Archives For Family

We shall overcome

March 10, 2014 — Leave a comment

I comb D’s hair in the morning, and I wonder what the hell I’m doing raising an African American child.

When David and I got licensed to become foster parents, we took many classes on being an interracial family, and we didn’t go into this lightly. But still, I ask myself: Can I help her to know her community, her heritage, and protect her from the American caste system that is, in part, based on the color of one’s skin? Can I instill in her that her kinky hair is beautiful, despite messages all around that tell her long flowing blonde hair is the ideal? Can I help her believe that she can be a ballerina if she wants to, despite the fact that all of the other little girls in her class are white?

Growing up in Iowa, I knew one African America. One. His name was Curtis and he went to my high school. I didn’t know him well, but he was popular, a very good wrestler. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him.

My dad made a living selling real estate, and he told me of a time, in the 60s or 70s, when he sold a home to a black family. The neighbors were upset. So my dad arranged a pot-luck dinner for the whole neighborhood so they could get to know the family. It worked, apparently, because the black family moved in and there were no problems between the neighbors. I am proud of my dad for that.

I remember riding in the car with my grandmother, and she saw a sign for Martin Luther King Drive in Des Moines. A product of her generation, she said, “Why do they demand so much?” “They” being African Americans who lobbied to have the street name changed. “Our family never owned slaves…” she said, absolving herself of the collective guilt of her white privilege. My grandmother was a loving person, and she and my grandfather sponsored a Vietnamese refugee family. She helped the poor and needy. She was a good woman who I admired. Yet, she could not understand the depth of the wounds suffered by the black race. I’m not sure I understand those wounds, either. But now, for D’s sake, I have to try to understand. And I want to.

We are taking small steps. I take D to an African American hairdresser — a gorgeous woman who braids D’s hair. Last time we were there, she took pictures of D’s braids after she was finished, because they looked so cute. D was so proud of those braids.

We visit with D’s paternal grandma every month. We call her “Grandma G.” She brings what I call her “entourage,” which includes her husband, and D’s cousins and half sister. Helping D keep a connection to her biological relatives, and her African American community is important to her and to us. Grandma G was suspicious of us at first. And angry. So angry. It was as if her anger at the entire white race was directed at the “system” and at us, who “took her baby.” But slowly, we have formed a bond. Before Christmas we all met — me and David and D, and Grandma G, her husband, and other grandchildren at McDonald’s Playland. We all exchanged gifts and hugged, and wished each other a Merry Christmas. We have come to love them, and I think they are fond of us.

I showed Grandma G and her husband videos of D dancing at her ballet class. They were thrilled. D’s grandpa looked at me, and said, “You are all doing such a good job with her. We are so glad she has you. You know, everything happens for a reason.”

I almost cried. For the past year and a half I have been so worried that I wasn’t doing it right. That I wasn’t doing her hair right, or dressing her right, or raising her right. That I was being looked at by the African American community as an ignorant white woman.

So those words from her grandma’s husband were powerful. “You are doing a good job with her.”

These are small steps. I don’t know much, but I do know that building this bridge with her birth family is a small step. Or maybe a huge step. But it’s a step.

We are not only adopting D, but also, in some ways, her grandma, cousins, aunts and uncles, and half-sister. We are all becoming a part of this large community, black, white, young, old, that are coming together to make D know that she is loved. And in the meantime, we are growing to love and understand each other. Sitting in McDonald’s eating french fries and watching the child we all love squealing with joy as she sliding down the Playland slide — we shall overcome.







Breaking the ice

December 1, 2013 — Leave a comment

My maternal grandmother, Edna Johansen Wistrom, was the child of Danish immigrants. She didn’t learn to speak English until she went to kindergarten.

She grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, on the cold flat prairie. She had farm chores, and she told me once that she would rush to get her chores done so that she could go back inside to finish whatever book she was reading. A woman after my own heart.

After high school she attended nursing school, met my grandfather in her mid-20s, and got married.

Grandma Edna held strong opinions, could be stubborn, but was very compassionate to those around her who were needy. She and my grandfather hosted a family of refugees from Vietnam in the 70s. By hosted, I mean the family lived with them until they could get on their feet. I now realize what a huge commitment that was. She read voraciously, had a knack for decorating her house with an elegant and sophisticated flair, and traveled to the Holy Lands when she retired.

She was a good grandma. She taught me how to embroider dishtowels. She took me shopping for my birthday. We spent many holidays at her house, which always smelled of coffee.

But there are so many things I don’t know about her.

She was a typical stoic Midwesterner of northern European descent who didn’t talk much about herself. It probably didn’t help that my grandfather was often verbally abusive and demeaning. That had to have affected her over the years….made her feel that she didn’t have a voice.

Shortly before she died, I took a tape recorder to her small apartment to document her life stories. Time was running out, I realized, and I wanted to know more about her before those stories would be lost forever.

By this time, my grandfather had died, and she lived in a retirement village. She remained independent, but the shroud of death was hanging in the air. Friends she knew from around the village, blue-haired women she played cards with or went to church with, would die and she would never speak of them again. She and the other survivors would pragmatically move on. They wouldn’t even attend the funerals. After a while, so many of her cohorts had died that she seemed so alone.

The day I took my tape recorder to her house, I had high hopes. I was finally going to learn all about my grandmother. I imagined an afternoon spent talking about her childhood, learning stories that would fill all of the gaps of my understanding this important woman in my life. It would be an afternoon of connecting with my grandmother, learning more about her and maybe understanding more about myself.

I am a trained journalist – so I know how to ask questions to coax answers out of the most difficult interviewee. But my journalistic skills were no match for my grandmother. She shyly answered my questions, but barely. I would ask questions, and she gave me short, one-sentence answers.

I wanted stories, history, deep understanding. But she was as closed off and hard as the cold flat prairie where she was raised.

When I asked her “What was the most important day of your life?” She answered, “Oh, when my children were born, I suppose.”

But that was it.

At first I was frustrated, exasperated, and a little embarrassed. I realized my afternoon of listening to my grandmother’s stories would actually only take about 15 minutes due to her one-word or one-sentence answers.

I tried asking the questions in different ways, coming at it from different angles. Nothing.

Slowly, it dawned on me that she felt that her story didn’t matter. That she didn’t have anything worth telling. That she didn’t matter.

After awhile, I gave up, turned off the tape recorder, and we ate coffee cake and talked about my cousins and her flower planters on her patio…skating along the icy hard surface of shallow conversation. Grandma was more comfortable there.

My grandmother died a few years later, at age 89.

The tape of our conversation that day is in my desk drawer. I haven’t listened to it since that day.  But sometimes I want to listen to it just to hear her voice again.

Lately, I’ve felt myself frozen too….just skating on the surface. I wrote a book and it was published, and now I wonder if I’ve run out of stories to tell. I sit down to write and can barely eek out one sentence. I feel that my stories don’t matter. That everyone else has more to say. That I’m not good enough. I don’t deserve to have my voice heard.

But then I think of my grandmother. I remember that day, sitting on the floor at her feet, as she sat in a gold, velour chair. I sat by her feet like Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, craving wisdom and grace and love.

That is why I will sit down every morning and write – even if it’s that one sentence that I can barely eek out  –  to find the stories of my family that my grandmother, and my mother, and probably scores of my ancestors believed weren’t worth telling. I will hack at the frozen surface and chop through the ice until I can dip my fingers into the rich, flowing water below.


Mothers Day

May 2, 2007 — 1 Comment

I haven’t cried about my mother for a long, long time. Until tonight. It snuck up on me as I was lying in bed, waiting to go to sleep. As my thoughts were winding down from a stressfull and anxiety-filled day, I started thinking about her, and all of the sudden I wished she was sitting on the edge of my bed, rubbing the hair off my face, and telling me it was going to be okay. That familiar feeling of grief started in my gut and made its way up through my throat and finally to my eyes and I started sobbing. I couldn’t stop.

Maybe it’s because Mother’s day is a week away. Or because my friend’s dad died just a few months ago and her grief is bringing back all of those feelings I felt the days after my mom died. The finality of it all. The realization I wouldn’t hear her voice, feel her hand on my face, or even have her around to pick a fight with. It was all gone. Done. Forever.

I feel vulnerable and afraid right now. Battered by life. I want the safety of my mom’s arms. You know that scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where they’re sneaking up on some Germans in a snipers nest and gun fire breaks out and after all is said and done one of the soldiers is down and bleeding profusely? The others surround him and are trying to staunch the blood coming out of him but it’s obvious the blood is coming too fast and it’s useless. The soldier cries out for his mother. That’s how I feel.

My mom and I never talked that much. I didn’t share too much of my life with her. And she didn’t know how to share her life with me, although at times I sensed she wanted to. So we fought. For me that was a way of engaging her, to have a relationship that went beyond the surface. I regret things I said, ways I treated her. But in the past few years of her life we had finally become friends. I thought I’d have another 20 years to be her friend. But then she died at 63.

She made me mad at times. Frustrated the heck out of me. I felt like I could never live up to her expectations. But through it all I knew she loved me and she showed me in those tiny, incremental ways mothers do. Like when I was in high school and ran cross country, I’d get cramps in my legs in the middle of the night. She’d come into my room and rub Ben Gay into my sore, cramping muscles until I went back to sleep.

Or the time in Junior High School when I discovered straight legged corderoy LEVI’s were in and bell-bottoms were out. I couldn’t walk into the Junior High School with bell bottoms, I’d be the laughing stock! Money was tight at the time, so my mom stayed up all night sewing my bell-bottom corderoys into straight legged corderoys. The next morning they were laid across my bed.

All of those little sacrifices she made throughout my life far outweigh the ways she made me feel guilty, or inadequate, or not good enough. I know now that those were the things she felt about herself, so she couldn’t help but pass them on to me. I forgive her.

And I hope she forgave me. Part of my grief has been that I wished I had loved her better. Things become so clear from a distance. I took her for granted. She wasn’t a perfect mother. And I wasn’t a perfect daughter. But still, I miss her like crazy. And I long for her to rub my aching legs that are sore from running this exhausting marathon called life.


November 26, 2006 — 2 Comments

These days, getting our whole family together requires planning and patience. Somehow, we managed to gather in Ohio, where two of my sisters live, for Thanksgiving. My dad, sister, nephew flew from Des Moines to Dayton. My brother and his family drove the 10-hour drive on Wednesday. I drove down interstate 65 through Indiana on Wednesday, listening to three Tim Keller sermons on my iPod during the 6 hour drive. David flew down on Thanksgiving night, since he had to work all day on Thanksgiving. But by Thursday evening we were all together. My husband, my dad, four siblings, 13 nieces and nephews, and my nephew’s fiance. 25 in all. We ate turkey (well, except for me and me niece LiJen, the only vegetarians in the family, plus my 10-year-old nephew Liam who feels too sorry for the animals to eat them), played Scrabble (bro-in-law Jim won with the word “Zen” which was placed on a triple word score for 36 points), and watched nieces and nephews play “Dance, Dance, Revolution”. We traded book suggestions, asked nephew Ben how his college applications were coming, watched 11-year-old niece Ellie knit a scarf, played with the new Dixon family puppy, a Yorkie that weighs about 1.5 lbs and is named Sufjan (after Sufjan Stevens), peppered nephew Drew with questions about his college classes at Princeton, teased niece LiJen about her “friends” who are “boys”, looked at nephew Eric’s pictures from his 5-week trip out West, and listened to nephew Liam play the violin. A good weekend, indeed.

While sitting in front of the fireplace the evening before coming home, I took a survey about what everyone is thankful for. My nephew Ben suggested that we, instead, list things we’re NOT thankful for. So, here are 10 things we’re not thankful for:

1. Puppies who pee on the floor (nephew Seth)
2. Cellulite (sister-in-law Jerilynn)
3. Working on Saturday after Thanksgiving (husband, David)
4. Football games on TV (niece LiJen)
5. Ten-hour drives home (brother Scott)
7. Calculus homework over Thanksgiving holiday (nephew Ben)
8. Christmas decorations in October (sister Ann)
9. College applications (nephew Ben)
10. Results of the mid-term elections (brother Scott)

But just so you think we’re not curmudgeons, here are 10 things we ARE thankful for:

1. Results of the mid-term elections (Husband David)
2. Pumpkin pie (me)
3. 60-degree weather in Ohio in November (all of us)
4. A new puppy (niece Ellie)
5. Dance, Dance Revolution (nephew Jake)
6. Happy tails doggy daycare (sister-in-law Jerilynn)
7. Chocolate milk (nephew Jake)
8. Knitting (niece Ellie)
9. The word “Zen” (bro-in-law Jim)
10. Those rare occassions when our whole family gets to be together.