Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Family Legacies

I’m not my mother

I’m not my mother
Or the young girl
She wanted me to be
Surrounded by friends
Pretty with curls in my hair
Dressed in cheery colors
Enjoying a childhood
Unlike hers lived in fear
Of gossip and taunts
From girls going nowhere
Despite their self-assured
Superiority unknown
In my mother’s world

I fought against my mother. Refused her regular advice about clothes and colors. Felt ashamed of her outgoing ways and her polio-scarred body; her face devoid of make-up. Nothing could hide the tremor on the left side of her face. Or the sight of her estranged mother arriving at grade school, dressed like a diva bearing gifts to her royal daughter.

I endured with chagrin and barely suppressed anger her attempts to make my straight thin hair curly and fulsome, like her beautiful auburn hair.

And…she taught me to play the piano. Cook. Clean. Starch and iron clothes. Make beds. Fold towels and sheets. Organize drawers and cupboards. Things her absent mother never taught her.

There’s a saying I remember from my growing-up years. I didn’t care for it; my mother did. Her kitchen wall hanging proclaimed it boldly: “Bloom where you’re planted.” I couldn’t; neither could she.

Two lost souls thrown together. One extroverted, the other introverted. Both lonely; intelligent; eldest daughters; desperate to be loved and heard; musicians from the inside out. Overshadowed and dominated by a world of men. Unable to play and sing our songs freely without fear of having our wings clipped.

And yet…every time I read My mother’s body, I feel a tug at my heart. Pulling me back toward her. Not out of pity, but with understanding that’s still taking root in me. Softening me toward her and toward myself. Especially when I’m playing the piano, and feel some of her musicality playing through me.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 February 2019
Photo of winter snowdrops found at pinterest.com

My mother’s body

Time
and again
This is my body
broken

My mother’s body
haunts me
A living reminder

I stare through windows
wondering
how we traveled
so lonely
for so long

Misplaced
inadvertent flowers
bloom
without rhyme or reason
out of season
now out of time

Looking
into a mirror
I catch her
watching me
wondering

Lost birds
flutter on the ground
unable to spread
their wings and soar
together

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 January 2019
Painting by Natalya Zaytseva; found at ssatchairt.com

My Mother’s Depression

My mother’s depression
Is not my depression

It doesn’t belong to me
Nor did I invite it in to stay
Yet it lives in me now and again
A link to this woman who bore me

Deftly intertwined it moves
As though it were mine
A weight I bear unbidden
My lot in this half-life

What would it be like
To let it go as an alien?
To visit without falling into the pit?
To understand it from her point of view?

I’ve been turning things like this over in my mind and heart for the last week. The insight isn’t mine. It’s a gift from a friend who has walked with me for several decades.

‘My’ depression isn’t mine. Yes, it’s real and present. Yet it was and still is my mother’s deep depression, fed by my father’s behavior toward her and toward me.  The sad price of being a gifted white woman in post-depression (ironic) and post-World War II life in the USA.

Held back, kept in check, insanely busy with housework and babies, submissive preacher’s wife, versatile church musician without a pay check, resourceful volunteer ever ready to help others in return for nothing, cheery and even-tempered, industrious and persistent, she held it all together in her bent and broken body.

Uncomplaining, weary, in pain 24/7 and depressed. Sometimes crying herself to sleep. Other times waking with horrifying cramps.

My heart goes out to her today in ways it couldn’t years ago.

Yet I can’t accept her depression as my depression. It isn’t mine. This one insight invites me to stay connected to her reality without making it my reality. I can only breathe my air, not hers.

These days it seems ever more acceptable to trash women of all colors and make them into problems they are not. In response, I want to do justice to the woman my mother was while showing mercy to her as the woman she could not be or become.

She was not the problem then, just as I am not the problem now.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 November 2018
Book cover photo found at bookdepository.com

Searching for what we’ve lost

Sit with it
Let it sink in
Recall the day and hour
The occasion

Sounds and faces
Sunday meeting clothes
Dressed up but not too much
For his memorial service

It’s already late in the day
Hungry for time
We linger with each other
Searching for what we’ve lost

Are we ready for this
What will we do now
His passing long anticipated
Sinks with the setting sun

How are you
I’m so glad you came today
I thought this nightmare
Would never end

Written after I looked at family pictures from my father’s memorial service. I wanted to distract myself and stop the tears that welled up. Instead, I decided to write it out.

My father’s dying was long and tormented. Chiefly due to his stubborn insistence on doing things his way, even though his body wouldn’t go there anymore. I often wished he had gone first, before my mother. But that didn’t happen. He was 96 years old. I was 66. The year was 2010.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 August 2018 

Complicity and Rotten Apples

For decades I’ve listened to well-meaning friends and strangers telling me to get over it. They weren’t always that blunt, but I knew what they meant. Something like this…magnified through my own shame-based filters:

It’s time to move on with your life. We’re tired of hearing about the same old struggle. When are you going to get a life? Can’t you see how easy it is?!

I don’t fault friends or strangers who’ve urged me to move on. They want the best for me. All I have to do is walk away and don’t look back. The way many of them did.

Yet it seems I have nothing to walk toward except more of those heart-breaking, mind-bending head trips I’ve been on all my life.

Besides, it doesn’t matter what others think about me. What do I think about myself?

From grade school on, academic pursuits were my salvation. They kept me busy. They gave me something tangible to hang onto, plus a fleeting sense of self-worth even though I was running away or lost. I’ve known this for years. Nothing new here.

Recently a friend of many years suggested I’m still complicit with my father’s shaming and silencing of my voice. It still eats me up, from the inside out. Like a rotten apple, it tries to spoil the entire barrel.

She was correct. The shamed-based atmosphere in which I grew up now lives in me, passed on by my father. I have no doubt this is a generational gift of poison.

So I’m back to my childhood with this correction: I did not have a childhood. It was stolen from me before I knew what was happening. Instead, I became a substitute mother (to my three sisters), and grew up labeled as a ‘rebellious, stubborn’ eldest daughter who needed to have anger beaten out of her.

Furthermore, though I enjoyed my children as they grew up, joining in their childhood games didn’t give me the childhood I never had.

So…how do I find what I didn’t have, and how do I stop my internal voice that wants to shame me into silence?

Meet Baby Elouise! No, I don’t have a picture. I bought her over a week ago. Why? Because I’m determined to find and take back what was stolen from me.

My job is to love and listen to the little girl and adult woman I am despite all efforts, including my own, to silence or redirect me. Baby Elouise is helping me move in the right direction.

To be continued….

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 August 2018
Photo taken by Sherry Fraser Seckington, June 2016 – from their garden

Somewhere she waits

Surfacing above deep waters
Her body a hieroglyphic vision
Of life’s subterranean journey
Through unseen landscapes
Sacred and scarred
Inspected and celebrated
Not for character or fame
But for enduring and surviving
An endangered relic
Visited periodically
In a backwater museum
Somewhere she waits

For all senior citizens periodically celebrated for living yet another year. Keepers of wisdom and history, we’ll never know them unless we ask and listen with our hearts and minds wide open. No matter how foreign, slow or garbled the language. Old age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. It is, nonetheless, an often ignored tablet of history that shaped, blessed and haunts us.

I wrote the poem after looking at a recent photo of my Aunt’s 91st birthday party. She has multiple daughters and sons who care for her. Not all are so blessed. Though even when blessed, it’s painfully possible to be seen without being heard.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 April 2018
Ukrainian Black Ink Drawing found at 123rf.com

Keeping on the sunny side

Last night I opened my journal to make a short entry about the day—generally gray and dismal, including a computer-related crisis. Instead, this is what came out:

A thought just came to me. I’m almost afraid to write it down.

For every day and night I live without Alzheimer’s, I want to be grateful – and take advantage of things that bring me joy. I don’t want to live each day under a growing cloud of fear and anxiety about my future or our future [mine and D’s].

I grew up consumed by anxiety, dread and fear. They followed me every day of my life. They were in the air, even when we were having fun. Never too much fun, of course.

I enjoy life, and I generally enjoy being myself and not someone else. Yet often hanging over all of it are clouds of anxiety, dread or fear.

Today it’s easy to point to fear of Alzheimer’s as the chief culprit. But it isn’t. Sometimes it seems I inherited a gene that predisposes me to the dark side of life.

I can’t stop the bad stuff from happening, and I can’t get back what I’ve already lost.

So instead of focusing on what might happen today or tomorrow, I’m choosing to focus on things that bring me joy. No matter how small or ordinary they may seem to others.

If you’re scratching your head wondering why this is such a revolutionary thought, I don’t blame you.

In my family of origin, community and church settings, the struggles of life were often celebrated and even rewarded with attention. Or so it seemed to me. The fun stuff was cake and ice cream we might get to enjoy someday if we were good girls.

I’m choosing instead to feast right now on the sunny side of life. With gusto and without apology, no matter how small or insignificant my choices seem to anyone else.

As for the other stuff, it is what it is. I can’t make it go away. I can, however, shower it with small gifts of joy and delight as often as possible.

Thanks for listening!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 26 July 2018
Keep on the Sunny Side found on YouTube
Live performance by The Whites and Jerry Douglas (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou arrangement)

Old photos never die

They just fade away….

One moment captured forever
silent witness to hopes and dreams
never realized

This is my parents’ formal wedding portrait taken 75 years ago today, 13 September 1942 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

shattered lives
fall apart unplanned
two people bound to each other

I often wonder how my parents felt when they looked back at this lovely photo. They look happy, wealthy (they were not), supremely ready for whatever came next (they were not).

Within months, my father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and put into a sanatorium full of other TB patients. If he wanted to get well, he had to remain bed-bound for months, visitors strictly limited and regulated. If he didn’t keep the rules, all bets were off. His roommate couldn’t take the pressure of lying there. He died of TB. My father took a lesson from him and lay there, resolved.

In the meantime, I was born in November 1943, several months after my father went off to live in the sanatorium. He came home when I was 10 months old. A stranger to me, as I was to him. I was not the son he wanted.

My mother walked to the hospital when she went into labor, and then cared for me with the help of a family in the portrait above. We were living in their house at that time. The Hancox family included Mom’s maid of honor (“Aunt” Wyn), her flower girl (Wyn’s only child), and the man who gave Mom away, “Uncle” Ed. He’s standing just behind Mom and Aunt Wyn.

My maternal grandfather did not approve of this marriage and chose not to attend. He lived in California. I don’t remember the name of the man who served as my father’s best man.

My parents married with the blessing of a mission agency that would, if all went well, send them to Africa. While out speaking on behalf of this agency, my father came down with TB, which put in jeopardy the great plan to go to Africa. Five years and three babies later, my mother contracted polio–most likely from our new sister who was only 6 months old.

That was the end of being missionaries. I don’t think it was the end of mother’s world. She had her hands full.

It was, however, the end of my father’s hope of being somebody who mattered, especially in the church. He grieved this missed opportunity all his life. Which isn’t to say he would have made an outstanding missionary.

My mother, a polio survivor, musician and committed extrovert, did her best to care for four daughters in near-poverty circumstances. When it came to talking about regrets, she would have none of it, even though she lived with constant physical pain.

I love looking at the photo above. It shows my parents at their best. Looking out, as we all do, on what we hope will be a bright tomorrow. I’m grateful to have this marker of their happiness.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 September 2017
My Parents’ formal wedding portrait, 13 September 1942

Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Penchant

Living in a haze

Living in a haze
of trance-like ghosts
we move through life
reenacting scenes
from childhood
played by ear
with great skill
and small vision

I’ve been thinking about my father, and the strangle-hold of symbolic behaviors I adopted in order to survive with my will intact.

My father lived in a haze of his own trance-like ghosts and scripts. A small world in which he was determined to survive my grandfather’s brutality.

Almost invisible and automatic, his ghosts and scripts drove him to replay the roll he learned by heart as a child. He hoped to keep himself safe, and demonstrate his superiority without disrespecting his father.

When he was in his 80s, Dad shared with me a recurrent dream. It troubled him greatly. So much that he sometimes began crying as he talked about it. The dream returned from time to time right up to his death at age 96.

In the dream, he’s in a physical fight with his father. Fighting for his life. No one else is in the room. It seems they’re in a barn. Both my grandfather and my father were tall, strong men shaped by years of hard physical labor on family farms.

Eventually, Dad wrestles his father to the floor, wins the match, and wakes up, caught in a nightmare of guilt and self-judgment. He disrespected his father. A cardinal sin, according to Dad. According to him, just having the dream proved his guilt.

Taking the measure of my father’s struggle against his guilt and self-judgment, along with his early, harsh judgment of me, helps me understand him. It doesn’t take away any blame for what he did.

It does, however, invite me to pray to our Creator, “Forgive him, for he knew not what he did.” Dad lived in the haze of his own trance-like ghosts and scripts. Unable to see beyond his own survival.

This also invites me to face my trance-like ghosts. Scenes from childhood played by ear with great skill and small vision of myself and others.

It’s Good Friday. A good day for self-examination and forgiveness.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 April 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Measure

rugged road signs

David and John in Kansas

Dad on the right with his older brother, farming in the Midwest, 1920s or 30s.

they journeyed
by rugged road signs
each with its distinct
look and character
weather-beaten
numbered and lettered
pointing the way
luring them on
from here to there
over miles of unexplored
wilderness and wasteland Read the rest of this entry »

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