Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Category: Family

Green, Green is My Sister’s House | Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver’s poem has been on my mind for over a week. The photo above was taken in the front yard of our first home in Southern Georgia, near Savannah. That’s my small, petite sister next to me. Just hanging there, swinging back and forth, was exhilarating! Sister #3 was still a baby. Sister #4 hadn’t yet arrived. My brief comments follow.

Green, Green is My Sister’s House

Don’t you dare climb that tree
or even try, they said, or you will be
sent away to the hospital of the
very foolish, if not the other one.
And I suppose, considering my age,
it was fair advice.

But the tree is a sister to me, she
lives alone in a green cottage
high in the air and I know what
would happen, she’d clap her green hands,
she’d shake her green hair, she’d
welcome me. Truly

I try to be good but sometimes
a person just has to break out and
act like the wild and springy thing
one used to be. It’s impossible not
to remember wild and want it back. So

if someday you can’t find me you might
look into that tree or—of course
it’s possible—under it.

Mary Oliver, from A Thousand Mornings
Published in 2013 by Penguin Books, p. 49
© 2012 by NW Orchard LL.C.

I love this poem. Not because I want to climb the tree in the front yard of my childhood home, but because it understands and honors the agony of aging. It remembers how things used to be. The good, the bad, the ugly, and those unrepeatable moments of sheer joy. The dear old tree understands there’s nothing left but to lie down under the lovely tree I used to climb. Or beneath it, in the good earth.

Perhaps this is no more than a romantic twist about my aging heart. The heart that wants it all back again. Not just in fading moments or vague memories, but in reality. Like a beautiful statue that captures  the glory, agony, and excitement of life with trees. Special trees. Those that remember us and welcome us home. Wild or weary. It doesn’t matter.

Praying this finds you thriving in your own way, making progress at your own pace, and learning to trust your Higher Power to carry you when you can’t walk so quickly anymore.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 February 2023
Photo taken by my father in the early 1950s. The house looks out on the Vernon River. We’re hanging from an old mimosa tree.

Defending My Space

For the last several weeks I’ve been dealing with more health issues, which I’ll report on later. I’ve also been re-reading my book, Confessions of a Beginning TheologianThe excerpt below gives a peek into life with my father, an ordained clergyman. It also describes my inner struggle to maintain my identity as a young white girl in a preacher’s family.

The memory may seem to be about parental authority. In reality, it’s about what it took daily for me to live (and die) due to my father’s overbearing commands, passed on to him by his rage-aholic clergy father.

We’re in a mess these days, dealing with layers of abuse, anger, and self-righteousness passed from one generation to another. Tomorrow is an official voting day. What will become of us? Do we have the courage to step up and out of order? Not just in our frightened hearts or minds, but in the way we live our adult lives regardless of the cost.

~~~

I’m about eight years old. I’m sitting at the dinner table, just around the corner from my father. The table is set, the food is spread before us, and we’re all in our seats waiting to begin. We haven’t yet asked the blessing. I’m playing with my dinner fork, just to the left of my plate. I’ve moved it a few inches away from my plate.

My father’s voice interrupts me. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it to the right, in the direction of my plate. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

I move it slightly closer. My father’s voice remains firm and controlled. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”

By now my sisters are watching to see what will become of me. My mother is silent. This has become an event. Slowly I raise my hand to my fork and move it ever so slightly closer to my plate.

My father persists. So do I. Many repetitions later he’s satisfied; the fork has been returned to its proper place.

He proceeds with the blessing. He doesn’t know what I know: the fork is ever so slightly to the left of its proper place.

My father’s mission as a parent was to train us to keep the rules. My mission as his child was to break and keep the rules simultaneously.

Back then, perseverance meant getting through another day, using whatever survival skills lay close at hand.

If my father was persistent, I would be more persistent. If outward rebellions were too costly, I would invent creatively invisible yet superbly effective inward rebellions. If I was ordered to sit down and stop talking, I could continue standing and talking on the inside for as long as it took to comfort myself.

Indeed, this was the better way. In the private spaces of my mind no one could put me down, refuse to listen to me or try to break my will. In a family system intent on turning out obedient daughters, I survived by being secretly disobedient.

This memory from the 1950s, published nearly 20 years ago, is as vivid today as it was then.

The territory I defended was interior. I applaud the little girl who figured out how to do this. Nonetheless, my efforts were costly. They required constant vigilance, no matter where I was.

Abuse of power destroys safe space. It expects and demands behaviors, words, looks on faces, subtle and open signs of unquestioning and subservient submission.

What does it take to create and maintain safe space? Not just in our marriages and families, but in neighborhoods, nations, churches and schools? And how does my personal history connect with the racial history of the USA?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 March 2017, reposted 7 November 2022
Photo of 1938 family dinner found at bbc.com
Story excerpted from my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (InterVarsity Press 1998)

Tell me if you can, if you dare–

I wrote the poem below early in my blogging days. Back in the 1940s and 50s, I was the oldest of four daughters. My father was an ordained clergyman, loved by many, feared by me. It seems life in these “United States” is becoming more and more like my childhood. Especially, but not only, for women of any age. 

I’m grateful for women and men who helped me become the human I am today. Today I don’t bear a grudge against my father. I do, however, see my experience as a window into unnumbered worlds of madness for too many women, children, teenagers, and men. The calling of politicians, church leaders, or pimps is NOT to force us into the mold of their making. 

When did it all begin?
When did I enter your supply chain?
When did I become a commodity, a disposable object
not for sale but for use on demand,
with or without pay?

When did I become your toy
to imagine as prey,
to stalk, hunt down,
toss around and torment
with or without warning?

When did I become candy for your eyes,
your imagination,
the desires of your heart?

When did it all begin?
Was it the moment I was born?
The moment you laid your eyes on me?
Then your rules, your hands, your cane,
your ruler, and wooden spoon paddle?

When did paddling become beating?
As though you could whip me into shape.

What did you see in me?
A human being created in God’s image?
Or just another rebellious, angry, willful little girl—
A challenge to your male authority.
A game, an object to be studied, touched, scolded,
played with, experimented with,
held close/held at bay, shamed, humiliated,
denied voice, dignity, will and privacy.

What were you thinking?

When did I become a projection of your stern will
and your lonely, terrified heart?
Not even a ghost of myself
No matter what I wore or didn’t wear
What I said or didn’t say
How I said it or didn’t say it
What I did or didn’t do

When did I become your enemy to be hunted down and subdued,
locked in the bar-less cage of your aching, demanding,
never-satisfied self?

Tell me if you can, if you dare—
When did it all begin?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 June 2014, reposted 5 July 2022
Image found at thewei.com

baptismal waters

I’m working on a book of poems selected from my blog. This morning I came to this description of my mother’s “baptism” not long before her death. The setting is a not-for-profit hospice near my parents’ home in Savannah, Georgia. Reading this account always makes me tear up with gratitude and sadness. 

baptismal waters
rise gently enfolding her
world-weary body

* * * * *

I’m standing in a windowless, high-ceiling concrete room
with a concrete floor, drainage holes and air vents.
A deep whirlpool tub stands in the middle
filled with warm steamy water.
The room faintly resembles a large sauna minus the wood.
Functional, not beautiful.

Mother is in hospice care after suffering a stroke weeks ago
and then developing pneumonia in the hospital.
Her ability to communicate with words is almost nonexistent.
Today she’s going to be given a bath.
I’m told she loves this, and that
Sister #4 and I are welcome to witness the event.

For the past hour caregivers have been preparing her–
removing her bedclothes, easing her onto huge soft towels,
rolling and shifting her inch by inch onto a padded bath trolley,
doing all they can to minimize pain and honor her body.
Finally, they slowly roll the trolley down the hall.

The hospice sauna room echoes with the sound of
feet, soft voices, and running water.
It takes a team to carry out this comforting
though strange and even unnerving ritual.
Mother is safely secured to the padded bath table and
then lowered slowly into the water.
Her eyes are wide open.

For a few moments she fixes her eyes on mine.
The table  descends bit by bit.
How does she feel?
What is she thinking?
At  first her eyes seem anxious.
Is she afraid?
The warm waters rise around her and the table stops descending.
Her face relaxes and she closes her eyes.

The team works gently, thoroughly, not in haste.
They focus on her, talk to her and handle her body with reverence.
My eyes brim with tears.
This woman who bathed me, my three sisters
and most of her grandbabies is being given a bath
by what appears to be a team of angels in celestial garments.

They finish their work and roll Mother back to her room.
Her bed has clean sheets.
Fresh bedclothes have been laid out.
Caregivers anoint her body with oil and lotion, turn her gently,
and comment on how clear and beautiful her skin is.
They finish clothing her, adjust the pillows to cradle her body,
pull up light covers and leave her to fall asleep.

* * *

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 June 2014, reposted 28 June 2022
Photo found at pixabay.com

Walking at Valley Forge | Photos

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic today. Yesterday evening, D and I looked at his photos taken during a visit with our West Coast daughter and her husband. Today I miss long walks and hikes through Valley Forge. I also miss visits with our West-coast daughter and her husband since Covid days began. The photos below were taken in April 2018.

Nearly two weeks ago our daughter Sherry and her husband Scott arrived for a long-anticipated visit. Yesterday we drove them to the airport for a flight back to the West Coast. Always it’s too short. Always I weep my eyes out, during and after (not without happy breaks). Always I feel softened and vulnerable. Always I love this break from routine. Always I’m loathe to say goodbye.

The day after they arrived we went for a late afternoon walk through part of Valley Forge National Park. Two things strike me when we visit the Park. One is the stillness and quiet, despite being just a stone’s throw from crowded highways and huge shopping centers. The other is nonstop birdsong, whether we’re walking by the meadow or through a wooded area.

Here are a few photos, minus the beautiful birdsong. The photo at the top shows us (minus D who’s behind the camera) just beginning our walk.

Looking out over the meadows, it’s tempting to think they were always there. Before the 1977-78 winter encampment during the Revolutionary War, almost all Valley Forge was forested. During the 6-month winter encampment, most trees were cut down for firewood and buildings.

Reclaiming the land as a national memorial involved delineating swaths of forest, creating managed meadows, and leaving space for a series of state highways, walking and biking paths, visitor facilities, monuments, memorials, reconstructed troop huts, and other renovated facilities such as George Washington’s headquarters during the encampment (a gift to the Park). The Park covers 3,500 acres (1,400 ha), gets over a million visitors per year, and is open year-round. Click here to see a visitor’s map of the grounds (not true to scale).

Here’s a little jack-in-the-pulpit beside a trail through the woods.

Now we’ll pause to ponder the look of young poison ivy in Pennsylvania. Isn’t it beautiful in the late afternoon sun? And don’t forget as you hike through the woods that so-called ‘dead’ poison ivy vines (often as thick as ropes) are also virulent.


The lovely little flowers below are not poison ivy.

On our way back to the parking lot D got a photo of an elusive red-winged blackbird. In the last photo below, I’m almost to the parking lot. Notice the shaded picnic tables to the left, and facilities for visitors on the edge of the parking lot just ahead.

Thanks for stopping by!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 May 2018
Photos taken by DAFraser, 29 April 2018, reposted 13 June 2022
Valley Forge National Historical Park

Snooteville, Tennessee 1981

So make that Nashville, Tennessee, 1981. I’m not sure what inspired us to pose in this magnificent manner. That’s daughter Sherry on the left, son Scott in the middle, and I wish I didn’t know who that woman is on the right! By this time, I’d finished my course work at Vanderbilt, and was probably getting ready for comprehensive exams.

In any case, this photo cracks me up every time I see it!

The lovely framed temple rubbing on the wall was a gift from D’s mother. She brought it back from a tour of duty (as military librarian) during the VietNam War. The empty shell on the fireplace shelf was one of our great finds while visiting beaches on the East Coast.

I wonder what look D had on his face when he snapped this one! I don’t think it was planned. We were probably worn out from having to pose with smiles on our faces….or something like that! In any case, I love this photo.

Hoping this day brings moments of happiness in your life, no matter how they happen to find you!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 May 2022
Photo taken by DAFraser, Nashville, Tennessee, 1981 

Falling in love with yesterday

Peering into a deep well
I inch closer to the edge
One evening after another
In the moment, but not quite,
Old memories stir feelings
Captured in forgotten photos

Who am I now? What did I leave behind? Is there any logic to this madness of yesterday’s joy and today’s old-age awkwardness?

I want to hang onto today and yesterday. Not content with one or the other. I want to see, remember, smell, taste and breathe in the beauty and pain of this world, captured in fleeting moments of wonder, distress, and despair.

The last several weeks have been rough. Marked by several dark nights filled with raging winds, pounding rain, and unpredictable bolts of lightning.

They’ve also been filled with beauty: songbirds waking each day with their dawn songs, a red-breasted male grossbeak sitting on our porch rail, a large bushy red-tailed fox trotting nonchalantly through our back yard, and the full moon casting a nighttime spotlight on our neighbor’s front yard.

Thank you for your visit. Especially during these unpredictable days and nights of uncertainty, fear and unexpected losses.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 5 May 2022
Photo of our children taken by DAFraser, 1972 at the San Diego Zoo

sorrow and love

When I was very young
my heart learned early
the feeling of being trapped
with no safe alternatives

I believed a lifetime of
blessed freedom was
just around the corner—
the ‘real’ life I for which
I longed and dreamed
every day and night
of my restless childhood

My time would come and
I would emerge from my
imaginary butterfly chrysalis
fluttering away on clouds
of imaginary bliss and freedom
far from my father

The older I get, the more I understand the dynamics of our small family of four daughters. Especially the mammoth workload my mother carried.

When she was 5, my mother was abandoned by her own mother. When she was 28 and I was 5, polio took over her body, including her ability to swallow safely or speak clearly. Then there was my father, whose childhood and youth were littered with brutal beatings from his own father.

Back in the 1940s and 50s I didn’t appreciate how much our mother did to keep us alive. Not because she stood in for our father, but because she cared deeply for her daughters. Each of us. No matter how we rated on Daddy’s Rules for Good Girls, and though she had never experienced safe love from her own mother.

I used to think I would get beyond the grief of our family. But here’s the deal: no pain, no gain; and, surprisingly, no true sorrow without growing love.

This week has been long and sometimes difficult. Not just here, but around the world. The numbers of families being torn apart have skyrocketed. Am I ready for whatever comes next? Somehow all this has prompted me to revisit my relationship with my mother.

My mother, in spite of her disabilities and her own sad family background, helped keep my spirit alive. She died when she was almost 78 years old. Though her body was worn out, some of her spirit still lives in me. Especially now.

Thanks for stopping by.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 March 2022
Photo found at wikimedia.com

I haven’t finished talking

Talking in my head
Talking in my sleep
Talking in my body language
Talking while he drones on

I try desperately not to
Break out in an avalanche
Of righteous indignation
Or galloping fear of retribution

One lesson after another
I learned to die and
How to accept living death
As my female normal

Yes, it began with my father. Sadly, it didn’t end there.

I used to think getting things straight in my head would be enough. If I could understand what happened to me, who did it and why, then I could get on with my life as an adult woman.

Tragically, that’s sheer nonsense. Every time women’s issues are raised, I’m struck by how naïve I’ve been. Talk doesn’t fix anything. It’s helpful, but by itself it isn’t a cure.

So here we are again in a nation that claims to celebrate international women and girls of all ages. It’s our one-day moment to feel accepted, needed, even courageous and bold. Then the day passes, and doors that were never fully opened slam shut yet again.

I’m not appeased by fancy talk or lovely tributes to courageous female angels out there. I want to see action that means business. Action fueled by changed hearts and minds. Plus legal action that gives teeth and dignity to women’s lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. I’m fed up with warmed-over pablum and niceties that do nothing to change harsh realities on the ground.

Ironically, this month an agreement to a cease fire in Ukraine was ignored, and a maternity hospital for women and children was bombed by Russians. Why now? And how does this tragedy alert us to women’s daily realities in our own countries? What do you think?

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 March 2022
Image found at etsy.com

blue eyes

blue eyes pierce spring sky
join me on the river boat–
making our way home

* * * * *

Early Easter Morning 1949, Diane was born–Sister #3 with brilliant, piercing blue eyes.  On February 13, 2006, she died after living with ALS for ten years. The haiku above was inspired by a dream I had in November 2009.

Here’s the dream, followed by a few comments:

I’m at a gathering of people.  My husband is also there.  Suddenly I catch sight of Diane!  She’s looking alive, moving on her own (though a bit slowly), and is—as far as I can tell—acting independently of any nurses or family caretakers.

At first I see her as though I’ve just discovered one of my sisters who happens to be at this gathering, too.  I’m thrilled, and want to go talk to her and take in some recreational activities with her.

A bit later I realize she ‘shouldn’t’ be here!  She’s gone.  She died of ALS.  So why did I see her?

Crowds are milling around, pressing in very tightly, making it difficult to get to the spot where I can see and talk with her.  I don’t know whether she’s seen me yet.  There’s an optional boat ride later to tour the river.  It seems to be the river we grew up on in Savannah.

I decide to get Diane and ride with her in the boat.  We can talk and catch up and see old familiar places from a different perspective.  Her presence is a gift—and will be gone when this event comes to an end.

I’m excited, happy, and eager to hear what she might say to me.  I haven’t heard her voice or been able to relate to her as a fully functioning sister for years.  I also don’t know how long her present embodiment will last.  I wake up longing to be with her on the riverboat.

Lent and Easter always bring Diane to mind. One of my tasks during therapy was to connect with each of my three sisters. We hadn’t been in close touch with each other for years. “I’m doing personal work with a therapist.  Would you be willing to talk privately with me, one on one, about this work?”

Diane agreed to talk with me. We had multiple long-distance conversations. She listened, confirmed, added her memories and made astute, sometimes sad observations. In 1993, she flew from Texas to Georgia to witness the meeting with my parents. Diane sat on one side of me; my husband sat on the other. Silent witnesses while I broke my decades-long silence about my father’s harsh punishment.

Three years later Diane was formally diagnosed with ALS. For the next ten years she showed us how to live and how to die with grace and dignity, without once pretending everything was fine, just fine.

Thanks for stopping by today. I pray we’ll find peace, comfort and courage to face each day with its sadness and joy.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 9 March 2022
Photo of Diane and Elouise by the Savannah River,
taken by DAFraser on 20 November 1993

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