beyond measure.

I think I caught courage as well as love from my mother, not bravado but the quiet acceptance of what had to be done—and then doing it. She never flinched from what was hard or necessary to do or to bear. It was she who, when I was about 8, drove me to the dentist to have five teeth extracted. I was brave because she was. It was she who, when I was 10, drove me to the hospital to have my tonsils out. Again, I was brave because she was. Never once did she betray the least fear or anxiety in words or actions. My hand in hers was all I needed to keep my courage up because I knew she would lead me safely even if it killed her.

I caught something else from my mother, her sense of humor. She grafted some of her funny bone onto me. Although he was usually a good-humored man, my father did not really have a sense of humor. My mother did. She always saw the joke especially if it was on her. A sense of humor requires that you be able to see your real self in the mirror. My mother could do that. My father saw only his ideal self in the mirror. My mother laughed at herself a lot. My father seldom did.

My parents were not exactly two peas in a pod. My mother was very introverted, my father very extroverted. She was shy and never talked to strangers. My father talked to everybody, often to my mother’s embarrassment (and mine because I was shy too). My father loved to be on stage. My mother did not. She saw her life in the traditional roles of wife and mother. If my mother had a rich imaginative life offstage, she buried it in this role. In any event, it would have been very difficult to find space on the small stage of our home for two actors. My mother never got on stage. My father never got off.

Even though she was shy, my mother had a spine. One of the few stories I know about her was one she told that happened early in her married life before I was born. My father was teaching her how to drive their Model T Ford. They had taken the car a couple of miles into the country while he explained to her the mysteries of double clutching and advancing the spark. He became exasperated with her clumsiness and lost his German temper. You’re on your own, he said to her as he threw up his hands, got out the car and walked away. After fumbling with the gears a few times, my mother finally got the car going and drove down the road. As she passed my father, she waved with a triumphant smile on her face and left him to walk the several miles home.

When I was about 7 or 8, I lost my mother one day, an adventure that revealed two things about me at that age: how dumb I was and what a great sense of direction I had. Often my mother would take me with her downtown to Utica for shopping. I always looked forward to those occasions because she would usually buy ice cream sandwiches in Woolworth’s and perhaps another toy soldier to add to my collection. One time in the Five and Ten (as we always called it), we became separated. I don’t know how it happened. I must have looked away or she did and the next thing I knew, I was alone. Of course all I had to do was nothing, just stand still and my mother would have found me quickly. Or else I could have told a clerk I was lost and she would have spread the alarm. But I was too shy to do either of these common-sense things. Instead, after only a few minutes of indecision, I decided to do the dumb thing. I decided to walk home! Remember that home was six miles from where I was standing in downtown Utica. I made the trip even longer because, instead of going straight west on Bleeker Street towards Whitesboro, the way we had come, I first went north on Genesee Street to Oriskany Street where I knew the Telephone Company Garage was and where I thought I might find my father. Why I thought he would be there in the middle of the day is a mystery. He would have been out working somewhere with his gang of men setting telephone poles. Not finding him, I turned west on Oriskany Street, a route that took me through a part of town filled with dark faces where little white boys did not usually wander. I was certainly apprehensive but no less determined to go home. So I trudged on. I got about two miles more to what was known as the Halfway Bridge on Main Street. It once had crossed the Erie Canal and now was the dividing point between Utica and the village of Yorkville just east of Whitesboro. Just by sheer chance, I was spotted by our neighbors from Wagner Ave., the Farleys, who just happened to be driving by and wondered what I was doing alone in that part of town. In the meantime, my mother had called the Utica police. After I was reunited with her, I remember being taken to the police station and warned by a large policeman never to do that again. My mother probably lost ten years off her life that day but I was not whipped as I deserved to be—for stupidity. Perhaps I was scolded, but mostly I was hugged. I think I understood better after that day the prodigal son’s part in the parable. It would be many years more before I understood the rejoicing parent’s part.

I can still recall the moment when I first saw my mother. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. The two of us were walking down Clinton Street in Whitesboro to pick up the trolley to Utica. It was a warm summer day and my mother was wearing a sleeveless dress. As we walked hand in hand, I looked up at her and thought to myself that she was beautiful. That was the first time I can remember ever actually looking at my mother and seeing her—as my mother. I don’t recall where we went that day or what we did or why. But what had started out as an ordinary day blossomed unexpectedly into an extraordinary moment. Like all children, I had taken my mother for granted. She was my mother, an extension of my arm. In that moment I saw her as a person apart from me. That day I gained something and lost something. In the awakening of that moment seeing her as separate from me, I saw myself as separate from her. I lost my childhood which she had birthed. I became a boy.

Chapter Three

My Mother’s Three Gifts

My mother gave me three gifts which enabled me throughout my life to track my intuition that I was on some kind of sacred journey. She led me to God, to music, and to books.


I was born a Baptist and grew up in the church my mother had been born in. So I first saw God dressed as a Baptist minister and speaking King James’s English. There was no question that my mother was the religious head of our family. She led us to church every Sunday, taught me and my brothers our childhood prayers and read Bible stories to us. Although I have long since discarded her Baptist faith, I have always kept the love of God she planted in my heart.

The earliest church I remember going to was the First Baptist Church in Whitesboro. Like a lot of Baptist churches, it was an ugly building, but inside it was warm and friendly with wide aisles that you could run up and down in (when Mother wasn’t looking). Sometime in the early 30s, my mother, with my father’s compliance, changed our membership to Immanuel Baptist Church in south Utica where she had grown up. So Immanuel was the church in which I grew up. It too was an ugly building but it too was warm and friendly inside with great aisles for running in.

We attended church every Sunday and also stayed for Sunday school afterwards. We started our Sundays the night before with the Saturday night bath in our tub (no showers then). Mother had washed and ironed our Sunday clothes because it went without saying that everybody, children as well as adults, dressed up for church. My brothers and I wore knickers until we were about 10 when we graduated to long pants. We also always wore suit coats and ties. Because Immanuel was a ten-mile drive from Wagner Ave., we had to start early Sunday morning to make the 10:30 service.

Then as now, the sermon was the center of Baptist worship. It was rarely shorter than 30 minutes, a long attention span for young boys. When I was very young, mother allowed me to draw on the back of the church bulletin to pass the time. But when I was older, I was expected to sit quietly and listen. Sunday school afterwards went on for another hour.

We usually didn’t get back home until after 1 p.m. Sunday dinner was as special as Sunday clothes. Often my mother put a pot roast in the oven to cook while we were gone. Sunday afternoons we usually read books or when young were read to, and played around the house but rarely in the street or with the neighborhood children. It was, we were reminded, the Sabbath. None of the stores in town were open, and not many even in the big city of Utica either. As usual with Baptist churches there was a Sunday evening service and a Wednesday evening prayer service, but because of the distance, we seldom attended either.

Like Baptists everywhere, we were people of the Book. My religious education was almost entirely biblical. I was expected to read the Bible almost as soon as I could read anything. By the time I graduated from high school, I had read it through from Genesis to Revelation two or three times. It took about a year at the pace of a chapter a day. I memorized the names of the books of the Bible in order and many Bible verses. I learned the Ten Commandments (without much explanation of some sins like adultery). Along with the major Bible stories, I learned some basic theology. For example, that because Adam sinned, we were all paying for it yet. But we dwelt more on a God who forgave us than punished us. We were all expected to earn at least a little of our salvation by good works. (Baptists were not Calvinists.) If we behaved ourselves, we could reasonably expect to get into Heaven. If we did not, we got a black mark in Heaven. Too many of them would take us straight to Hell.

We celebrated only baptism and communion (we never called them sacraments). We had communion once a month using pieces of Wonder bread and Welch’s grape juice passed around on trays that held little glass cups. You couldn’t take communion until you were baptized which I was in Immanuel on December 21, 1941 by the Rev. Frederick Nowland. It was, of course, a total immersion. As in all Baptist churches, the baptistry was a large tank masked by a curtain behind the pulpit. During baptisms, the curtain was opened and one could see the tops of people as they were led into the tank. Mr. Nowland, an avid fisherman, wore his hip boots. Those being baptized wore shirts and pants that would not shrink (mothers hoped). At the end of the service, we all received Bibles—King James version, of course, the language God spoke. I still have mine with the rose that I received at baptism pressed between its pages.

Both my mother and father served on church boards and committees. My brother Cal sang in the choir. There were frequent occasions for the church family to get together other than on Sunday, for example, with many covered dish suppers when each family brought a dish to pass. I always looked forward to sampling the cooking of other mothers. The church held a picnic each summer, usually at Green Lakes State Park near Syracuse. It too was pot luck. After eating, we swam, played softball or played on the swings.

When I was in high school, I played the piano for the Sunday School which always began with a general assembly when we sang hymns before breaking up into classes. Mrs. Arthur was superintendent for many years. Her absolutely favorite hymn was In the Garden which I must have played a thousand times. When I graduated from high school in 1945, the Sunday School gave me a travel kit for my great adventure of leaving home for college. I didn’t know it then, but I was also leaving the Baptists forever. Unlike many refugees from the churches of their childhood, however, I have only happy memories of growing up in Immanuel Church. Like most small Protestant churches then, its congregation was an extended family. Many of these people became second mothers and fathers to me and I loved them dearly.


The story of how my mother led me to music must begin with how we came to own a piano. It was another of my mother’s triumphs in our patriarchal household. My father may have ruled the roost but, as it turned out, not the hens. In those days, fathers typically made the big decisions especially regarding money. Also typically, my father gave my mother money to run the house. And my mother, a traditional housewife, lived happily by those rules. Except when she had other ideas.

As I have said, my mother was a shy woman, not known for acts of rebellion. But as I illustrated with the story about her learning to drive, she had spunk. She illustrated this again when she bought the piano that I grew up with. The story was told to me many years later by my father after my mother had died and long after his German temper had mellowed. One day, before I was born, my mother was shopping in Utica when she happened to see in some store a second-hand piano for sale. As a girl, she had taken piano lessons briefly but had to give them up because there was no money to continue them. She kept the dream that her house would one day have a piano that she and her children could play. So without asking my father’s permission, she bought the piano on the spot. It was a player piano that played music rolls when you pumped the pedals. Apparently she had not told my father what she had done. So when he came home from work one day, there was the piano sitting in the living room. He was (in order) surprised, speechless, angry. There was nothing for it now but for my mother to tell him what she had done. My father was less angry about the piano than with her bold challenge to his headship. His anger then took the form of asking how we were going to pay for it. (I never learned how much that piano cost but $20 for a used upright would have been about right and a lot for our family budget.) But sending back this 500 pound gorilla in the parlor was hardly practicable. And so there it stayed. My father simmered for a while but eventually made his peace with my mother and the piano. As was often the case, she found the money to pay for it in our family’s otherwise no-nonsense food budget.

Now I had an instrument to play on and at first that is exactly what I did. I loved to sit at that piano, pump the pedals and watch the keys move as the rolls made music. Everyone else loved to do this too, not only my brothers but my mother too. I don’t remember my father ever pumping the piano. It wasn’t long, however, before I began to play on the piano as well as to play with it. I started to pick out tunes as kids do—Happy Birthday, Chopsticks. Then I moved up to hymn tunes I had heard in church. That was enough for my mother to see that I had talent and should take lessons.

I was barely 5 years old when she found my first teacher, Mrs. Myers who, with her husband, ran a Music Conservatory in a large Victorian mansion

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