What’s In A Name?

di Grazia      I am finding out it’s a lot.

Recently, picking up Antonio and Crystel at a community education event, I was told, “I asked Antonio if he was Italian with a name like di Grazia.”

Standing next to me, Antonio says to the adult coordinator for at least the second time that day, “No, it’s Spanish.”

I didn’t say anything. But yes, she’s right kid. It’s Italian.

DSCN0725Jody, Antonio, Crystel, and I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in us.

At the time, Jody and I were choosing a family name, I was just thinking how pretty di Grazia looked and sounded. It seemed fancier than de Grazia. It seemed more different. It seemed like ‘us’.

I wasn’t thinking of the ramifications the name di Grazia would have for our family, the inquiries we would face. Even now, I am asked from time to time if I’m Italian.

No, and I don’t much like pasta, either.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAdi Grazia means “of Grace.” Jody and I were creating a family from grace. We didn’t have this family yet. We didn’t even know how this family was going to come together. Had we known we were going to adopt two infants from Guatemala we might have chosen the more typical Spanish spelling, de Grazia.

But, probably not. We had already decided that we liked di Grazia.

When I first realized that the last name di Grazia posed a hurdle was when Crystel was three years old, eye to eye with a goat. And, I seriously wondered if she could overcome the hurdle.

DSCN0210We were camping at a campground that had, amongst other things, a petting zoo, pool, and horses.

After visiting the petting zoo, Jody and I took separate routes back to our campsite. When we got there I looked at her and she looked at me.

“Where’s Crystel?”

“I thought she was with you.”

“I thought she had gone with you and Antonio in the car.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABoth of us jumped into our vehicle, headed back to where we last saw her. The only thing I could think of was that Crystel could not talk. Her speech was not intelligible. The person who most understood her was Antonio and he was with us. She could tell no one her first name, her last name, or who her parents were.

When you have an articulation disorder, Crystel di Grazia, is not a good name to have. Now if she had my name before I changed it … Ann Smith … she could have spit that out – nothing to trip over there.

Fortunately, she was right where we last saw her, staring at a goat. Somehow, she knew, to stay right where she was and not move when her family was lost.

The next time that I was aware that our last name posed a problem was when Antonio was four years old and he was being asked in preschool to practice printing his last name. I looked at him and shook my head. First, he would have to understand that it was a small di then a space then Grazia with a large G.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I was thinking was, just give it up, kid. It’s not going to happen. You’ll never learn how to say your last name much less spell it.

Fortunately, he didn’t listen to me.

And, if he wants di Grazia to be Spanish, then it’s Spanish. After all, it’s a created name. It’s different. And, it’s ours. We’ve grown into it.


Perils of Being a Writer

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrystel shuffles out of her bedroom, rubbing her eyes. The rest of us have been up for hours. In fact, Antonio has about used up all of his allotted time with electronics. I briefly look up at her. She’s grown taller in the night, I think. She stretches out her form before flopping down next to me on the couch.

“Good morning, dear.”

She mumbles, “Good morning.” She leans casually towards me. We’re now bumping shoulders.

I return to reviewing my manuscript and drop my eyes to the computer.

“I knew it,” she says. “I knew it! I knew you were going to say it one day!” She jumps up and runs out of the room.

“What!” I say, alarmed.

I look down at the writing on my laptop and immediately know what happened. There in black and white it says Antonio and Crystel aren’t my children….

“Crystel! Crystel! Come back here!” I leap off the couch. Yelling upstairs, I say, “Antonio is Crystel up there!”

“No, she’s not.”

Rushing down the basement steps, I holler, “Crystel, you need to come back and talk to me. Crystel, where are you!” It’s dark and quiet in the basement.

I rush back upstairs to where Antonio is. “Antonio are you telling me the truth? Is Crystel upstairs?”

“She’s not up here. She never came up here.”

I’m in a bit of a panic. What could Crystel think, and if she won’t talk to me, then what? And is it true that she has always thought that I was going to say that she’s not mine?

“Crystel, you need to come here.”

I hear behind me, “You couldn’t find me.” She seems pleased with this.

“No, I couldn’t find you. Now, sit down.” I’m relieved she actually does.

“If you are going to read something that I am writing, you need to read all of it or ask a question. You reading part of a sentence is like coming into a conversation part way or seeing only part of an elephant. You aren’t getting the whole story.”

“Now, look at this.” I point to the paragraph: Antonio and Crystel aren’t my children to own or to have or to keep. Finding their birthmoms, reuniting the mom with their child, promising to bring Antonio and Crystel back every two years to Guatemala continues restoring me to health.

“What this means is that you aren’t an object for me to own. You are your own person. Not mine. Now if we scroll up here, it says, When I say to them, you can count on me, I absolutely mean it.” I look in her eyes. “You are my daughter. I would do anything for you.”

This seems to satisfy her. Crystel is often interested in what I write. When she came upon me reviewing the last blog I wrote about her being interested in the bathroom scale, she read it. She laughed and laughed. Now she will have another blog to read: The Perils of Being a Writer.

At bedtime we will have that other talk, in case she really is expecting to hear me say she isn’t really my daughter. Hmmmm.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery week on Sunday, I receive an email alert about new nonfiction titles that are new to Hennepin County Library.That’s how I came to have in my hand the paperback STRAIGHT TALK with YOUR KIDS ABOUT SEX by Josh and Dottie McDowell.

Skimming the book, I stopped at page 127 and read: A young couple that lives near us always asks if there is an older brother in the family where their children have been invited. If there is, they have a family policy that the kids must play at their house, not at the neighbor’s. They also have a policy that no teenage boy will ever babysit their kids. This may seem strict, but it is simply for the safety of their children.

That’s when I knew that I had to write about my experience with teenage boys babysitting our children.

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Antonio, Crystel and Charlie

Ten years ago, with intention, Jody and I brought teenage boys into our home and into our lives.

We are lucky to have had teenage boys in charge of and responsible for our children.

Our family unit consists of two women, a boy, a girl, two dogs, two cats, two hamsters, and 10 fish.I can’t imagine the boy and the girl growing up without the experience of having other boys and men in their life. Well, maybe I can imagine, which is why we purposely have uncles that visit them on a regular basis and have had Charlie and Sam as their babysitter.

Though, Crystel has informed us that she is never, ever going to get married, how in the world would she learn to be at ease in the company of men if she didn’t have older males in her life? And, what message would we be sending Antonio about his worth as a male if we align ourselves with the belief that teenage boys are not safe?I agree that men are a different species. Antonio, our son, is one of those species. He needs to know how to navigate with his kind. He isn’t going to gain that knowledge secluded in a house full of women.

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Antonio LOVED to eat snow. Here he had a whole snowman to eat!

Down the street from us lived a house full of boys. I walked down to that house 10 years ago when Antonio and Crystel came home with us from Guatemala and asked their single mother if her sons would like a babysitting job. Charlie was 13-years-old when he started caring for Antonio and Crystel. Antonio and Crystel were still in diapers and not yet walking. And, yes, Charlie has changed their diapers a time or two. Charlie continued babysitting Antonio and Crystel right up until he was 17-years-old and then his brother Sam took over.

Sam was 12 going on 13 when he took over their care. Sam had a tough initiation with the children because they loved and adored Charlie.

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie's graduation party

Antonio, Charlie, and Crystel at Charlie’s graduation party

But you know what, in short order it became “Sam.” “Sam.” “Sam.”This isn’t to say that my children give their loyalty easily or to just anyone.

When we first took them to an in-house daycare at seven and eight months old, it was simple enough to slip off in the morning, but when I picked them up to bring them home in the afternoon they would sob so hard in the car that I would have to pull off the road onto a side street and take turns holding them until they felt safe outside of my arms. Only then could I drive again.

Leaving them in the care of someone else so traumatized them that Jody and I decided one of us would have to be a stay-at-home mom.But now, Antonio and Crystel would like us to have more dates so Sam can come over and babysit.

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Crystel, Sam, Antonio

Saying that Sam is the children’s babysitter doesn’t do him justice. Instead I describe him as their adult male caregiver. He has been their fulltime caregiver for the last four years. During the summer he spends over eight hours with them every day from the time school lets out in June until it starts again in September.

Sam manages the children’s summer schedule which includes reading, writing, math, cooking, swimming lessons, dentist appointments, orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, engineering, exercise, and field trips.

Sam taught them to read

Sam taught them to read

This summer they worked their way through the books Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden and the Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.Antonio and Crystel have had options to do the park program, community activities, a season pool pass, Fun Club, etc…. but they choose Sam. They figure they have it all. And, they do. Most often in the afternoon I come home and all three of them are playing in our backyard swimming pool. They don’t feel like they are missing out on seeing their friends as Sam also watches them when playdates are scheduled.

During the summer Sam, Antonio, and Crystel bike all over Richfield. I often get compliments by people who have spotted them: Police Officers, Tae Kwon Do instructors, and friends. They are surprised how mobile and safe Antonio and Crystel are. The dentist remarked to me how Sam was definitely in-charge during their summer appointment but was struck by their affection for one another.

Sam has spent overnights with the children when Jody and I have gone on our own adventures. We were thankful that we had him to call when we were in Mexico and their Aunt and Uncle who were staying with them had to leave suddenly. Sam went over to our house, spent the night with Antonio and Crystel, and got them off to school the next morning before he himself went to school.

"We like playing with him the most."

“We like playing with him the most.”

I asked Sam what he liked most about babysitting Antonio and Crystel and he says it allows him to be a kid. I asked Antonio and Crystel what they like most about Sam and they said that he plays with them all the time. A good match.

This year at school conferences (4th grade) Antonio and Crystel’s teachers were impressed because they generally see a dip in reading because of no school during the summer. Antonio and Crystel’s reading level had actually increased and there was a steady incline in skill. Sam taught them how to read when they were five.

IMAG0013Crystel is looking forward to the day when she can start babysitting. After she turns 11 and takes the community babysitting class she will be ready. She has had Charlie and Sam as excellent role models in being a great babysitter.

Sam is 17. Antonio and Crystel are 10. In taking the baton from Charlie, Sam has been big brother, friend, teacher, and guide to our children.The straight talk about teenage boys is that our family has been blessed to have had two teenage boys tending too, caring for, and loving Antonio and Crystel.

Writing is a vocation that picks a person

Each week, you’ll hear from one of the WordSisters. This time, it’s Ellen.

One sunny autumn day, my husband and I lunched on our porch and planned the classes we might like to take during the lo n n n g Minnesota winter.

“Music is my hobby and writing is yours, so…” he started to say.

“Hobby!?!” my voice veered into a screech. I heard the vehemence but was unable to stop.

“Writing is not my hobby. For me, gardening is a hobby. Making jewelry is a hobby. Writing is NOT a hobby.”

I caught my breath, then resumed, “I have been a writer as for long as I can remember. Even as a girl, I searched for the words to describe what I saw and how I felt. I kept journals and wrote stories.” John put his soup spoon down and listened, eyebrows raised.

“I just meant that we don’t make a living at playing music or writing essays . . . .”

His reasonable comment frustrated me even more. I wasn’t getting through. He had to understand. I tried again, “I was a writer long before I met you or became a mother. And God forbid, if I were no longer your wife or the boys’ mother, I’d still be a writer. I can’t stop being a writer—and believe me, I’ve tried.” Long a manager, he had learned not to let his face betray his emotions in front of troubled or troublesome employees, but I could see he was listening intently.

Calmer and almost resigned, I said, “There have been so many times when I felt like a talentless wonder and tried to swear off writing as a pointless pursuit. The last time I wanted to give it up, a very wise writer named Emily Meier told me, ‘Writing is a vocation that picks a person. No practical person would pick it!’ And she’s right. I can’t stop being a writer—even though I want to sometimes. Whether I like it or not, I’m a writer.”

I ended my fierce soliloquy, sat back, and assessed his reaction. Now that my rant was over, he allowed emotion to flow back into his features. He looked taken aback and frustrated.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I guess I didn’t choose the best word.”

I felt bad for jumping down his throat. But after 25 years of marriage, it would take more than this to rock our boat. I squeezed his hand, then leaned across the table to kiss him.

“I’m sorry, too.”

“So, as I was saying,” he said, “Music is my hobby and writing is your passion . . . ”

“Yes, it is.” Our eyes met and we smiled.