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.

When Death Becomes a Mystery

We know that we are going to die. We read about death in the newspapers. People we know and do not know. Obituaries are posted on social media.

The further away a death is from me the less I question it. It’s just a fact. People die.

But then Sam Spratt died. He was 25 years old. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, he was in a car accident and died at the scene. He was our neighbor and Juan and Crystel’s caregiver for over four years. Death suddenly became a mystery to me. Why did Sam die? Was he done living his life? Did he accomplish all that he wanted? My world instantly felt less safe. I was nervous getting in my car. Now I knew I could die. If Sam could die, I could die.

There is no more do-over for Sam. What he did in this life is done. Or is it?

Sam’s funeral was overflowing with young, middle-aged, and old people. Friends, neighbors, relatives, high school classmates. Attendees spoke about how kind Sam was. How understanding. The deep conversations they had.

Juan and Crystel experienced the same with Sam. Sam was 12 years old and the kids were 5 when he started nannying for us. Monday to Friday he came to our house while Jody and I were at work. He even spent an occasional overnight when Jody and I were out of town.

Sam and our children became a familiar sight throughout the Richfield community and parts of Edina. For years they pedaled their bikes to dentist and orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, swim lessons, movies, library, restaurants, bowling, swimming pool and the neighborhood parks. Sam took on the additional responsibility of Juan and Crystel’s friends for play dates in our backyard swimming pool.

I was compelled to write a blog post about our experience with Sam when I read a parenting book that warned against having a teenage boy babysit – the children would be at risk.

With intention, Jody and I welcomed Sam into our home and into our lives. We were blessed to have this teenage boy responsible for our children’s safety.

On Easter five weeks before he died, Sam walked down the street to our house to visit with Juan and Crystel. He was planning to come to their graduation party in June. “He wouldn’t miss it!” he said. The three of them chatted as they would do, cajoling and teasing each other. Juan and Crystel were ‘his kids.’ He had taught them how to read, made sure they brushed their teeth, and that they weeded the garden.

Now he’s teaching Juan and Crystel about death, grief, and loss. How to navigate when a loved one is no longer with us.

His death continues to be a mystery to me. I’m still asking questions. Still pausing my mind when I pass the area where he died.

Sam was right, though. He did show up for Juan and Crystel’s graduation. I finally looked at Juan and Crystel’s picture boards at the end of their graduation party. Juan had many photos of himself, Crystel, Jody and me on his board. Prominently displayed in the center was a photo of Juan, Sam and Crystel.

I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I nurtured two souls, Sam can say. I gave them my heart and they gave me theirs. To that end, I taught them love for another.

Sam Spratt October 17, 1995 – May 19, 2021.  Never forgotten.

Endings and Beginnings

Juan and Crystel’s graduation is this week.

There are graduation parties, athletic banquets, Senior party, after grad parties, and bonfires.

I was kicked out of school the last week of 12th grade. I was banned from attending my senior party. I was unpredictable. Impressionable. Dangerous. I never attended a prom. It wasn’t because of COVID.

Juan and Crystel are experiencing life differently than I did at their age. They have more of a life, more joy, more celebration, more love.

It makes me cry.

A different life from what I had is always what I wanted for my kids.

“You have great kids,” a track coach said at their athletic banquet.  “I don’t know what they are like at home but here they are awesome. Polite. Happy.”

I cried some more.

Plaques lining both their walls say, “MVP Award, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Award, Work Horse Award, Most Valuable Distance Runner, Most Valuable Teammate, Spotlight on Scholarship, Eagle Scout.

Jody and I have great kids. We have done a lot of things right. And, when we haven’t, we have apologized and explained why we had the reaction we did.

In middle school, Juan nudged me out of his room when we had a disagreement about his phone. I said words that I’m not proud of. Later that evening, I called a family meeting. I apologized to Juan and I told him that my reaction was because I lived with violence growing up in my house. I told him that our home would not ever be like that. We were never to touch one another in anger.

Jody and I are frequently asked, “How does it feel to be empty nesters?” 

I just shake my head.

My mother made it clear that when you graduated high school you were not to come home, again.

Wherever we are, Juan and Crystel will be.

The porch light is always on.

I always wanted to know what love looked like. I know.

mi casa es su casa

No persons of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.

A covenant is a provision, or promise, contained in a deed to land.

I prayed it wasn’t true.

I had often been proud of living in Richfield with its diversity. Student population at Richfield Senior High is 43% Hispanic, 26.8% White, 17.6% African American, 7.1% Two or more races and 4.9% Asian.

With their Guatemalan origin Juan and Crystel fit right in. This was important to Jody and me. Already they were unusual for having two moms and being adopted. Let them blend in on occasion. Get a break from being special.

Jody and I have owned our home for over 25 years. We welcomed Juan and Crystel into our home when they were infants. In one month, they will be graduating from Richfield High School. Yet this covenant is on our property deed.

I had read about the Just Deeds Project on our Richfield Community Facebook page. To find out if our home had a discriminatory deed I simply needed to type in our address on the interactive map. I was sure our home didn’t have one.

I’ve experienced the scorn and contempt of others for being different. Wouldn’t I inherently know discrimination? And, wasn’t it our family that always had the play dates, the school parties, and the block parties at our house to show everyone we were just like them? That we weren’t a family to be afraid of.

Instantly, I felt ill.

I did have a covenant on my home. Jody’s home. Juan and Crystel’s home. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, making covenants and other discriminatory housing practices illegal across the nation. Still, our house is marked. There is a pox on it.

Real estate developers began writing racial covenants – race-based property ownership restrictions – into property deeds in 1910. They were banned by the Minnesota state legislature in 1953 but not before a racial covenant was written on our property on November 29, 1946.

Richfield is home to 3,714 of these covenants.

No persons of any race other than the Caucasian race shall use or occupy any building or any lot.

How do I tell Juan and Crystel that a deed on our house states that no persons of any race other than the Caucasian race is welcomed in our home?

I can still be proud of Richfield. On Tuesday, April 13, the Richfield City Council took action to support the Just Deeds project. Starting May 1, 2021 Richfield homeowners can discharge the racial covenant on their property records. I immediately submitted an online Just Deeds Request form to start the process.

I want the next owner of our home to understand that I disagree with any type of racial covenant on our home. I want the owners to know that we made an effort to remove the mark, the pox, the stain on our house.

I can easily see one of our children owning our home and if not them a family that is not Caucasian. In fact, I would welcome that. Mi casa es su casa.

Our Dog Is Vegan, Too

Sadie outside screen door expecting to be let inside with her stick after failing to bring it through the dog door.

She’s following in Crystel’s footsteps who has been a vegan for over three years. Sadie helps till the soil, then comes the planting of the seeds. All last summer and winter she brought kale into the house, ripping the greenery to shreds before chewing on the stem. When Jody is making salads, Sadie waits for her portion.

Our dog Buddy used to be Trouble. Sadie is the real terror.

Crystel can no longer put a flat of seedlings on the bottom shelf of her greenhouse. Sadie thinks she’s the gardener. She’ll take out the tray. Nose the organic clump from the cell pot into its former soil mixture. She was put out when Crystel eliminated the bottom ledge. Sitting on her haunches, whining at the greenhouse.

Sadie thinks she ought to make bigger holes than what we think is necessary. Her face a ring of dirt, her feet mud sticks. We try catching her digging so we can parent properly but she knows when she is just outside of our line of sight. She is uncanny like that. I’ve become jumpy not knowing where she is.

It was no surprise that Sadie was the first to find an Easter egg in the garden. I thought she’d eat the money before I stopped her. You owe me her look said.

On walks she trails her nose on the ground. Every few feet we excavate something out of her mouth. A leaf, a stick, a ragged dried piece of a flattened squirrel, rocks, a bird wing, pinecones, even a chewed piece of gum. While we are enjoying the surroundings, she’s picking up litter. I bring an extra bag just for her. The ends of her ears are grey. I’m convinced it is because she drags them on the ground, nosing her way down the street.

Trying to keep Sadie off the pool cover is useless. It’s her water dish after it rains. A trampoline when it’s dry, jumping and leaping, round and round. 

First egg found

I told my two 18-year olds that they were easier to parent as children than the dog. They didn’t think that was much of a compliment. They know Sadie. Helped choose her. Named her. She’s a wonderful dog. We all love her. It just makes you reconsider having kids.

Sadie is the first retriever dog that we have ever had. But, boy, leave anything out and she will eat it. Even your distance learning homework. 

She’s a COVID dog. She’ll be a year old this month. I guess you could say that she’s done her part, kept up her side of the bargain. Offering us endless distraction.

Mom at 62

I’m 62 years old and a mom to two 18-year-olds.

In my mind, this conjures up an old lady parenting two young spirited teens who are placed at a disadvantage. An old lady who could not possibly understand their children’s struggles and desires. An old lady completely out of touch with today’s slang, music, and dress.

I do admit I asked Crystel what ‘Shawty’ meant a couple of weeks ago when she was cheering on Juan and friends who were competing at a Nordic ski meet. I stuck to my tried and true, “Go Spartans! Woo-hoo!!!”

Juan and Crystel are joining with four others to hold a high school graduation party. I was a bit taken aback when discussing appropriate music for the party (preferring an absence of certain words). The six soon-to-be graduates looked back and forth at each other and quickly decided that my playlist of 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s music would be best.

Jody is 58 years old. Unless we’re standing next to other parents at sports events, we usually don’t notice our age difference. Then, Wow those parents look so young, might pop into our heads.

Another time it might occur is when other families are especially active going here and there: winter carnival, parades, ice castles, weekend trips. Jody and I just look at each other and shake our heads. We have no interest. We don’t take it as a sign of slowing down. We have always been that way. Sorry kids. That’s why you have chosen aunts and uncles. Crystel and her Uncle Marty participated in the ALARC ice dive this year on January 1st.

You can find Jody and me volunteering at Juan and Crystel’s school, sports, and scout events. We’re active in the police reserves and often host get-togethers at our house or swimming pool.

The kids never seem embarrassed that we are old. There are so many other ways that I’ve mortified them. Showing up at school unannounced to sit with them in their classroom and walk from one class to another to understand why my student couldn’t make it to the next class without being tardy. Walking into the men’s bathroom to check on my son. In my defense, I did text him and tell him that if he didn’t come out in five minutes that I was coming in. This was at a Taylor Swift concert.

Jody and I believe it’s important to make sure your children have a heartbeat. Cliff jumping, zip gliding, and mountain climbing in Guatemala, helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, swimming with dolphins, hot air balloon ride, dog sledding, horse riding, mountain snowmobiling and skiing and more. If we can do it at our age, then they can, too.

At an earlier age, you could find Jody and me sky diving, inline and running marathons, distance biking, and completing the Tough Mudder. Jody continues to run marathons. The kids had their first sky dive on Crystel’s 18th birthday. They’ve yet to complete a marathon. The old people still got it.