Memoir chapter: pre-me

My father’s–Ernest Bruce Bendelow’s–mother and father both came from Scotland to the United States in the 1880s and 90s. 

My father’s mother, Mary (Mae) Loudon Gibson (1896-1977), and her family came from East Ayrshire, a region south of Glasgow, Scotland. Their town of Dalmellington lies in the Valley of the River Doon, and the famous Broadway musical Brigadoon took its name from a bridge over it.

The photo above is from a high point in the village, which my sister Sarah and I visited in 2019. It is a lovely region of the world.

The Gibsons, according to records, were rural “builders”–general contractors who constructed cottages, barns, and houses. Below is a photo of the Gibsons of Dalmellington.

Andrew Gibson (for whom I am named), my grandmother Mae’s grandfather, is seated at far left. Her father, Andrew’s son John, worked in Chicago during the first two decades of the 20th century as a stone mason. According to Mae’s sister, Jean (VanNatta), he worked on some great buildings, including the Tribune Tower at Michigan Avenue and the river. She remembered him leaving early in the morning and taking the streetcar and get to various jobs in the city.

I would like to think that I inherited some of the constructive impulse of these Gibson family builders, who in my eyes all look like they want to do something constructive in the photo. Like them, I have been able to devote long hours of tedious exertion in pursuit of constructive goals like building a successful cleaning business and becoming a highly-proficient high school teacher.

On my father’s side, is another grandfather named John. John Bendelow ran a pie shop in Aberdeen, Scotland in the 1880s. The first of his sons who emigrated, the first American on my father’s lineage, was my great-grandfather, Thomas, the famous golf architect (and so-called “Johnny Appleseed of Golf”). He arrived in New York in 1892 and began work as a type-setter for a newspaper before giving golf lessons, and then branched off into designing golf courses.

My father grew up in a house on Franklin Avenue in River Forest, Illinois, and he was raised in its public schools and later at Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School, where he graduated in 1949. His mother and father’s family, and thus his and subsequently our family, were devout members of the Plymouth Brethren (PB) sect of Christianity. 

This particular group of Christian protestants took a de-institutionalized, almost democratic approach to faith from their beginning in 1820s Dublin. The original brothers (“brethren”) met outside the official church, in private homes. They defied the authority of the Anglican church to prescribe what the Bible meant, and trusted instead on their own interpretations of holy scripture (sola scriptura). 

Perhaps because of their entrepreneurial, individualist ethos, the PB were very successful in advancing their version of protestantism in the US. Their doctrine of dispensationalism became one of the core beliefs of 20th century fundamentalist protestantism. (A previous post has an overview of dispensationalism’s influence, in case you’re interested).

But while the PB ordain no clergy, they still offer a distinctive formation for young Christians at Emmaus Bible College. When I was 17 and 18, I was encouraged by members of our church

to defer a normal college degree and go instead for a Bible degree at Emmaus, which was conveniently located near to where both my father and I grew up, on Oak Park Avenue, just north of Lake Street.   

One of the reasons I sought to escape the US via an exchange-student program at this time may have been to avoid the pressure I was feeling to make this difficult choice, difficult because I was attending my PB assembly every week, and seemed a likely prospect for Emmaus degree, except, as I’ve related elsewhere, I was secretly no longer a believer in the sect’s core tenets.

My mother’s family in America goes back to the south on her father’s side, Virginia, specifically, to the 1700s. It includes English, Irish, and French Huguenot roots. Among his ancestors was the so-called “Father of Modern Oceanography and Naval MeteorologyMatthew Fontaine Maury, for whom my sister Sarah Fontaine was named.

Unfortunately, on my mother’s mother Mildred’s side, not much is known. She must have had German lineage, since her maiden name was “Adelman.” All that we know for sure is that Mildred’s family were itinerant farmers who had been in southern Illinois at one time, and ended up in Oklahoma, where she settled after a failed first and childless marriage. It was in the southwest that she met Rufus A. Colgin, who worked for the oil industry and was also a divorced person.

He had had one child with his first wife, Hazel. This step-sister of my mother’s became my sister Shiela’s and my dear Aunt Doris, who lived long past my mother’s death and was especially close with my sister Sheila.

Rufus’ childhood showed him to be an entrepreneurial journalist (he wrote, edited, published, and distributed local news in his little town). This entrepreneur streak of his, along with an affinity for learning other languages and being a positive, soft-spoken leader have, I aver, been gratefully passed down to me.

Sometimes I dream that Rufus and I are hanging out in a nebulous environment. He smiles at me as he did in life, and I feel loved and empowered by this kind man with a twinkle in his eyes, my mother’s father.

Both sets of my grandparents were devout evangelical Christians, and they each sent their progeny to the same school located a scant 20 miles from my father’s parents, Wheaton College (established in 1860). The “Home of the Crusaders” must have been perceived as a safe place in 1949, a place evangelical parents could safeguard their kids from a sinful world, while still getting them a bachelor’s degree. Evangelist Billy Graham, minister to American presidents, was Wheaton College, class of 1943, a mere seven years before my parents met there in 1950.

Before long, alas, my mother, a political science major one year younger than my father, was asked to leave for allegedly breaking curfew and smoking, serious violations at Wheaton College. My father decided to drop out with the young woman he’d settled on–Patty Sue Colgin–, ready to propose marriage and follow her back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, her hometown.

He was drafted into the United States Marine Corps prior to their marriage (1950), and they were wed while he finished his basic training. While in Korea, my oldest sister, Susan Diane was born in 1952.

When he emerged from the service in 1952-53, my father earned a degree (in marketing) from the University of Tulsa worked for some time as a salesman before joining his father in his advertising art studio in the loop. His office was on Wabash Ave near Wacker Drive.

By the time I was born, my parents had started a home in Maywood, Illinois, then moved to north Oak Park, Illinois, and established what might have appeared as a potentially happy American home in 1961.

Our home on north Elmwood, photographed in 2019, the scene of my emergence into this world.

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