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.

One Person Can Make a Difference

One person can make a difference.

Aunt Kate did.

My Aunt died 30 years ago but it is her that comforts me. I imagine me sitting next to her, wrapping myself around her ham of an arm and never letting go. She loved me. That I know. I could see it in her worried eyes. I could feel it in her nervous energy. She wasn’t perfect, neither was I in our relationship. In my early twenties she had asked me to meet her at a wake for a dear friend of hers. I told her that I would but then I didn’t show. I had my excuses. I was too tired. I had worked long hours on the night shift into the morning. I was exhausted and needed sleep. I couldn’t summon the energy to dress into nice clothes, navigate through the cold wintry weather, and step into the funeral home. She asked me later that day where I was. I could hear her disappointment. I held the phone to my ear, imagined her waiting for me. My aunt who didn’t ask anything of me but this one time, who counted on me to be there for her.

Aunt Kate was a caretaker of her siblings throughout her life, before her service in the army and after. She never married.

It was her boyfriend from days gone by that had passed away and I didn’t show. My one unforgiveable regret.

She must have forgiven me because as she lay dying at age 83, she visited me though we were miles apart. Her white shadowy spirit passed through the room. I was kneeling at my bedside, sobbing because I knew that I would never make it to her in time.

At that moment, my mother called. “Aunt Kate died,” she said.

“I know.” I felt oddly comforted by Aunt Kate’s presence. By her choice to see me before she departed this life. She recognized my love for her. “I know,” she was saying to me. “I know.”

It’s because of Aunt Kate that I live my life differently. I show up for people that I care about though I may be too tired, too exhausted, too busy, and the drive too far.

I went to Aunt Kate’s gravesite on the anniversary of her death. She would have liked that I thought of her and put flowers at her headstone. She would have liked that I pulled two of the flowers from the bouquet and put one on each side of her at her neighbor’s graves though neither of us knew them. She would have liked that I showed up though it was impossibly hard to find her grave at Fort Snelling even though I had been there before. It was cold. It was windy. I had to go to the bathroom. I didn’t give up. She didn’t give up on me.

It’s her that comforts me even now.

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I Didn’t Come This Far

My eye’s widened when the rich black velvety coffin box was opened. Inside was a sterling silver Eagle medal, an Eagle Scout embroidered emblem, an oval pin for the Eagle’s mother and one for the dad. The Boy Scout Eagle Presentation kit was impressive.

I was silent, contemplating the honor of being an Eagle Scout and the work it involved: 21 merit badges, camping requirements, an Eagle project, paperwork filled out and verified.

Everything about this presentation box was great, except one thing.

“Juan Jose’ has two moms,” I said. “Can I exchange the dad pin for another mom pin?”

“I don’t think that’s a problem,” the female receptionist agreed. “Let me check.”

I didn’t come this far in scouts with Juan Jose’ to get a dad pin.

Juan Jose’ and Beth

I reflected to first grade when he joined his Tiger den. I thought that I’d be able to drop him off at the meeting, run an errand, return and pick him up. I soon found out that dens were as strong as their parent volunteers. It was also clear that our Tiger den leader needed help with our group of boys. The male den leader and I became a team. I organized the projects and the field trips, and he used his booming voice to bring the boys to attention. When he couldn’t make the meetings, I’d surprise the boys with my wolf whistle when I needed them to listen.

Juan asked me why he had to be in cub scouts. Because you have two moms, I told him. You need to know how to navigate in a group of boys. There are things I can’t teach you. He responded saying he liked his life and I could be his dad. It doesn’t work that way, I said, though his words made me feel good.

Our den at a field trip to city hall.

I was proud of the fact that our den of ten boys stayed intact for five years, with many of the cub scouts receiving their Arrow of Light and going on to join boy scouts.

I had agreed with Juan that once he reached this point, he could make the decision to go on for his Eagle or to stop scouts. I thought for sure he’d quit. Especially, after the camping trip that was supposed to show how fun it was to be in Boy Scouts which seemed more like an evening of hazing. That night, the worst of nights, when it was darker than dark, we were both crying. I reminded him that he didn’t have to do this anymore. He could be done.

During troop visits, he found one he liked, and he stayed. I told him that I’d support him, be right at his side, but since this was his decision, quitting scouts wouldn’t be an option until he earned his Eagle.

Arrow of Light

I touched the softness of the presentation kit. I could hear a woman telling the receptionist that I could swap the dad pin for a mom pin in the Scout Shop downstairs.

In the Scout store, I opened the kit and asked to swap the dad pin for a mom pin. “My son has two moms.”

“Oh no, we don’t do that,” the man said. He was my age, greying at the temple.

“That’s not what they said upstairs,” I told him.

“Who said that?” he countered.

My voice raised, “The only two women up there. The receptionist and the woman she asked.” I was ready to go to battle. He didn’t understand that I didn’t spend all this time in scouts to get a dad pin. The fact that I had to argue about this was ridiculous. Two moms in Juan Jose’s life had been normal for him since he was eight months old.

“I’ll take it up with them,” he said. “Just a moment.”

When he came back with the mom pin, I smiled. I watched as he undid the dad pin, replacing it with the mom pin.

I couldn’t help it, my smile grew. “Maybe two dads will come in and you will have another dad pin,” I said.

He grunted. I laughed, knowing I had spoken his worst fear and that it could happen.

 

When It’s Your Children, Your School. Rumor of Threat.

Without much reaction, I read the email from Steve Unowsky, Superintendent of Richfield Schools. I figured his email was a patterned response to the Florida shootings, stating the school takes all threats seriously.

Immediately after I received a text from Juan Jose’.

Did you guys get an email from school?

Yes. About your safety.

Yeah. I’m not sure what it says on the email.

 His text compelled me to read Unowsky’s email closer. I sat upright. My senses now on high alert. Email came at 9:30.

I wasn’t alarmed because of my experience with the Richfield school district and the Richfield police department. I trusted that the school and police department had matters in hand and that the safest place for Juan Jose’ and Crystel was to remain in school.

On many occasions, I’ve interacted with school administrators because of concerns for my own children or other children. At times, I’ve asked them to intervene and have a conversation with Juan Jose’ or Crystel, or to check in on another student that might be struggling. There are times I’ve been an advocate for my children and at times, against my children’s wishes, a proponent for Richfield schools.

Richfield administrators have regarded my concerns seriously and with empathy.

Jody, Coach Marty, Beth

Jody and I also volunteer at many school events and have been active in Juan Jose’s and Crystel’s sport activities. This has allowed us more occasions to interact with teachers, coaches, and school officials.

As an active volunteer police reserve officer for over ten years, I trust our police department and the men and women who serve.

Even so, I imagined something happening, not today, but in the future in Juan Jose’s classroom. Tears welled up. Stop it, Beth, I told myself. That’s not what is happening now.

I continued my text: If anything ever happens let me and Mama Jody know. We can go home and put on our police reserve uniforms and be near the school. I’ll forward Unowsky’s email to you.

He responded: Kids are leaving school because of the email. Parents are just pulling them out.

It felt important to keep Juan Jose’ and Crystel in school. To trust what I knew that I could trust. My experience with Richfield schools and the Richfield police. I don’t think we need to do that. It’s just a message saying they are on alert. I sent you the email.

I got it. I heard a couple of people saying their parents want them to go home.

 You’re okay. They are just checking out rumors.

 I know. Just checking in.

I sent a heart emoji. If we get a call out to be a presence around the school, I’ll let you know.

 Okay. Thumbs up emoji.

 Just read this email. I agree. Jody texted.

 A little later Juan Jose’ texted: Everyone is freaking out. I’m like the only one who’s not.

I didn’t want other students to see Juan Jose’ and Crystel leaving. They know their moms are in police reserves. When Jody and I are at school events, we are also watching over their kids. Please tell your sister. There is nothing to worry about. If there is Mama Jody and I will come to the school.

 Okay but I never see Crystel.

Send her a text. It is helpful being a part of the police department. And Mama Jody and I are. Mama Jody and I even have patrol tonight. 

 Okay.

 Jody texted. We just got an update from Unowsky that basically confirms decision to stay at school. I forward to you.

Juan texted: There’s a few people who have just left class.

A little later, Everyone left. He sent a photo.

 Woah. Not you, though. I texted.

Ya smiley face emoji. I was proud of him.

I’ll pick you after school, I said.

Crystel and Juan Jose’ playing games on McGruff (me).

That evening volunteering as police reserve officers, Jody and I spent time being a presence at the Richfield middle school dance and at the High School for the girls’ senior night basketball game. Both events were mellow and low key.

I continue to trust the Richfield schools and the Richfield police department.

Because, I trust you and me. We are the police. We are the school. We are the community.

 

 

 

 

Laughter

The faster she went the harder she laughed.

Laughter rolls out of her bedroom followed by a shriek and right after a long, “Nooooo.” More loud laughter. You’d think that she had a gaggle of girls in her bedroom.

It’s just thee Crystel as she likes to call herself.

I always wanted to know what it looked like for a child to not be abused. I’d think about that when she was 2 years old sitting on my lap. Her head resting against me. Us rocking. Her legs splayed either which way. I knew even then.

I’d do anything to protect my kids, for them to have a life that I did not. Sometimes, much to their dismay.

Juan Jose’ was five-years old and was taking an indeterminate amount of time in the Super Target men’s bathroom. I couldn’t stand it one more second. I opened the bathroom door and hollered. “Juan Jose’ are you okay?” When he didn’t answer, I walked in, asking as I went. “Juan, Juan are you okay?”

“Yeeeeees,” came his voice.

When he was older, not yet a teen, he once thought he could take refuge from Mama Beth at the Xcel Energy Center during a concert. After a length of time, I texted him, “Juan Jose’ if you don’t tell me that you’re okay, I’m coming in the bathroom.” I waited a moment. “I’m coming.” I stepped into the bathroom.

“I’m fiiiiinne,” came his voice from a stall.

“Just checking,” I said.

Crystel tries to snarl sometimes. I tell her that she’ll never get as good as me. My teenage years was one long snarl. I show it to her. She laughs.

Her laughter is delightful. She doesn’t hide her beauty under an overflowing t-shirt or use her hair to hide her face. I could just sit and look at her, she’s so confident and unafraid. Of course, I don’t. She’s a teenager. She spends a large amount of time in her bedroom.

As does Juan Jose’. Usually he has the lights off in his #manboycave.

But, when he smiles … that room lights right up.

That’s what a teenage boy can do with his smile.

 

 

 

Entitlement

8 years old.

Entitlement is not a disease that I suffer from. In 1970, I was one of the kids who in middle school stood in the principal’s office amidst a tangle of classmates wondering why I was there. I was no stranger to the principal’s office. However, as I looked around at the others gathered, I wondered what our connection was. The Principal explained that a free lunch program started, and the ones gathered would be receivers of this new subsidy for low income families. Sweeping the small room with my eyes, I took stock. Two students were my siblings, the other seven were from families in our small town and farming community. We all knew each other. We were the ones on the fringes. It wasn’t difficult in our small community to know where you were on the economic ladder.

There wasn’t any money for a letterman’s jacket, yearbook, or class pictures. You knew what you could and couldn’t ask for at Christmas time. I never expected any inheritance from my parents. They simply didn’t have the money.

Jody and I feel blessed and fortunate for what we have. We truly are the lucky ones who have enough in this world.

Our teenage children also have enough. They don’t lack for anything. As well as having jobs, they have parents who like to give to them.

They have the letterman jackets, the yearbooks, the mopeds, and spending money.

Sometimes they feel entitled. They want for more.

This is when we stop. Give pause. In a way that isn’t too overbearing, too apparent, or overt, we seek to bring to their attention what they have. We want them to feel fortunate and blessed like we do. The best way we have found is to say, “No”. Or, “Use your own money from your job”. Or, “Write a letter what you are grateful for”. Or, “Fill a bag with toys, clothes, or whatever you are asking for to give away before we buy anything new”. Or, “Look around at others in your school and your community and notice the disparity”.

Our 4 trips to Guatemala, their birth country, have helped. We don’t need to say anything. They see what we see. As soon as we leave the airport, all of us are shocked into another reality.

This past Christmas, instead of opening presents on Christmas Eve, we played a grateful game. Though that isn’t what we called it. It was simply a game. The four of us joined together for a round robin of what we received during the year without it being on our birthday or holiday. Jody and I wanted the children to acknowledge all that they are blessed with. There was plenty.

Spring vacation Florida trip, South Dakota summer vacation, mopeds, helicopter rides, hot air balloon rides, Everglades airboat ride, jet ski rides, letterman jacket, updates to our house, etc.

Prior to our round robin, we did open one gift. A family values lazy susan. Words of wisdom, love and encouragement are colorfully displayed on this decorative table centerpiece. It would be great if this simple reminder would leave the teens feeling full of gratitude all year long. I doubt it.

That’s when we can pause. Stop. And, start counting our blessings.