Announcing the Publication of House of Fire – an Inspiring Memoir by Elizabeth di Grazia

“In it together—from inspiration to publication” is the WordSisters theme, and today I want to congratulate Elizabeth on the publication of her memoir, House of Fire (North Star Press, 2016).

Layout 1House of Fire is the realization of a writing dream begun 13 years ago when Elizabeth entered the MFA program at Hamline University. The book is also the culmination of a personal journey that began when she was a little girl growing up on a farm in Western Wisconsin.

From the time she was 4 until she moved away from her family of origin at 19, she was sexually abused. Incest caused two pregnancies, which resulted in one abortion and one adoption. Although the memoir documents those soul-sapping experiences, the book focuses on healing and the transformative experience of creating a healthy family. DSC07148

The path to parenthood was bumpy sometimes, but Elizabeth and her partner Jody were determined and persistent. In 2003, they adopted two infants from Guatemala. Today, their created family is happy and healthy—wonderful in itself—and also a testament to people’s incredible capacity to heal and move from pain and loss to joy. Elizabeth would be quick to tell you that sexual abuse doesn’t have to define a person. She is surviving and thriving.

Although it springs from harsh realities, House of Fire is joyful and inspiring. It’s available in paperback and as an ebook.

 

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Juan Jose and a Guatemalan Revolution

FullSizeRender (5)In Guatemala today, there is an uprising.

“We don’t have medicine in the hospitals. The children don’t have books in their schools. And throughout society there aren’t any jobs and the president hasn’t done anything to help. They’ve just stolen from the people,” said Maria Elena Aquino Gomez, 38, as she sold flags in the plaza. “Guatemala is alive. We’re not dead. And we’ll continue fighting for our liberty.”

The parents of many of the organizers warned them not to get involved. “They grew up in the ’80s in Guatemala, when going out to protest meant death,” said Gabriel Wer, a 33-year-old organizer.

They hoped a few people would show up. Thirty thousand came.

I watch safely from afar, read bits and pieces, and know enough to know that I don’t understand.

Juan Jose had a history before he met Jody and me.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

Antonio (9), Rosa, and his sister, Ani.

His grandfather died in 1982 during the civil war and his grandmother was left to raise seven children on her own. She couldn’t provide for all, so when his mother was five years old, she was given to an aunt. The aunt treated his mother very badly so she ran back to her mother’s house. The economic situation hadn’t changed, so his mother had to get a job cleaning houses in Rabinal at age 9.

Antonio was 9 when he met his mother, Rosa, for the first time.

“Did you name Antonio,” was one of my first questions. I so much wanted to show her that we honored her by keeping his name.

“No. The adoption people named him Antonio. I wanted to name him Juan Jose. Juan to honor my father and Jose to honor my grandfather.”

Ever since then when Antonio and I meet someone whose name is Juan or Juan Jose we look at each other knowingly.

During our first meeting with Rosa, Jody and I asked her if we could help her with monthly groceries. She said, “No. I don’t want Antonio to think I sold him.”

 

Antonio (11) and Rosa

Antonio (11) and Rosa

It was then that I knew the strength and heart of Guatemalans.

Rosa is indigenous and belongs to the Mayan Achi ethnia. She is from Aldea Concul, approximately 10 miles southwest from Rabinal on the Sierra de Chuacus, 5,500 feet above sea level.

Today, she lives in the poorest section of Guatemala City. Taxis won’t drive there. Still, she didn’t want to receive help. More than anything, she wanted Juan Jose’s forgiveness for letting him go.

The Guatemalan uprising resulted in Pérez Molina no longer being President of Guatemala. Perez Molina was a former general who led the most feared branch of a military that routinely massacred citizens during nearly four decades of Civil War. About 200,000 civilians died, one of them being Juan Jose’s grandfather.

I can picture Juan Jose a.k.a. Antonio running the mountain trails in Guatemala. He has the heart of Rosa.

We will be visiting Rosa next year. She’ll be able to see for herself the man Juan Jose is becoming.

Try And Make Me!

9781623364069_p0_v1_s260x420[1]I still have my book. It has di Grazia scrawled in black magic marker on the front cover.

It is my guidebook, rules to live by. I have no intention of ever purging the book or giving it away as I have many parenting books.

Today, I leaf through try and make me!, pages stiff from absorbing moisture in the bathroom. “I’ve seen that book,” Crystel says as I carry it upstairs to write this blog. Indeed she has. For kids from 2 to 12 it says on the front cover. Antonio has just turned 12 and she’ll be 12 in six weeks. She most likely saw me reading on the couch when she was little. I also recall many times when I slipped away from the two toddlers to read a chapter that was happening RIGHT NOW. That’s what I liked about the book. I could relate.

Crystel and Antonio on our visit to see Antonio at Boy Scout Camp

Crystel and Antonio on our visit to see Antonio at Boy Scout Camp

Defiant kids are born or made. Because Antonio and Crystel are adopted, I was constantly trying to determine where their behavior stemmed from. In the end it didn’t matter. It wasn’t a question that was on my mind when my three-year old was jumping up and down in Super Target yelling, “No, no, no.” Instead, I glanced around for a place to sit. Then said, “Let me know when you’re done.” (Thank you to the mothers who acknowledged me and asked if I needed help).

Once, I did ask for help. I asked a security guard at the Mall of America if he would escort me and my child out of the store. He looked like a policeman to the five-year old who immediately glommed on to my legs when he realized what was transpiring. “Do you see what is happening here?” I said. “I can’t walk you to the car alone.”

12-years old

12-years old

Page 6. Never, Ever Give Up. That was the child’s last fit. It took years of constantly disengaging from his behavior and letting his problem stay his problem.

Four characteristics of defiant children are: control-craving, socially exploitive, blind to their role in a problem, and able to tolerate a great deal of negativity. Beyond these characteristics there is another difficulty that can make a child seem defiant: inflexibility.

To combat these Jody and I keep to a schedule, have rules for the children, and when they don’t follow them there are consequences. Because we have been doing this since they were young, few words need to be spoken. “Dude, you just lost your electronics,” is sufficient. Sometimes, I just purse my lips (so I don’t respond in anger), shake my head back and forth, and say, “You can continue–but there will be a consequence.”

Crystel, Jody, Antonio, Beth

Crystel, Jody, Antonio, Beth

When the children were young I often looked for the root cause of a fit. In reviewing the Mall of America incident, I came to realize that I had broken my promise to my child to take him to the Lego Store. It had gotten late and I could see that he was over-tired (problem). I thought it was more important to eat than to go to the store because all of us were hungry (problem), which led to the broken promise (big problem).

If I had been proactive, I wouldn’t have been at MOA with a screaming flailing kid at my feet, concerned that I was going to be asked for identification. In the days to come, I apologized to my child and told him that we would go on a date to the Lego Store. “We won’t buy anything. We’ll spend up to 45 minutes looking at everything.” And that is what we did.

It was my child’s 12th birthday when I realized how far we’ve come. He was on his fifth day of a weeklong Boy Scout camping trip at Many Point. I promised him that we’d come see him on his birthday even though it was a 10-hour round trip.

Lots to be proud of.

Lots to be proud of.

He saw us drive into the parking lot, and ran hollering, “Mama Beth, Mama Jody, Crystel.” Before his long strides reached us I thought of the bugs, the night, and the uncertainty of tent camping and a group of boys cooking outdoors. All those ‘thing’s’ that bothered him as a child. When he was young, to reduce his anxiety we bought a tent trailer, cooked food HE liked (and didn’t let it touch other food on his plate), and I accompanied him on all Cub Scout camping trips. This time he was alone to manage for himself.

I started crying before he even reached me. This child had grown up and was doing just fine. I hugged him hard with the knowing of how far we both had come.

“Does Antonio Have A Dad?”

Antonio and Crystel - seven months old

Antonio and Crystel – seven months old

“Does Antonio have a dad?” the five-year old boy holding Antonio’s hand asked me. I glanced down at him, and then looked at my son. He eyed me as if he was waiting for an answer, too.

I imagined Antonio’s friend asking him on the return bus to school from the spring field trip to the apple orchard. Maybe he asked him during the hay ride, while we bounced over ruts and down the dusty lane that left a cloud in our wake.

Aunt Amie and Antonio

Aunt Amie and Antonio

Perhaps he knew better than the other children that the two women in the family picture taped to the kindergarten wall were not the same woman but two moms. Earlier, I had one child in his classroom attempt to convince me that I was the same person.

“It’s not me,” I said. “That other woman is a different person.”

But how do you argue with a five-year old who isn’t your own child and can’t conceive of anything but a mom and a dad in a household?

 

Aunt Kathy, Crystel, Aunt Pat, Antonio, Uncle Marty

Aunt Kathy, Crystel, Aunt Pat, Antonio, Uncle Marty

I think he won the argument.

I imagined Antonio shrugging his small shoulders in response to his friend’s question. Did he look away from his pal and stare at the dust hanging in the air or at the apples ready to be picked?

I hope not.

Maybe the boy took it upon himself and said to Antonio, “I’ll find out for you.”

Aunt Cara and Antonio

Aunt Cara and Antonio

While I was forming my answer, I thought about his classmate who sat next to me on the way home. His mom was dead, he said. After saying that I was sorry, I wondered about the children who called Antonio their friend. Maybe it was because of his very difference — being adopted and having two moms — that they thought that they too would be accepted.

 

Tia Anna, Antonio, Tio Scott

Tia Anna, Antonio, Tio Scott

The two kindergarteners expected an answer from me. This was a yes or no question.

Yet, how to answer? Though Antonio will most likely never meet his dad, does that mean that he doesn’t have a dad? Does that mean we will never celebrate Father’s Day?

 

Aunt Pat, Antonio, Aunt Mary, Crystel

Aunt Pat, Antonio, Aunt Mary, Crystel

Jody and I had prepared for this very moment — this question — and created a village of chosen aunts and uncles who would stand in for the missing people in Antonio’s and Crystel’s life. This village was formed before they even came home.

So I said what any mom would, “Of course, silly. Everyone HAS a Mom and a Dad. You HAVE to have a mom and dad to be born.”

Uncle Marty

Uncle Marty

I poked Antonio. “He feels real to me.”

Antonio smiled. That was good enough for him.

These chosen aunts and uncles have accepted their roles seriously. That was part of the deal — to have play dates with the children regularly, as well as show up for birthdays, dances, pinewood derbies, and holidays.

We’ve never asked them to fill the ‘dad’s’ role. Though when Antonio was much younger, I woke one night in a panic, and at the first opportunity I asked Scott and Marty to take Antonio into public bathrooms to show him what a urinal was and to tell him NOT to touch the urinal cake.

Crystel, Sam (babysitter), Antonio, Charlie (babysitter)
Crystel, Sam (babysitter), Antonio, Charlie (babysitter)

I have asked Antonio on occasion if he would like me to ask one of his uncles to accompany him on a Scout trip (and take my place) but he’s always declined. Darn.

Even after the babies came home, Jody and I continued to intentionally bring males into their life. Charlie and then his brother Sam were their fulltime nannies until each boy graduated from highschool.

Charlie, Antonio, Crystel

Charlie, Antonio, Crystel

I believe that all of the above people have brought so much love into Antonio and Crystel’s lives that they may really need to search for what’s missing when asked the question, Do you have a dad?

 

Writers Supporting Other Writers–Writing Process Blog Hop

If you’ve been following WordSisters, you know that Elizabeth and Ellen write the blog on alternate weeks, and occasionally, guest bloggers like Jean Cook and Brenda van Dyck join us. We have been invited by Shannon Schenk to participate in a blog hop (thank you, Shannon!) and so we are writing a shared blog in which we each answer some questions about our writing process.

From Ellen . . . me on 620

I feel privileged to call the Twin Cities my creative home. Institutions like the Loft and Hamline’s M.F.A. program, as well as the numerous aspiring and accomplished authors who live here, combine to create an exceptional writing community. Classes, resources, and writers’ groups are plentiful, and that’s how Elizabeth and I came to be in the same writers’ group and to launch this blog. The Twin Cities’ strong supportive writing community helped Shannon (a Hamline M.F.A. alum) reconnect with Elizabeth (another Hamline M.F.A. alum) and allowed me to discover Nodding and Smiling, Shannon’s blog. She has the sensibility of a poet with the insights of a psychologist. At her invitation, we are participating in this writing process blog hop.

What am I working on? Ellen answers . . .

I’ve completed a memoir manuscript (BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE) and I write essays, but currently, WordSisters gets most of my attention.

In many ways, Elizabeth and I seem like opposites—she’s very athletic, while the only way I’d be ziplining in Guatemala is if there were a gun to my head! She grew up on a farm while I’m a city kid through and through. But what drew us together is that each of us has a longstanding commitment to improving our writing and telling our stories. We also are fierce mamas. She is mom to 11-year-old Antonio and Crystel, and I am mom to Mike and Greg, who are in their early 20s.

Although our blog topics often vary widely, our commitment to writing is the same. We energize each other. I know Elizabeth is counting on me and I know she won’t let me down either. Together, we’re better. We also both like self-publishing—the empowerment of it and the connections we make. Each week, one of us sends our thoughts and observations out to the world and we connect with all of you. That, too, is very powerful.

Why do I write what I write? Elizabeth answers . . .

At the PORTA Hotel Antigua in Guatemala, I’m sitting next to my eleven-year old daughter who visited with her birthmother a few hours ago. My eleven-year old son is nearby, watching the Teen Beach movie in Spanish and English on the television. He also visited with his birthmother today. My partner Jody is working out in the hotel’s gym.

The focus of my writing is integrating my story with my children’s. I’m a birth mother and an adoptive mother.

As I hugged Rosa (Antonio’s birthmom) and Mayra (Crystel’s birthmom) goodbye today, I thought about how they must feel giving up a baby for adoption, visiting with their child, saying goodbye again with only the promise that we’ll return in two years. I, too, gave up a son in adoption. I know how it feels to not have a living part always with you—like having a phantom limb. But I’m also the adoptive mom standing on a cobblestone street with their child, while they are climbing slowly into a van to take them back to their casa.

During the next nine days, I will explore and study the heritage of my children, who are indigenous Mayans—an opportunity made possible because I received a 2014-2015 Jerome Travel and Study Grant. The information gained will be used to improve my memoir manuscript, HOUSE OF FIRE. It will help me finish the last chapter that brings bring the narrative full circle—from the trauma of my childhood sexual abuse and being forced to give away the son I conceived as a result of the abuse, to the healing and joy of my created family, and finally, to the redemption of returning with the children to Guatemala and figuratively handing them back to their birthmothers, their birth country, and their countrypeople – allowing me and the other birthmoms to experience love and forgiveness.

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

Elizabeth working on her book in Guatemala

This new material will help me strengthen my manuscript’s theme that hope, joy, and redemption can prevail over trauma.

I write what I do because my ultimate goal is to speak publicly throughout the United States and internationally about breaking free from the cycle of violence, the trials of starting my own healthy family and the challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy despite being stalked by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

 

What is your writing process? Ellen answers . . .

Often, I start with a phrase that repeats itself in my head until I pay attention and start writing. Sometimes I have a flash of insight that intrigues me and I can’t rest until I work it out on the page. Then I’m off and writing—totally involved with writing the first draft. I love the rush of inspiration when that happens.

But just as often, I’m not inspired. However, I’ve learned to trust myself—if I show up and sit at my computer, the words and ideas will show up, too.

My favorite writing spots include my office at home, our sunny porch, and a chair overlooking the lake in Lebanon Hills Park—I’ve revised large hunks of my book there.

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

The sound of water lapping and the wind in the trees help the words flow

After I write the first draft of anything, I know I need to let it cool off. I always allow time to look at the piece—whether a blog, an essay, or a newsletter for work—with fresh eyes a while later. Then I begin revising, and the more time I have to revise, the better the piece will be. I rely on other readers to help me see what works and what doesn’t, and Elizabeth and I always share our blogs before publishing. However with blogging, I’ve had to learn to let go of the desire for perfection—sometimes I need to accept that pretty good is pretty good and I should just press Publish.

Introducing Cynthia Kraack

Elizabeth and I would like to introduce and recommend Cynthia Kraack, a talented novelist. Her first novel, MINNESOTA COLD, won the 2010 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for fiction. LEAVING ASHWOOD is being released July 1st. It is the final book of the speculative fiction ASHWOOD trilogy about a family living in post-global depression. She has had short stories published and received professional recognition for her work in writing business simulation games. Cynthia, a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing, also holds a graduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Marquette University. She is a native of Wisconsin and has lived in Minnesota all of her adult life.

We feel lucky to live in the Twin Cities—a haven for creative people, especially writers. We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about a few of us. Be sure to check out Shannon and Cynthia’s blogs!