July 4th Weekend 2020

Some things feel normal this holiday weekend. Humidity and heat blanket parts of the nation. Corn is knee high in many fields. Red, white and blue bunting decorates front porches, small shops, and grocery cases where the traditional hamburgers and hot dogs are on special for cookouts. Someone in the neighborhood is shooting off illegal fireworks. The little kids are decorating their trikes and bikes for an exciting ride down the block with families standing at the curb wearing patriotic t-shirts and waving small flags.

That’s where holiday normal stops. No big parades, no gigantic firework displays, no large gatherings in a park with multiple grills and coolers full of shared drinks or food. Kids don’t wander from their front stoop as siblings ride down the street. Social distancing keeps everyone from huddling in groups to catch up on life. Adults, with masks in a  pocket, are trying to put aside their worries for a few hours.

We’re a country with deep problems. Some days the news is so discombobulating that sleep is evasive. More of our citizens have died of COVID-19 than we lost in WWI, twice as many as lost in Vietnam. Inequality is a hard truth digging into long held assumptions about US as a land of equal opportunity. Money and power are in the hands of too few with too many lacking access to food, healthcare, jobs, housing.

Halfway through 2020, many of us are tired and seriously challenged to find uplifting themes. With global economies and a global pandemic, there are virtually no nations sailing in smooth waters. There are many friends and family to grieve, much to repair, more to build afresh, and not enough resources to address all the needs.

On this July 4th 2020 weekend, I wish you all health, safety, and the strength to invest in citizen engagement through what will be long, tough months. Please be kind to each other, seek common ground, and vote when the opportunity arises.

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A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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Je M’appelle Frisque

My grandparents’ families came from places like Walhain-St. Paul, Incourt, Nievelles, Tourinne-St. Lambert, and Huldenberg in Walloon Brabant, Belgium. Impacted by the same potato famine that brought many Irish to the United States, the Belgians made their way to Wisconsin communities with names like Brussels, Tonet, Namur, Luxemburg, and Walhain. The homes they left had been clustered in an area about forty miles wide. The farm towns they carved out of tree-covered land, almost four thousand miles across an ocean and half a continent, were about the same distance apart.

When I was a child I spoke some Walloon, a nearly forgotten language, with my Belgian-American great-grandmother and her friends as they quilted in our living room. We ate Belgian farm food like jut, a boiled cabbage side dish, stoemp, a mashed potato and cabbage dish, trippe, a bratwurst-type sausage, booyah, a chicken-based soup with many ingredients, and Belgian pie, a sweet dough tart filled with prunes and a cream cheese style top. Our Catholic church held a Kermis celebration in autumn. Beyond jokes about how much Belgians sweat or drank or were short, maybe stout, that’s about what I knew of our heritage. All the amazing accomplishments of the Belgians or their art or chocolates were from a different socio-economic part of the country.

My mother’s cousin and my father’s cousin researched family trees. Through the Frisque genealogy I discovered that my family was related to many, many people in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, the small town where my father grew up and we lived through part of my childhood. The Nockaert family information uncovered that my mother was mostly Belgian although she believed she was German. Names, dates, locations, relations fill pages. That’s it. The Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, Wisconsin may provide information to further the cousins’ research.

The histories of these people, who permanently left all they knew for 40 acres of land and a better future, are probably lost forever. But this summer we are going to visit Belgium, specifically Walloon Brabant, and trace what is left of our Cravillion, Frisque, Nockaert, and VanderKelen ancestors. They were all small farmers who left Belgium in the mid 1850s so there is probably little left of their lives beyond cemetery headstones.

We have nothing physical from their lives in Belgium and little expectation of connecting with other great-great-great grandchildren of the original immigrants. But one can always hope.

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Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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