Forgiveness

I had to go there anyway for a meeting. And I knew she was there. On the drive over, I thought about how ridiculous it was for me to still be angry about things that happened over 40 years ago.  That maybe now was the time to let it go. To forgive her, my ex mother in law, for not believing me, for not taking my side, for abandoning me. After all, I’ve learned a lot since then and gained an understanding of the pain she had faced, of the environment that shaped her, of loyalty to sons.  

I recognized her immediately sitting in a wheelchair alone in a hallway. The same frumpy hairdo and tent like dress. DiminishedOf course I had to tell her who I was for I had changed. My long gray locks and extra pounds camouflaging the young woman I had been. She said that she remembered that I had been married to her son briefly. She asked about my boys and grandsons. She told me how she had prayed to Jesus for one more year and that she worried about her son, my ex. And I understand her mother’s worry. She smiled and thanked me for coming to visit.  “Say hello to Elaine” she said.  

My Fierce Family

Bares its teeth and growls at any enemy

Those who threaten our happiness

An unfortunate event

Our own stupidity

We lash ourselves to the ship of family ties

That we have built with trials and tears

With determination and relentless commitment

Stormy seas may batter and whip us

But we are strong enough to weather any calamity

Because our ship is made of mass timber 

We are defiance rooted in love

Eric

I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had.  I had bill boards all over town.  We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch.  I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.  

In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks.  Aha!  I thought.  That’s how good I am.  Now they’re calling me.  They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences.  They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids.  No youth of the year.  Just average kids.  They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.

That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed.  And no one at the Clubs questioned me.  They trusted me.

So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out.  I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year.   He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.

Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs.  He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood.   He became kind of our own local celebrity. 

I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School.  Now I was worried.  This felt like trouble.  Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it.  Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word.  He wanted to make a difference.  He didn’t need anyone’s permission.  He was 18 years old.  

I called the producers.  Left a message.  Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.  

A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’.  It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back.  Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be.  And it wasn’t just Expose’.  The story was national news.  

The shit hit the fan.  The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club.  My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family. 

I almost lost my job.  To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t.  I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening.  My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.  

The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see.  I get that.  It’s valid.  We need to let the people who are impacted speak.  Tell their truth.  Powerful stories can lead to change.  But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community.   His younger sister had to change schools.  She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.  

The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose.  He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out.  He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay.   It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry.  He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again.  He wanted to make a difference.  And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs. 

A few years later, he was dead.  I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia.  There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee.  I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.  

When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.

This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good.  I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs.  The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell.  I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.  

I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling.  I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy.  But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being.  Not the story.  Not the organization. Not the media.  Not me.  

Thoughts About Spring

A time to forgive the cold bleak days

A time to burrow beneath the crust of frost 

A time to reconnect with the nourishing soil

A time to shake off the cobwebs and dance

A time to let soft winds unfurl your brow

A time to see new beginnings in flower buds and baby bunnies

A time to heal your heart with sunshine and laughter

The Coldness of Winter

The coldness of winter.  Bleak.  Barren.  Lifeless.  

I am dormant. 

Like the trees.  Like the grass. Like the frogs. 

Alive but not living.  

Waiting. 

Biding my time. 

Breathing shallowly.  

Hoping. 

That the troubled waters will pass. 

Praying that I can survive. 

Until the sun shines on my face again. 

And I will smile once more.  

This poem is more than just about the season, it’s about how we endure during times of great anguish.

Not Lost

“Let’s review,” I’d say. And grandma would say, “My husband is still alive and we have three children.  You gave me the picture on the wall. It belongs to me and not anyone else.” Every visit with Grandma at her assisted living community concluded with my correcting her revised life story and calming her fear that someone was angry that she’d stolen that cheap print of a sunset.  She’d lower her gaze in shame. I would cry on my way out the door. She had been my pal as a child. We shared a love of books and she encouraged me to write. Later, through the trials and tribulations of my teens and young adulthood, I could always depend on her sympathetic ear.  And now I felt like I lost her.

But it wasn’t true.  Keys, hats, and umbrellas get lost.  You might get lost in the woods, in an unfamiliar city, or lost in thought.  You might lose your hearing, your patience, or your sense of humor. People with memory loss aren’t lost.  They are who they always were.

If only I knew then what I know now.  I’ve learned that it’s on the play field of imagination where we find our loved ones.  All of the parts re-emerge—the mischievous child, the caring grandparent, the fun-loving friend.  We only need to put aside our own inhibitions and join them.

As a TimeSlips facilitator, I look forward to jumping into that play field of imagination with reckless abandon  At an adult day center, we talked about the tooth fairy and how she comes to collect baby teeth from under a child’s pillow. “That’s not what happens,” said Alice. “When you lose a tooth, the tooth fairy comes to get it and brings it to someone who really needs it.”  

I feel like the fairy.  I get to bring something that many thought was lost to people who really need it.  My heart is full of joy.

But it’s harder with people we know.  There’s a shared past and an established pattern of communication.  Before Grandma’s dementia, our conversations were about family history, the progression of my career and the antics of my children.  

My husband’s friend, Carmen, has early onset Alzheimers. Tom has lunch with her most Tuesdays.  They’ve known each other since they were teens, so their conversation typically migrates to the exploits of their youth.  Carmen increasingly fakes it. She stares off into space and says, “Oh sure, I remember that.” And Tom feels embarrassed for her.  But the day Tom brought her home and they discovered a dead raccoon in her backyard, everything changed. They called him Clarence and talked about how he might have ended up there.  He had a wife and a dozen children. Clarence was out getting some time for himself when he came upon his arch nemesis, a wild coyote named Silver. Silver bit him in the neck and Clarence climbed the fence into Carmen’s yard to try to escape. “His wife is really going to miss him.  How on earth will she support all of those children without him?” They laughed and laughed and the light in Carmen’s eyes shone bright.

I wish I could do my time with Grandma over again.  I wish that I had been able to make the shift either grilling her about her health or reminiscing to imagination.  I wish that when she told me that she was a widow and had seven children, I would have asked her to tell me about her deceased husband and their lives together.  I should have conspired with her to remove that print on the wall that worried her so and restore it to it’s sacred place at the Guggenheim museum. We could have created a story that would have delighted us both and strengthened our bond.  We would have been pals again.

(You can learn more about TimeSlips and making meaningful connections through imagination at timeslips.org)

 

 

 

Cranky

Feeling generally cranky.  Not about anything big.  It’s the miniature annoyances that get me.  The greasy butter knife he left on the counter.  His underwear on the bedroom door knob. His hair in the bathroom sink.  His beer taking up too much room in the frig.  The nonstop pinging sound of cowboys shooting at each other on his favorite old TV shows.

Yet I know, that if he leaves the scene before I do, it will be the absence of these annoyances that will bring me to my knees with grief.  me and Tom 2017

Our Anniversary

Tom and I were married in 1989.  On the eve of our wedding a friend asked him how he felt about getting an instant family.  My boys were 11 and 15 years old.  He replied that it was going to be great.  “The hard part of raising kids is already over.”  He figured they were practically grown.  And the boys loved him.  They even invited him for a sleep over.  “Mom has a really big bed.”  They told me that they liked the idea of having a man around the house full time.  At least that’s what they said.  A few short weeks after our brief honeymoon, we discovered just how difficult becoming a family was going to be.

They turned on him.  They complained about everything and the “You’re not my dad” line was practically on an hourly rotation.  Ben, the 11 year old, took me aside and said that he didn’t think it was working out.  “Why?” I wondered.  “I don’t like the way he makes eggs,” was the only thing he could come up with.   Sam, the 15 year old, just stayed out of the house as much as possible mostly at the local skate park.

And Tom, who was the only child in his family, was not used to having competition.  He was cranky.  About noise, especially boy noise early in the morning.  The sound of them slurping cereal made him insane.  And he didn’t like sharing special snacks.  Or having to compromise on the TV schedule.  I was constantly negotiating the tsunami of two pubescent boys with the thunder clouds of a spoiled child .  It was ugly.

And it got worse.  Sam would disappear for whole weekends at a time on vague skateboarding missions without adult supervision.  When Ben got to high school he became a chronic truant and found a new hobby spray painting everything in the neighborhood.   Tom suffered through a bought of depression.  I spent countless months on projects I invented in the basement and went to counseling.  We even took separate vacations.  And in the mean time, we managed growing responsibilities at work.  Our marriage was being tested everyday.

Little by little things started to sort themselves out.  Sam turned 18 and cashed in all of the savings bonds his grandparents had given him and went off to travel the world as a professional skateboarder.  Four years later, Ben started his carpentry apprenticeship and moved out of the house.  Excited empty nesters, we booked a romantic budget trip to Europe!

And then in year 10 of our marriage a letter arrived by certified mail.  It was from the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  It said, “We regret to inform you that while you are married in the eyes of god, your paperwork was never properly filed with the State of Wisconsin.”  It went on to explain that we had a year to file a special form called a “delayed certification of marriage.”

Stunned, Tom made us a drink and we reread the letter together a dozen times.  What did it mean?  Was it a “get out of jail free” card?  How strong was our commitment to one another?  How would we feel if the letter had arrived a few years earlier, in the midst of the firestorm that was our family life?  Since there was no urgency and we were busy with work, we decided to just think on it for a few weeks.

And then the Journal Sentinel came out with an article.  It said  that during a period from roughly 1988 to 1990, the church where we were married failed to complete the necessary legal paperwork.  The reporter discovered that the issue was uncovered when a woman who had also been married during that period, applied for a passport in her married name.  When the government informed her there was no person with that name matching that social security number, the shit hit the fan.

I didn’t change my  name so it never came up when I got my passport for our trip to Europe.  But we’d been filing joint tax returns the whole time.  This was difficult to understand.

The article also cautioned people affected by this mishandling of really fucking important paperwork, that it was not a “get out of jail free card.”  Looks like a marriage, smells like a marriage.  The untangling of any union would require time in court.

Tom made us a drink and we discussed our course of action.  Together we decided that the letter was really a gift.  That we could take our time, the whole year allotted to us, to think about the years that we had survived, our lives as they were now, and the kind of relationship we wanted going forward.  We established a weekly date night.  We found new interests in common like visiting art museums.  We rekindled our friendship and passion.  We went on vacation with my adult sons, mended fences, laughed about the years that we had survived together, and truly reconnected.

Weeks and months went by and soon we were coming close to the deadline.  With five days to spare and the signatures of two witnesses who attended our wedding, we filed that delayed certification of marriage form.  We finally became the family we wanted.  The rest will be easy.

This month Tom and I celebrate our 28th anniversary.  Or maybe it’s technically only 18.

Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

 

Here’s a link to the live version told at an Ex Fabula Fellowship event in 2017.  http://wuwm.com/post/ex-fabula-difficult-conversations

 

This Started Out as a Love Story

Hard nutty cheese.  Musky red wine.  Candles drip on the lapis blue cloth on a table by the sea.  A black cat sits on my lap and I let it.

It is just you and me and the cat.  It’s dark.  The candles flicker in the warm breeze.  Our music is the roar of the waves as they wall-by-the-seacrash against the wall by the sea.  I am perhaps most in love with you in this moment.  Our hearts suspended together.  Breathing in peace, an ocean away from home.

Home.  Where bills need to be paid and alarms are set.  Where the light over the kitchen table dims our dreams.  Where expectations and household maintenance avert our gaze away from each other and the content of our hearts.

What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to be with you again like that—with hard cheese and a bottle of wine.  We tried.  Romantic restaurants in other towns.  But a black cat never sat on my lap again.  And you never want any wine.  And the cheese just stinks.