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.

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Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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One Hundred Reasons to Be Thankful

For weeks I have noodled around the idea of posting a simple list of the people, places, abilities, things, conditions, blessings to bring meaning to this year’s Thanksgiving day.  An introvert with a history of over thinking added complexity to the simple list. Capturing one hundred reasons to be thankful posed a bountiful problem: Do I capture family as one listing or name everyone? The same thought rumbled around for friends, for neighbors, and friends who play multiple roles. Should individual writers be called out or tumble them together. And what about music? Does the list become trivial with additions like homemade caramels and fresh popcorn? What about specific brand call outs?

My expectations for this Thanksgiving were not very high. It is a holiday that traditionally is celebrated by all of us in the U.S. The slow slog toward a nation divided topped by the trauma of impeachment hearings had me dragging my feet while approaching the common table. Friends do their daily grateful lists, but that habit didn’t stick any better than water exercise or keeping a drawer of perfectly rolled underwear ala Marie Kondo.

The nerdy spreadsheet used to record one hundred reasons to be thankful could be filled with the names of people, pets, foods, books, music and such to flesh out section and become quite a document. My self-editor is constrained by assuming you would want to be amused or impressed if those columns were offered. Many of us have a richness of reasons to be thankful—love, family, friends, a place to call home, jobs, talents, faith, a beloved nation. And responsibility to extend another’s list. Needs extend 365 days a year.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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