Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Childhood Memories

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)

Sunday morning musings

Sunday morning
Sitting near the back row
In a neighborhood church
Pondering the reality
That I am now one of the
Old Folks at Home
An aging white woman
Wondering what on earth
I have to offer this generation
Drowning in possibilities
I never dreamed about

A life —
That’s all I have
A life already lived
Partially grieved and celebrated
Now halfway resting
In this odd space
Called retirement with
all the time in the world
yet no spare time to be found

So what’s left to offer?
Just one thing comes to mind —

Smiles
Free smiles and maybe a kind word
No manipulation
No smirking
No hesitation
No holding back
No looking away
No pretending not to see
the child or young person before me
carrying an invisible cup running over
too often with confusion, self-judgment or worse

Smiles
That’s all I have to offer
Smiles that say
With or without a word
I’m so happy to see you today!
Smiles that reflect our Creator’s delight
in each child or young person’s beauty
whether they get this yet or not

Simple things. That’s what I can do. No promises made. No lists of things to do after this moment. Just a smile and a silent prayer for that child or teenager already dealing with the heaviness of being in this world. Who can’t relate to that?

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 February 2020
Photo found at pinterest.com

Overweight and unhappy

14 July 1958, Newton, Kansas. Grandpa and Grandma Renich, front row center with three daughters and a Great Aunt; my father in the middle on second row 

Overweight and unhappy
His bulk filled the back side
Of the old round kitchen table

Hour after hour he sat
A lonely figure staring silently
Or issuing ultimatums
Bushy eyebrows drawn together
Nowhere to go and little to offer
But weary leftovers
Of a grueling life plus
The occasional snarl
At young grandchildren

A memory from the early 1950s. I’m 7 years old. I’m in the kitchen of my paternal grandparents’ home in the Midwest. My parents dropped me off with Sister #2 while they drove with baby Sister #3 (Diane) to a conference in Philadelphia. When they returned, we continued our cross-country move from Los Angeles, California to Savannah, Georgia.

I’ll never forget how intimidated I felt around Grandpa Renich. He was given to frowning a lot and smiling seldom. He also took seriously his duty of administering punishment as needed, which he did at least once to Sister #2. I was happy I wasn’t going to live nearby.

Last night I watched a report on the growing rate of suicide among elderly men and women. For an alarming number, the feeling of being a leftover–old, forgotten and stale–becomes the dominant theme. Many also deal with debilitating chronic pain, loss of bodily functions, and illness. For some, this is worse than death itself. And so they opt to exit instead of waiting around for the inevitable.

My paternal grandfather wasn’t happy, and he didn’t take his life. Had he chosen to do so, I think I would understand now what I couldn’t understand back then.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 April 2019
First Renich Family Reunion Photo taken in Newton, Kansas

Defending My Space

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
Photo of 1938 family dinner found at bbc.com
Story excerpted from my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (InterVarsity Press 1998)
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Territory

Are you relaxed?

kindergarten-class-tacoma-washington-1940s

Annie Wright Schools Kindergarten — Tacoma, Washington in the 1940s

It’s 1948. I’m in kindergarten in El Monte, California. I love kindergarten. I love my kindergarten teacher. I adore rest time!

The routine is always the same. Rain or shine. At the appointed time, each of us picks out a brightly painted plank of wood – blue, green, red or yellow.

I carry my red plank to the middle of the room, find a little space between classmates, put the plank on the hardwood floor, and lie down on my back, on my make-believe bed.

I also shut my mouth and close my eyes. Until it’s perfectly silent, my kindergarten teacher won’t begin the fun part. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Mom, I miss you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Forsythe Park Fountain, Savannah, Georgia

Dear Mom,
I miss you. I’d love to sit down with a cup of tea and continue the conversations we had before your stroke. Though you didn’t particularly like all my questions about your past, you did your best to answer them.

I’m grateful for every conversation we had back then. I’m also grateful that you wrote down memories of your early life. A bit of your personal history. Every now and then I find myself hungry for more, though most of the time it’s enough. Your written words give glimpses of your heart and your struggle with circumstances over which you had no control.

I’ve been thinking about your memorial service in 1999. I got to make remarks on behalf of the four of us, your daughters. I decided to show and tell how much you loved teaching children music. Not just to the four of us, but to the kindergarten children you taught after I’d married and moved away.

I still have your old spiral music notebook, filled with children’s songs. For your service I picked out several of my favorites and said a bit about each song before I played the music. I also read the words and demonstrated motions for at least one of the songs. The one about how elephants kalump along, their long noses swaying in time to the music!

The most fun was coming to the end of “The Polliwog’s Story,” and (like you, without warning) suddenly turning around on the piano bench to give everyone a big scare with the last line! They loved it! For a moment we felt your joy and exuberance, and celebrated your lively spirit and your love for children and music.

I also played some of your favorite adult hymns. Not too many, but just enough, with comments about why I chose each. The most difficult to get through was “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” That was the hymn you tried to sing so often when you first got polio, even though your vocal chords were paralyzed.

I’m tearing up as I write this part. I owe you so much. I’ve been reading a book by Henry Nouwen. He talks about the way absence can cause our love for someone to grow. I’m beginning to understand what he’s talking about.

Part of it is my freedom to write you these letters and say things I couldn’t say while you were with us. It’s also because I understand our family dynamics more than before, and how costly they were for you, not just for me.

A few days ago I was thinking about my grandparents and how little I knew any of them except for your father, my California Grandpa. That got me thinking about the way you and he related to each other, especially since your Mom wasn’t around for most of your life.

When we lived on the West Coast, we spent lots of time visiting Grandpa and going with him to fun places like the Wilson Observatory and the Griffith Park Zoo. Even his apartment was fun! There were long sidewalks outside. I remember learning to ride my first bike on them. The bike he gave me, with training wheels.

After we moved to the East Coast, things changed. But you still kept in regular touch through letters. I know you wrote to him about us and what we were up to, because his letters to you sometimes included comments back to each of us.

He seemed to dote on us. It meant a lot to me back then to know he thought we were the best and the brightest little girls in the whole wide world. I’m guessing it meant a lot to you, too. You must have missed him terribly. I think you inherited your love of fun and of children from him.

How do you like the photo of the Forsythe Park Fountain? I love the water droplets flying through the air! If you enlarge it, you’ll see pink azaleas blooming in the background.

Love and hugs,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 March 2015

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