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.

Had I Prepared My Daughter?

Photo by Uncle Scott

My 14-year-old daughter was half way to Wisconsin Dells with girlfriends for a birthday party when my gut tightened.

The party was a sleepover. She’d be gone for a couple of nights.

Maybe it was the distance that was the source of the fear. Maybe it was because it would be a couple of nights. Maybe it was her age. Maybe it was how beautiful she is. Maybe it was her innocence. Maybe it was her growing independence, her getting out into the world. There would be more days away from home. There would be longer distances.

Had I prepared her for an unwelcomed glance or touch? Was she prepared if that would happen? How would she respond?

I could almost hear her nervous giggle.

What if it became an unwanted advance?

I put myself in her place. My body froze. That’s what I knew how to do.

It helped when I thought of how differently Jody and I had raised our daughter from how I was raised. Even from a very young age, she was taught that her body was hers. She was taught that she had every right to expect privacy. She was taught that it was okay to lock the bathroom door. She was taught that it was okay to lock her bedroom door. She was taught that she had every right to expect respect. She was taught to say, “No”.

This calmed me.

If my daughter wasn’t respected she would recognize that. She knew what respect was.

That’s what Jody and I had given her. Her ability to recognize a danger signal by showing her acceptable behavior in our home.

This calmed me.

I realized that Jody and I had taught her a lot of things. We taught her love, and therefore she will expect love. We taught her kindness, and empathy, and to be herself. We taught her to dream. We taught her to travel domestically and internationally and to do so safely.

We’ve also taught her that it is okay to be alone, to feel pain, and sadness.

Most importantly we’ve taught her she can always come home. We are home.

She will travel far.

 

Advertisements

What We Don’t See

First off, my love to Beverly Cory and to those who loved her. I didn’t know Beverly but she could have been my friend or my financial advisor. The financial advisor Jody and I work with is also our dear friend and aunt to our children.

While volunteering for Richfield Police Reserves, near the 8-mile mark of the Woodlake half marathon, I positioned the police car to block the street. I turned on the squad lights, indicating that the intersection was closed. Half marathon runners could run safely up 71st St E.  Many would shout out some thanks as they went by. I’d wave in acknowledgement.

With the police car doing most of my work, my mind was on what I was hearing on the police radio.

The speed of information and the rapid coordination of agencies astounded me.

 

A person had been robbed at gunpoint. Police chase ensued. Car crashed into swamp. Man fled into nursing home. Perimeter set up. Command post opened. Swat team deployed. Help requested from nearby agencies. Police dog on scene. Request for another police dog. Photo of suspect received. Witness identified suspect. Snipers placed on roof tops. Squad cars, armoured vehicles, and helicopters surrounded the area. Area on lockdown. Evacuation of White Pine Living Center begun. A methodical door-to-door search of the center. Buses on site for residents and staff.

Though it was peaceful at my post, with runners yelling their appreciation, my heart rate increased, my blood pressure rose, and my breathing quickened.

In Mendota Heights, attention had turned to the office building.

Dispatch continuously fed the command center with information: persons who could possibly still be in the office building, the vehicles they drove, and their physical description.

Intensity continued at the senior center and at the same time increased at the office building.

A door-by-door search of the office building begun. A robot deployed. Beverly Cory found. My heart sank.

Long after I took off my Police Reserve officer uniform, I couldn’t stop thinking of Beverly and what might have transpired in her office. I don’t know what did. When I change into civilian clothes, I become a member of the public. I receive news the same as you.

One thing that I knew for sure, is that the police would work 24/7, and use all the resources that they had available to catch the murder suspect. I felt safer knowing that. I also knew that the police were doing a job that I could not possibly do.

“Go On, Git”

I’m excited about Juan Jose’ and Crystel growing up. Each milestone they have, I celebrate.

Sometimes, I’m ready before they are.

I couldn’t wait for Juan Jose’ to learn how to ride his bike without training wheels. Crystel had been riding for months. Finally, I convinced him to give it a try. We went to a grassy knoll at our nearby park. Along with his bike helmet, he insisted on wearing knee, elbow and wrist pads. If he could have figured out how to bungee a pillow around his waist, I’m sure that he would have.

With a push, I launched him. At high speed, he sailed down the rise, pedaled when he hit the flat field, and after he biked as far as he could, he fell.

From that moment, he had enough confidence to bike on his own.

Some parents lament time passing too quickly for their children. I’m loving it. It can’t come quick enough for me. Is this because I’m an older parent? I’m 58-years old with two 14-year olds. I want to be present for all of their firsts.

Or, is it because I was numb as a teenager? I thought I’d be dead by the time I was 25.

Through Juan Jose’ and Crystel, I experience their thrills, their excitement, and their fear. I get to see what being alive looks like.

Recently, Juan Jose’, Crystel, and a friend attended a moped driving class. I expected there to be other 14-year-olds in the classroom. When I opened the door, I was surprised. There were adults with tattoos, mustaches, beards, muscle shirts, and bulking biceps sitting at desks.

I pushed the children into the classroom without any protective gear. All of a sudden, they were surrounded by a classroom of grownups. They were launched.

I told the teacher, “I found these folks looking for the moped class.” Now, they are learning to drive.

 

It Happened Like This …

Crystel and Tio Scott Photo by Tia Anna

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how I choose to look at it, I have many personal examples when I hold employee meetings or talk with my children regarding undesirable behavior.

This past week I met with employees in Grand Forks, North Dakota to discuss profanity in the workplace. In meetings, I first try to establish that I’m not much different from who they are. My position today as a Human Resources Manager was not where I started. I began my career more than thirty years ago, running an inserting machine on the night shift, was promoted to lead person, then Supervisor.

I told the employees that when I was a supervisor, I would say,“What did you f..k up now?” when I dealt with a challenging employee who was constantly making mistakes. My boss informed me that my language was not appropriateEven so, the next night before I even knew it, before I could stop myself, I said the exact same thing to the exact same employee who once again had screwed up. This time, my boss made it clear that I would be fired if it happened again.

I had heard that profanity was a sign of a limited vocabulary. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that it took me concerted effort to stop swearing. It certainly was embedded behavior.

Juan Jose

Recently, our employee meeting was focused on hygiene in the workplace. Our manufacturing plants are Safe Quality Food certified, meaning that we are held to a high standard when it comes to conditions on our manufacturing floor. I used the example of my father coming to one of my brother’s football games without changing from his farm clothes. They laughed watching my face turn red at the memory. “Whatever you are doing before you come to work, change into your work uniform and your work shoes. Don’t bring the dirt from the fields in here.

“It happened like this,” I said, to Juan Jose and Crystel, when I was teaching them about why bullying was wrong. I began by telling them how I bullied a kid mercilessly and often was in fights in middle school. “Did you ever run away from home?” Juan asked. “Once,” I said. “I was going to hop a train. I can’t imagine you or Crystel ever running away. Even parents want to be adopted by me and Mama Jody.” I paused. Well, unless it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex, I thought but didn’t say. Then again, if that happens, we’ll deal. I’ve got examples of that too.  

 

It Wasn’t My Finest Moment

“It wasn’t my finest moment,” I told the kids. Juan and Crystel were eating at our kitchen island.

Juan looked up briefly. “I was thinking about that,” he said.

Crystel just smiled. She likes a faulty mother.

Jody was gone for the weekend.

Our family volunteers at Loaves and Fishes at Wood Lake Lutheran church once month. Loaves and Fishes is a free meal program that has served those in need across Minnesota since 1981. We’ve been volunteering once a month for three years. “It’s our church,” I tell the kids. For various reasons, we haven’t found a traditional home church. “Church is about giving and receiving, and this is what our family does,” I further explained.

The evening before was our ‘church’ night. When we arrived to volunteer, I was disheartened to see that the cook had changed. I don’t know why that would surprise me. It’s less turnover then I have at work. This would have only been the third cook in three years. That’s not so bad. I just wasn’t ready for it. The cook is a non-profit hired chef. The chef plans menus, orders food and manages the volunteers, who sign up online as I did.

Juan, Crystel, and I put on our aprons and hairnets. I asked the twenty-something cook what he’d like us to do.

Juan turned to me and said, “What did he say?”

“We are going to serve coffee.”

His eyes lit up. “All three of us?” His voice was full of hope.

The last time we were at ‘church’, I let Juan skip out and go home to finish a homework assignment. Wood Lake Lutheran Church is only three blocks from our home. There was plenty of volunteers and he wasn’t being particularly helpful that evening. Tonight, I had told them before we arrived that if anyone left early, this time it would be Crystel. It was her turn. That was my mistake. Allowing Juan and Crystel to leave early. After all, this was church. We were here for the sermon.

Most times there is a shortage of volunteers and there isn’t even a question of leaving early. Everyone has a job. Everyone is needed. I often had pointed this out to Juan and Crystel, “What if we wouldn’t have come tonight? Who would have helped with dishes? Or served? Or cleaned up?”

Juan knew what it meant if three of us were going to serve coffee.

“You know,” he started. “I know it’s Crystel’s turn to leave early and I’m okay with that. But maybe, just maybe, you could serve coffee by yourself?”

“We’ll see,” I said.

A finer moment.

There were five servers on the line and one person in back to wash dishes. I left Juan and Crystel to serve coffee while I went in back to dry dishes. After a flood of people went through the line to be served, I came back to check on Juan and Crystel.

Crystel raised her eyebrows. “Just wait,” I said. “I’m going to have something to eat and we’ll see.”

I regarded the five volunteers on the serving line standing with a utensil in hand or using the counter as support. I got my tray and sat down.

“Okay, Crystel,” I said. “You can leave.”

She jumped up and was gone.

“What about me?” Juan asked. “Look, they’re not doing anything.” He nodded to the servers.

I had already noticed them and it was starting to irritate me. The young people on the line were probably fulfilling a service learning requirement for college. They weren’t real volunteers … like us. They needed to be here. They were getting something out of it.

“Go ahead.”

From where I sat, I watched the clean dishes pile up because there wasn’t anyone drying and putting away. I served the occasional person who wanted coffee, milk, or water. The pile of dishes continued to grow. It occurred to me that if I wouldn’t have let Juan and Crystel leave that I could have been back there helping. Now I was bound to my station.

When I got home, I startled the children. They looked at the time.

“You’re done early?” They both said at once.

“No. I left.”

“What?!?”

“I left.” Even as I said it, I was wondering, who does that? Who leaves a job they volunteered for just because they got mad that people weren’t helping? If you’re a volunteer, aren’t you a volunteer because you love giving back? Because you love to be of service?

“Volunteers were just standing there, and dishes were piling up in back and I decided that I wasn’t going to dry them. I just left.”

Juan and Crystel didn’t say anything.

It took me twenty-four hours, but I realized that we had gotten away from the message, the spirit of volunteering, of giving back.

“Guys, no one goes home early anymore. No matter how many volunteers come,” I said. “It’s what it is. It’s our church.”