Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Memories

Thank you, Anita Hill

I’m reposting this in honor of women who stand up to power today,
and in light of news about the Harvey Weinstein case.
 

In October 1991 I listened to your courageous testimony about Clarence Thomas. Your words took me back to my first boss. It was 1960. I’d just graduated from high school and was now a clerk in a bankruptcy court. We called the boss ‘Judge,’ though he was actually a referee in bankruptcy. He’d held this governmental appointment for years. He was about 60 years old; I was 16.

By 1991 I’d told only my husband the truth about my first boss. From the beginning, the Judge was on a mission to take me down a notch or two by way of sexual innuendo and outright inappropriate behavior toward me. He knew I was under-age, that my father was an ordained minister, and that I was a Christian. He said he was a Christian, too, and reminded me from time to time of his church membership.

I didn’t know what hit me. I got through three summers plus one full year, thanks to the friendship of other women working in the office, and the kindness of a few male attorneys who knew the Judge and witnessed some of his behavior toward me.

Back then the term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented, or connected to Abuse of Power as an issue in the workplace. In addition, my childhood home where I still lived didn’t offer a safe place to talk about anything related to sex.

Flash forward to October 1991, and your testimony before the Senate Committee. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude for at least two things.

  • First, your personal account was the first I’d ever heard from a professional woman talking about repeated sexual innuendo and inappropriate behavior in the work place.
  • Second, your courage gave me courage to begin talking about this without fear or shame.

I’m sad this happened to you. I’m sad things happened to me. I’m sad things like this still happen every day to others.

Am I angry? Yes, I am. Angry that even in today’s reports from powerful women about powerful men, we’re still using the language of “if this is true.” Which conveniently overlooks the power imbalance that was in place when the alleged behavior happened. To say nothing of optics and the appearance of evil that seems now to be embraced, not avoided. Embraced, and laughed at in a zillion cartoonish ways.

We are not the world’s latest sleazy entertainment opportunity. We are women with every right to stand up and tell the truth about what happened and didn’t happen to us. And why it must stop now if we’re ever to be Great. Not again, but for the first time ever.

May God grant us serenity to accept what we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Thank you for showing me how this is done. Not just then, but throughout your professional career.

Respectfully,
Elouise Renich Fraser

For a 2016 PBS News Hour video discussion between Gwen Ifill and Anita Hill, click here. It’s outstanding.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 13 November 2017, reposted 25 February 2020
Photo found at gq.com

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

Broken pieces of memories

Broken pieces of memories
Gone forever
Or never there in the first place
Play hide and seek
Inside her tormented mind

Who am I?
Where am I?
What just happened
Or didn’t happen
And where is my mother?
Did she just try to call me
On the phone and you
Hung up on her?

You stand there
Looking at me as though
I should know you
Or remember something about you
That has disappeared
Forever

You say I had an accident
But I don’t remember it
And you don’t have any pictures
So I think you’re lying
Trying to insinuate your way
Into my life if not into
My worldly treasures of which I have
Precious few left

I’m so tired….
When will I wake up and
Remember?
Or better yet,
Never wake up at all….

Written in light of my youngest sister’s recent health emergency. This isn’t directly about her. It’s about our human fragility and how unexpected events might impact our sense of time, place and self-identity.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 January 2020
Image found at steelmit.com

yesterday’s fire

soaring gracefully
young slender aspens stand watch
around charred remains
anonymous yet precious
remnants of yesterday’s fire

***

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 23 January 2020
Image found at wallpaperweb.org
Cabin in a stand of Aspens, Gould, Colorado

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

Tell me tell me | Emily Brontë

Here’s a Monday poem from our other Emily. My comments follow.

Tell me tell me

Tell me tell me smiling child
What the past is like to thee?
An Autumn evening soft and mild
With a wind that sighs mournfully

Tell me what is the present hour?
A green and flowery spray
Where a young bird sits gathering its power
To mount and fly away

And what is the future happy one?
A sea beneath a cloudless sun
A mighty glorious dazzling sea
Stretching into infinity

From selected poems of Emily Brontë, p. 28
Published in Everyman’s Library by Alfred A. Knopf, 1996
© 1996 by David Campbell Publishers Ltd., sixth printing

In this little poem, Emily Brontë asks and answers three questions, each from her childhood point of view. Emily was the 5th of 6 children. She was 3 years old when her mother died of cancer. I don’t know what age she had in mind when she wrote the poem.

The first stanza is about her past. I’m surprised she’s smiling. Yes, the answer points to a lovely ending to a beautiful Autumn day. At the same time, she hears the sound of mourning, already in the air. Winter is coming.

The second stanza is about the present (her childhood present). I’m not sure whether the ‘spray’ is water, or the combined effect of leaves and flowers shooting up from the ground. Perhaps she’s in a meadow or beside the sea (which appears in the final stanza). In either case, a young bird is getting ready to leave the nest and fly away. No hint of mourning in the air.

The third stanza is about the future. By now (in the poem), the child is happy. No hints of mourning, regrets, or the agonies of adult life. And yet this seems the most painful stanza of all despite its happy ending. Perhaps it’s a small window into the hoped-for trajectory of Emily Brontë’s life, and a cautionary note?

I identify with this childhood dream. Once I flew the nest, I believed all would be well. Even the ‘small’ bumps in the road would, in the end, seem like nothing. Little did I know….

And yet this poem isn’t morose. It invites me to remember and hold close my childhood dreams. Not all will come true. Yet there’s that “mighty glorious dazzling sea stretching into infinity.” Who knows what yet will be? In life or in death.

Cheers!
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 January 2020
Photo found at wickipedia.org

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

Monday morning questions

This past week I had a serendipitous moment while shopping for groceries. No kidding!

In the produce department a gentleman stopped me and asked if I was a past president of the seminary where I taught and was dean. I laughed and said no way! I’d been professor and dean, but never president. Nor did I ever aspire to that office.

He laughed with me, and said he’d heard me speak at the seminary. He even remembered what I talked about. I was astonished. He wasn’t one of our students. Today he’s a pastor in this area, and is African American.

In the early 1990s the seminary was challenged by the Rodney King event. Because I was being promoted with tenure, I’d been asked to give the opening academic year address. My title and  text were from Psalm 23, “In the Presence of My Enemies.”  What did we need to do to begin coming to terms with our overt, covert and unrecognized racism?

The bottom line was simple. According to Psalm 23, we’re invited to a table prepared by God. There’s only one hitch. This table is prepared “in the presence of my enemies.” Not God’s enemies, but mine–whether real or perceived. Furthermore, there’s no clear reason to think my real and perceived enemies aren’t included at this table.

So now that we’re sitting at this table prepared for us (the seminary), who’s going to speak first? Who’s willing to break the silence so we can begin getting to know and perhaps better understand and support each other?

This morning I’m thinking about what’s happening all over this world, especially right here in my small territory. I believe God has prepared a table for me in the presence of my enemies–whether real or perceived.

So who’s willing to go first? Am I? How important is it to me? Otherwise, why am I taking up space at the table?

Events of today and last week make this a not so happy Monday. Yet the presence of our Creator in the territory means there’s more going on than meets the eye. Am I, are we, up to the challenge of daring to speak first? Not to talk about others, but to listen to each other and to ourselves. After all, it’s our Creator’s territory, not ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’

Happy Monday, despite the news and noise of the hour!

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 January 2020
Image found at pinterest.com

The last day of November 2019

The last day of November 2019
Greets morning
With peach-colored clouds
Virtually bare deciduous trees
Stalwart conifers flexing their muscles
Almost freezing temperatures
And the weary sigh of voters
Treated nonstop to the latest scoop
Or not depending on their tastes

A waking thought jolts me
Back to this present moment
Ruled by a heart once broken
Now tenderly stitched together
A stunning patchwork of colors
Plus moody longings and
Memory-driven reveries that
Nourish my soul bringing honor
To a heart long overlooked
Now my valiant heroine who
Made it through undeclared wars
And interminable neglects
To say nothing of despisements
Not of my own making

December beckons with promise
Of peace on earth and good will toward all

I want to believe.
Do you?

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 30 November 2019
Artwork by Tarryl Gabel found at artworkarchive.com

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