I Didn’t Come This Far

My eye’s widened when the rich black velvety coffin box was opened. Inside was a sterling silver Eagle medal, an Eagle Scout embroidered emblem, an oval pin for the Eagle’s mother and one for the dad. The Boy Scout Eagle Presentation kit was impressive.

I was silent, contemplating the honor of being an Eagle Scout and the work it involved: 21 merit badges, camping requirements, an Eagle project, paperwork filled out and verified.

Everything about this presentation box was great, except one thing.

“Juan Jose’ has two moms,” I said. “Can I exchange the dad pin for another mom pin?”

“I don’t think that’s a problem,” the female receptionist agreed. “Let me check.”

I didn’t come this far in scouts with Juan Jose’ to get a dad pin.

Juan Jose’ and Beth

I reflected to first grade when he joined his Tiger den. I thought that I’d be able to drop him off at the meeting, run an errand, return and pick him up. I soon found out that dens were as strong as their parent volunteers. It was also clear that our Tiger den leader needed help with our group of boys. The male den leader and I became a team. I organized the projects and the field trips, and he used his booming voice to bring the boys to attention. When he couldn’t make the meetings, I’d surprise the boys with my wolf whistle when I needed them to listen.

Juan asked me why he had to be in cub scouts. Because you have two moms, I told him. You need to know how to navigate in a group of boys. There are things I can’t teach you. He responded saying he liked his life and I could be his dad. It doesn’t work that way, I said, though his words made me feel good.

Our den at a field trip to city hall.

I was proud of the fact that our den of ten boys stayed intact for five years, with many of the cub scouts receiving their Arrow of Light and going on to join boy scouts.

I had agreed with Juan that once he reached this point, he could make the decision to go on for his Eagle or to stop scouts. I thought for sure he’d quit. Especially, after the camping trip that was supposed to show how fun it was to be in Boy Scouts which seemed more like an evening of hazing. That night, the worst of nights, when it was darker than dark, we were both crying. I reminded him that he didn’t have to do this anymore. He could be done.

During troop visits, he found one he liked, and he stayed. I told him that I’d support him, be right at his side, but since this was his decision, quitting scouts wouldn’t be an option until he earned his Eagle.

Arrow of Light

I touched the softness of the presentation kit. I could hear a woman telling the receptionist that I could swap the dad pin for a mom pin in the Scout Shop downstairs.

In the Scout store, I opened the kit and asked to swap the dad pin for a mom pin. “My son has two moms.”

“Oh no, we don’t do that,” the man said. He was my age, greying at the temple.

“That’s not what they said upstairs,” I told him.

“Who said that?” he countered.

My voice raised, “The only two women up there. The receptionist and the woman she asked.” I was ready to go to battle. He didn’t understand that I didn’t spend all this time in scouts to get a dad pin. The fact that I had to argue about this was ridiculous. Two moms in Juan Jose’s life had been normal for him since he was eight months old.

“I’ll take it up with them,” he said. “Just a moment.”

When he came back with the mom pin, I smiled. I watched as he undid the dad pin, replacing it with the mom pin.

I couldn’t help it, my smile grew. “Maybe two dads will come in and you will have another dad pin,” I said.

He grunted. I laughed, knowing I had spoken his worst fear and that it could happen.

 

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“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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHO IS THE MAYOR?

January 18, 2013 140She’s the lady in the red sweater, and you, the den leader, are hoping, hoping that the Cub Scout sitting next to her, won’t turn his head and let out his humongous sneeze that you have been watching build for the past minute as he inhaled, inhaled again, and yet again. After he turns his head away from her, at least you hope he did, because at the very last moment you just couldn’t bear to look andJanuary 18, 2013 097 dropped your eyes, he exploded, after which you bring your eyes up to see the same Scout staring at the Mayor’s hair and you hope, really hope, that he doesn’t reach out and touch her head or her sweater or her arm or her hand, and you know he might do any of these or all of these. He likes to TOUCH, and he really looks like he’s going to do something even though at the moment he is busy palming his nose with both hands, and all you can think of is that he is a flu carrier and he is about to hand it to the Mayor.

Who is the Mayor?

She’s the one with the cheery personality who asks your 13 Cub Scouts the question, “Well, what do you think a mayor does?” which really, really makes you wish that you had remembered to discuss communicating with respect when a Scout responds with, January 18, 2013 102“She runs the city blabbly blab blab.”

Who is the Mayor?

She’s the one who is very articulate, but when she asks the Scouts what makes a good citizen, you want to take the jaws of life and extricate the memory chip from all the small electronics in the room. The meeting with the Mayor will only last for half an hour, but still that is too long for the parent who can’t look up from his smart phone for the entire time and the sibling of a Scout who has her face so close to her Nintendo DS screen that you are sure that she is suffering from partial blindness. I bet they can’t tell you that the Mayor’s sweater is a vibrant red, sharper than any cardinal that you have seen this winter.

Who is the Mayor?

She’s the one who uses her special badge to let the Scouts see the council chambers and sit in the overstuffed chairs that wheel around even though they immediately grab January 18, 2013 105for the skinny microphones that snake upwards. The first thing the Scouts learn is that the microphones are on and you are sure that they January 18, 2013 110are going to snap them in two as they yank them toward themselves. After you, the den leader, reign in chaos by yelling that ALL hands must IMMEDIATELY go into their own lap, only then do you dare take a breath.

Who is the Mayor?

January 18, 2013 201She is why you ask all the Scouts to remove their non-scouting headwear for the group picture. And you hope that the Scout who has his scouting cap tilted liked a gang member will straighten it for the picture in case it goes viral.

Ultimately, Richfield Mayor, Debbie Goettel, is the gracious woman who communicates citizenship to your Cub Scouts. You hope they will remember at least one thing that she says, even if the thing theyJanuary 18, 2013 203 remember is that she is the one who organized the awesome one-hour tour with the fire department.