Well, to my mind, I’ve uncovered the reason for Eagan’s existence. It’s to house this lovely park with it’s many lakes, trails, trees, mushrooms and animals. Everything you want from a pile of nature just a twenty minute drive from the city – it’s all easily accessible on the gentle, rolling trails of Lebanon Hills. We just scratched the surface, covering about three miles via the Jensen Lake Trailhead. The trails are well marked and you are presented with options to explore, all primarily lush, shady and easy to navigate. I can hardly wait to go back in the fall when the colors are changing.
The following transcript is of a never aired interview featuring public radio personality Susan Fellner interviewing obscure the obscure country western flash-in-the-pan singer songwriter Tammy Rae. Despite recording only one EP on the Spyco record label, Tammy Rae’s stormy relationship with the historically reclusive producer Ganderson made her an intriguing interview subject.Susan Fellner: Today we’re going to pick the brain of a most unlikely country-western front-woman. Singer and songwriter Tammy Rae rose from complete to relative obscurity after her debut album “Peppermint and Cigarettes”. Along with her band The Aquanets, Tammy Rae sings songs with a melodic and lyric simplicity that is reminiscent of classic country, with a biting autobiographical edge. Welcome to On the Mic, Tammy Rae. TR: Well thank you so much Susan, I’m just pleased as peach to be here. SF: Tammy, the story goes that you were working in the lingerie department at Sears when you started writing and singing songs, and that you were 38 years old. TR: Yeah, well, we call it Intimate Apparel but that’s about right. I’d fooled around with writing, and picked up a guitar before a few times, but I didn’t start writing music until I was pretty much over the hill. All my heroes, June Carter, Loretta, Dolly, Patsy… they were all discovered very young. Well, when I was their age, I was just honky tonkin and moving around. I loved music, and I hung around a lot of musicians. But I never fancied myself one. I kept a diary, and I wrote a lot of poems, but I didn’t even consider it. And then, you know, I had my two precious babies and I was just focused on raising them alone. SF: Did you sing to your children? TR: You know, I used to sing to my daughter to try to put her to sleep when she was just a wee thing, and that little firecracker covered up my mouth with her hand! But I sang all the time at home. And in the car. Music was an important part of our lives together, we always sang. And of course both of their father’s were musicians, thought they never met them. My son’s daddy was a trumpet player, and my little girl’s pa played bass. SF: Are they well-known musicians? TR: Hmm, I’ve signed a waiver that prevents me from saying. SF: Oh, well. How did you get started then? When you met your songwriting partner Travis Ritter? How did you meet? TR: We were sitting in neighboring bar stools, and we started talking drinking gin and talking about music. I found out he was a session guitarist for this little record label I’d always liked, Spyco records. And the more gin we drank, I just felt like singing, and we stepped outside and I let loose on some old song and he joined in. We were fast friends. SF: Did he suggest that you start writing lyrics? TR: Well yes, he did. I was always talking, I like to talk a lot. And he just started saying “T-Rae (he calls me T-Rae) you oughta write that down.” So I started to, and I’d bring in my little ideas and some melody I half plucked from the air and half stole from Emmylou Harris, and he thought they weren’t half bad. Finally we drank enough beer to put down a demo. SF: And did he introduce you to the head of Spyco? TR: He did, we played him our demo. And Ganderson was not impressed. His opinion was like “This chick is beat. She’s too old and she’s kind of a mess”, I’m no beauty queen you know. And so he said, maybe we can have someone else record this, but he was not interested in signing me. SF: We’ll hear how Tammy Rae eventually got signed, and more about her band the Aquanets, after this break, on Beyond the Mic. STATION BREAK SF: Welcome back. So Tammy, how did you eventually get signed to Spyco Records then? TR: Well, I harassed Ganderson relentlessly, and called him up and sang over the phone for weeks. But he always hung up. So then I broke into his house in the middle of the night. SF: Really? How? TR: Oh simple. With the heel of my shoe. And as soon as I was in, I started talking real loud,- I was a little drunk – but I didn’t want him to think I was a robber, and I’m fumbling through the dark and yelling “Come on out here Ganderson you son of a bitch and I’m gonna sing you a song!” Well, he comes out in his just his little briefs waving a damned 45 around saying “Who the hell?!” And then he saw it was me but he didn’t put the gun down or nothing. So I just started singing with him standing there. I wasn’t scared. He wasn’t gonna shoot me, I’m a damned single mother for god’s sake. Anyway, I finished and he said “Tammy if I let you cut an album, will you leave me the hell alone?” And I said would. SF: What song was it? TR: I have no damn idea. SF: And how is your relationship with Ganderson now? TR: Well, I never really have left him alone. But he aint shot me. Yet. SF: I’ve heard you have an unorthodox writing method. TR: Well Travis Ritter is my main man. I call him up and sing into his answering machine. Then he writes and arranges all the music. I mean, I come up with the basic melody, but he’s the one that makes it come to life. He lays down some tracks, and the next time I come over, we work it out together. SF: We have one of those recordings. Do you mind if we listen to it? TR: Did Travis give you that? Why that little… oh Lord, fine sure. It’ll be a hoot. SF: OK, lets roll that, and then we’ll hear the finished recording. [Travis, answering machine] Hi, this is Travis. If this is that crazy bitch Tanya Tucker, unless you got my two hundred dollars, I don’t wanna hear it. Everyone else, wait for the beep: [15 seconds of shitty demo.] [30 seconds of real song.] TR: Whooee, I sure am lucky for the miracles of modern recording. SF: Tell me about the Aquanets. TR: Well they’re just a great bunch of guys. Travis plays guitar, and he produces the music. And he sings harmony with me, got a voice sweet as syrup that one. Then we got Earl on bass. Earl Potter. He’s quiet like, but real sweet. And of course there’s Cyrus, the drummer. Cyrus Jawbone. I don’t think that’s his real name. He’s just a big old bear but he sings like a damn angel. They’re just a bunch of old softies is what they are. And a real tight band. SF: Any plans for a follow up album? TR: Working on it all the time. After the Drunk Cities Tour. And all this promotion for Peppermint and Cigarettes is tripping me up. It’s like laundry, you just never finish. SF: Well thank you for your time Tammy Rae. It’s been a pleasure. TR: Oh the pleasure is mine Susan, I assure you. SF: And that’s it for On the Mic.
The kids bobbed along the trail with their umbrellas up, snagging on low branches and careening into each other, blocking the steady stream of hikers headed down the trail. We were headed INTO the forest, along the river, while everyone was clearly headed out. As we reached a clearing at the top of a hill, where the trail runs next to the road for a bit, the rain began to pour in earnest – large drops with impressive velocity. Adam called my name, and as I turned to see him gripping both sides of his hat with his hands and squinting through sheets of rain, he shouted, “I think it’s time to pack it in!” I felt sort of inclined to keep going, sort of compelled to go crazy, but you have to know when you’re beat. So we turned heel and marched back down the trail to the car.
Since we were in the area, we hopped over to Wisconsin to visit Saint Croix Falls, and one of my favorite places, Red Bird Music, a musty basement cave of a place with a modest supply of overpriced (but often great) vinyl, and a fine variety of string instruments. The place is crowded with potted plants, art, flyers of long past shows, and 1970’s audio equipment. Ivan and Adam played every instrument in the store, while Veronica and I idly flipped through records. A gray cat with some kind of thinning hair affliction rested on top of the records. The owner of the store is catlike in that he is quiet, nearly invisible, and while he does not mind your presence, it is definitely not required, maybe not even preferred.
Still soggy, we headed to the car, and back to the Minnesota side of the river. As we turned south onto highway 95, Ivan spotted the sign to Franconia and shouted “FRANCONIA!!”, and Adam turned to me shrugging his shoulders, and I shrugged mine, and we turned into the gravel parking lot. Franconia is a 25-acre sculpture park with an ever-evolving collection of large-scale sculpture in a wide variety of mediums. It is also one of my favorite places. It’s audacious in it’s scope and vision. The art itself is at turns beautiful, funny, absurd, haunting, monstrous and confounding. The kids ran straight to the jungle gym, and I took a picture of a young couple. We didn’t stay long, didn’t even walk all the way around the park, with Ivan riding piggy-back on Veronica, we headed back home.
On the way back to Saint Paul as I was nodding off to sleep, I felt Adam’s warm hand on my knee, and opened my eyes to look at him. He wore the look of tired, true love. I smiled at him and closed my eyes. One of the reasons we decided to hike each week was to prepare for a week-long vacation in the Southwest at the end of summer. And this day with its idle time-killing, ambling observation and dashed expectations – to be smiling at the end of this day is, as the Chinese say, auspicious.
Grief is like ripples in a pond. In the beginning, the waves are intense and close together. The first week, your eyes are permanently swollen from crying. As soon as you stop, something happens that starts it all over again. You’re nauseous from the rocking of the boat, it’s so ceaseless and steady.
Then, as time passes, the waves grow more faint, and less intense. It tends to surprise you, when you least expect it. Maybe you’re driving along in your car and hear a song, or a phrase, and there you are with fresh tears on your face. You might have to sit in the parking garage and cry a bit, but it feels almost good to grieve anew. To let the wave wash over you and recede, and find yourself still standing.
Finally, as the months roll by, you might go whole days without thinking about the person. That’s when they come to you in dreams, like a ripple so faint, their image a blur. You reach out to touch them and your hand meets air, and you wake up sad and longing, with a dry face.
I dreamt about Doug the other night. When I woke, I went to listen to one of his songs and hear his voice, and I found this, which I’d not heard before. His voice is so clear and gentle, and the words are so spare and lovely. It was a balm. So I made this video, which is silly, but it allowed me to spend some time with him.
Adam had assumed we weren’t going to go on our Sunday hike, as the kids were at their dad’s house. “You’re going!” I barked on Saturday night, “That’s the whole point! 52 hikes! We have to go!!” Still I was surprised when I asked him what his plans for the day were, and our hike was on the docket. It was sunny and steamy out, and we both had long to-do lists in the wings. In deference to these factors I chose a “hike” close by, a five-minute drive to a trail in Dale Villa Park that begins behind a supper club and winds its way towards Lake McCarrons, a little known urban lake in Saint Paul.
The trailhead behind the supper club, with its sign for BOOYA leaned up against the back wall, should have been warning enough. And as we descended the paved trail into the woods, the fetid smell of rotting vegetation should also have caused me to turn around. But once we were level with the slew, the scent receded. And we breathed through our mouths. I was optimistic as we walked through the vaulted tunnel of tall oaks.
And then, it was over. The trail dumped us into a residential cul-de-sac, with an overlook which looked over the algae covered source of stink. It seemed to me we had only walked about 10 minutes. And though you might think that reaching the end of this not-so-great trail might have been a relief, I was disappointed. Because whatever it was I needed from a hike that day, I had not gotten it. Meanwhile Adam was enjoying the scenery and talking to me about the difficulty of reconciling the passionate spiritual engagement of theism with the detachment of non-theistic religions or atheism.
We decided to follow an asphalt path that circles Lake McCarrons, and allows you to look at the driveways and garages of large houses. The path leads you up a large hill. While trudging up the hill you might become crabby. Because the hippie insect spray and your sweat might be forming an amphibious film on your face and arms. Also, you might grow weary of existential conversation at this time. Next you might start walking about 5 steps ahead of your boyfriend, in classic pissed-off-bitch style. At least that’s what I did.
We walked past the Roseville Armory and many varieties of backyard fences to a major intersection which turned out to be Rice Street, which I found extremely depressing, as it epitomizes vulgar urban claptrap, especially at it’s north end. I turned walked quickly back towards the trail, Adam following, both of us knowing that silence was our friend. The only good thing that happened was meeting a very beautiful white Pyrenees Mountain Dog named Titan, who looked hotter than me.
I don’t even have a photo, so filled with ire I was. Adam said he found the trail “delightful” and that he loved knowing about little urban “secret gardens”, which made me hate the trail more. It almost prompted me to say something like Sorry Adam. Next Sunday will be better.
I love potato salad. Some people don’t. While I don’t pretend to understand them, sometimes they must be catered to. After all, they have feelings too.
I make a few killer potato salads, frankly. For a while I was doing this yogurt dill thing with red potatoes, corn on the cob, sometimes radishes, little green peas. Or German Potato salad. Do you know why it tastes so good? Because you fry the onions in bacon fat. Seriously.
My grandmother made used to run a set of rental cabins along with a tavern she and my grandfather owned in Wausau, probably in the 1950’s. Mostly guys who worked as loggers, I think. According to my mother, each week she backed rye bread and laid it out to dry, crushed it into bread crumbs, and used it to coat fish for Friday fish fry. She served the fish with a side of German potato salad for some ridiculously low price like 55-cents. My grandmother, as I knew her, was a terrible cook, with the exception of apple crisp. But I like to think of her when I make potato salad. When I make German Potato salad, I never fuss with the recipe. I follow the Joy of cooking to the letter.
The Potato Salad for People Who Hate Potato Salad is actually called Tri-color Potato Salad and it is from one of my favorite cookbooks, the benignly named Prairie Home Cooking (no relation to the Companion). Despite the milque toast title, I love it, because it includes recipes of European settlers and immigrants of the midwest. The recipes are consistently great, and use local, seasonal ingredients, mostly, as they were the dishes of immigrants who were exploring with foods that were hardy enough to survive transplanting and thrive in their new homes. I’ve not made a clunker from it yet.
I used some teeny, tiny potatoes from Trader Joe’s, which I love, but red potatoes, as called for in the recipe, are fine. Make this, and you will make the haters happy.
New potatoes or teeny tiny potatoes
Tomatoes, diced or cherry
Red Onion, chopped (optional)
2 parts olive oil to 1 part white wine vinegar, or lemon juice
Cook the potatoes in boiling water, and when they have about 5 minutes left, throw in the green beans. When all is tender, but still holding together, rinse and drain. Whisk together vinaigrette, adding parsley at the end. Put potatoes, green beans, tomatoes & onions in a bowl, pour the vinaigrette over, toss and chill.
(since I’m printing without permission, I’ve left off most amounts. If you’d like the complete recipe you can find it. Or you can wing it, since the proportions are basically to taste.)
For our second hike we hit up the Tamarack Nature Center, and the trails in the prairies, woods and wetlands behind it. It was a nearly perfect day, sunny and breezy. The trails are lovely, but seem to be almost deliberately poorly marked. I’m not sure exactly what trails we took, or how long we walked. We began to find “clues” scattered along the trail, leading us from place to place searching for what we imagined to be a treasure. The clues ran out, sadly and Ivan panicked about 45 minutes into the hike, thanks to two mosquito bites. But he did loved the Discovery Hollow play area afterwards. What a hidden gem this place is for parents of young children. We had a wonderful time.
We’ve endeavored to hike every Sunday. Our crew is composed of two middle-aged, out-of-shape, well-intentioned adults Adam (49) and myself (41), and our healthy, reluctant charges, Veronica (11) and Ivan (8). With our particular combination of ability and initiative, we are well suited to the generally flat, unassuming geology that abounds in Minnesota.
The forecast, and the sky, teased us with the threat of rain all morning. We hemmed and hawed, and finally decided to take a chance a little after noon. We decided on a “no-electronics” rule for the less than one-hour car ride. Veronica read manga and Ivan talked, sang, and complained pretty much continuously for most of the ride. We arrived at Big Woods, Adam bought us a new state parks sticker, and we headed to the parking lot/trailhead to set out, but not before dousing ourselves in bug spray, as the ranger had warned us they were ‘bad’.
The trail was rambling and lovely, deeply forested and dappled in sunlight, and there were wild raspberries for the taking. However the experience will forever be remembered as “the hell hike” for the 80% humidity and bugs so thick we fairly sprinted through the woods. To keep Ivan interested we devised a treasure hunt game, wherein point values were awarded for seeing certain bits of nature. This naturally led to obsessive searching and lots of arguing over the point values of disparate items like “weird trees” and “giant mushrooms”. Points were deducted for getting bugs up your nose.
Naturally, Ivan won the game, as he scored 100 points for keeping Adam from stepping in a patch of poison ivy. After the hike we went into Northfield for iced coffees, Veronica went to her first Ragstock, and we mused about the absurdity of olive oil stores. We drove back the long way, not on purpose, and wound up in East Saint Paul at El Burrito Mercado, a worthy reward for our fledgling efforts. We all slept like babies.
This is the letter I wrote to interested parties involved with my dear friend’s murder trial. He was the victim, but somehow, his character has been called into question. As if he were a woman wearing a short skirt “asking for it”. It’s pretty much that ridiculous. The letter itself is no great shakes. Whenever I tried to approach this task as a “writer” I was stalled out. And also kind of hating myself for worrying about artfulness at a time like this. Also worried what Doug’s critique of it would be. He once said of an article I asked him to proof that it was “dry as dust”. On the other hand, he also said of another piece, “reads like a dream, wouldn’t change a thing.” So he was level-handed in his assessments I think.
Mostly, I am frustrated because no matter how many examples I could give to support his decency, his talent, his kindness, and his humanity – it isn’t likely to change much in the long run. If I want justice, I shan’t hold my breath. If I crave closure, I think I’ll have to look elsewhere. But this is the best I can do, under the circumstances. I hope it helps.
To whom it concerns:
I believe in the idea of sacred contracts. An idea that there are some people in your life you meet because they help you to grow, or facilitate change, or assist you on your life’s journey. I believe that I had a contract of this nature with Doug. Chance flung us together at a favorite watering hole Labor Day of 2008, where we met and formed a fast bond. This bond deepened and took on many forms throughout the course of our friendship, but we were nearly inseparable for three years, during which time we saw each other through difficult transitions through our mutual love of art, literature, music, and each other. As we once laughingly agreed, “no one loves us as much as we love us.”
It is strange for me to write publicly about Doug, and our relationship in particular, because he was a private person. Stranger yet to write in his defense, as I can’t think he did much other than to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But since this is the last thing I can do for him, tangibly, I’ll do my best. He did not abide sentimentality for its own sake, so I’ll do my best to stick to the facts – though it will be hard, because Doug’s imprint on my soul is what I want most to share with anyone who will listen.
During the time I knew Doug he went from being an Executive Chef at a fine restaurant, to working as a cook in a university cafeteria, to being unemployed and visiting the food shelf. He experienced this gradual decline with uncommon grace. Even in the darkest times – broken furnace, little food, no car – he was optimitstic. He was humbled, but never downtrodden. And even though he was unemployed he worked, constantly, both at finding a job and at making music. I knew his daily routine well, I lived with him for a short time. Up early with coffee, an hour or so at the computer either writing stories or articles for his mother’s bulletin, looking for jobs, or posting as a moderator on Huff Post. The Huffington Post was a great outlet for Doug, who was quite a hermit really, to exchange ideas and barbs over politics. He was always defending a broadly liberal point of view, but most likely the racial or sexual minority. And he did it with humor. He was so excited to be asked to be a moderator, because he was valued as someone able to diffuse contentious arguments with a sense of humor. Anyway, after that he headed to the living room to write music for the next few hours. Then a lunch break and a dog walk. Maybe a visitor in the afternoon. he retired at sundown with Otto, and later Gertie, by his side and watched movies and TV series he checked out from the library. It was an unglamorous life, but he was really contented. And he never complained much. When he did, he was apologetic.
At the same time, I was going through a divorce and learning to support myself and my two children. Doug worried and fretted over my welfare on all fronts; emotionally, physically, financially. He was sweet to my children, and he was supportive of me. More than anything, he gave me back my voice. In becoming a mother and wife, I had been living my life as if half-asleep. Doug woke me up. He believed that I was was smart and witty and funny and talented. He encouraged my writing, he pushed me artistically. He put a microphone in front of my face and told me I could sing. He modeled a work ethic that showed me how artists create: passionately, without concern for being discovered, or published, or accepted. He called me Queenie. Not because he revered me, but because it was how he wanted me to see myself.
We played. We had fun. We went for dog walks. We cooked and drank wine. We recorded albums, and radio plays. Doug’s living room was a universe where the walls fell away and anything was possible. It was a land of make-believe – our own record label, our own radio station, our own catering company, our own country of which we were the rulers. Multiple possible futures that all coincided. He was magical in that way, an allure that attracted many people to him.
Doug gave me a bed so that my kids had one to sleep on. Doug did my laundry while I was at work. He made me lunches and dinners too many to name. He taught me to cook mussels. He wrote songs for me. He made mix-tapes to accompany every road trip I took. He listened to hours of my crying, doled out reams of advice and never let me hit bottom. A bachelor to the core, he kept maxi-pads stocked in the bathroom for me. Later, when I moved to Saint Paul and would visit overnight to record music, he arranged a room in his house for me and kept it free of dog and cat hair so I could sleep allergy free. When I was on vacation in Santa Fe, he watched the weather and texted me to warn me there was a storm in the area. He was “there for me” in the most loyal and steadfast of ways.
Douglas was a complex person with a colorful life. He took the responsibility of being an artist seriously, which meant life wasn’t always easy. He kept up with his mortgage as best he could, even when he couldn’t afford food. He never let his dog Otto want for food or walkies. I was with him when they put Otto down. I so admired his strength that day. When the vet came in with x-rays of Otto’s lungs, ridden with cancer, we were devastated. He was too far gone for treatment, and Doug didn’t want him to suffer another minute. We sat together as Otto’s ragged breathing ceased. Together we carried him clumsily from the car to the back-yard. Then I left Doug to bury him in the shady area he loved to sit in, which he did, bravely alone.
He was unfailingly, even annoyingly, moralistic. I’m a bit of a moral relativist, but Doug believed in right and wrong, good and evil, and he took great care in his life to be on the right side of that divide. Apparently his Christian upbringing, though lapsed, was not a complete failure. If we argued, it was about my ethical leniency. He was the champion of the underdog, and the defender of the meek. He wrote songs about misfits: Dorca, a song about an orca who doesn’t fit in amongst the dolphins. He wrote for the abused, and the neglected, and the persecuted. He himself was a misfit, and his sympathy was always with those who society looked down on and cast aside.
Our last night together we finished up some recording and listened to all the things we had recorded together. We drank some Rolling Rock and took a cab downtown. We tried to visit the bar we had met at, but it was crowded and unfriendly feeling, so we wound up at Saint Cloud’s only, recently opened, gay bar. He was pleased to find Saint Cloud catching up with the rest of the world. Doug had gay friends, mostly lesbians that I knew of, which is why when the three assailants claimed he yelled homophobic slurs, it rang so untrue. If Doug acted in anger, it would have been in defense of a woman or gay person, not in attack of them.
When Doug moved, we grew apart, but we were happy for each other to have moved on with our lives. It was as if we had traveled through a dark valley together and then parted ways to climb separate hills. Able to look at each other from a distance, on separate peaks, we were both happy, breathing the cool clean air of what other people would call a “normal life.” We were smugly pleased with ourselves and proud of each other, I think, to have come so far. It made his death all the more a bitter pill. He had finally gotten back to his career, found a place he felt he belonged, found love and was more content than he had been in years.
I began to get messages from our mutual friend Chris late on the night of the 26th. he sent me an article with the headline, “Man Stabbed to Death In Downtown Arcata Night Before Last”. The man, unidentified, was from Minnesota originally and “in his 50s”. Surely this wasn’t Doug. Surely it could be anyone. I called Doug and got his voicemail. Not wanting to sound alarmist, I left a message for him to call me. We had texted earlier that day, about holiday food preparations of course. I was starting to worry. I texted him. Then I called Chris and he told me, “He’s gone. Doug has passed on.” “Are you sure?” I asked. He was. I was hysterical, immediately. Incredulous.“what do we DO?” I yelled into the phone. Chris said something about planning a memorial and I cut him off, “No. I mean what do we DO?” I meant, “How do we undo it?” I experienced, for this first time in my life, cognitive dissonance. The idea of Doug being dead, being stabbed, was not one I could accept. I am still occasionally shocked by it, even now.
I have experienced sudden and tragic death before, I lost my sister when I was 17, but I didn’t know what to expect from a murder and all its consequent legal implications and proceedings. An article online warned me to remember that “we have a legal system, not a justice system.” Even that could not have prepared me for what has happened since that day.
I wonder often what he would think of the events that have followed. He hated injustice, but he was also a very private person. He would be horrified to have his character smeared by strangers, but mostly because he loved his family and wouldn’t want to cause them undue pain. I wonder if he would find irony that in death he’s found a sort of twisted, post-humous notoriety, when in life, he was always a relative unknown.
I expect you’ll get many letters similar to mine. My friendship with Doug was special to me, but not unique to him. He was a remarkable man. He was like a blazing comet, but he was also heavily embodied and burdened by life. He was a vessel of light, which he shared with those he loved. When that light shone on you, it was a powerful, memorable experience. He loved easily, and almost carelessly. I adored him.
My hope in writing this is to inform the court of Douglas’ character. My hope for the case is that somehow the truth will out. I’m not convinced by the defendants’ version of events, and my most sincere desire is that I might find closure through understanding of what transpired that night. I have contacted a local friend, a defense attorney, and he is baffled by Ms. Firpo’ s recommendation to accept the plea. I don’t know or understand the circumstances which brought Doug, Nick, Sophie and Juan to this tragic conclusion. And while I may never know, I don’t believe that any sort of justice is served by the way this case has been handled.
Thank you for your consideration,
The year after my sister Julie died, my mother gently informed me she didn’t have the heart to “do” Christmas. This did not disappoint. I was seventeen, long past believing in Santa Claus. As a particularly self-involved teen, I found my family at turns both irritating and embarrassing. And as the baby of the family whose siblings were all married with children, I often felt awkwardly displaced somewhere between the kids table and the grown ups. I was, possibly, too cool for Christmas.
Anyway, I had to work. I was a an “on-air personality” at the local polka radio station. Every DJ was obligated to work a three hour shift on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day and I always volunteered for Christmas Eve.
Now, I hated Polka. Christmas Eve was the one night of the year I didn’t have to play it. Instead, I munched on Christmas cookies that Helen our long-suffering receptionist baked, smoked cigarettes in the newsroom, and gorged myself on Bing Crosby, Elvis and Barbara Streisand. Our station overlooked our tiny picaresque downtown Main Street, and I’d stand at the window feeling older than my teenage years, nostalgic for a past I never knew when crooners crooned and families didn’t get divorced, sisters didn’t die in head on collisions, and people still went to church on Christmas Eve, at least. I’d turn the lights off in the studio, and strike a sort of noir pose while the streetlights blinked red and green on the deserted street.
This year I was assuming a very hard-boiled outlook. My sister’s death had left me both emotionally raw and prematurely adult in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. My response was a poor attempt at cool detachment. When I got off work at nine, I had plans to drive out to Holy Hill, a stunning church on a hilltop in the nearby countryside, for midnight mass.
Holy Hill is a Carmelite Monestary and minor Catholic Basilica. The Neo-Romanesque shrine itself sits on about 40 acres, surrounded by an additional 400 acres of rolling woodlands. It features a 192 foot tower from which, on a clear day, you can see Milwaukee thirty miles away. The interior of the church is an amazement considering the rural setting; 20 foot rose windows, 8 foot marble statues, gold leaf frescoes and glass mosaics. When my sister Julie married into a large Catholic family, she converted – partially to appease the family, and I think, so that she could be married at Holy Hill.
The church entrance is on Highway 167, a designated scenic “rustic road” that winds and bends through the kettle moraine landscape. In the fall, tourists flock to drive the beneath canopies of riotous color on sun-dappled pavement. In the spring, pilgrims descend on the church to walk the stations of the cross. In the winter, the roads are icy, poorly lit and treacherous. My sister died on this same road in June, on a warm and rainy morning, making her way to work.
A few miles from the church, one of my closest friends Angie lived with her family in a remodeled barn. I was a frequent guest at their home, and actually, I think I might have earned resident status one summer. The Balistreris embodied an idea of family that was completely foreign to me, romantic and captivating. The parents Frank and Mary were hot blooded Italian Americans, artists and hippies who had moved from the city as part of the “back to the earth” movement. Angie was the eldest of five. In contrast to my single-mother upbringing, the Balistreri house was in near constant upheaval. They were always low on cash, the kids fought bitterly, the parents and children recriminated each other on a daily basis. There was shouting and tears and a sense of overwhelming love and togetherness.
I stopped in before the service, because the choir didn’t start until 11pm. The family was in the middle of exchanging gifts. Recently, Christmas at my house had become an escalating affair, with the pile under the tree spreading further into the room every year. I was humbled and heartened to see what the Balistrieri’s exchanged. Shampoo, one book, a wooden hairbrush. Every gift was accepted with gratitude and embraces were given in exchange. The highlight of the evening was the gift for young Peter, just over a year old. Frank had made a perfectly plain and beautiful red wooden wagon. As he wheeled it into the living room the whole family exploded in applause and laughter.
I had been quietly drinking tea on the couch, but was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I slipped out the door and heaved sobs into the crisp night air. I cried because I felt so blessed to be a part of this family. I cried because I was not really a part of this family, but my own. My own family broken first by divorce and now, death. I cried because I missed my sister, and I missed my mother, who was irrevocably changed. I cried for myself, because it was such a burden to feel so deeply, to feel so old when I was so young.
Angie’s mother Mary found me, and held me silently. There was no need to tell her what the matter was. I cried until I was shivering, thanked her for having me, and said I would head up to the church now.
In retrospect I might have skipped the service, being as I was nearly out of control with emotion. A sane person would have. But grief is not the territory of the rational. I was now an open wound, numb with the night air and blind to reason. The stars and midnight sky were bright against the steeple spires as I made my way up to the church.
There was no room to sit, so I found a place near the back wall, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, our puffy winter coats whispering against each other. The choir filed in holding candles and singing O Come O Come Emmanuel. It was achingly beautiful. I held it together for about five minutes, until they started in with O Holy Night. Then, I crumpled.
I slid down the cold wall of the church and buried my face in my hands, weeping openly, audibly. I lost control of my voice – the word caterwaul comes to mind. People stared: I am ruining their Christmas spirit. But I couldn’t stand. Someone helped me up and I with my head down I ran for the door. Tears froze on my cheeks. When I got to my car I sat with my forehead against the cold steering wheel and beat it with my hands, until I was finally calm enough to drive. On the way home I tuned in to my old Polka station and drove careful, careful along the frozen roads listening to Elvis singing Blue Christmas. When I finally made it home – warm, and quiet and dim – I was grateful.
The truth is, I’ve never felt more connected to my sister than I did that night. And that is the reason I return whenever I can to Holy Hill Midnight Mass. I’m really not one for visiting graves. When I go to my sister’s grave, I just feel awkward and inauthentic. Only her bones are there. But amongst the incense and the hymns in the cold upper church of a Carmelite monastery, I feel happily at peace with her. Though my family now celebrates together at Christmas, this pilgrimage I always make alone. To reunite with old friends and reconnect to a sacred place. And when I can’t get there, at least I have music. I listen to the carols I love, and happily, I cry.