The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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Je M’appelle Frisque

My grandparents’ families came from places like Walhain-St. Paul, Incourt, Nievelles, Tourinne-St. Lambert, and Huldenberg in Walloon Brabant, Belgium. Impacted by the same potato famine that brought many Irish to the United States, the Belgians made their way to Wisconsin communities with names like Brussels, Tonet, Namur, Luxemburg, and Walhain. The homes they left had been clustered in an area about forty miles wide. The farm towns they carved out of tree-covered land, almost four thousand miles across an ocean and half a continent, were about the same distance apart.

When I was a child I spoke some Walloon, a nearly forgotten language, with my Belgian-American great-grandmother and her friends as they quilted in our living room. We ate Belgian farm food like jut, a boiled cabbage side dish, stoemp, a mashed potato and cabbage dish, trippe, a bratwurst-type sausage, booyah, a chicken-based soup with many ingredients, and Belgian pie, a sweet dough tart filled with prunes and a cream cheese style top. Our Catholic church held a Kermis celebration in autumn. Beyond jokes about how much Belgians sweat or drank or were short, maybe stout, that’s about what I knew of our heritage. All the amazing accomplishments of the Belgians or their art or chocolates were from a different socio-economic part of the country.

My mother’s cousin and my father’s cousin researched family trees. Through the Frisque genealogy I discovered that my family was related to many, many people in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, the small town where my father grew up and we lived through part of my childhood. The Nockaert family information uncovered that my mother was mostly Belgian although she believed she was German. Names, dates, locations, relations fill pages. That’s it. The Belgian Heritage Center in Namur, Wisconsin may provide information to further the cousins’ research.

The histories of these people, who permanently left all they knew for 40 acres of land and a better future, are probably lost forever. But this summer we are going to visit Belgium, specifically Walloon Brabant, and trace what is left of our Cravillion, Frisque, Nockaert, and VanderKelen ancestors. They were all small farmers who left Belgium in the mid 1850s so there is probably little left of their lives beyond cemetery headstones.

We have nothing physical from their lives in Belgium and little expectation of connecting with other great-great-great grandchildren of the original immigrants. But one can always hope.

Genealogy

 

 

 

 

 

Barbie, Midge, Robin and Me

The father of my best friend Robin owned a tool business franchise which provided two young girls with opportunities to fill bins in his wonderful red truck, to bake cookies he could share with customers, and access to dozens of interesting empty boxes.

Robin attended 95thStreet School and I went to parochial school, but we had matching pencil boxes in our desks. Most kids found a source for cigar boxes, but we had decorated paper boxes not needed in his truck into unique containers with compartments for pencils, color pencils, scissors and such. We didn’t know each other’s school friends, but we shared something deeper: hours of playing with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Ken in wonderful houses, stores, airplanes and schools constructed out of even more empty boxes.

When the weather was cold, Robin’s basement became a town for an afternoon of play. Her Barbie had a flight attendant outfit, mine had a tailored suit. We shared a plastic pseudo-Barbie car that took one to the airport and the other to an imaginary office. Neither of us knew anyone who worked in an office or flew on planes so eventually the story turned back to all the dolls sitting at little box desks with one Barbie, attired in a skirt and sweater, called teacher.

Robin had an older sister and we both had moms so we knew real women weren’t built like our Barbie crew, but we didn’t know flight attendants, nurses, doctors, brides, or girls who wore wonderful ballgowns. Our parents didn’t buy us Barbie’s plastic house or bedroom furniture, but Robin’s dad shared tape and scissors and boxes to build furniture and a variety of workshop towels to make blankets. We stood next to him in his wood working shop as he made small frames and blocks that could extend our Barbie furniture building. We learned how to sand.

Our Barbie phase lasted less than a year, a simple time when we creatively explored, built and did what kids are supposed to do. Parents helped feed our play then stepped back. And we did okay. And I wish I could say thanks to Robin’s father and all the other parents who stepped out over the years with camping trips or garden planting or an evening at the opera to expand the world beyond the girl toys of Barbie and her crew. And those who do that today as  they parent another generation of kids.

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In Praise of Middle-aged Sons

On Sundays, they escort their mothers to church and take them out to lunch afterward.

They pick up bread, milk, and the exact brand and size of mayonnaise their Mom wants and let her give them a coupon and the exact change.

Although they could finish a repair project more quickly without their father’s help, they try hard to smile when Dad supervises the work.

They sift through piles of Medicare statements and become wise in the ways of copays and explanations of benefits.

At their Mom’s house, they change light bulbs, program her cell phone, and write up a cheat sheet since she won’t remember how to use it.

They bring tins of homemade cookies, flowering plants, and companionable conversation.

After agreeing to be power of attorney, they spend countless hours balancing statements and paying bills.

As they sit at her bedside and spoon applesauce in their mother’s waiting mouth, they try not to dwell on the role reversal, because it just makes them sad.

They don’t talk much about the losses—they just shrug their broad responsible shoulders and go back to the office or go home. They don’t think their efforts are anything special–it’s just what they’re supposed to do.

God Bless Middle-aged Daughters

As I walk into the skilled nursing center where Mom is rehabilitating, I see other women like myself and think, “God bless middle-aged daughters.”

We’re the sensible, competent women who make it all happen.

On the street, we often go unnoticed, although we’re attractive. We dress well, but in age-appropriate clothes. No six-inch heels or short skirts. We may carry 10 to 20 extra pounds, but we’re fit, trim, and solid enough to carry the weight of the world.

On our lunch hour, after work, or during weekend visits, we go see our failing mothers and fathers. We bring them flowering plants small enough to fit on a bedside table/hard candy/clean sox/good cheer.

We comb their hair and smooth hand cream on their veiny hands and swollen feet. Once they could manage a demanding job or their family’s busy schedule, keep track of birthdays, recipes and grocery lists, but now they can’t remember what you told them five minutes ago, so we answer the same questions again and again. The times they emerge from the twilight, smile and say, “Oh honey, I wish you could always be here,” are heartbreaking treasure.

As we go back to the office, drive home, or head to the airport, we sigh at the slippage and blink back tears at the losses. Then we put on our game face because somebody else needs us. We keep moving—plan the marketing campaign, schedule the meeting, throw in a load of wash, or make a decent dinner.

We are careworn. Our lives are not glamorous (and never were—we didn’t aspire to that). We don’t expect much. We can be made happy with so little—a compliment when we don’t feel sexy or a hug from a kid who often seems oblivious.

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Photo credit: Bokal @ Vecteezy.com

Sometimes we need to push back our realities for a little while, so we laugh ourselves silly over a stupid joke when we’re out with our girlfriends or sink into the sofa and pour a second glass of good wine.