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.

dad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the Threshold

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I didn’t notice the absence of my siblings, the eight closest living relatives to me. At other times, I have. I felt the longing for people who knew me, grew up with me, had a similar life. There was a time I yearned for them to see me and acknowledge my accomplishments.

The room was full of friends. People who supported me. Listened to my words. Really, listened to me.

Imagine if that teenager had had that support when she was 13, 14, or 16. Instead of the silence that accompanied the aloneness that scraped at my young heart. I was a pariah in my own family.

“When’s the baby coming home, Ann?” My 5-year-old brother who did see me would ask. “When’s the baby coming?” He wasn’t yet trained to pick up the subtleties, of who was in or out of the fold. He’s now dead. Died of a heroin overdose when he was 29 years old. I don’t hold any notion that he would have been there Friday night if he lived. My family runs in a pack or as a lone sheep in a gully.

With a sunkeness, I’d pat his sun streaked hair. It had the look and unruliness of summer cut straw.

Every time I speak of my birth son, the baby who didn’t come home, it’s a homecoming.

author 8-years-old

author     age 8

I live in this body. I breathe this air. I’m here to tell you that it does happen. Sisters sometimes get pregnant by a brother and have their baby and then if they are lucky enough, they get to write a book about it that people will read and celebrate with you at a book launch.

I recently read a Facebook post from a high school classmate who read, House of Fire, and she said that it had a happy ending. She was encouraging another classmate to read it.

Think of that. Out of tragedy you can have a happy ending. You can be a happy ending.

I was very happy Friday night at my book launch. Because you were there. And, if you weren’t, you sent me good wishes. All of me was up there at the podium, and it was enough. It has always been enough.

At the podium, I thanked relatives who came. And someone asked me later if my relatives were actually there. I smiled. It would have been something to point out a brother or sister. I would have wished for that before Friday night. But on this Friday what I had was abundance. “The relatives that are here are the chosen aunts and uncles that are in the book,” I said. Except my niece. That brave niece who came. Who fortunately doesn’t have the same story line I do though she’s looked across the fence at mine and knows it to be true.

My 40th high school reunion has come and gone. Not that I attended it. My book did though. Classmates are now reading, House of Fire. I’m in awe of the support. It’s unbelievable to that young teen who had nobody.

Coming home can be a difficult journey and yet the most wonderful. It has a happy ending.

photo-for-oct-21-reading_2If you’d like to hear more of my voice or you weren’t able to make it to my book launch, please join me and Su Smallen on October 21st at 7pm at Hamline University.

“Su Smallen´s new poems, a lexicon of snow, sing with notes of grief, sorrow, joy and resilience, pondering that great Midwestern element. . . . I am grateful for what this talented poet brings forward: pressing with renewed trust her words onto the pages the way you step — well, through snow.” – Spencer Reece

“House of Fire is a book of naked, sharp-edged truth, a journey into and through immense darkness. Yet it is also a profound testament to our deeply human ability to heal and transform.”
– Scott Edelstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?

Idiosyncratic, Incomplete Best of 2015 List

Tis the season of year-end lists . . . the best books, movies, new words, etc., etc. Some of the lists are fun (Wait, I forgot about that book!) Some are annoying (Why is that movie on the best-of list??) Some recaps are depressing (I won’t remind you of what went wrong in the world this year—I’m sure you haven’t forgotten).

I’m offering you my list of some VERY GOOD things that happened in 2015.

Let us know about something that made your best-of list for 2015.

The WordSisters wish you all the best in 2016!