The first thing you should know about Lorene Fraley is that she was ornery. And she always seemed to have a thing about hair—style, color, thickness or lack thereof—and was notorious for “critiquing” it. My poor uncle never heard the end of it over his bald head, and she was forever telling Ben to comb his mess of hair. The first Christmas present Ben unwrapped with our family was a comb. The second was slightly better: a teddy bear. A farting teddy bear. She slyly held it’s remote while we all watched him open it. Keep in mind, Ben was still getting comfortable with the family, and trying to be very gracious, the poor sucker. As he unwrapped the box and saw the bear his face gave away his confusion, but he politely began thanking Mam right away. And then she unleashed its flatulence. It was gradual, at first, so that Ben was thoroughly confused, while she cackled under her breath in her chair. As the bear’s farting became more like someone who just ate 10 beef and bean chalupas and was hurting for the toilet, Ben finally realized what was happening. Her uproarious laughter probably also tipped him off, because she could no longer contain herself. She was pretty proud of that one.
"Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love."
-1 Corinthians 16:13 &14
Mam went to be with Jesus in May of 2010, about 4 months after we brought our beautiful daughter into the world. Audrey’s name means “noble strength”, and though she isn’t technically named after Mam, I think that meaning perfectly matches Lorene in every way. She carried herself with such dignity, and she exhibited more strength than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.
Like most people, to understand my grandmother, you have to know where she came from. Lorene Fraley was born and raised in the same beautiful place where I spent my childhood: Elliott County, Kentucky. She was born to a tobacco farmer on Stark Ridge, whose fields were so steep he had to use a mule to plow the ground. A tractor would have been too dangerous. They didn’t get running water or indoor plumbing on the “ol’ homeplace” until much later than the rest of America. And though it was breathtakingly beautiful, those hills were also hostile. They have always held a palpable suspicion of outsiders, and, judging from the surrounding poverty, a forbidding hostility to making a good living. “Tough” doesn’t quite capture what you have to be to grow up where she did. My grandmother is one of the toughest people I’ve ever known.
When she was 16, Mam was in the cab of a pickup truck with 7 other people on the steep, curvy, treacherous back roads out in the county. They crashed, and when help came to the scene, they saw how badly she was injured and laid her on the back of that truck bed to die. Of course being who she was, she didn’t cooperate with that plan. Though the accident left her permanently handicapped, it never weakened her spirit.
“Stand firm in the faith.”
Mam dedicated her life to Jesus at a revival meeting and never looked back. Though her life was changed in many ways, her handicap was still a source of pain and discouragement, and she prayed fervently for God to heal her. Her desperation grew into depression and anger. One night she was at a church service, and felt God call her to respond to the altar call. “Katherine, that night was the night God healed me,” she would say. She used to tell me the story with tears in her eyes, of how Jesus met her in the depths of despair and changed her whole life, giving her a new heart and a new perspective. Though she still had crippled hands and walked with a cane, her spirit was completely healed of anger and bitterness. She was filled with joy and spent the rest of her life singing praises to the one who had saved her from the poison she felt in her own heart. Even now as I type this, I can draw up my fingers like hers and see her hands, nails painted pink of course, and hear her voice quoting Psalm 103…
“Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your sins,
Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
Whenever “testimony time” came around in church, she would raise her hand high with those pink nails and quote this Psalm, many times through tears. I think it was her thankful spirit that bolstered her strength and gave her such courage.
Be courageous. Be strong.
I guess near death experiences make a person brave, because I don’t recall Mam being afraid of anything. It’s not because she had nothing to fear, of course. Motherhood is scary for all of us, but when you have extra physical challenges that make caring for an infant ten times harder, it’s downright terrifying. But Mam was never one to let fear have the last word. Even when it was hard, she trusted God. When my dad was born, she prayed desperately that God would help her. I can see her face as she told me the story, squinting up her eyes in ernest fervor. “Please, God, don’t let me drop my baby.” God answered her prayers…maybe it was her faith, maybe it was her perseverance, but maybe it was because you just don’t want to mess with Mam. In any case, Mam was a capable, dedicated mother who raised her two kids to love and serve Jesus, and to pray with fervor and courage like she did.
And do everything with love.
There is one day I will never forget. At Sunday School, there was a regular “mean girl” and I was trying to be her friend. But on this particular day she had said something cruel about me and had humiliated me in front of everyone (of course 20 years later who knows what it was, but to the sensitive heart of a 7 year old, it was devastating). I was nervous, but when we got home, I got up the nerve to tell her about it. She sat silent for a quick moment, thinking. As her determined brown eyes looked into mine, she patted her legs with her gnarled fingers, gesturing for me to climb up on her lap. She held me as the tears poured down my face, and when I looked at her face again, there were tears in her eyes, too. “Katherine, people in this world will be mean. They will be cruel. But you don’t let that bother you. You just keep your head high and don’t pay any attention, because God is their judge, too. You are special, honey. You are so precious. Don’t ever let other people’s meanness get to you, ya hear?” I heard. I think it’s partly her love and her belief in me that helped me walk confidently in life.
Sometimes when I’m worshipping in church, I’ll see Mam’s wedding ring on my hand, and my heart fills with joy at the thought of her. It brings me such comfort knowing we’re doing the exact same thing—singing the praises of the God who rescued us, changed our lives, and gave us hope. “This is our story, this is our song…praising our Savior, all the day long.”