Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Fathers and Daughters

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

Old survival habits die hard

Dear Friends,

Over two years ago I began working on issues I still had with my father who died in 2010. These weren’t just childhood issues, but things that affected me as an adult.

During the last few months I’ve been distressed about something I thought I shouldn’t or couldn’t do. Why not? That was the issue.

My reluctance began, but didn’t end with my father’s voice reigning me in. Even though he’s not around, I still hear a voice trying to hold me back. Many voices have tried to reign me in all my life. Sometimes they succeeded.

Yet the sad truth is this: They could not have succeeded had I not already internalized by father’s voice as my voice.

So why is this so difficult for me today as the woman I am right now?

Simply put, I have cared too much about what other people think of me, beginning but not ending with D. This is almost unbelievable to me, even though I know it’s true. I’ve lived my life (as a preacher’s daughter, seminarian, professor and dean) under a microscope of male and female scrutiny, not all of it pleasant. Plenty of people have wished me gone. Not necessarily dead; just gone. Far away.

So here I am today with a wish for myself. I can’t shake it off, and I can’t accomplish it in secret.

I miss seeing and worshipping with friends from my former church. The church is less than a mile from our house. I want to worship with them from time to time.

I also have wonderful friends at the church I attend with D. So what to do?

I’ll attend both churches, though not on the same Sunday. From time to time you’ll see me here or you’ll see me there. Or, if you live far away, especially across the great pond or down under, you probably won’t see me anywhere–for which I’m very sad indeed.

With thanks to all the strong women, men and children who’ve encouraged me to be the grownup I am.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 October 2019
Photo of Sisters #1 and 2 in Easter dresses, with Parents, taken in Seattle, WA, 1946/7

An Emptiness

Hollowed out by loneliness
Overflowing with farm animal stories told and retold
Filled with edgy impatience when you were not holding forth
An aching emptiness devoid of compassion or empathy
For yourself or others who pleased you not
Constantly dreaming of unachievable plans and goals
A my way or the highway kind of man
Stalking happiness but rarely finding it in my presence
Convinced the world of regular people was as hollow
As your own unfulfilled plans and dreams
An empty cup unable to overflow
With blessings of praise or the joy
Of looking into your four daughters’ eyes
Without seeing the son you never had
Fighting to the bitter end to have things your way
Surrounded by people who cared for you
Even when you cared not for them
An off-tune cymbal full of noisy clanging
Signifying the agony of your debilitating shame and loneliness

How sad to love a father who never learned to love himself.
How horrifying to hear the bleakness of his life growing up.
How painful to know things might have been different.

I love my father.
I have forgiven him to the extent I’m able.
I am not the Judge of all the earth.
I pray for his soul and his redemption,
and that he is learning in death to love himself
as he has been loved.

This poem is my attempt to describe what I now see in my father. It’s based on my relationship with him from 1943 (the year I was born) until his death in 2010. He was 96 years old, months from turning 97. I was 66, months from turning 67.

Many thanks to Mary Oliver for her poem, A Bitterness. It got me wondering what I might write about my father from my perspective today.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 25 September 2019
Image found at vocal.media

A Bitterness | Mary Oliver

This poem by Mary Oliver hooked me a few months ago. I think it’s about her father. In Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary describes what she did in order to have a life of her own. This included taking a different route in life than her father took. In this poem, she describes his life as she understands it after his death.

A Bitterness

I believe you did not have a happy life.
I believe you were cheated.
I believe your best friends were loneliness and misery.
I believe your busiest enemies were anger and depression.
I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.
I believe comfort, though you craved it, was forever a stranger.
I believe music had to be melancholy or not at all.
I believe no trinket, no precious metal, shone so bright as your bitterness.
I believe you lay down at last in your coffin none the wiser and unassuaged.
Oh, cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.

© by Mary Oliver in 1992; published by Beacon Press in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, winner of The National Book Award; poem found on p. 43

I wonder what Mary Oliver’s father would say about this description. It strikes me as a perceptive and honest lament. This is the father she left in order to save her own one precious life. It’s also the bitter man who never found the comfort he craved.

In the last lines, Mary Oliver points to the strange disconnect between his ‘cold and dreamless’ world (in life and in death), and the beautifully wild yet peaceful flowers now covering the ground above his coffin. The contrast couldn’t be more painful.

As a young girl, Mary Oliver endured brutal mistreatment from her father. Her poem entitled “Rape” leaves no doubt. Nonetheless, Mary Oliver’s relationship with her father didn’t disappear. She comes back to it in several poems in this collection.

In this poem, she points to a sad irony about her father. Here he rests, “cold and dreamless under the wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful flowers of the hillsides.” Clueless about what he missed in life and, even more painful, what he missed in his daughter’s life. All because of his undying bitterness.

The poem reminds me of my father, and the circumstances that shaped his outlook on life and on me. What poem might I write about my father? What might be his identifying characteristic? If not ‘bitterness,’ then what? And how does that affect me today?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 September 2019
Photo found at fineartamerica.com

On listening to my father

My father’s shame, like mine, went back to his childhood. He endured family hardships as one child of many. These included things like carrying lard sandwiches to school and being ashamed to let classmates see him eating them; wearing winter ‘shoes’ made from pieces of old rubber and ropes; and living in fear of being shamed and beaten by his father.

Childhood shame became envy. One opportunity after another slipped through his fingers. He was a proud man, filled with deep-seated resentments. Then there were dreams he couldn’t give up even though they weren’t going to happen. On top of this, the older I became, the more difficult it was for him to celebrate my accomplishments.

In this slightly revised poem I’m inviting him to join me. I first wrote it about a poor woman in a portrait. I recognized myself in her. I know what it’s like to live with shame that feeds envy. I can’t change what happened between my father and me; I can, however, change the way my heart sees him today. I can also listen to him now in ways he couldn’t listen to me. Perhaps I might even weep with him.

Suffering from Obsessive Envy

I know this proud man
The look in his eyes
The slightly raised brow
The unsmiling mouth.

Heavy with envy,
His eyes keep sharp watch
Marking my own good fortune
As were it his loss.

Am I not entitled?
Do I not slave harder?
How dare she be happy
At my poor expense.

Dear father, I know you.
You cower in my heart;
Your anger, your silence,
Your pride, your fierce want.

Look at me if you dare
Look me straight in the eye
Describe your resentments,
The dreams you saw die.

Weep long if you must
For the life you have led;
Sit here on this bench
Let me wipe your tears dry.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 February 2019

For tongue-tied women of a certain age

Oh, Honey!
How polite we’ve been
All these years
Voices tripping lightly
Over rotten eggshells
And around huge cow pies
Plopped in our paths
Unceremoniously
By fawning faces
And genteel souls
Killing us softly with
Promises and thinly veiled
Threats cold and dagger-sharp

These words came springing to mind yesterday afternoon. Here we are in the 21st century, deep into the age of Trump, and I’ve been taught to be polite. To defer to those in authority over me, and keep my mouth shut.

Not that I’ve always been a good white girl. Still, on the scale of niceness I’ve probably been about 9 out of 10 on the side of the angels. Especially when dealing with men intent on keeping me in my place (wherever that is), or promising me heaven on earth.

Strangely, my father comes to mind, right up there with my worst boss ever and other men who tried over the years to shame or sweet-talk me into compliance with their wishes.

Today I’m wondering what I have yet to say to my father. Not to scorn or shame him, but to turn the tables and own the power of my voice. Along with the power of truth and good will. Not just for his sake, but for mine.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 February 2019

My Best Boss Ever – Labor Day

Griswold Letter to ERF

This morning I woke up thinking about My Best Boss ever: Erwin N. Griswold, Dean of the Harvard Law School, and Solicitor General under President Lyndon Johnson. I worked for him at Harvard Law School for three short years, my first job after D and I married in September 1965.

Most of all, I thought about the letter Mr. Griswold wrote to me. It’s pictured above. A letter totally unlike any letter my father wrote to me. I’ve added a typed version of the text at the end of this post.

Mr. Griswold became my employer at the beginning of my marriage to D in September 1965. We’d just moved from Savannah, Georgia to Cambridge, Massachusetts. We didn’t know anyone. D began a graduate program at Harvard, and I needed a job.

I walked over to Harvard and filled out a form. Mr. Griswold’s office called me and I answered. The best boss ever, though I didn’t know it back then. After three years, I resigned to give birth to our first child.

So today I’m thinking about baby Marie, and how to get in touch with her first 10 months of life. That’s 10 months before The Intruder, my father, arrives on the scene. I want a cloud of witnesses, not to me as I am now, but to me as I’ve always been. I’ve already identified Diane, Sister #3 who died of ALS, as a witness, even though she was born later than I.

This morning I realized I have a strange surrogate father in Mr. Griswold. Why? He wasn’t simply the Best Boss Ever. He was like a father to me, though I didn’t realize it back then.

You can see this in the letter at the top (quoted below). His note stands out for reasons I can’t even explain, except for this: Mr. Griswold saw, named and celebrated the 10-month old child in me, now grown up. The Intruder didn’t destroy me.

Today is Labor Day here in the USA, a day to celebrate workers. I’m proud to have been a worker, and proud to say I worked for Mr. Griswold as one of his secretaries.

Below is the text of Mr. Griswold’s handwritten note.

The Solicitor General, Washington

Erwin N. Griswold, August 12, 1968

Dear Elouise,

I am sorry that I could not be at your farewell party at the Law School, and I do want to send you this note in honor of the occasion.

In all my years at the Harvard Law School, I expect I had close to twenty girls working for me. All were good, some were better, a few were extraordinarily good, indeed, and of all of them you were the best. Your ability was of the highest order, your intelligent contribution to the work was unexcelled, and your calm and matter of fact and unperturbed approach was unique. I was blessed in many ways at the Harvard Law School, but that I should have had you to work with the last two years was more than I deserved.

If there had been any prospect that you could stay on, I would have done all I could to push you on and up. You were worthy of the highest recognition—and always, without fail. It was a very satisfying experience for me and I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am.

Now you go on to a new phase of your life where I know that you will excel, too. But as you go on, I hope it will give you some satisfaction to know that I thought your were superlative—both as a secretary and as a person.

With best wishes to you and David, and my very great thanks.

Erwin Griswold

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 3 September 2018

morning alarm and my father’s shame

chasing me from bed
sun rays dance across my face
catbirds clear their throats

Today is Thursday. Market day. And there I was this morning, sound asleep. What a wonderful feeling. My sleep patterns have inched in the right direction for the last several months, and last night was the best yet.

The Market will wait. It’s almost time for lunch, and I’m just poking along without shame, enjoying the sun (not yet too hot) and the morning light. And thinking about my father and me. And shame. Partly because of recent posts about how women and girls are often shamed, and partly because Sunday is Father’s Day here in the USA.

I woke up thinking about my father’s shame. It was there long before I arrived. Shame about his father mercilessly shaming him. Shame about his face and crooked teeth that weren’t as handsome as he thought he might have been. Shame about not having at least one son. Shame about his social awkwardness and so much more.

From the moment I was born, my father’s shame was in the air. I believe it began with his father passing his own shame on to my father. I remember suggesting this to him when I was older. He thought my idea was nonsense. Yet I can’t ignore the reality that children are the recipients of unfinished business between their parents and grandparents. My father’s unfinished business was Shame.

From my childhood on, I believe my father projected a heavy dose of his shame on me. Sadly, I could never be the submissive little girl he believed I should be. In addition, my mother was never able (to her shame?) to present to him the son he desperately wanted. Score: 4 daughters, 0 sons. He joked about it sometimes. Yet living with him was no joke.

If there’s one thing I would wish for Dad on Father’s Day, it’s that he would look into a mirror, smile at himself without seeing all his defects, and see instead a man loved and sought by his Creator.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 June 2018
Gray Catbird photo found at Birds of North America Online

The High Cost of Living in the USA | Part 1

From my journal, written 17 December 2017. Lightly edited for clarity.

I’m stunned at how angry I am. Here we are in 2017 and some men and women are still trying to minimize what’s happening in the shadows. They want to change the conversation to the poor men who are being humiliated. I’m fiercely angry. This surprises me, since I thought I’d dealt with this and found a way to connect it with my life as it is now. So that my voice is in charge.

Suddenly ‘their’ voices seem to be in charge. The voices of men who violated other human beings and try to dismiss it all as lies or misunderstandings and get on with their lives. Victims be damned. In fact, let’s sue them! For defamation of character! Lies and half-truths.

I saw this behavior when I confronted my father about his abuse of my body and spirit. In his eyes, I was clearly The Problem. Today I hear almost ritual trashing of women and men who were violated in any number of ways. Forced against their will to do obeisance to a perpetrator. And then paying for it with their silence if not their future careers.

I feel the energy draining away even as I type this. What’s so horrendous is the cost of even beginning to connect with this national tragedy. As great as slavery, in my opinion. Though not the same as slavery. Both realities treat women and some men as another class of beings brought into the world to do someone else’s bidding and keep their mouths shut. What were they thinking???

Christian leaders, politicians of all parties, business leaders, prominent actors and producers, everyday fathers and uncles and grandfathers and brothers and cousins. How can such a degrading reality live for so many generations?

I don’t have the energy for this. Still, I’m horrified at the extent to which some are going to avoid, deny, make light of or even ‘kill’ truth.

The headlines are like poison right now. I avoid them. I don’t want to live in a constant state of internal uproar. I need a clear agenda for what I will and will not do to take care of myself in this national war between the courageous and the cowards who think money and reputation will save them.

Maybe all the ‘everyday’ harassment I experienced, especially at the seminary, wasn’t about how wrong I was, but about how right I was and how strong my voice is. I’ve always felt my voice was weak. Though women and some men found it strong, the overall impression I made on the majority of students was, I think, negligible. And according to some seminary officials, the less I said about controversial matters, the better.

But now I wonder. Was all the commotion about me due to the power of my voice? Were they afraid because they found themselves wanting to agree with me yet were also afraid it might mean the end of their hoped-for careers in church and denominational politics?

I’ll never know. Still, it never occurred to me that opposition to a voice might be a sign of the speaker’s success. Fear is a powerful motivator. Especially if someone is afraid of being labeled a trouble-maker or worse.

Cost: cannot be ascertained, only mourned for all women and men whose voices and creativity were silenced.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 May 2018
Photo found at businessresearcher.sagepub.com

Easter Lilies and Justice

Easter Lilies

Dear Diane,

Easter Sunday always reminds me of you. Not just because you were born on Easter Sunday in 1949, but because the Easter lilies at church always take me back to your funeral service and heaps of Easter lilies around the casket at the front of the church.

Today was no different. I walked in, saw the Easter lilies and tulips, and dissolved into tears as we sang the first hymn. It all came flooding back, along with a story Dad told me when he was in hospice care.

The story was about you and his flower garden in our back yard. Maybe you remember it. That was when we lived on the river. The flower garden had tons of flowers, including Easter lilies and Dianthus, all planted by Dad. He used to say the Dianthus were there because they reminded him of you.

Dianthus

One day Dad noticed that some of his special Easter lilies were missing from his flower garden. When he went back into the house he found them–in flower vases and glass jars here and there!

It didn’t take long to find out you had done this dastardly deed. He said you listened quietly without tears. Then as you turned to walk away you asked, “Where are the flowers for the children?” Cut him to the quick, he said. And I have to admit, he had tears in his eyes as he told the story.

Do you remember that square patch of flowers near the rear of the back yard? It wasn’t very large. Maybe 5 feet wide. It had posts with twine supports for some of the flowers. Most were bright zinnias.

Dad told me, with tears in his eyes, that he planted that flower garden just for the children. We could pick them anytime, as many as we wished. All because you had the guts to ask the most important question of all. “Where are the flowers for the children?”

Today I wonder the same thing. Sadly, we’ve gone downhill when it comes to things for the children. Flowers for the children tend to show up after children or teenagers are killed with guns. Survivors are asking all of us so-called grownups, “Where are the safe places for the children?”

That’s another subject, except for this: It takes guts to stand up and fight for the rights of children and young people. I’m rooting for the children and young people.

Love and hugs, plus Happy Easter and Happy April Birthday—not that you’re counting anymore!
Elouise

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 1 April 2018, adapted from an earlier post
Photo credit: wallpapersup.net (Easter Lilies); robsplants.com (Dianthus)

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