Emily Thornton is graceful, intelligent, and funny. She has the remarkable ability of being both unimposing and engaging at the same time, and is skilled at connecting with those she speaks with, maintaining eye contact and flashing a warm smile when appropriate. She has led a varied and rich life for someone her age: she has worked as an elementary school teacher, an advisor for a United States Governor, and soon she’ll be working with a not-for-profit business in Chicago. She is a woman who rarely surprises me, because I get the sense she can do anything she dedicates her considerable mind to, despite her humble demeanor.
Home for Emily is in Indiana, where her parents live.
“My dad is a pastor. He actually was an engineer for twenty years. Growing up he was an engineer, a very professional man. I want to say he was a industrial engineer. He built and managed a big factory. He worked for a light bulb company, and then he was in charge of building this huge multi-million dollar building that was connected to the original building. So he was a manager of that project, and I remember as a little kid going to visit this light bulb factory and seeing his office and everything. It was really cool, to see light bulbs made is a crazy process. He also engineered the boxes that they’d be shipped in to make sure they weren’t broken.
“He quit his job as an engineer, when I was about ten years old, and decided that he wanted to be a pastor. That was a big change for our family, because he was making good money. For me as a ten year old, this was not something I knew he wanted to do. For him, I think he had known he wanted to do something, he was a religious guy, so he always wished that he could do something like that. His midlife crisis was to quit his job and become a pastor.”
“How did your mom take it?”
“Really well. My mom is also religious. The joke in my family was that, they’re on their first date, she said, ‘I want to marry a Lutheran pastor.’ My dad was Catholic at the time, so he was like, ‘This isn’t going to work.’ Twenty years later he became a Lutheran pastor, so she was thrilled. She’s very religious and faithful to her church. She’s an awesome pastor’s wife, too. That’s not her profession, by any means, but she is just a huge support for the church. You can tell it’s a calling.”
“So your dad converted to Lutheranism?”
“He did, when they were dating. He was kind of looking for answers when he was about twenty years old, and he just found them at the Lutheran church. And also my mom was hot so he wanted to seal the deal.”
“And have you noticed a difference in his attitude with the change from being an engineer?”
“Well as a kid, I mean I was under ten years old, so what I remember is that he was never really around. He worked on Saturdays, he worked really late. I remember at one point when I was really little, writing him a note that said, ‘Daddy I love you even though I never see you.’ And looking back, that must have really hurt him. As soon as he started the path of becoming a pastor, it was a big change because he was always around, and it really brought our family together, especially because, my sisters and my mom, we used to go to church as just another family. Now we were going to church and we had to represent our family to the entire congregation in a way that people wanted. It kind of made my dad need us in a way. We were part of his success. He needed his family to be there and not be crazy. For him, looking back, I can tell the difference. He’s a passionate guy, and that translates in the different ways he deals with situations. If he’s upset, he’s upset, you know? I think that came out when he worked as an engineer, and as a pastor, you could tell his soul was at peace.”
I nod, and ask what her mother does.
“She’s the director of a preschool in Indianapolis. It’s the only preschool in the state that serves deaf and hard of hearing children who want to speak orally. She created it from the ground up. They don’t do sign language, they just do oral communication. It’s a whole slew of different tools that these kids use to be able to integrate into schools without using interpreters. It’s really inspiring, and neat to see her, because she built the school. I remember sites that she was considering using, like old run-down kindercares. She recruited her own board members. It’s kind of like a satellite school, the main school’s in St. Louis. They asked her to go to Indianapolis and start this school. She’d been a lifelong educator, but never an administrator before, so she had to learn a lot. Now, as an adult, seeing that transition, I’m like, ‘How did you do that?’”
I ask her if there are any memories of her parents that stand out for her.
“I guess as a kid…I will always have the memory of my dad…we had this weird game we would play with him called ‘Getchu Getchu.’ Like ‘Get you get you.’ My dad would turn off all the lights in the house, and he would hide somewhere. Me and my sisters, we were really little, we would go around the house trying to find them, but if you found him, he would jump out and scream and tickle you and freak you out. As a kid, you kind of wanted to find him, but you also knew he would jump out at you. It was a very intense game. I was the littlest one, so I was always hiding behind my bigger sisters. There were a couple of times where my parents set up a video camera, so they could see us crouching through and see my dad pop up and scream ‘Getchu getchu.’ Then he would run after us and we would squeal running around the house.”
“And how about your mom?”
“My mom is so good at being a mom. She was the type of mom who, you would open up your lunch bag, and she had written a special little note on your sandwich, saying, ‘You’re the best, I love you,’ or like a Bible passage she wanted you to hear. She did little things like that really well. Every Mardi Gras, she would give us Tootsie Rolls to bring to school, because she practices Lent, so she wanted us to have that lineage, to practice Lent, and that was to get kids excited about Fat Tuesday. She’s really funny. She’s just super Lutheran. Some of my grandmother’s ancestors came from Germany to Frankenmuth and were Lutheran missionaries. It’s a very long line of Lutherans, and my mom was very proud of that, and I remember there was this hymn that Martin Luther wrote, called A Mighty Fortress is Our God. It’s a traditional hymn, lots of organ. She, trying to get us as kids thinking it was cool, would take a keyboard and remix it, like put a beat on it.”
At this point, Emily pretends there’s an invisible piano in front of her and a set of large headphones on her head. “A-migh-ty-fort-ress-is-our,” she pauses her singing dramatically, “…God.” She laughs. “She was so dorky about it. I mean, it was the nineties, so it was pretty awesome. But that’s definitely my mom, trying to find creative ways to do things.”
I give her a round of applause for the performance. She nods humbly.