Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Childhood

moss-laden oaks loom | 1950s in the Deep South

moss-laden oaks, magenta azaleas

I posted this poem in 2014. It’s an attempt to capture my first impressions of the Deep South, including strict segregation between Black and White citizens. There were 5 of us in the car (Sister #4 yet to be conceived). We’d just driven from Southern California to rural Georgia, 15 miles outside of Savannah. Another world. One I’d never imagined in my 7 1/2 years of life. 

moss-laden oaks loom
magenta azaleas blaze
deep south path through woods 

* * *

Late summer, 1950

It’s past midnight
I’m asleep with Sisters #2 and #3
Are we almost there?

Mother’s tired voice wakes me up
Nothing but darkness outside
and cobwebby stuff hanging from tree limbs

A log-cabin tavern fades into view
Neon beer ads flicker on parked cars, old trucks
Daddy reluctantly stops for directions

He goes into the tavern.
Are we lost?
No. We just aren’t there yet.

Daddy drives slowly
No street lights no signs
The old road is dark, narrow, mysterious

Mossy oaks loom overhead reflecting
weak rays of yellow light from car headlights
Weary shacks line the road

Unexpectedly we pass grand fenced-in wooded lots with driveways to nowhere
Then modest houses and a few larger houses
The road ends abruptly.

Daddy stops, gets out, peers at the giant mailbox
He turns into the driveway
We’re there.

Deep South
moss-laden oaks, no blazing azaleas
Just heavy humid air, wealth next door to poverty, fiercely guarded secrets

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 10 March 2014, reposted with intro14 July 2020
Google image – Springtime in Savannah, Georgia

Waiting for the shoe to drop

Or not.

Holding my breath
Never did get me very far

I know because my body
Told and tells me so

Caught in endless cycles
Of butting heads

I’ve learned the hard way
That my head

Is very hard indeed while
My ability

To concede with graceful
strength and courage

Was sorely lacking in my
self-education project

Undertaken from the moment
Of my birth until

Today I woke up breathing
Deeply knowing

Your life-giving breath is better than
A thousand choke holds

While waiting for the shoe to drop
Or not

Mary Oliver’s “Of The Empire” couldn’t have been written had she not chosen decades earlier to leave home in order to save her one precious life.

A pattern runs through my life like an unnamed theme-song. Do your best to please those in authority, without giving up your integrity.

Not that this is a bad skill. It got me through many touch-and-go encounters. Integrity is important. But when it’s only skin deep, there comes a time when the wound is too great to bear.

I think Mary Oliver understood this much earlier than I.

Even my sisters understood this, each in her own way. All they did was see what didn’t work for Elouise, and then they did something else. As often as needed. Sometimes with seemingly harmless humor or deference. Other times with defiant behavior that screamed for safety and space to breathe deeply without fear.

Will I ever reach the promised land? I don’t know. I do know this point in our shared history is an opportunity I don’t want to miss. It isn’t just about me anymore. It’s about each and all of us.

With thanks to Mary Oliver, family members and friends who’ve shown me a better way.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 2 May 2020
Image found at theproductivewoman.com

Are you willing to be condemned? | Lent, Holy Week and Life

I learned condemnation from my father. When I was very young I heard and felt it in his voice and punishments. Or was it the day I was born female? I wasn’t the son my father hoped for.

If only you would keep your mouth shut and play the piano more often! I really like it when you play the piano. It makes everybody happy and proud. And don’t forget to listen to the men. I like that, too!

No, sweetheart, you don’t need to read all those books. Though we’re proud when you make the honor roll. Still, I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for at a big university.

You want to be what???? A theologian? A professor? But you’re married aren’t you? Well….if your husband approves of it, who am I to stand in your way?

How dare you cut your parents off until you’re willing to talk with us again? You need to wake up and remember who you are! You were always rebellious and angry. Too bad you couldn’t be more like your sisters.

Am I willing to be condemned? It’s the question I’ve lived with for years. Not because I live in the past, but because I’m always in the present.

Condemnation can arrive cloaked as something else: being overlooked, underestimated, disbelieved, targeted for harassment.

So…For what am I willing to be condemned? For being the woman I am, fully accepted and loved by our Creator. Not always right; not always wrong. Always one of our Creator’s beloved daughters.

In the meantime, my goal is to keep True North in view, and put one foot, one word, one poem, one truth in front of another.

Thanks for visiting and reading.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 April 2020
Image found at kissclipart.com

Beneath trees of my childhood | Photos

Beneath trees
of my childhood
memories flood
my eyes with
dreams and sorrows
packed within
the space of one life
gazing at tamed
and untamed beauty
underestimated
until this moment
of imminent loss

Below are photos of old trees, including palmettos and water oaks, plus the river in front of the house my family lived in during the 1950s. Even though years have passed, and the old house has been turned into an elegant piece of real estate, the trees we played under are still standing. The final photo is an unexpected gift from one of our visits—a mama carrying her two opossum babies.

I grew up under these trees every day from age 7 l/2 to 13. The Spanish moss is probably the same moss, or at least its prolific offspring.

I’ve included one photo from 1996, the year Sister #3, Diane, came to Savannah for a last visit. She had learned weeks earlier that she had ALS. At her request, we drove out to the old Montgomery house for her last visit, this time in mid-winter, at low tide.

Nature and old photos have a way of cleansing us. Cherish your old photos if you still have them. And remember that someday you, too will be cherished in old photos.

Happy Monday, and thanks for visiting.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 March 2020
Photos taken near Savannah, Georgia, by DAFraser in 1996 (Diane), and 2010, following my father’s memorial service

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat | Edward Lear

Time for a mid-week break and a bit of nostalgia! Were you treated to this poem when you were a child? My father used to recite it from his phenomenal memory. Of course the entire poem is non-sense, given the history of cats and birds! But then again, we can always dream, can’t we? See below for the text.

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
By Edward Lear

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

I think I’ll read this to Smudge tonight!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 March 2020
Video found on YouTube

The distance between then and now

The distance between then and now
Boils down quickly to a handful of
Opportunities lost in translation

Heavy baggage dumped in swamps
Still unopened and never claimed

On-demand smiles of yesterday hidden
Beneath faces lined with sadness and grief

Moments of vulnerability unexplored
In favor of stiff upper lips and privacy

The openness of childhood and youth
Shut down in favor of family reputation

Yet miles of heart-stopping space open
Like the Grand Canyon between us and
old photos tugging at our lonely hearts

I feel sad and happy every time I look at this old photo. I’m sitting on the bench surrounded by my mother, her father, and her father’s mother. Four generations. The poem reflects how difficult I find it to become a human being. Especially when working on family-related issues.

Becoming human may be our greatest achievement. Not wealth or happiness or helping people all over the world, but the ability to become who we are from the inside out. Sort of like the velveteen rabbit, so that by the time we leave this world, we’ve become Real human beings.

Here’s to heaps of practice and a few great breakthroughs every now and then!

The photo at the top was taken by my father in 1944. We’re in California, visiting with my Grandpa Gury and my very proper Great Grandmother Gury (an immigrant from France). I’m sitting in the middle; my beautiful mother is on my right.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 February 2020
Photo taken by my father, JERenich in 1944, California

A Visitor | Mary Oliver

This haunting poem by Mary Oliver comes from a 1986 collection called Dream Work. My comments follow.

A Visitor

My father, for example,
who was young once
and blue-eyed,
returns
on the darkest of nights
to the porch and knocks
wildly at the door,
and if I answer
I must be prepared
for his waxy face,
for his lower lip
swollen with bitterness.
And so, for a long time,
I did not answer,
but slept fitfully
between his hours of rapping.
But finally there came the night
when I rose out of my sheets
and stumbled down the hall.
The door fell open

and I knew I was saved
and could bear him,
pathetic and hollow,
with even the least of his dreams
frozen inside him,
and the meanness gone.
And I greeted him and asked him
into the house,
and lit the lamp,
and looked into his blank eyes
in which at last
I saw what a child must love,
I saw what love might have done
had we loved in time.

c. 1992, Mary Oliver
New and Selected Poems, Volume One, pp. 116-117
Published by Beacon Press

Mary Oliver left home early in life to get away from an abusive situation. Now, years later, wild knocking in the dark of night reminds her of what she ran away from. If she opens the door, she must confront the man she remembers having a “waxy face” and “a lower lip swollen with bitterness.”

She ignores the pounding on the door. The knocking persists at all hours of the night. And so she “stumbles down the hall,” and the door “falls open.”

In an instant, Mary Oliver knows she has nothing to fear. In fact, it seems she’s surprised to discover her father is “pathetic and hollow.” Even his smallest dreams have frozen, and his meanness has vanished.

She greets him, invites him to come into her house, lights a lamp, looks into his “blank eyes” and sees what was needed when she was a child, plus what might have been “had we loved in time.”

The poem isn’t about Mary Oliver’s father; it’s about Mary. In the end, It affirms her decision to leave home, and acknowledges the high cost she and her father paid. With grief, and without apology.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 February 2020
Book cover image found at amazon.com

Kindness Matters | Memories

kindness

This post from January 2016 came to mind this morning.
A sobering read, given the current state of our disunion.

My Mom died in 1999. During the last year of her life she showed me a photo of a childhood friend, a write-up about her, and an obituary.

Sybil was a few years younger than I. Her mother kept the outdoor hog pen I describe in my poem, 1951. To me, Sybil was a friend in name only. I was put off by her lack of manners, her unkempt clothes, constant problems at home, poor grammar and general lack of social graces. I was also embarrassed to be seen with her.

Sybil and I were thrown together in grade school. We were scholarship students—unable to pay our own ways. I saw her as ‘poor,’ though I didn’t identify myself that way. We lived in a big house on the river. She lived about three-quarters of a mile down the road toward the city, just beyond colored town, in a rickety old structure beside a large hog pen and across the road from the tavern.

Sybil lacked social graces and, in my eyes, physical beauty. She was sometimes rough, callous, loud, rude and sarcastic. She was an only child, living with her mother on the second floor of a now closed, dilapidated gas station.

The hog pen sat beside this structure. About 20-25 adult hogs roamed free in a large fenced-in area and wallowed in muddy pig slop laced with decaying food scraps. To say they stank would be an understatement.

Sybil’s mom owned and cared for the hogs. They were her ticket to food and money—at least enough for survival. She lived with a man on the second floor of the old filling station.

Were they married? I was never sure. He liked alcohol. They both liked cigarettes. They didn’t always get along. Sometimes Sybil got the worst of it. Sometimes she missed school.

As chance would have it, for a couple of years Sybil’s mom took turns with my father picking us all up after school in downtown Savannah, and driving us 15 miles home.

In spite of my impressions about Sybil, she became a sometime ‘friend’ who reminded me daily of what I did not want to be. She didn’t seem to have other friends, and assumed that because we rode together after school, I was her friend.

When Sybil’s mom came to pick us up, I held back. I pretended I didn’t see the noisy old run-down car waiting right there in front of the school. I didn’t want my friends to see me getting into it. They might think it was our car.

So I waited until the last minute, suddenly ‘saw’ the car, got into the back seat and immediately bent over as though I’d just dropped something on the floor. I didn’t sit up straight until we were at least a block away from the school.

My wish to distance myself from Sybil and her life generated nothing but guilt, shame and anger in me. Being seen with Sybil was not an asset.

Mom, however, stayed in touch regularly with Sybil and with her mom. She treated Sybil with kindness. She visited her mom, helped her out in small ways, and seemed to enjoy her company.

A few years before Mom died, Sybil got in touch with her. She had graduated from high school and studied to be an officer in a military unit. She brought Mom a photo of herself in uniform—beautiful, serene and confident. It was her way of thanking Mom for taking an active interest not just in her, but in her mom. Sadly, Sybil died about a year before my Mom died.

You might say I had a ‘normal’ child-like response to Sybil and her mom. I don’t know. Contempt is a learned behavior, often accompanied by invisible self-contempt. Sybil and I were damaged goods. She may have recognized herself in me; I didn’t recognize myself in her. Not back then.

Nonetheless, we were and are sisters, if not friends.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 January 2016
Image from trans4mind.com

Survivor guilt and the business at hand

Back row: Mother, Grandpa Gury (her father), Elouise, and Sister #2
Front row: Diane and Sister #4

As of today, three kinds of survivor guilt have invaded my life.

  1. The guilt of living longer than Diane, Sister #3. She died of ALS in 2006.
  2. The guilt of wishing my father had died before my mother. She died in 1999, 78 years old.
  3. The guilt of wishing my father had died instead of Sister #4’s husband. He died in 2008; my father died in 2010.

And then there are nagging realities from my past.

  1. In 1960, I got a job right out of high school. It paid more than my father was making at a weekday job. My mother told me not to talk about the size of my weekly paycheck. Then my father lost his weekday job and I felt awkward talking about what happened at work today.
  2. When I left home for college (1960, age 16), my younger sisters had to face the music at home without me. Sometimes that was for the better. But not always. They became more vulnerable to our father’s oversight and disciplinary methods. This weighed heavily on me, especially with regard to our youngest sister.
  3. My educational and workplace opportunities gave me an advantage when I was looking for a teaching position, right out of university.

I can’t change any of this. Yet each item above has surfaced more than once in light of my youngest sister’s current health crisis. It began on Christmas Eve.

So what’s going on? I know it’s important because I’ve become self-conscious about my current situation. Yes, I have health challenges. Sometimes I don’t manage them well. Still, they aren’t as difficult to navigate as challenges Diane or Sister #4 experienced.

Am I overthinking this? Part of me wants to believe I am, even though that would be nonsense.

Today I want to know how to be present and fully focused on the business on hand. Not on what might have been, or ten reasons I should have had something awful happen to me years ago. As though that might spare any of my sisters or my mother the horror of sudden interventions that leave all of us gasping for air.

Thanks again for listening. As of today, I’m happy to report that Sister #4 is in a rehab facility, beginning a long  journey.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 January 2020
Family Photo taken by JERenich in Savannah, 1959

Still ringing in my ears

Still ringing in my ears
The sometimes happy voices
of sisters playing make-believe
Shrieking across the spacious lawn
Beside the river flowing gently
toward a big turn just ahead and
to the right around the corner

Last night I wept for the past
Having lived my life thinking
Somehow we could redeem it
Until we couldn’t not for want
Of trying but for turns in rivers
That ended just around corners
Now hidden from our eyes

The next generation is upon us
Their childhood and teenage voices
Still ringing in our ears
The happy the sad the distressed
The elated and the dreamers
Small pieces of us already interwoven
Riding the current to the next corner

I like intense. Then again, sometimes I’ve had my fill, even though I can’t stop the flowing river. The last several weeks have been intense. Right now I’m focused on taking care of my daily needs, and listening to myself early in the morning. What can I do today to stay in touch with myself and with some of my family members?

My older generation is moving on. How do I support generations coming after me? I’m not looking for great big creative things. I want to practice little things that matter. The kinds of things that helped me when I was still an introverted dreamer. On second thought, I’m still an introverted dreamer! And proud of it.

Thanks to D for this photo, taken in Summer 2010 following the memorial service for my father. This is the front yard bordering the river as it looked in 2010. My family lived here, in a rural community near Savannah, Georgia, in the 1950s.

Thanks for visiting and reading,
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 January 2020
Photo taken by DAFraser, Summer 2010

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