Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Polio

On My Mother’s Table | Memories

Photo taken in 1948, before Mother came down with polio in 1949
Ruth, Elouise, Dad, Mother, and Grandpa Gury

I’m reposting this in honor of my mother, Eileen Gury Renich, born 12 July 1921.
I often wonder what she would have been like without polio or the pain of her childhood.
It colored everything that happened in my life.

A graceful old table
With fold-down wings
On each side and
Beautiful scrolling
Along the edges
Sits there in the kitchen
Small and old with just enough
Room to turn around

A small pantry hides beneath
stairs to the second floor
A window looks out
Above the small porcelain sink
With ridged sideboard

A small walk-through kitchen
With four doors
Impossible to miss stands
Ready and quick to reach

There on the table they sit
In their permanent space
Neatly arranged on a medium-size
Round tray never messy always tidy
Kept just next to the short wall
Out of the way not in your face
Part of the scenery
Normal things needed daily in
My Mother’s kitchen

Salt and pepper
A sugar bowl and bottle of creamer
Instant coffee and paper napkins
Or were they paper towels
I’m not quite sure
Vitamins and minerals
Aspirin and toothpicks
Small round Rx bottles neatly arranged
At least a dozen sometimes more
Coming and going as needed
New and old as prescribed
One on top of the other
For the latest pain or muscle discomfort
Carefully labeled and marked with her name
Mother’s name only not anyone else’s
Her cafeteria of pain-killers and relaxants
Old friends from polio days plus
New friends added to her
Growing collection of pills or
Were they drugs from
Multiple doctors with multiple solutions

A potent mix of ingredients
For multiple ailments in multiple periods
Of her pain-ridden sleep-deprived life
Sit neatly on the table
Ready at a moment’s notice
Would you please bring me
My phenobarbital and a cup of coffee?
Caffeine and barby doll her friends for life
But at what cost?
Drugs free from a friend’s prescription shop
But at what cost?

* * *

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 July 2015, edited and reposted 12 July 2021,
the anniversary of my Mother’s birth (12 July 1921 – 17 Feb. 1999)

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 July 2021
Tourist photo taken in 1948

Eulogy for Sister #3 – revisited

Diane, Sister #3, is on my mind today. Diane died from ALS in February 2006. Her death was a mixed blessing. A release from imprisonment in her physical body, and a reminder that the ‘good’ life is about more than being free of catastrophic illness. Including Covid-19.

Houston, Texas – 17 February  2006

Diane directed that my remarks today be “personal, with no preachy tones.”  As I thought about what to say, I came up with only one topic that guarantees I’m being personal—that I’m not avoiding the subject Diane knows none of us can avoid when we talk about her.

Remembering Diane’s Body

Diane had a human body—loved by God
A female body:
—The body of God’s beloved daughter child
—Known to Jesus Christ as a sister for whom he died
—A female temple of God’s Holy Spirit on this earth

A one-of-a-kind body:
—Created and sustained by God
—Loved and nurtured by God’s ministering servants here on earth:
——Her husband, two sons and one daughter
——Her large, extended biological family
——Her church family
——Her nursing family
——Even the family collection of dogs

Diane’s life was shaped by bodily infirmity.
—She would hate that I just used that word!

Diane refused to think, act or behave as a person identified by an “infirmity.”
Yet the truth is simple:
—Diane’s life was shaped by loss in her left arm due to polio.

From a parental point of view, Diane’s weak arm was cause for protective measures.

From Diane’s point if view it was cause for excelling in whatever she supposedly couldn’t or shouldn’t do.

Not only would she do all these things,
She would do most of them better than any of us, things like
—Riding a bike, swimming and playing basketball
—Sewing dresses and suits
——not hankies and curtains, but fancy dresses, and suits with tailored blazers
—Then there was photography, not with small, lightweight equipment,
ut with the best possible equipment and attachments she could afford and lug around!

Diane developed an uncanny knack for figuring out how to carry out activities like these without compromising quality or expertise in the slightest.

She also developed an uncanny knack for taking advantage of our parents’ desire to protect her.

Only as an adult did she confess that her habit of disappearing from the house to do yard work (and not housework) was not motivated chiefly by her pure desire to help Daddy.  Rather, she knew neither Daddy nor Mother would send or call her back inside the house for the latest instruction or practice in vacuuming, dishwashing, dish-drying, table setting, ironing or putting clothes away.

To us, Diane’s body was both normal and different—though it all felt pretty normal most of the time.  Certainly not life-threatening.

Then each of us, her three sisters, got a telephone call from Diane in January 1996.
Diane had ALS.  She was direct and clear:
—There is no cure.
—The disease is terminal.
—I’m going to need help.  Lots of help.

Diane’s left arm shaped her as a child, as a young person and as an adult.
Now Diane’s entire body began shaping her and her family,
beginning most painfully with her husband, two sons and daughter,
and reaching out to all of us gathered here today.

For the last 10 years I’ve flown down to Houston about 4 times a year to visit Diane.  But not just to visit her.  I’ve come to witness a journey—Diane’s very personal journey with ALS.  A journey that relentlessly put Diane’s physical body at the center of attention.

As young girls we weren’t encouraged to pay much attention to our bodies. 
Bodies were a necessary but usually uncomfortable necessity—especially female bodies.  Now, with ALS, Diane was consumed by what was and was not happening in her body.

She suffered losses beyond comprehension—most in fairly rapid succession over a period of years, starting with physical losses such as mobility, ability to care for her own personal needs, eating and swallowing, ability to speak on her own, and breathing. 

She also suffered loss of her position here at the church:
—Loss of her dream of being ordained
—Loss of work and personal relationships as her body more and more seemed to intrude as a difficulty or a problem to be solved
—Loss of time for herself or her family and friends, as personal care began gobbling up hours out of each day
—Loss of privacy:  total and absolute, with only one exception—the thoughts in her mind, which included her life with God
—Loss of little things such as swatting at a mosquito feasting on her neck (as she put it); scratching where it itches; singing in church; being in the middle of the action and making wisecracks

More painfully, she suffered loss of other things such as giving her children a hug, or embracing her husband face to face.  As a female she suffered what most women dread—loss of control over personal presentation of herself:  hairstyle, makeup, body language.  She became the subject of stares and quickly averted eyes.

Diane’s body seemed to be calling the shots.

True to who she already was, however, Diane kept showing up—fully with and in her body marked more and more by ALS.  It was as though she were saying

  • I’m still here—in my body
  • I’m still Diane—in this body
  • I am not whatever you think a terminally ill person should be
  • I am not predictable
  • I am not a saint
  • I’m still Diane!
  • I’m still here and I’m still fully engaged in living–living with ALS
  • I will be who I am—angry, frustrated, filled with anxiety, filled with human longings and everyday needs; direct and clear without being mean
  • I’m dying
  • We need to talk
  • Now

As always, nothing was too sacred for a good healthy laugh.  Especially about her body with its unpredictable body parts, behaviors and small crises:  facial movements, biting her own lip, laughing uncontrollably, head falling over from time to time, drooling from time to time.

Diane continued to be who she already was:
—Determined to speak for herself in her own words, not yours or mine
—Determined to be heard and heeded

She was still directive—now in ways that boggled the mind:
—To-do and Do-not-do lists for family, nurses, friends and strangers
—Rules for how Mom is to be driven in her new van and who gets to say when the rules are being broken (Mom, of course).
—She was still a masterful strategic planner—only now she had to figure out how to get you to do what she could no longer do, but somehow knew must be done.

As always, Diane wasn’t about to fade into the woodwork.  She kept showing up in the flesh—in her ALS-shaped flesh:  at church, in shopping malls, at weddings for her daughter and one of her sons, and even—one month ago, believe it or not, to inspect her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter’s new home.

Diane remained insistent that she be given choices, and that her choice was the final choice:
—Clothes and accessories for church
—Medical options
—What to keep and what to discard from the kitchen cupboards
—Which movie to watch
—And how this service today would be shaped,
——including the names of all active male pallbearers
——and the names of all 25 honorary female pallbearers!

Diane made her concrete mark in, with and through her concrete, ALS-shaped body.
To deny she was among us in the flesh would be to deny her existence.

To some extent, each of us gathered here to honor and grieve her passing has been a witness.  So many of you are so full of memories.  I can’t speak for you and I won’t get preachy, but I will be confessional:

  • I’m listening, God, for what my relationship to Diane means for the rest of my life in this world you love so much.  Amen.

Eulogy delivered 17 February 2006, © Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 February 2006
Blog post © Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 April 2014

Mom and Auntie T | 1950s

Mom with first three daughters; dresses and hair by Mom, 1950s 

It’s 1951. Our ‘new’ house on the Vernon River feels like a fairy tale. Fireplaces on both floors, huge pieces of heavy dark furniture, woven cane mats covering dark wooden floors—often with rugs on top of the mats.

Both floors facing the river had screened-in porches, with rocking chairs on the first floor porch. They also had tall French windows that opened onto the porches facing the Vernon River.

The old frame house stood on stilts so water didn’t leak into the first floor. Almost every room in the house had an old steam radiator plus a fireplace.

I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. Even better, this was now (sort of) ‘our’ house. Including the dark brown oiled pine slats covering the living room and dining room walls. Heaven for sure.

Until it wasn’t.

Looking back, I can’t imagine what Mom went through. The house didn’t come with a house-cleaner. Mom could do it all, with her three daughters (soon to be four). Surely that would do for servant-power. With Mom in charge of course.

Except she wasn’t.

Auntie T and her husband Dr. T lived in the old slave quarters just behind the big house. Too small for Auntie T’s fancy furniture. So there most of it sat for us to use—and keep clean. Not according to Mom’s already high standards, but according to Auntie T’s higher standards. The kind that got reviewed every time Auntie T dropped by to see how things were going.

Mold grew on the lovely dark pine walls, on books and on dark wood furniture. Dust and pollen accumulated on the porch, and on the linoleum covered grand hallway from the back to the front of the house. Auntie T’s clean white handkerchief found every speck! No matter what Mom did, there was always something she needed to do better.

I think Auntie T was trying to turn Mom into a respectable White Southern Lady. I didn’t often hear Mom complaining. She knew who buttered her bread. Still, in my eyes Mom was the most efficient, organized person in the world.

Looking back, I’m chagrined. We moved to Georgia because Mom was recovering from a serious case of polio. Our California mission house (with 4 to 5 families, and constant guests from abroad) was like a circus. Mom needed to rest and recuperate.

In Savannah, she frequently rested in the middle of the day, sometimes crying softly to herself. Maybe the money was running out, or there wasn’t enough food for supper, or Dad still wanted a son. Or maybe she felt trapped by Auntie T’s expectations and intrusiveness.

Bottom line: Mom didn’t know how to tell us why we weren’t to play with our new black friend. I’m guessing Auntie T’s helper didn’t hesitate to report this to her eldest daughter. Even so, I can’t prove it.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 18 August 2020
Photo taken by JERenich at Montgomery house, near Savannah, Georgia, 1950s.

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

Meet my Ms Moxie

I was only 8 or 9 years old when Auntie Rose Payne waltzed into my life. Well sort of. Even though she was very short, Auntie Rose dominated everything when she entered a room. She had a nonstop smile and sparkling eyes. She also delivered, unrequested, nonstop cheery comments, spoke loudly and often, and didn’t seem to care what people thought about her.

From my perspective, this was astonishing. At first I could scarcely understand a word she said. Worse, I couldn’t help sneaking frequent peeks at her lame leg that carried her along in huge lurches. One of her shoes had super-thick soles. But even that didn’t give her a level, evenly matched, pain-free stride.

I still see her walking ahead of me, swinging along in her off-beat gait. Her overloaded purse hangs from the crook of her right arm, a large Bible clutched tightly in her other arm. She swings along unevenly, rising and falling as her body ascends and descends with a jolt. Strange-looking orthopedic shoes help a bit, but don’t resolve her gait.

Never once did I hear Auntie Rose complain or see her downcast. That wasn’t her style. She preferred upbeat and onward Christian soldiers! In my presence she never stopped smiling, and she never stopped calling me ‘Love,’ even though she also knew and called me by my first name.

Auntie Rose was a polio survivor, an immigrant from Australia, and a visiting home nurse. She was bright, savvy and adventuresome. Unafraid of anyone or anything. When she entered a room she commanded attention. Especially if she spotted or even heard about anything that was out-of-order in our behavior.

Auntie Rose and my mother hit it off from the beginning. They bonded. Both lived with the crippling effects of polio, as did my sister Diane. Both were incorrigible extroverts. And Auntie Rose had a way of making everything fun or looking on the bright side even when it seemed bleak.

About ten years after D and I married, we visited Savannah and happened to run into Auntie Rose. She was just leaving church on a Sunday morning. She hadn’t changed a bit; she’d just grown a bit older. We stood there chatting about our wedding and what we were now doing in our lives.

As we moved on, Auntie Rose stopped several lively young boys who’d just come out of Sunday School. She smiled at them cheerfully, called them “Love,” and gave them a proper refresher on how to walk safely on public property!

I’d like to think some of Auntie Rose’s moxie rubbed off on me. Not just as the adult I am today, but as the little girl I was yesterday. Even though it sometimes got me into trouble.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 July 2017
Response to WordPress Daily Prompt: Moxie

On My Mother’s Table | Memories

A graceful old table
With fold-down flaps
On each side
Beautiful scrolling
Along the edges
Sitting there in the kitchen Read the rest of this entry »

The Dean and I | Part 10

Anthony's Pier 4, boston-waterfront-anthonys-pier-4_2
Anthony’s Pier 4 Restaurant, Boston Waterfront
(now closed)

Spring 1968.  Mr. Griswold asks D and me to house-sit for him for up to one year. I tell Mr. Griswold I’m pregnant, thinking he might change his mind. He doesn’t. In fact, would D and I be able to move in by early June?

D and I talk it over. We also talk with friends from New Zealand. They plan to return to New Zealand with their baby right after Christmas. We’re at the top of the list for their spacious apartment near the university. Good news, since Mr. Griswold isn’t sure how long he’ll need to have us house-sitting.

Yes, D and I can move in by early June. Mr. Griswold invites us to supper so they can show us the house. Nothing fancy. No need to dress up. Yes, I’m nervous! Is this really happening?

I’ve met Harriet Ford Griswold before, but usually at official social events. She asks about Diane’s and Mom’s polio histories, and tells us her polio history. She’s a woman of great courage.

The house is set up so Mrs. HFG can be as independent as possible. A cook helps with dinner, and a cleaning woman comes every so often. The rest of the time Mrs. HFG is on her own. Even when Mr. G is present she doesn’t expect or want him to do what she can do. She goes into detail about how she gets along by herself most of the time. I wonder whether she’s lonely.

The house is in a residential area, sits on a hill overlooking Boston, and has a yard full of trees. Most impressive, it has a small enclosed elevator for Mrs. HFG. There’s an old piano I’m welcome to play, though hasn’t been tuned for years.

Beyond that, there’s a ground level back door entrance, and doors throughout most of the house are wide enough for a wheelchair. Mr. G keeps the thermostat well below 65° Fahrenheit at night. I think he expects us to conserve energy. Which we do.

The move is easy. We pack our clothes and kitchen, box the books, throw everything into the back of our VW squareback and drive off.

Back at the office
My co-workers know I’m pregnant, and that D and I are going to house-sit. I have my ‘interview’ with the future interim dean. He sees no reason to let me go, and tells me to stay on as long as I’m able. I’m relieved.

In May, Mr. Griswold takes our office staff out to lunch, with spouses or special friends. We drive to Anthony’s Pier 4 Seafood Restaurant, a favorite with everybody. We have one last lobster feast (pick your own lobster from the tank as you come in), and tell stories about working with Mr. Griswold.

It’s the end of an era. Mr. Griswold is retiring, and the university is going to build a modern law school building, just behind Langdell Hall. The law library will stay in Langdell Hall. The offices we’re in will become part of the new library, but not until I’m gone. I love Langdell Hall.

I continue working until two weeks before my due date in late August. No health problems. Just Boston heat and time out as needed to put up my legs, relax, drink water and make trips to the ladies’ room.

In early August, EW hosts a raucous farewell celebration and baby shower for me at her home. Her round dinner table is filled with friends from work, plus D and a few other spouses. Mr. Griswold is already busy in Washington, D.C.

A few days after the farewell party I receive a hand-written letter from Mr. Griswold. It’s on his new letterhead: The Solicitor General, Washington. Erwin N. Griswold.

I read it several times, stunned by what he says. I show it to D, then put it away. It’s a treasure I don’t know how to unpack just yet. I don’t look at it again for years.

I’m less than one week from delivering our first child.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 14 April 2015
Photo credit:

The Dean and I | Part 2

Dean's Office Langdell 2,1965

Mr. Griswold’s office, 1965

A grandfatherly looking gentleman opens his office door and comes out to greet me. He’s wearing a plain dark gray suit and a tie. He has graying hair and a serious yet friendly face. I like his unassuming demeanor. This is not what I expected. Read the rest of this entry »

James DePreist’s Precipice Garden

I’m looking at This Precipice Garden, a slim volume of 42 poems written by James DePreist. One of my friends gave it to me in 1988. I’d never heard of DePreist.

James DePreist was African-American. Born in Philadelphia on November 21, 1936. Nephew of Marian Anderson, also a Philadelphian and role model for young black musicians. When he died in 2013 he was 76 years old.

DePreist’s life was shaped by two realities: Read the rest of this entry »

frozen in memory

frozen in memory
erupting without warning
dear earth gasps for air

* * * * *

sounds of

no words
no breath
no time Read the rest of this entry »

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