Listening to the Radio in the Farmhouse

DSC07148I picture my mother in our farm kitchen listening to the AM radio. She would be washing dishes, picking up the kitchen. The eight older kids having already been dropped off at school, a baby napping, another two playing under her feet, one in her tummy. USDA came out with their first official forecast of planting intentions on Thursday – and it shocked the market. More corn acres then we’ve seen planted for three years, fewest soybean acres planted for two. Wisconsin farmers are looking out the window watching it rain or snow. Corn Stocks are expected to be up 1 Percent while the cattle market is holding steady.

And now, for our Big Morning show, with author Elizabeth di Grazia.

Think of this: when a child is raped, 46 percent of the time the perpetrator is a family member. Those statistics suggest many stories. House of Fire: A Story of Love, Courage, and Transformation is a remarkable tale of incest (including two pregnancies), loss, and eventual renewal that author Elizabeth di Grazia hopes will open a dialogue to change those statistics – and innocent lives – for the better.

Would my mother have listened to the woman being interviewed since she had personal knowledge of what incest does to a family? Or, would she have shut the radio off?

She’s been dead for almost 25 years.

I think of her as I am being interviewed on the air with Ted Ehlen, the host of “Big Mornings” on The Big AM 1380 out of Janesville, Wisconsin. Janesville is a city in southern Wisconsin with a population of 63,575. Much bigger than the town I grew up in. Ellsworth, Wisconsin even now only has 3,284 residents.

Would my mother have bought my book? She was a big reader. She’d buy books at farm auctions. One time a set of encyclopedias, another time boxes of Readers Digest Condensed books, and yet another time rows upon rows of Harlequin Romances.

familyOnce, I overheard a person asking my mother if she had started writing that book that she wanted to.

This surprised me. I didn’t know that my mother had a desire to write a book. Certainly, she could have. She had a B.S. from the University of Minnesota and a Masters in social work from Catholic University (Washington D.C.).

I came to realize that I didn’t know my mother. I didn’t know what she thought or what was important to her. I didn’t know her past. I didn’t know what it was like for her to have an audience with Pope Pious XII or for her to serve in the U.S. Navy and help with the repatriation of World War II German refugees.

I don’t want this same fate for my children. I want them to know me. And, they do. Long before my book came out they knew my story.

They are a part of House of Fire as well as my partner, Jody.

Now if I could just get them to quit telling about that time that we were at the Twins game and I sneezed so loud that all three of them hurried away so people wouldn’t think that they were with me.

Layout 1Or, remind me of the time that they misunderstood me about growing up on a farm and Crystel would tell people that Mama Bef was born in a barn.

They know that not much embarrasses me. That I’ll cry at their track and cross country meets. They know that I tell the truth and when I say that I’ll come to their school and sit next to them in their classroom if they have a tardy – that I’ll actually do it – even though they are thirteen years old. They know that if they ask me a question, that I’ll answer and I’ll give them too much information.

Most importantly, they know that I love them and would do anything to keep them safe.

March 21, 2016   WRJN AM1400 Interview with Glenn Klein out of Racine, Wis

March 29, 2016  The Big AM 1380 Interview with Ted Ehlen out of Janesville, Wis

April 10th from 12:40 to 1:20 I’ll be reading at SUBTEXT Books, 6 West Fifth Street, St. Paul for their local author day author series. I’d love to see you.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

“Whose belly did I come out of?”

dsc00095[1]July, 2013. My cell phone rang. I stepped out of the dining hall at Tomahawk Scout Reservation, in Northwestern Wisconsin, wove through dozens of 10-year old Cub Scouts to reach the flagpole. “Hold on, hold on,” I said to the caller. I looked up to the sky hoping that a satellite would keep us connected. Jerod Santek from the Loft Literary Center was on the other end saying that I had won the 2013-2014 Loft Mentor Series for Nonfiction. “Can you hear me?” he said. I could. But after submitting to the competition for over ten years and being a finalist four times, I didn’t know what to say.

Friday, April 18th, at 7 p.m. I will read an excerpt from my memoir, HEALING FIRES.

“Whose belly did I come out of?” five-year old Crystel asks. “Yours or Mama Joey’s?” Milk spills from her spoon into her cereal bowl.

Thirty years of breaking free from the cycle of violence and discovering my true self prepare me to start my adoptive family. The challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy is tested by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.

It’s the culmination of my work with mentors Mark Anthony Rolo as well as my work with Loft Literary Center instructor Mary Carroll Moore.

Also reading is Jerald Walker and my fellow mentee Pamela Schmid.imagesGECE7253

Mark Anthony is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. His memoir MY MOTHER IS NOW EARTH won the 2012 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award and was nominated for a 2012 Minnesota Book Award.

When I opened Mark Anthony’s book and read his first lines, “My mother wants to be buried in fire. She races into a burning farmhouse, letting serpent flames twist around her legs,”my mouth fell open. I had submitted a writing sample that started with these words, “I’m on fire. I scream. I run. Flames chase me. I fall to the grass, slapping at my shoulders, my back, my side. Digging my shoulders into the ground, I pitch back and forth, back and forth. The fire follows.”

Under Mark Anthony’s tutelage, I have restructured my memoir to merge my past and present story just as spring water runoff flows to creeks and further downstream joins the river and finally the ocean that embodies us all.

Jerald Walker’s STREET SHADOWS: A MEMOIR OF RACE, REBELLION, AND REDEMPTION was also very influential. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jerald is a recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L.Winship Award for Nonfiction and his book was named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.

When I read Jerald Walker’s memoir, I finally understood how I could meld past and present together in my memoir. I studied his structure, counting the number of pages he used for his present story and then his past. I attempted to locate where he brought them both together. All the while, I resonated with his efforts to rise above the circumstances that he was born into.

7ac30fe0b702dd387b1f0ab4fcd06c36[1]Pamela is the creative nonfiction editor for Sleet magazine. Before receiving her M.F.A. degree from Hamline University, she spent more than a decade reporting and editing for the Star Tribune and the Associated Press.

Pamela says this about her memoir, “In MY BIG BOOK OF YEARNING, I chronicle my son’s arduous journey to speech and reflect on the way words empower and ensnare. I also try to untangle the threads of silence that took root in my family generations earlier, before giving rise to this little boy who desperately wanted to speak but could not.

”Pamela will be reading an excerpt that explores Eli’s fascination with music, and the way music can bridge the gap to speech. “When I sang, I became somebody else, someone more certain and sure. When it was just Eli and I and the songs, I felt the scales of a dragon on my back.”

Please mark your calendars for April 18th at 7 p.m.

Join Jerald, Pamela, and me as we read to you from our memoirs.

Loft Literary Center

1011 Washington Ave. S

Minneapolis, MN 55415

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being A Role Model

13355524[1]Recently, while Mark Anthony Rolo was visiting the Twin Cities he stayed at our house. Mark Anthony Rolo is the nonfiction mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and offered to devote a Saturday working with the nonfiction winners. Since he travels from northern Wisconsin, I extended an invitation to him and his dog. Our house would also serve as a meeting place the next day.

I’m sure that I told Antonio and Crystel that Mark is one of the Loft Mentors who’s working with me, but Crystel didn’t really understand until I said, “He wrote a book. It’s in the living room. The one with a picture of him and his dog Rock on the back cover.”

She got the book. At that very moment, Mark was sitting by a fire we had built in the backyard.

“That’s him? And that’s Rock?”

“Yes.”

6815689230_1497703279[1]Crystel loves books. Finally, it clicked that she had an actual living author right in her backyard. That was almost too much for her eleven-year-old brain to grasp.

I was hoping, as any mother might, that this also elevated me in her eyes.

Antonio and Crystel spent a lot of time playing with Rock, tugging and pulling and throwing. And, even though they could have left during the adult chatter around the fire, they didn’t disappear. I hoped that it was because they found us interesting, but truth be told, their electronics were banned for the weekend. So what else is a kid to do?

Later that evening, Crystel couldn’t contain herself any longer and told me, in the presence of Mark, that she was going to write a better book than me.

Mark making his mother's bread.

Mark making his mother’s bread.

Around noon the next day, she pulled me to the side in the dining room and said, “Are those people in there famous?” She motioned to our living room.

I thought of the four of us, all mentorship winners, all wanting to publish a book.

“Yes, they are,” I said. “They’re authors. They’re going to publish their books.”

That evening, long after everyone had gone, Crystel asked if she could read Mark’s book. “You’ll have to ask Mama Jody. I think she’s reading it.”

“Sorry, I’m reading it, Crystel,” I heard from the other room.

On Monday when she came home from school, she asked if she could take Mark’s book to school the next day. She had told people that a famous person had stayed at her house and she had the book to prove it.

Lately, Crystel has begun to ask, “Can I work on my book now?” And then she brings her computer over to where I’m writing and she writes with me.

This Saturday, she’ll meet another famous person, Ellen Shriner, my WordSister partner.

9780985981822_p0_v2_s600[1]Ellen is reading at SubText Bookstore. Contributors will read from Holy Cow Press’s anthology The Heart of All That is: Reflections on Home.

You’re all invited to the reading — 7p.m. on Saturday.

I love being surrounded by famous people and that my daughter wants to be one too.

Truth Telling

Truth: Antonio doesn’t know that Crystel is providing rabbit ears. Truth: They love each other and are best friends.

I am adding an extra post this week and skewing a bit off the Guatemalan trail and onto the mommy track. I will be back online with another post on our Guatemala trip in a couple of weeks.

Truth Telling

I had been waiting for the right time to broach the subject with the children. I thought this was it: Sunday morning, quiet, not a lot going on yet, and we were all together. That’s another way of saying that I had them captive at the breakfast table. Antonio was reaching for more bacon, Jody was buttering her toast, and Crystel was eating her cereal.

I went to the livingroom and grabbed the book, My Two Moms, by Zach Wahls.

Sitting down, I flashed the cover. The front showed a young man in a suit jacket and tie being kissed on the cheeks by two women. This book wasn’t new to them. I had been reading the library book the past two weeks and it had sat around the house in plain view. One evening Antonio asked me what it was about. “This guy has two moms just like you,” I said. “He also has a sister. I am reading what it was like for him growing up. He’s in college now.”

There were a couple of things I read that surprised me. One was disturbing. I told Jody about it while we were walking the dogs. Zach said he felt bad that sometimes he lied about his home life when he was growing up. He wasn’t always truthful in responding to other children when they asked about his father (artificial insemination) or his family. This started when he was about the same age that Antonio and Crystel are now.

I was surprised to know that Antonio and Crystel might already be getting awkward questions. And if they are like Zach Wahls, they might already be making up answers. I told Jody that I didn’t ever want our kids to feel bad about being less than truthful about their personal stories. Children have enough weight to carry on their short little shoulders. I think it’s unrealistic to expect children to say, “I don’t choose to answer that question. My story is my personal story.” Sometimes it is easier for children to lie and that is the route they go.

Certainly that was the route I took when Antonio and Crystel first came home, as infants, even though I hold honesty in high regard. I got a lot of questions while standing in checkout lines. The most frequent was, “Are they twins?” At first, I answered with the truth and nothing but the truth. “No they are six weeks apart”. The truth didn’t feel right. It was incomplete and not acknowledging their bond as brother and sister. So I added, “They have been together since they were born.” I’d look at these two infants in their stroller shake my head and wonder what they were making of my conversation. I’d chastise myself for giving too much information. Information the children didn’t even have yet. I was afraid that I had a grace period to get the answers down before the children understood what I was saying. Sometimes I would just say, “Yes, they’re twins.” Neither answer was comfortable.

Since I had trouble responding to even the most basic inquiry, I didn’t hold any illusion that Antonio and Crystel could negotiate every question that came their way as grade-schoolers. Sometimes the questions weren’t so simple. One time, while bagging our groceries, I was asked, “How much do they cost?” They were referring to the toddlers and not the milk and eggs.

On our walk I let Jody know that this was a discussion I meant to have with Antonio and Crystel. It wasn’t a complete surprise to her when I came back to the table with the book.

“I want to talk to you guys about something,” I said. “You know this book? This is about a guy just like you who had two moms. He wrote about what it was like for him growing up. He said he felt bad when sometimes he would lie about his family.”

Crystel turned away from me, waving her hands, “Why do we always have to talk about this . . . ” she started.

I stopped her, “No, this is important.” The children know how I feel about them being honest. I think she was expecting that I was going to tell her and Antonio that no matter what, I never want them to lie, even if it is uncomfortable, even if it is intrusive, even if they don’t want to answer.

“If someone ever asks you about your personal story and you don’t want to talk about it, and you lie, that’s okay. I don’t want you to ever feel bad about that. You love your moms, we love you, and that is all that counts. When it comes to your story, it is your story. Don’t ever feel bad about not being truthful. We know you love us. We love you.”

Finished, I got up and put the book back on the shelf. Sitting down, we continued on with breakfast.