Ghosts Of Christmas Past – Feeling Connected

Baby's First Christmas 1960

Harper Family Christmas - 1960 - Gene, Elizabeth, & Judy

I’ve always been someone who asked a lot of questions so much so that sometimes when I say,”John …” from another room he will answer with, ” Let me ask you something ” repeating words he’s heard me say many times before.

It’s disconcerting for some people, they think I’m being nosy or too intense, but all I really want to know is who they are and what matters most to them.

Years ago, someone said that he wished he could talk to his girlfriend the way he could me. He added that he felt connected to me in a way he wished he could have with her. I told him that I thought questions were important when it came to feeling connected and the reason he felt connected to me was because I’d encouraged him to share who he was by asking the right question.

I said that he needed to ask his girlfriend a few questions that mattered to him and then listen. Ask and listen … don’t think, plan your next question, or worry about having to fix anything, just ask your question and pay attention to the response. I heard later that they got married and from what I see on Facebook, they still look very happy together.

I wish I knew more of what my mother and father dreamed of for their own lives growing up and what kind of life they imagined for me that first Christmas. I wished I’d asked more questions when my father was living and my mother still speaking to me.

Sometimes we think we have forever … another year, another Christmas, another chance to connect and we put off important questions until it’s too late. People die or leave us in some way and the things that need saying are lost or never asked.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Think of the one question you wish you could ask and then consider what’s stopping you and move past it.

Birthday Surprises

Elizabeth's First Birthday - September 10, 1961

This photograph is fifty years old.

Taken September 10, 1961, it’s one of me with my parents, Judy and Gene Harper.

It is a bit faded and blurry, but I’ve seen it so often I think I know it by heart.

For the longest time I focused on the hugeness of the cake preferring its sweetness to a sad memory of a mother with no contact and a father who died too young.

It’s funny how your vision can change as you grow older.

You go along adapting to the shifts that occur with perception and depth until one day you look at a photograph you’ve seen forever and your eyes see something you’ve missed.

Suddenly, this still young family looks different to me.

It’s no longer the size of the cake or the look on my mother’s face that draws me in, but the image of my tiny body leaning ever so slightly towards my dad and my small hand reaching for his.

I never really noticed it before … my hand in his, and it feels like a gift of awareness, a happy birthday of sorts fifty years later from my father to me.


4/16/07 – A VT Mom Remembers

Virginia Tech 4.17.07

We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.

~ Nikki Giovanni

I woke this morning to see this quote on my daughter Miranda’s Facebook page along with a few words of her own noting the significance of this day for her and for many associated with Virginia Tech and its community. She has shared with me some of the private ways she remembers the 32 who died that day and I’m grateful that she has found a way to honor their memory in a way that hopefully gives her some sense of peace.

I say hopefully, and peace, with more optimism than I really feel because I’m not sure how one who has been in the middle of something so violent and unexplainable can ever really let go of some of the questions that have no answers.

This is not the first time I’ve written about this day and likely won’t be the last. I know the events of 4.16.07 have had a lasting impact on my daughter and I worry as a mother does about the silent sorrows that remain hers alone, the thoughts she chooses not share.

My father died 20 years ago, long before Miranda could know him well enough to have any memory of him and for the last few weeks I have been hearing something he wrote. It’s been in my head on an endless repeat cycle almost in the way you hear a tune that won’t go away and I’ve been puzzled as to why until just this minute as I was considering my daughter and how inadequate I’ve felt over the last four years watching her deal with her memories on her own.

People we love reach out to us in their own time or sometimes not at all and if it’s your child, watching from the sidelines can be a difficult position to occupy. I tend to be emotional and very open with my feelings, giving in easily to my tears now after years of holding back. Miranda is more stoic and more like my dad, tender-hearted for sure but private and contained. It’s interesting that I’d not noticed that similarity until today and it comforts me to feel as if my dad were reaching out in a way with some paternal advice reminding me of who I once was and how our positions are now reversed.

The words that have been with me the last few weeks seem perfect in this moment and the meaning clear as I struggle with my own memories and search for ways to support a daughter who seems fine on her own. I am quoting my father when I say to my daughter as he once quietly said to me, ” I am here as you need me. “

And I add to his words my own, saying, ” In this, and in all things, I am here as you need me “

A Georgia Transplant’s Dogwood Days In Cornwall

Dogwood trees in the American south are some of the early signs of spring and one of the things I missed about my home in Georgia when I moved to the UK. I had no idea they grew in Cornwall as my first spring here came and went without the unmistakable explosion of blooming color.

We were well into a month I would normally associate with summer time when I discovered some gorgeous dogwood trees during a garden walk at Lanhydrock, one of my favorite National Trust properties. Noting my delight, my sweet husband John surprised me with one on a birthday trip later that year.

My dogwood has been growing in a pot outside since we brought it home, living through the building extension, waiting to be planted in a place in the garden where I might see it from my desk as I write. Last winter, Cornwall was blasted with freezing temperatures unusual for this part of England and I worried all the way from New Zealand where we were on an extended holiday, that it might die from the cold sitting outside in its container.

A few days ago, John gently cleaned my little tree of all the dead leaves still clinging to its branches and noted as he did so that it had new leaves. I was thrilled to hear this as I had not held out much hope as poorly as it looked a few weeks ago.

I have to thank Mary for her words and beautiful images this morning. Seeing her dogwood trees in flower made me take a closer look at my special tree. While my tiny dogwood is not in full bloom yet, it looks as if it may have flowers for the very first time later this year.

If you click twice on these photos, you can see some texture that reminds me of the fuzzy softness of a newborn lamb’s ears.

I had to add this imperfect photo which turned out to be my favorite. I went outside twice this morning in my robe and bare feet to photograph my tree and ended up loving the way my robe picks up the color in the tiny dot of pink near the bud on the tree. (Click twice to see)

* The burgundy colored robe I’m wearing was my dad’s and has kept me warm on many cold mornings in the twenty years since his death. There’s something kind of special about seeing it sneak into my dogwood picture along with my barefoot completely unnoticed by me until I downloaded the image. I’m usually pretty aware of what else might be happening when I shoot and was pleased to see this one got past me.

Inspire Or Enflame – The Power Of Words

When I was the not so sweet sixteen year old you see below, I thought my dad often talked a load of rubbish. Okay, I would not have used the term, ” load of rubbish ” as that expression has only crept into my daily language since marrying my British husband and moving to Cornwall, but it sounds nicer than what I actually said to him about his way of speaking when I was a teen with an opinion on everything.

Elizabeth Harper - Christmas 1976

I ridiculed my poor father unmercifully about the way he spoke every time he gave me what I saw as a lecture, choosing to focus on how he was speaking rather what he was saying. Looking back, I can see that he was trying to inspire, but his word choices then only enflamed the attitude of a teenage girl who could finally speak her mind without fear of being slapped in the mouth. Having moved to the safety of his home from my childhood house of horrors, I pushed almost every boundary that he and my poor step-mom suggested or imposed.

Soft spoken and always careful to use both good diction and the right words, if he lived here in the UK, one might be tempted to say his speech was a bit ” posh.” I remember many conversations where he would try to impress upon me the importance of speech and the perceptions of others particularly if one had a tendency to sprinkle too much color into a conversation with the use of what I would have referred to as swear words and he would have called profanity.

Pushed to his limit

My father died just over 20 years ago and I can’t remember how many times I’ve told this story since then. It’s been a funny way to share who he was with people who never had a chance to get to know him. People like my daughter Miranda who might have enjoyed a chat with him about her sometimes colorful speech had he lived.

Gene Harper WIth Granddaughter, Miranda

The only time I heard him swear

When I was dating my high school sweetheart, I was so ” Scott this and Scott that ” during those days that I’m sure my dad was concerned about the amount of time we were spending together. First loves can be life changing and I would bet that he was worried about the possibility of things like s-e-x and teen pregnancy.

He would never say it, but I think all of his talk of 11:00 curfews and the safety of not being out too late had something to do how often he would see us in a clinch like the photo above. I’m sure it made him nervous.

Once when I was arguing with him over my desire for a midnight curfew like everyone else, he launched into his safety talk again to which I countered smugly by saying that anything that could happen after 11:00 could also happen before.

I did not let it go at that, but kept pushing, whining on and on about how I was missing out on all the fun things that friends got to do who didn’t have to be in at such an early hour. We were driving down our long gravel driveway having just turned off the main road when I said something that pushed him over the edge and he slammed on the brakes making the car slide briefly on the loose rocks as he said, ” Dammit, Elizabeth! ”

His voice went high in both pitch and volume with his temporary loss of control shocking him into silence. I don’t know what he was thinking in that frustrated moment having been pushed to the point of swearing which was something he never did in my presence and I would guess not at all. Seizing on the opportunity, I slipped in a comment that I thought was funny, but was actually condescending and sarcastic.

My response to my dad’s outburst

Feeling very sure of myself and my quick response, I lobbed a zinger at him saying, ” Pop, if I couldn’t swear any better than that, I wouldn’t do it! ”

As you might imagine, this did not go over well and all conversations about curfew ended with my being grounded for the next month. No dates, no nothing, only school and church and a serious talk later about how not being able to find a better word than a swear one was a sign of a lack of intelligence.

Lack of intelligence

The lack of intelligence talk was one I had heard many times before when I tried to fold swear words into my casual conversations with my father. I can’t remember why I did it, I think shock value must have been a partial reason or wanting to feel as if I fit in with the crowd at school. It’s funny though, I don’t remember using bad language at school because I already knew on some level that the people I wanted to like me were not people who used trashy language.

My view now

I think my dad was partly right about swearing, but I also know that it’s never a black or white situation. The trouble for me occurs when people use it to shock. By people, I am referring in this situation to bloggers and writers I read online.

I find gratuitous swearing a distraction and dislike how it takes me out of the writer’s story. Not because I am prudish or never swear myself, but because based on the overall tone and style of the blogger, it just doesn’t fit. I think the test for me is if I am humming along totally into the writer’s words and bam, there it is, a word that doesn’t fit except in my mind to shock … I tend to lose interest in the blogger.

Which is really less about losing interest and more about losing trust

This is not to say that a writer can’t change their style and shake me up a bit, but it needs to flow, not hit me like a ball I didn’t see coming. If I’ve willingly gone to a baseball game, then I know there’s a chance a ball might come my way, but if I’m just walking past a grassy meadow, on a path I take regularly, and a ball comes out of nowhere and hits me in the head, then I tend to want to avoid walking past the meadow in the future. I might creep back from time to time, but I will certainly be on guard in a way that doesn’t allow me to relax into the story in the way the writer likely intended.

There are also those bloggers I read who are terribly funny and shocking with their bad language and wild stories. I may read in disbelief at times and wonder if sharing what they say and do on the internet might be troublesome later, but I enjoy them because I know what to expect.

Yesterday, I caught an unexpected hard ball to the head. It’s happened before with this blogger and I had gone back even though something was not really right for me. As I said earlier, when someone writes a particular way and then tosses out something that seems purely designed to draw a crowd, it’s like shouting fire when there is none and I don’t trust it. I think this writer has the power to influence and inspire and I am disappointed when it seems her goal is really to start a fire in order to see how many people show up.

As John said yesterday, that’s her choice and I agree with him. Likewise, I have a choice and after dodging one too many balls, I’m leaning towards not to reading her anymore.

I’m tempted to send her an email with a link to this post before I unsubscribe, but I’m not sure any healthy debate would come of it and I’m not interested in uncivil discourse. I am interested in hearing your thoughts. Have any of you encountered a similar situation and if so, what did you do? Did you say anything to the blogger or just disappear?

I think my dad would smile knowing that for all the times I was rolling my eyes and looking bored and disinterested at his talks on the power of words and choosing the right ones, I actually heard him.

Could it be the way he said it …

Tom Selleck Or My Great-Great-Great Grandfather

HWC Folk and His Famiily, ca 1876

At a glance, most Americans or those familiar with American television and film stars might think the older man in this photo was actor Tom Selleck all dressed up for his next movie role. I saw the likeness the first time I came across this photograph of my great-great-great-grandfather, Henry William Capers Folk with his family.

The younger boys on the right and left sides of the photo became physicians like their father, HWC Folk, the Tom Selleck look-alike. The boy to the right of his mother, grew up to be my great-great grandfather, William Nicholas Hemeter Folk who is also the adult male you see in the image below. Standing at his knee is my great-grandfather, William Obed Folk.

Mahala Clementine & William Nicholas Hermeter Folk With Their Children, Mikellah & William Obed, ca 1899

Willam Obed, grew up to marry Annie Claire Mattox, my great-grandmother pictured below. I still have a few gifts she gave me when I was a little girl and some of my earliest memories are being small enough to walk under her heavy oak (I think) table in a darkish dining room.

I wish I had known her when she was a young woman or could find more stories about her now. She looks so sure of herself in the image below. I think she looks like she’s smiling with her eyes even though her mouth is set in a straight line. She’s got a sassy look about her that I like.

I do know that she had an interesting history prior to meeting and marrying my great-grandfather and it was very unusual for the time. She had a first marriage that was annulled according to my mother’s research although I had always heard she was divorced. For the daughter of a Primitive Baptist Minister and a woman born in 1879, I’m sure either would have caused a bit of a scandal.

Annie Claire Mattox

Annie Claire and William Obed had three children, one being my great-aunt, who was christened William Michael Folk, a name which evolved into Wylly Folk with the addition of St. John after her marriage. The baby below with ” Willy Mike ” as they called her, is my grandfather, Walton Obed Folk.

Walton, Wylly & Minnie (Her Doll)

Walton as a baby with older sister, Willy Mike.

Here you see my grandfather, Walton with my great-aunt Wylly and their baby brother, my great-uncle Johnny. ( Photo was hand colored by my sister Margaret )

My great-grandfather, William Folk with his boys, Johnny and Walton around 1928.

My grandfather Walton grew up to marry Elizabeth Procter shown in the photo from the 40s above.

Their only child was my mother, Elizabeth Judith who was born in 1940 and is shown here with her father, Walton.

She married my father, Gene Harper in December of 1959.

Gene & Judy Harper With Daughter, Elizabeth - 1960

Nine months later I was born. That’s me, Elizabeth Elwyn Harper when I was about 12 weeks old. You can find out interesting things when you spend time searching through your family history.

I had always thought I was the fourth Elizabeth in a row in my family, but it turns out my great-grandmother Bess Proctor was not an Elizabeth after all, but a Bessie making me only the third Elizabeth and not the fourth as I have always said when telling stories about my family history.

What about you, have you ever discovered some bit of family history that you’d thought was true that actually was different from what you’d always believed?


Day One – Elizabeth Turns Fifty

Infant Elizabeth With Dad

Fifty years ago today I made my way into the world at 2:02 am. Born two weeks before I was due, I was rooted out of the womb early when my mother’s doctor suggested I looked big enough to deliver and as he was going on vacation, an earlier delivery might work better for them both.

The photo above is one of the earliest I have of my newborn self and my dad happens to be holding me. I’ve no time to write this morning as Margaret and I are off to meet up with John for some fun around London, but I did want to say thank you for the sweet birthday comments you’ve left over the last 9 days.

I’ll be back in a day or two after I recover from our London journey with loads more stories and photos. See you then.

Day Four – Elizabeth & Margaret See Buckingham Palace From The Outside – In

My dad would have been really tickled (chuffed, excited) to know that his girls paid a visit to The Queen’s home in London. If you remember from an earlier post, my dad liked the combination of Elizabeth and Margaret and chose our names accordingly. I think it must have been because he grew up in a time when he saw more images of The Queen and her sister together especially since she was born only about eight years before him. I wish I had asked more questions about his reasons before he died.

I feel sure The Queen never even thinks about all the strangers trouping through her grand and glittery State Rooms, but I certainly had a few thoughts while viewing this spectacular part of the palace which is open each year for viewing during the summer.

I have some interesting insights into our visit yesterday along with some funny bits too which I will talk more about in a later post. I promise not to to share all the photos though because it turns out that Margaret shoots as many as I do. Between us I think we both ended the visit to Buck House with a combination of over 700 images. I’m including only a couple of mine from yesterday along with an image I took towards the end of our day when our tourist fatigue was beginning to show.

Elizabeth & Margaret Taking A Break