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.

I Killed Her Off

Rosie and Oreo

Now that Jody’s home safe and sound, I can tell you that I killed her off. I often do this. Jody went to India for work for a week. For a fleeting moment she died, in my mind. How did that look? How did I feel? How would I tell the kids? Probably go to their school and take them out, I thought. I mean, I did it for the cat.

I got a call at work from a person in the area who found Oreo, Crystel’s cat, in their back yard. It was a rainy miserable morning. I told her that I’d be right there. After calling Jody, I drove straight to the middle school. Juan showed up in the office first. I took him to a side room. With tears streaming down my face, I told him Oreo had died.

Perhaps the school thought Oreo was a cherished Aunt or Uncle as I ushered the children solemnly to the car. Juan and Crystel wrapped Oreo tenderly in a blanket, carried her to the car and sat with the cat on their shared lap. We had surmised Oreo got hit by a car and went in the person’s back yard and succumbed to her injuries.

Jody met us at home. The four us stood in the back yard, pointing to where our other animals were buried: 4 cats, a dog, and a hamster. Crystel chose Oreo’s resting spot. In the drizzling rain we shoveled a hole and had a proper burial. Crystel asked to take the rest of the day off. No, it’s just a cat, I thought. I bought her a Chai tea at Caribou and returned her to school. The school counselor was very supportive. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Oreo was a cat. I let the kids do that.

I once went to a therapist who told me that my house would never burn down so I didn’t need to worry when I was away on a trip. I had confessed that I found myself sneaking a look around the corner to my house whenever I returned from traveling. I quit seeing her. What she said wasn’t true. A house could burn down. A barn could burn down. I had experienced both traumas as a young child. Don’t tell me it won’t happen.

Out of curiosity, I did look up to see whether worker’s compensation would apply if Jody died while she was in India. It does.

Killing Jody off doesn’t have anything to do with how far she travels. When she and the kids traveled to Maplelag, four hours from home, for a Nordic ski weekend, I killed them all off. Just for a moment. In that moment, I had their funerals planned, felt their absence and wondered what I would do with my sudden free time.

All week while Jody was in India I felt her absence. I noticed how her absence changed Juan, Crystel and me. The house was quieter, we were quieter. Her energy was no longer visceral. Gone were the hundreds of kindnesses she does in a week such as making me breakfast before the kids get up on the weekends. Later in the morning, on request, making Juan pancakes with chocolate chips. Grocery shopping with Crystel. Making me a week full of salads. It was like the three of us were in a holding pattern waiting for her to return to start our engines. Everything stood still. Except when I opened the door to bring the kids their latest takeout.

Jody most likely doesn’t know how important she is to me, Juan and Crystel. To our household. To the two dogs and two cats that are still living. She is our engine, our heart. What makes our family work as a whole.

I’m so glad she’s home.

Birkebeiner or Bust

Birkebeiner photo credit to Joy Jurewicz

It was bust for me. Even though I had every intention of going—- since March 2018.

I asked Crystel right after the 2018 Birkie if she would like me to plan a Birkie outing for 2019.

I had a lodging reservation within days of her saying, “Yes.”

I did everything that one would do to accomplish their goal. I wrote it down. I emailed an invitation to a group of people and I set it in my mind that I would get out on the ski trails.

Birkie 2019 was going to happen for me.

Even so, today, I’m sitting on the couch in my living room while Crystel, Jody, and friends are at Birkie 2019. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to go to the Birkie, even though I was the organizer, Jody stepped in and took the reins.

What happened?

It wasn’t the three lodging changes. My first reservation was canceled when the resort was sold, the second reservation when the owner decided to move back home. I reserved a third lodging option. After the sale didn’t go through on the first reservation, I reserved our original lodging. I remained steadfast throughout.

I must have appeared as if I was in the throes of a personality disorder as I continually updated our group on lodging changes.

On the bus to the start. Crystel and Allie

It wasn’t that I didn’t get out and ski. I skied two or three times. Enough to know that I could do the Prince Hakken 15K, the shortest race of the Birkebeiner.

No, it was something else entirely. Something I had to face. Because even though I did have meniscus surgery three weeks prior to Birkie 2019, I could have joined our group and been a spectator.

It was the fact that I knew that I would be miserable. I had to acknowledge it. All the facts pointed to it. I don’t like the cold.

I had a goal this year to be at every high school Nordic ski race. I was determined. I declared to Juan Jose’ and Crystel that in 2018-2019 I’d be at every meet. In their 2017-2018 season, I made it to half of a race. I say half, because I never showed up at the start line. Instead, I snuck on the course at Hyland Hills, by walking through dark woods in deep snow. I stood at the edge of the lighted ski path, yelling, “Go Crystel, go!” to anyone who looked remotely like her.  Later, I did learn that one of her friends heard me. It could have been her that I thought was Crystel. Skiers are bundled from their neck up, hiding themselves from the frigid air. With uniforms that hug their slight bodies, they all look alike. I hadn’t been to enough races to know Crystel’s nuances.

Athletes

I knew Juan’s. He dislikes the cold as much as I do. And, he’s on the team. If a race was optional, which this one was, he usually chose not to participate. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he must. Heck, I couldn’t get out to even one race in 2017-2018. This season I didn’t go to any.

Jody told me not to discourage the kids. I didn’t, I insisted. I just looked at her skeptically each time she headed out to a meet. “Why do you do it?” I asked her. “Why?”

She said it’s fun and that she likes the community.

Jody and Nicole

I scanned the crowd at the Nordic ski award banquet this year. Yes, the people seemed nice and the end of season slide show didn’t make me cold in the heated auditorium where we sat listening to the accolades.

There wasn’t a bad parent award. Thought I might get that one if there was.

Maybe I will get out next year to a Nordic ski race.

But, let’s face it, probably not.

 

I travel to experience difference.

Montana

I travel to experience difference.

I want my heart to pound with exhilaration. To swell and beat against my body. I want to instinctively hold my breath. I want to feel fear.

On the Big Mountain in Whitefish, Montana, I held my breath and pushed off the 6,817 ft. summit. My skis foreign under me. It had been years since I had downhill skied. I worked to tilt my skis onto their edge, providing the resistance I needed to slow down. Juan Jose’ and Crystel’s ski lessons from when they were four rose in my memory, “Pizza, Mama. Pizza.” I pizzaed and french fried down the mountain.

My first step off the summit, had the same feeling as jumping off a cliff the height of a 3-story house into Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Ultra Extreme zip- lining, flying over and through the jungle of Guatemala, jumping out of a plane in Wisconsin, and bungee jumping off the historic suspension bridge in New Zealand, where bungee jumping began are not things I need to do again. Nor is parasailing.

Never say never. I can imagine the kids wanting me to join them and there I’ll go again.

I travel to experience awe. Awe-inspiring landscape, whether it be in Montana, Guatemala, or the ocean is a feeling I want to hold onto forever. I want to breathe in what I’m seeing so deeply that I never lose my sense of wonder. I experience a connection with something greater.

Destin

Hiking along ancient paths in Sedona, the Upper Mayan Trail in Guatemala, and the Badlands provides a profound sense of being with the ancients whether it is the Yavapai of Sedona, the Kachekel Mayans of Guatemala, or the paleo-Indians of the Badlands. I can envision the singular, winding, upwards path of those who came before us, shouldering their belongings, carrying their infants, moving towards shelter.

When I travel, I often learn something new about myself or come to a deeper understanding.

It was in Destin, Florida strolling towards sunrise on the fine soft white sand, that it came to me: I feel most alive walking into the wind. That I create the world I live in. That right now, this moment, came to be because of all the choices that I have made before.

Jody, Cozumel

Family travel, sharing adventures, having others hold their breath in awe and fear are joys. The best thing Jody and I can give our children is the world in their palm and a passion for new experiences. Then, they too, can cultivate new and lasting relationships with the world and those around them.

We are planning a family trip to Japan in 2020. Crystel is organizing our travel plans. She is teaching herself Japanese. Juan Jose’ will also be traveling to Germany with his German class.

Travel is fulfilling. Rejuvenating. A time to take stock. Stretch boundaries. And, if you plan it right, to hold your breath.

I Stepped Out Of The Car …

Juan Jose and Crystel – summit Whitefish, Mountain.

I stepped out of the car. My legs crumpled under me. A stark reminder that I needed to make a date to have both of my knees replaced.

Gingerly, I straightened. Re-balanced. Even so, I walked lopsided towards the gas station. I took short little steps uncertain in my movements. With each footstep forward, I adjusted my back, testing my knees to hold me. To onlookers, it may have appeared that I had one leg shorter than another or hip problems. A little old lady shuffling into the station, focusing

Jody

on each step to avoid slipping on the icy asphalt.

In the car, I didn’t feel pain. Juan Jose’ had been driving the first leg of our journey to Whitefish, Montana. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I was able to maneuver my legs, stretch, elevate my knees, and shuffle my butt around. The suddenness of being unable to move or walk properly after resting in the car 2 ½ hours was frightening.

I hadn’t realized how unstable my knees were. I was well-accustomed to my knees burning and throbbing, having learned to lessen the pain with ice, ibuprofen, and exercise. Being crippled after sitting in a car was an eye-opener.

Dogsledding

I had planned our Whitefish, Montana trip to celebrate my 60th birthday. I wanted to introduce Juan Jose’ and Crystel to mountain downhill skiing, snowmobiling, dogsledding and cross-country skiing in Glacier National Park. Bucket list items.

In the previous few months, there were several occasions that Jody asked me if I wanted to alter my plans. Perhaps, be less adventurous, more knee friendly, more old-ladyish (though she didn’t put it that way).

I had planned this trip for well over a year. Reservations were made. Friends would be joining us. Knee replacement and sedentary activities would have to wait.

snowmobiling to the top of the mountain

The most difficult part of our trip would prove to be getting out of the car after a long car ride.

It wasn’t downhill skiing 6817ft from the summit at Whitefish, Mountain or being a passenger on Crystel’s snowmobile as she drove to the top of the mountain or journeying with Jody by dog sled.

I was comfortable in the car, but when I stood to take those first few steps I was crippled.

I’ll be seeing the doctor tomorrow to set a date for my double knee replacement.

Only thing is, I am registered to ski 15k on the Birkie trail February 22, 2019 and I have a trip to Florida planned the first week in April. I plan to paddle board, be a passenger on Juan Jose’s jet ski and walk on the beach.

I’ll pen the knee replacement surgery in my calendar. Stop adding adventures. Promise.

 

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.