“You’ve Gotta Have Heart”

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

By the time Eddie Fisher’s hit, “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” made the charts in 1955, Mary and her daughter were way ahead of him in affairs of the heart.  Two years earlier her daughter, Merle, had been part of an experimental open-heart surgery program at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

One day when Mary had Paul at the Harrisonburg Health Center’s Orthopedic Clinic for his monthly visit, the doctor surprised her with a question.  “Have you heard about the Rheumatic Heart Clinic that’s coming here soon?”

“Uh, yes, I saw something about it in the News-Record.”

“The reason I mention it is because I know your daughter has a heart murmur.  There has been a lot of heart research going on over the last few years.  One outcome is a procedure that might offer a cure for Merle’s condition.”

Mary was puzzled…

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“You’ve Gotta Have Heart”

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(Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016)

By the time Eddie Fisher’s hit, “You’ve Gotta Have Heart,” made the charts in 1955, Mary and her daughter were way ahead of him in affairs of the heart.  Two years earlier her daughter, Merle, had been part of an experimental open-heart surgery program at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

One day when Mary had Paul at the Harrisonburg Health Center’s Orthopedic Clinic for his monthly visit, the doctor surprised her with a question.  “Have you heard about the Rheumatic Heart Clinic that’s coming here soon?”

“Uh, yes, I saw something about it in the News-Record.”

“The reason I mention it is because I know your daughter has a heart murmur.  There has been a lot of heart research going on over the last few years.  One outcome is a procedure that might offer a cure for Merle’s condition.”

Mary was puzzled.  “I didn’t think there was a cure for this.”

“Well, a doctor in Philadelphia developed a machine that has enabled advances in the heart surgery that look promising.  I really think you should bring Merle to the clinic and check into this.”

That was all the encouragement Mary needed.  She arranged for Sis to have a consultation. When the clinic was in session, Sis underwent an examination that was followed by a family conference.

“We’re excited to tell you that we think Merle would be a great candidate for this surgery.  We’re looking for a group of twenty-seven children to participate from across the state.  We think the risks involved are small compared to the possible results.  If you are interested in having your daughter considered, we can arrange for an exploratory test in Richmond that will tell you for certain if she qualifies.”

Mary was excited, but cautious.  She and Hugh conferred.  “What will this cost?  I’m not sure we could afford it.”

“Relax…as we said, this is exploratory, and we have a federal grant that will pay for everything except the routine hospital charges.”

Mary and Hugh looked at each other, trying to take this in.  It was an incredible opportunity!

The doctor smiled.  “I know that leaves some expenses for you to shoulder, but this is something most people could never afford without the grant.  I hope you will do this…it would mean so much for Merle’s quality of life now, and for her future.”

Sis was an eighth-grader at Montevideo High School.  She had spent all thirteen years of her life restricted from so many activities that Mary knew she could hardly grasp what it would mean to be “normal.”  In talking with her, Mary knew she had some fears, but she also saw the glint of hope in her eyes.  When Sis said she wanted to do it, Mary was excited. It would be done in February, and during the intervening weeks the family shared their hopes and expectations.  Mary wanted to be sure Hughie, Paul and Jimmy understood what was going on.  They all got excited about it with her.

The day before the operation Mary and Hugh took Sis to Richmond where they met with the surgical team.  She had arranged for Hughie to be out of school for several days so he could be at home taking care of Paul and Jimmy.  He had done this on numerous brief occasions, so they believed he could handle it.

After Sis was settled in her room, Mary and Hugh joined the staff for further consultation where they went over details again, and answered questions.

“This procedure uses a heart-lung machine that was developed by a doctor in Philadelphia.  What we will do is detach Merle’s heart from its supportive network, transferring to the machine the tasks of oxygenation and pumping blood through her body.  This will free us to mend the congenital hole in her heart, then we will transfer all support functions back to the heart.   After a brief recovery period, she should get back to her normal life rather quickly.”

Mary felt elated.  All of this was actually happening.  She had been praying for weeks and thanked God for where they were.  She knew the outcome was in his hands.

“How long will all of this take?” she asked.

“It is a long procedure.  Her surgery is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning at seven o’clock.  It should take twelve hours, perhaps even a little longer.  There’s a family area on the sixteenth floor where you can wait.  We’ll keep you abreast of things as we go along. Since we’re a teaching hospital, and this is a federal grant program dealing with a new procedure, we will have a number of people observing.”

“Observing?  What do you mean…how does that work?”

“Uh, think of it as something like the opening of a Broadway play.  Lot’s of staff people will be the “audience.”  They will be in the balcony looking down on the operating suite. They can watch and learn from each step we take.”

Wow! Mary thought.  This is unbelievable.

The next morning surgery went forward right on schedule.  Mary and Hugh found the waiting area to be comfortable enough.  There was a receptionist available at a desk.  The room had couches, chairs, tables, reading materials and other things to help people who were anxiously waiting for loved ones in surgery to pass their time.  Windows looked out across the city, and there was even a patio where people could step outside.

They got acquainted with others waiting in the room.  Talking together helped each person endure the “unknown” about the ordeal someone they cared about was experiencing down in the OR. Periodically they received word that everything was progressing well.  Mary closed her eyes numerous times and felt the presence of God.  “We had guardian angels all around us,” she would later say in describing the experience.

Fourteen hours after surgery began, they received the word;  “Surgery was successful.  Patient doing well.”  Sis went to recovery and later to her room.  She had a private nurse with her for the first twenty-four hours, courtesy of a gift from Beta Sigma Phi.  This was the business women’s sorority Mary had belonged to in Cincinnati.  She had kept in touch with several members whose generosity funded the nurse.

Within a few days Merle was home and back to school.  Her heart was healed–it was whole.  Her life expectancy had been greatly increased.  Mary was elated and gave thanks to God.  A couple of years later she would hear Eddie Fisher’s song on the radio, and a thought would cross her mind, Yes, you’ve gotta have heart–and you are blessed if it’s whole.

As always, reality stepped in.  Sis’s heart was healed, but Mary still had major challenges in raising Paul, whose CP condition would always call forth from her the very best in hope, faith and courage.  For this task, too, Eddie Fisher’s song title applied…“You’ve Gotta Have Heart.”

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

 

 

RE-ROOTING

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Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Mary’s mother, Merle Townsend, always kept a beautiful garden.  Her love of plants and flowers gave her daughter opportunities to develop her own interest in gardening.  She knew that when a plant was transferred from one location to another, it required time and nurture to become re-rooted in its new environment.

While cleaning, sorting and rearranging things in her new home, Mary’s thoughts went back to her mother’s gardening.  Suddenly she stopped as a thought crossed her mind.  You know, what I’m doing here is like transferring plants in a garden.  We are transplants, and we need to be nurtured in this new soil.

Looking out in the front yard she saw Paul in his chair and Hughie removing weeds and rocks, then raking the area to prepare for seeding grass.  Paul was soaking up the fresh air, smiling from ear-to-ear.  He…

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RE-ROOTING

Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016 Mary’s mother, Merle Townsend, always kept a beautiful garden.  Her love of plants and flowers gave her daughter opportunities to develop her…

Source: RE-ROOTING

RE-ROOTING

img_4673

Remembering Mary Ellen Townsend Harris, 1911-2016

Mary’s mother, Merle Townsend, always kept a beautiful garden.  Her love of plants and flowers gave her daughter opportunities to develop her own interest in gardening.  She knew that when a plant was transferred from one location to another, it required time and nurture to become re-rooted in its new environment.

While cleaning, sorting and rearranging things in her new home, Mary’s thoughts went back to her mother’s gardening.  Suddenly she stopped as a thought crossed her mind.  You know, what I’m doing here is like transferring plants in a garden.  We are transplants, and we need to be nurtured in this new soil.

Looking out in the front yard she saw Paul in his chair and Hughie removing weeds and rocks, then raking the area to prepare for seeding grass.  Paul was soaking up the fresh air, smiling from ear-to-ear.  He was a picture of happiness.  “Re-rooting,” she said to herself.  “We were blooming where we were, now we’re putting down new roots in a different place.”

As September rolled around, Hughie went off to Montevideo High school in the nearby community of Penn Laird.  This was a consolidated school, drawing students from surrounding communities where schools offered grades one through eleven.  Montevideo would now offer grades eight through twelve.  Hughie was being re-rooted in a new school where everybody was being re-rooted through change and expansion.  When Mary understood that, she felt it would help him make the transition.  It did have an impact.

One day he came home and announced, “Mom, I don’t want to be called “Hughie” anymore.  That’s a baby name, and I hate it.”

Mary was taken aback.  “Who told you that’s a baby name?”

He looked askance.  “Nobody…I just know it is and I don’t like it.”

Remembering her own sensitivities as a teenager, and her issues when she had been shifted from one school to another, Mary knew where this was coming from.  I guess the danger with new roots is you might get some different results from what you plant.  She gave her son a hug.  “I guess I gave you that nickname because you and your dad are both “Hugh.” He never wanted to be called Hubert, so he shortened it.  I understand what you’re saying…I just don’t know what else to call you…maybe “Hugh, Jr.”

“Mom, I’m not a ‘Junior,'” he said sarcastically.

She absorbed his emotional response.  “Okay, so why don’t we call you ‘Hugh T’?”

His body language suggested surrender.  “Well, I guess that’ll do.”  He soon took ownership and began signing his name, ‘Hugh T. Harris’–even practicing different signatures.

Sis, who had already insisted she was not a “Sissy,” was getting re-rooted at Keezletown Elementary School.  Though it was only a half-mile down the road from the house, she had to ride the bus on an hour-long circuit that went almost to Harrisonburg and then swung back to Keezletown.  That meant getting up early, but she was used to the whole routine from riding the bus to Condon School.  Unlike Cincinnati, Rockingham County didn’t offer a special school she could attend because of her heart murmur.  Mary had concerns about putting her in a regular school.  She prayed that Sis would be okay, and apparently she was–prayers answered!

Paul’s re-rooting was the most pronounced.  He loved the time he could spend outside with the breezes ruffling his hair, birds talking to him from the trees, and cows mooing across the road.  One day in 1952 Mary took a picture of him out in the front yard and titled it, “My Happy Boy.”  To her, Paul’s happiness made every difficulty and struggle worth while.

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One day she was outside planting flower beds when a car came up the driveway.  It was Aileen Clatterbuck and her children bearing gifts of delicious food, which included a half-gallon of crabapple juice with which to make jelly.  Hugh had become acquainted with Aileen and her husband, Marl, when he first arrived looking for a house. They had a CP son named Don, who was older than Paul.  He learned the Clatterbucks were part of a parent’s group serving Harrisonburg and the surrounding area.  They had a goal of establishing a CP Center and school.  Mary and Hugh soon became re-rooted from their experiences in Cincinnati to this new group and its goals.

The Clatterbucks helped them get re-rooted in church by introducing them to members of the small Keezletown Methodist Church.  It was part of a circuit that included several churches under the care of one pastor.  They had Sunday school every week, but only had “preaching” every other week.  The parsonage for the circuit was a large, two-story house next door to the church.  It was one of the two churches Mary had noticed driving into town on their first night…the other being the EUB Church that looked almost identical, across a field from it.

Worship was nothing like the stately formality she’d experienced at Clifton Church.  Her pastor there had been an opera singer before he entered the ministry, so he fostered a more classical approach.  At Keezletown, worship was more “down-home”–simpler, more spontaneous, less programmed.  These were salt-of-the-earth people who loved God and supported each other in good times and bad.  It became a place of spiritual kinship that enabled Mary and her family to sustain their faith.

Hugh took a new turn by going into business for himself as a contractor, remodeling homes in and around Harrisonburg.  He even built one house on Liberty Street.  In his spare time he continued making improvements at the house in Keezletown.  Mary continued to give Paul his exercises each day, and to explore with others the possibilities for a CP center.

With so much of her attention drawn to Paul, Sis and Jimmy, she felt shocked to suddenly realize Hugh T was rapidly changing from a boy to a young man.  He struggled sometimes for acceptance at school because he came, as some said tauntingly, “from the North.”  Mary listened when he vented his frustrations, telling sometimes about her own teenage years, and trying to be encouraging.

Hugh T worked at several jobs part-time, including helping his dad build the house on Liberty Street.  He soon learned that the carpentry gene hadn’t passed through to him.  He did have an artistic gene, which his little brother Jimmy also had.  Throughout his high school years he experimented with different things, like raising several calves to eight-week steers and then selling them at the stock market.  He also helped out on a dairy farm down the road, and one summer worked there full time.

When he came home dead tired at night, Mary remembered the dairymen of her growing-up years in Covedale.  That time seemed so far behind her…and yet so close at hand!  She felt like she had traversed a circle–farm to city and back to farm.  She saw Hugh T learning lessons she hoped he would hold onto the rest of his life when he worked at threshing wheat and barley from one farm to the next.

While Hugh T learned new skills easily, he also had an impulsive streak that concerned her.  The farmer he worked for taught him to drive tractors and farm machinery.  When he was away one day he sent Hugh T through the woods to a back field that needed to be mowed for hay.  Through inattention he hit a tree in the woods and broke the axle housing.  Mary understood, but when Hugh came home he was furious.  The storm soon passed, however, and Hugh T learned a hard lesson.

Claude, one of his friends at school who was also a year older than others in their class, told him about joining the Army National Guard.  He invited Hugh T to attend a drill night with him.  He loved it!  When he told his mother he wanted to join the guard, she at first felt fear, remembering the experiences her brother had gone through in the North Africa campaign.  But she understood.  Her son had grown up during the war, practically worshiped her brother Bud, and she saw this as something he needed to get out of his system.

Since he was seventeen, she had to sign for him.  They talked it over.  “I guess there won’t be another war any time soon,” she said as she signed the papers.

Her faith as a parent was tested again the next spring when he came home with another of his announcements.   “Mom, I’ve joined the football team.”

That took the wind out of her sails.  She sat down and heaved a sigh.

“What’s wrong?”

“Are you sure about this?  Remember, you broke your arm twice back in Cincinnati.  I don’t want you to go through that again.”

“I know, but everybody’s doing it.  I’ll be careful…promise.”  Football was a new sport at Montevideo.  He and his classmates would be seniors the next year.  If they were going to play football, they had to do it now.  Mary listened and heaved another sigh.

“I guess it’s okay…not that it matters.  You did say you already joined?”

“Yes.

She watched him thrive through the experience.  Although he was light weight, he played defense as a linebacker, and earned a letter.  It also gave him some stature at school that overcame his not being from the area.  He was part of the Homecoming Court, complete with flat-top haircut.  She smiled within herself as she decided that was probably what it had felt like to her when she and Artie had climbed to the top of the Hughes High School tower to have their picture taken.  An accomplishment!

During this time she had to do a lot of the parenting by herself.  Hugh had closed his carpentry business and gone back to selling on the road, working now for an oil company out of Dallas, Texas.

As a National Guardsman, Hugh T was part of the 116th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Stonewall Jackson Brigade.”  She saw this overcome some of the distance he had felt at being a northerner by birth.  He rose to the rank of corporal by the end of his senior year. At that time he also had a Saturday job at a local lunch counter where he served the Army recruiter each week.

Mary felt good about the roots her family had planted in the Valley.  She saw each person thriving which gave her deep satisfaction.  Hugh T, however, pressed her hardest when he came home from school with yet another of his announcements.

“Mom, I think I’m going to join the Army.”

It struck her like a bolt of lightning.  She thought back to the war years, but then decided that was another time, and he had to make his own decisions.  She also wanted to make sure he knew what this meant.”

“I thought you wanted to go to UC to study architecture?”

Hugh T shuffled his feet and studied the floor.  “Well, you’re going to find out anyway.  I am failing calculus.”  He looked at her with pleading eyes.  “If I give up those plans until I’m a little older, my teacher says he’ll raise my F to a D-minus.  If I get that F, I’ll miss graduation.”

She had talked to him when he signed up for higher math courses, because that had always been his weakest area.  “Maybe it’s for the best,” she said.  “I quit school without graduating, and I don’t want you to do that.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.  The recruiter says they have a program where you sign up now and report for duty in July.  Billy’s going to do it with the Navy, and Jack says he’s joining the Army.  I’ve decided to do this, and I just wanted you to know why.”

Mary was taken aback by his directness, but she knew he was nineteen now, and he needed her blessing and confidence, not fear and judgement.  She embraced him tearfully, then stood back, looking him in the eyes.  “At least you have a couple of months before all of this happens!”

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So it was Hughie, who had been re-rooted as Hugh T, became re-rooted again as Private Hugh Harris, U. S. Army in July, 1956.  He went to South Carolina for basic training, then New York for schooling.  After than he served a few months in Virginia and came home most weekends.  Then it was off to France for two years.

Mary kept in touch with him as regularly as possible during those army years, and kept every letter he wrote home.  She learned that when your kids grow up you have to let go…but you still hold on spiritually.  It seemed to her now that life was a constant process of re-rooting!

(Excerpt from “Dairyman’s Daughter” by Hugh Townsend Harris, based on “Remembering!” by Mary Ellen Townsend Harris)

 

 

 

What’s It All About?

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Beginning in the 1990’s, my mom took on the task of writing a memoir about her life and faith.  She finished it and gave me a copy in 2000.  I read through it, then tucked it away for future reference.  When she died on July 26, 2016, I made a commitment to give life and visibility to her story, because it is all about faith, trust in God, strength and joy in difficult times, and the blessings she found across her 105 years on this planet.

I actually started dusting off this task last December.  I told her as a novelist I knew how to show a story through dialogue and action, so that it would come alive and vibrate in the pulse beat of its readers.  “I would like to do that with your memoir,” I said.  She liked the idea and told me to “go ahead.”  She liked the…

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What’s It All About?

img_4930

Beginning in the 1990’s, my mom took on the task of writing a memoir about her life and faith.  She finished it and gave me a copy in 2000.  I read through it, then tucked it away for future reference.  When she died on July 26, 2016, I made a commitment to give life and visibility to her story, because it is all about faith, trust in God, strength and joy in difficult times, and the blessings she found across her 105 years on this planet.

I actually started dusting off this task last December.  I told her as a novelist I knew how to show a story through dialogue and action, so that it would come alive and vibrate in the pulse beat of its readers.  “I would like to do that with your memoir,” I said.  She liked the idea and told me to “go ahead.”  She liked the title, “Dairyman’s Daughter.”

Earlier this year I started the task, shared its development with my writers’ critique group, and with Mom.  When I had a question about something, I would call her up to check out the details.  She liked the way I created dialogue in those opening chapters.

Then I got sidetracked.  At book events people kept asking me if I was working on a fourth novel.  “Well, yes…I have worked a good bit, but I’m still formulating my ideas.”  I decided I needed to shift gears and get back into the fourth novel, so I filed “Dairyman’s Daughter” away and did several chapters of “Fear No Evil.”  Mom would ask me if I was working on “her book.”

In April Sharon and I went to New York with our publisher, then in May she began to experience some serious health issues.  We had just celebrated Mom’s 105th birthday when Sharon had to go into the hospital for what became a summer-long experience. Mom died in July and I realized I had a primary task to take on.  I prayed about that.

Mom always said, “Keep writing!”  I knew God was in those words.  “Yes, Lord, I will, but I don’t have financing to take it through publication.”  God always answers.  “Just share it on your blog as you draft each chapter.  Leave the rest to me.”  That is my task.

“Dairyman’s Daughter” is a dynamic woman’s testimony about finding, growing in, and being sustained by faith in a God who creates, loves his creation, calls us to completeness, and is always there when we reach the end of our rope.  In one of her journal entries, Mom listed each of the challenges she had faced, and ended with these words, “I felt God’s presence and guidance each day.”

I invite you to follow my unfolding blogs so maybe you’ll find God’s presence and guidance in the ways you need it most.  I invite you to visit my archives for the chapters so far:

Cherry Tree Musings; A Cozy Timelessness; Grandma and the Big House; School Days, School Days; Life was Good; “Seventh Heaven!”; The War Years; Never a Dull Day; New Challenges; Realignments; Opportunities and Blessings; Going the Extra Mile; and Something like Pioneers.

That’s half the story.  My task at hand is to tell the rest of it.  Blessings!

Hugh Townsend Harris