About Elizabeth di Grazia

An artist, I follow the nudge inside of me. This nudge led me to write Peace Corps stories, find the front door to the Loft, and to graduate from Hamline’s MFA program. The story that became my thesis for Hamline is woven into my book manuscript: HOUSE OF FIRE: From the Ashes, A Family, a memoir of healing and redemption. It’s a story about family. And a story about love–for my partner Jody and the son and daughter we adopted from Guatemala. Most days, I can be found working as a Human Resource Manager for a foundry in Minneapolis. When I am not at the foundry I may be volunteering as a Police Reserve Officer for Richfield, MN or kicking butt at Kor Am Tae Kwon Do.

My Daughter, My Inspiration

At 3 years old, Crystel couldn’t speak. She couldn’t say her name. The only one who understood her was her brother, Juan Jose’. He’d interpret for us.

One time, Jody, Juan Jose’ and I were at a campground, and each mom had reached it by a different path. Each mom thought the other had Crystel. Juan Jose’ said it the best when we found Crystel eye to eye with a white double-bearded goat. “Cissy, I so scared my heart go out then come back in when I see you.”

The goat chewing her cud, the little girl waiting for her family to find her.

It was tasked with her daily homework. A folder filled with pictures. I pulled a photo out, she named it, and we would go through the stack. Except, I gave up. I didn’t understand a word she was saying. I couldn’t comprehend how she would get any better.

It was her speech therapist that said, “Crystel’s the hardest worker I have. She always does her best. Are you doing her homework?”

That evening we started again. With Crystel in my lap, I pointed to a picture of fire.

“Ire,” Crystel said.

I moved my finger to a firefighter.

“Ireighter.”

To a shark’s fin.

“in.”

Of course, Crystel did get better, and she graduated from speech therapy by the time she was eight years old. She no longer allowed Juan Jose’ to speak for her.

She had a voice. She had determination. She had fortitude.

I became a believer. Crystel would be able to do anything that she ever wanted to do because she would not quit. Even when her mom did.

Crystel and Juan Jose’ are sophomores in high school. They start losing electronic privileges if their grades drop below a B-. Crystel is a straight A student. It doesn’t come easy for her. She studies nightly.

She will not let me or anyone else determine her life. She will not allow herself to be mediocre.

Her passions catch fire.

On several occasions, she has created convincing PowerPoint presentations to persuade Jody and me. I had no plan to travel to Japan. Her presentation included facts, photos, and vibrated with excitement. We will now be traveling there for the summer 2020 Olympics. We have a map of Japan in our kitchen. We have a Japan vacation fund.

On our latest trip to Guatemala, it was at her insistence that we kayaked to a waterfront house for sale in Guatemala on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Walking around the property, I realized that Guatemala had truly entered our hearts. Our every other year visits would no longer be just about visiting the birth families. Crystel was right. Anything was possible.

She ran the Wood Lake half marathon this summer with a friend. 13.1 miles. 8.22 min a mile. She had not yet turned 16.

Crystel has recently become a vegan. If it was anyone else, I might think that this is a phase she is going through. Because it is her, I understand that she has embraced the lifestyle. She prepares and cooks her own food. I find this impressive, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Crystel meets storms head on. Her face to the wind. She is living. She has a hunger to be and to do.

Her current life plan is to be a Futurist. A Futurist is a person who studies the future and makes predictions based on current trends.

Based on current trends, she will be just fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Climbing Mountains

My morning stretch.

My leg was stretched in the roll cradle when the Technical Manager came through the warehouse door.

“No problem here” he said. Not even questioning why a Human Resources Manager would be in the warehouse with her leg raised in the air.

He kept walking until he heard my tussling. “Do you need help?”

“Yeah, my foot is stuck.”

He walked back to me. Smiled. Lifted my foot from where it had gotten wedged into the crook of the iron.

“No problem here,” he said and continued on.

The next day, I was in the warehouse swinging my leg to reach an upright when the Maintenance Manager came by.

“Beth, don’t hurt yourself,” he said.

“You guys must have moved these uprights. I could reach them last week.” He chuckled.

I’m aging. I’ll be 60 years old next month. I still want to climb mountains.

My afternoon stretch.

I’m finding that I’m not as limber or flexible, and it’s harder to keep the weight off. At my last physical, I told the doctor that even though I’m biking every day, my weight is exactly the same.

“It doesn’t matter how much you bike,” she said. “At your age it’s about what you eat. You have to eat less.”

I paused for a moment. “Well, that’s not going to happen,” I said. “I like to eat.”

She finished injecting cortisone in my right knee. I have osteoarthritis in both knees. It is a degenerative “wear-and-tear” type of arthritis that occurs most often in people 50 years of age and older.

When I hear of someone who has had a knee replaced, my attention sharpens.

I’m afraid of not being able to climb mountains.

On the summit of the Upper Mayan Trail with our guide Alex.

I’m a 2nd Dan Tae Kwon Do Black Belt but haven’t been able to attend classes for a couple of years. I’ve run at least 7 marathons but haven’t run at all for at least a year. I believe I should do the things I can do. I can bike. I can stretch. I can climb mountains …. sometimes.

My goal on our Guatemala trip this June was to hike the Upper Mayan Trail, hiking from the shores of Lake Atilan to Solola. Close to 3000 ft. elevation gain in 4 miles. A very steep trail, with beautiful scenery, and several encounters with local Mayan carrying firewood on their back or working in the fields.

Jody and Crystel led the way, turning from time, encouraging me on. Juan Jose’ and our guide Alex were there with a helping hand. What a gift to have my son reach his hand out to take mine. And, a guide, our friend, who is such a wonderful role model for our children.

I’m aging. There is beauty and grace in that.

Note: the featured image is Juan Jose’, Alex, and Crystel standing on the precipice of the Upper Mayan Trail.

 

 

I Really Did It This Time

They came and built things.

I didn’t think it would happen.

I thought I had it all under control.

I figured, I’d just pull the cross-country captains aside plus my own two children. It would be a business-like meeting. Just the facts. No feelings.

Jody and I regularly open our house to Juan Jose’ and Crystel’s friends and their sport teams. Our swimming pool is ideal for an ‘end of a run’ swim.

What we don’t want is any dunking or kids pushing one another into the pool. When things get reckless, people can get hurt.

The solution was simple. Bring the captains and my own kids together, and spell out their responsibility.

However, things didn’t go as planned.

They came and jumped off the diving board.

The coach called on me to speak.

I scanned the crowd. Adults, teen and middle school cross-country runners, younger brothers and sisters. All of us gathered for a barbecue at Augsburg Park in Richfield.

Crystel told me later that she knew it was going to happen.

Jody, Juan Jose’ and Crystel have a detector for my overwhelming emotions. Usually it will be Juan that says, “You’re crying, aren’t you?”

Any matter-of-factness I had ran out of the park when I eyeballed their friends and teammates, and I contemplated just for a moment losing any one of them to a drowning.

I paused a number of times during my ‘welcome to our home but I don’t want to go to a funeral’ speech. Even so I ended up weeping.

My tears are a gift from Juan Jose’ and Crystel. They broke me apart with love when they came into my life. I haven’t been able to put myself together since.

They came and relaxed.

I really did it this time, I thought. No one will want to go to that lady’s house. She’ll start crying.

“Don’t worry about my crying,” I said. “Juan Jose’ and Crystel know I cry all the time.”

The group laughed.

Thing is, I do cry all the time. What a gift.

I just don’t intend to share it so openly.

We will just have to see if the teams come around.

 

 

Unknown Adventure

Juan Jose’, Ani, Rosa

“She needs a blood transfusion, and then if possible surgery. The hospital is so busy because of the volcano victims.”

As of June 6, 2018, At least 192 people are missing and 75 are dead as a result of the explosion of the Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala according to the BBC news.

“Her blood levels are very low. She has to be in the hospital. She did not know. It was a surprise.”

Jody, Juan Jose’, Crystel and I are traveling towards the Volcano of Fire. Before our trip is over, we will learn that entire villages on the slopes of Fuego volcano were buried in volcanic ash, mud and rocks. Hundreds of Guatemalans

San Marcos La Laguna, Guatemala. photo credit, Juan Jose’

are dead. Some have lost entire families.

Eight years ago, Volcano Pacaya erupted. Juan Jose’ and Crystel were 7. When we

landed in Guatemala on that trip, their first visit to Guatemala, volcanic ash was being shoveled from the airline strip.

Crystel’s words were, “We are in my country now.”

This will be our fifth visit to Guatemala.

Alex Vicente Lopez, Guide Extraordinaire

Before every trip, as I do with all of our vacations, I researched extensively. This year, I had planned a sailing adventure, leaving from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, sailing into Lake Izabal, and then on to the Caribbean after our visit with Rosa, Juan Jose’s birth mom.

All trip planning stopped, and we cancelled the sailing trip when we received a message that Rosa had advanced cancer.

This unpredictable country is Juan Jose’s and Crystel’s birthplace. Devastation, poverty, and constant struggle is a reality in Guatemala. News of volcanic eruptions and the hardships of birth moms who have given their children up in adoption slice Jody and I to the core. We provide what help we can. Our message to Juan Jose’ and Crystel is to be proud of where they come from.

Kayak Guatemala, Los Elementos Our Happy Place

Crystel was born in Amatitlan, in the shadow of Volcano Pacaya. Juan Jose’ is from the mountains of Rabinal. His grandfather and great grandfather died in the Civil War.

Through the help of our village of friends in Guatemala: Lee and Elaine Beal of Los Elementos Adventure Center, Lesly Villatoro, of El Amor De Patricia, and the organization De Familia a Familia, we received assistance for Rosa. Lesly accompanied

Rosa to the doctor. Rosa learned that she didn’t have cancer but a large fibroid that needed to be removed. We would be able to visit with her on our last day in Guatemala with De Familia a Familia providing interpretation services.

As in our four previous trips, we would stay at Los Elementos and have Alex Vicente Lopez as our guide for our 5-day stay at Lake Atitlan. And we’d have many unknown

Crystel in native dress. A gift from Juanita, Alex’s wife.

adventures, because plans can suddenly change.

We would be vacationing in Crystel’s and Juan Jose’s ever-changing birth country – traveling towards 37 volcanoes, 3 of them active, and 1 erupting.

Amongst the poverty, devastation, and volcanoes we would find beauty. Guatemalans are strong, proud, and loving.

Their country beautiful.

 

I’m A Gamer

Juan Jose guffaws, “That’s NOT a gamer, Mom.”

All three people in my household agree with each other that I’m addicted to the Ticket to Ride app on my phone. It’s the only game application that I have downloaded. It’s my secret pleasure, though it isn’t such a secret, when I tell them that I’ll be in the house as soon as my game is over. I sit in the car while Jody, Juan and Crystel unload themselves and make their way into the house.

I’m not convinced that I’m addicted. Though, one day I did cancel the app three times only to download it again.

Ticket to Ride, has brought me to a new understanding of teenage boys and why they like electronic games.

I’m totally sucked in when I’m playing. Voices in the house are just that—voices. Time drifts away. Once in awhile, I hear Crystel above the din saying, “Language, mom. Language.”

It is true that my vocabulary has grown since playing Ticket to Ride.

At times, Jody will think that I’m talking to her until she realizes that I’m having a conversation with my phone and these unseen people who I’m playing against.

Once another player (there are 3 other players—all anonymous) typed, “edigrazia sucks.” I had intentionally blocked their train route to gain advantage. I flinched. After the game, I quickly changed my profile name, edigrazia to just numbers. I felt more hidden, more anonymous. Currently, my profile name is juegodetren (playthetrain). I told Juan and Crystel that now the other players think I’m Hispanic. I even went on Google translate to get the spelling right.

“Oh, mom,” they said, shaking their heads.

Jody recently sent me a picture of a grandma gamer. “Maybe it’s good for your brain,” she said.

I think she was attempting to come to peace with my gaming, although she got upset the other day.

In our driveway she sat in the police car waiting for me. We were volunteering that evening for Police Reserves. I joined her in the front seat but asked her not to leave the driveway until I was done with my game. Sometimes, a quick change in web address will kick you off the game. And, I had an edge. I thought I might win this one.

Jody logged us into the police computer. I didn’t observe her because I was focused on my game. She pulled out of the driveway and it happened. I was kicked off.

Later that evening, dispatch was calling 2662 to respond to a complaint of a barking dog. We didn’t pay any attention because our call sign is 2552. There was a bit of confusion with dispatch and the sergeant. After some checking we realized that we were signed in as 2662.

Fortunately, being a police reserve officer is a volunteer position. You can’t fire a volunteer…or can you?

All because of juego de tren?