Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Scribbler -- February 2017 Release!

I'm feeling the Saber Pride today. Seriously, we have so much talent walking the halls at CDHS--that talent lies in the understanding that good writing is HARD WORK, but so worth the effort!

Our Central DeWitt High School literary magazine is bursting with the good stuff!

Former Central grad and DeWitt Observer writer Kate Howes features our student success here: Students Get Creative with Online Mag

I love my job.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Finding Home

Martha Kaszinski, center, with her husband, Theodore, and six children on their 40th wedding anniversary. 

In honor of acceptance, democracy, history, and hope.

As a young girl, I often teetered on tiptoes to slide a skeleton key from its place on a nail above the attic door. With practice, I learned to twist and turn it with just the right touch to reveal the dusty nook on our family farm that held treasures representing five generations. Like the books I so often cradled in my hands, this place was a shelter from the strange world where, though a loving and attentive family raised me, I felt out of place—an introvert in a family of extroverts, a tomboy in a family of ladies. The past didn’t question, didn’t judge, didn’t perceive, just waited to be perceived.
On a bar right inside the door hung beautiful dresses and wedding gowns—remnants of milestones in the lives of my mom, aunts, and cousins. I looked at my plain figure and wondered if I’d ever wear such lovely things. Doubt flared when I placed veils over my short hair. Somehow Grandfather’s black dress hat seemed a more fitting embrace.
In a back corner, underneath an occasional soft rain of plaster, rested Dad’s army trunk. The fabric of his uniform stiffened with age, and held tight to the secrets of Vietnam he would never tell.
I spent untold hours going through Grandma Thelda’s box of memorabilia. A meticulous timekeeper, she captured photos of friends and family and wrote on each one—name, dates, anecdotes, and witticisms. On the back of one old black and white where she and Grandpa Stanley pose in front of his first car she wrote, “Sunday drive with Stanley—looking sharp!”
She kept artifacts from her family and Stanley’s, both of German heritage, maintaining a museum of history for each side. There was a straight razor with a wooden handle and an old copper wristwatch with a pale green patina. In stark contrast to the copper and steel was a women’s handkerchief embroidered with spring flowers and a delicate ivory hairbrush.

Nestled at the bottom of that box was a novel written in German, its beige cover mottled with aging splotches of liver brown color. A green wreath adorned with clusters of six-sided stars surrounded its title and author. Brittle and cracked with age, the paper pulled away from the spine exposing the band underneath. Inside the front cover, there was a signature—Mrs. Frank Pestka. Underneath it someone wrote, “To Martha, in remembrance of Mother.” Martha was my Grandpa Stanley’s mother, the signature, that of his grandmother, Francesca.
As I brushed my thumb over its soft exterior and gazed at a language I could not decipher, I wondered what was so special about it. Why did the women of my family save and pass on this particular book?
Frank and Francesca sent three of their nine children from Germany to America in 1907. Max and Hannah were seventeen and sixteen, respectively, while the youngest was my great-grandmother, Martha, who was only 15 at the time of the voyage. The book couldn’t have made the trip with her, however, for its copyright date says 1924. The circumstances of its arrival remain a mystery.
When I was a child, Mom took my sister and me to visit Great-Grandma every Friday night. If we did something she didn’t approve of, seeming too rambunctious or bickering with one another, she scolded in her heavy German accent, “Da! Vat’s da matter wit you?”
On Fridays during Lent, Mom brought fish sandwiches and chips that we ate only after saying Grace—Great-Grandma’s face downturned and solemn while my sister and I kicked each other under the table.
While Mom cleaned up the kitchen, we were sent out with a paper grocery sack and filled it up with the pinecones that fell from the only tree in Great-Grandma’s yard. When we had filled the sack and presented our efforts to Great Grandma, she reached shaky fingers into her coin purse and gave us each a quarter. “These good girls,” she said to Mom, and grabbed our small arms while we reached over to kiss her deeply wrinkled cheeks.

One item in the bottom of that box in the attic was an audiotape of my Aunt Janet interviewing Great-Grandma about her voyage to America. Each of them is gone now, so the tape’s existence is a twofold treasure. I hear my aunt’s voice, normally gruff and to the point, take on a soft tenor when talking to Great-Grandma. On that tape she asks, “Did you want to come to America?” Great-Grandma replies, “I wasn’t looking for a greener bit behind the fence, where it’s better grass; I didn't want to go. My mother cried and cried; she didn’t want us to go.” Martha, Max, and Hannah were sent anyway, their father sure of the financial potential and cultural freedom available in this new place. Six other children stayed behind with the parents, either married themselves or too young to make the journey. The three siblings were sent with a promise—the rest would follow when they could afford it.
Conditions on the ship were not as they had hoped. There were no more family cabins available, so they had to make do with third-class accommodations in steerage. Hannah and Martha were sent with the women who slept in one large group amidst a sea of metal bunks. Max had to stay with the men. The cramped compartments did not have fresh air or proper toiletries, but they were expected to eat, sleep, and sit in them for the majority of their nine days at sea.
During daylight hours, the steerage passengers were invited on deck for short periods of time, but Martha was overcome with an extreme case of seasickness and unable to enjoy it. She told Janet, “I was sick all the time. I had to lay flat and I couldn’t eat. Hannah was so worried I’d be too weak to get up once we got to America. She was mad at me, but I couldn't help it.”
Great-Grandma also remembered, “The food was awful. They gave us salted herring without cream, and we weren’t used to that.” Herring was the staple for steerage passengers along with bread and garlic. The garlic was supposed to prevent seasickness, though for many, it had no effect. Hannah hoped that if she found better food somehow, Martha would eat and become strong enough to pass inspections once they got to America. According to Great-Grandma, “Hannah got herself together with some old friend who worked on the ship; he bartered for some better stuff that they gave to people in first class.”
Though Great-Grandma does not have fond memories of the voyage, she lived to tell the tale. Others weren’t so lucky. She told Janet of a woman who was so sick she moaned all day and night. She explained, “There was a married lady that fell on the floor, just flat; she died right there next to me.” Later that day, her body was tossed into the ocean.
Hannah and Max did not suffer from seasickness and were able to meet an amalgamation of people from all over Europe. Strangers came together to tell stories, play music, and dream about their new homes. Great-Grandma told Janet she wished her experience on board the ship had been different. She said, “There were people playing accordion and other instruments too. Upstairs you could go and meet men and women; they came from different parts. They weren’t just from Germany. They picked up people from all different places, like Russia, Ireland, and other places too.”
When the ship neared America, the large waves subsided. Great-Grandma’s seasickness abated, giving her the ability to eat the food Hannah managed to find for her. Lady Liberty rose in the distance, calling, though they did not speak her language yet, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Hannah encouraged Martha to come up on deck for her first time in many days. Excitement and trepidation danced together in her mind as she clung to the ship’s railing and wondered what the future would bring for them.

Of her arrival in America Martha told Janet, “In New York you had to go through tests. We were scared. You had to stand for questions. Inspectors asked who you were and where you were from. They checked over you to see if you were healthy. We got through all right. The guy was nice. He asked us where we came from and we understood him right away because he could talk German.”
Getting through the tests was only part of their worry, however. The siblings knew they needed to get to Milwaukee where their aunt lived, but had no idea how to get there. Luckily, their inspector was kind enough to give them advice and told the siblings how to get a ticket to Wisconsin.
After a lengthy train trip halfway across America, they arrived on their Aunt Mary’s doorstep. Though she was family, they had never met her. Of their arrival Great-Grandma said, “She didn’t know us, and we didn't know her. She looked at us, and we looked at her. Then my sister Hannah started bawling. We all started bawling and crying and then she was kissing us up and down; she was so glad to see us. All of her family was in Germany. She got married there, and they went to America, and she’d never seen the family since.”
Martha lived and worked in Wisconsin for a few years before coming to Iowa where she met Theodore Kaszinski whose family had also emigrated from Germany. The couple farmed and raised six children in Clinton County, Iowa, a common settling place for those of German heritage. Their children were taught in a bilingual school, and they attended a German-speaking church.
Though they all came to America at different times, her parents and several more of Great-Grandma’s siblings made the trip. Eventually, all of them would settle in Clinton County.
For many years, their German heritage and culture was an accepted part of their community, but during and after WWI, those of German descent were suspect in the United States. The National Security League demanded that German speaking schools, churches, and publications be shut down or eliminate the usage of the language altogether. The American Defense Society called for the public burning of all books written in German and wanted cities and towns with German names to be changed. President Wilson said in a speech in 1917, “The military masters of Germany have filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators and have sought to corrupt the opinion of our people…”
Propaganda soon tipped public opinion into action. Schools stopped teaching the German language. In Iowa, Berlin was renamed Lincoln. German foods were eliminated from restaurant menus or renamed to more patriotic sounding fare. Hate crimes against German-Americans erupted all over the country, resulting in threats, beatings, interrogations, and murders. In Collinsville, Illinois, less than 250 miles away from where Martha and Theodore lived and raised their children, a German-American was lynched by a mob. The townspeople were convinced he was a spy. Though his subversion was never proven, the twelve people charged with his murder were found not guilty, due to “good cause.”

Grandma Thelda’s box of memorabilia includes a smaller box with a strange trio inside—her father’s straight black tie and his eyeglasses wrapped in a single page from a 1926 edition of the Chicago Daily Drover’s Journal. The clipping includes ads for sundries and a string of minor police reports on one side, the editorial section on the other. One editorial spouts concerns about German influence: “The universal brotherhood of man is a commendable doctrine. Yet blind faith in it, far in advance of its possible realization, might leave us prey to unknown but by no means imaginary foes. We have to take things as they are in this world.” Undoubtedly Grandma Thelda did not know that she protected the memory of her father’s vision with words that questioned his integrity.  
During this time, the American Protective League (APL), a branch of the Bureau of Investigation and made up of largely volunteer detectives, began spying on German immigrants. Those suspected of anti-Americanism were interrogated. In an interview with my great-uncle Eddie, Martha and Theodore’s oldest son, he remembered the day the detectives came to his family farm. He told me, “We were scared. We knew our parents weren’t guilty of anything, but in those days, you just didn't know what would happen.” The investigators stayed for several hours, prying into the history and daily life of Martha and Theodore, calling upon each of them to recite the lyrics of patriotic songs and certain facts of United States history.
Apparently they passed the test, for the APL didn’t bother my great-grandparents again. The encounter did, however, change the way they connected with their culture. After that the family never spoke German in public and made a concerted effort to speak less and less of it at home. My great-grandmother died when I was 19; I never heard her speak a word of it.

The only German language that survived in my family was the language spoken by an old German instrument—the accordion—and played by my great-uncle, Eddie—though he passed a few years ago, taking the family’s knowledge of that old bellows with it.
Great-Grandma Martha lived to be 100. Sometimes, when we arrived on boxing night, she encouraged us to join her around the television where she coaxed her favorite boxer to victory with right hooks and left jabs, the sleeves of her flower print dresses sliding down to her elbows. I miss her and her heavy accent, the way she used to call us “bread sacks” when we did something silly, though I had no idea what that meant and still don’t.
Great-Grandma was just a kid when she came to the United States—unwilling, frightened, but her bold parents sent her anyway, hopeful of the kindness of strangers and the promise of America. I wonder if they imagined the life they found, the life that shoved a large part of who they were behind a closed door. Fear is directed at others nowadays—those of a different race or religion, political or sexual affiliation. Whatever walk of life you come from—oppressor or oppressed—the scars of intolerance touch all of us; they find their way into our bones and express themselves in the genes of generations.
         I’m grateful for the chroniclers of my family—those who lived it and told the tale to others who listened. Those who saved, documented, and recorded. They helped me to find my place; they still help me to find my place, but it’s not a physical place—not a house or a spot across an imaginary map line, not one that has to do with race or religion or culture. It’s a place much broader than that—one that spans a globe and embraces all of us in one common experience of wanting better, expecting better, and trusting others to accept us for who we are—a diverse and fabulous spectrum of people.
I had the title of that old book in Grandma Thelda’s box translated by an acquaintance some years ago. It’s called That is the Magical Power of Love.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Romantic Fail

This September my husband and I floated on Lost Grove Lake and watched the harvest moon rise while sitting in our kayaks. We enjoyed a glass of wine as large mouth bass jumped into the night air and bullfrogs puffed and croaked from the shoreline. Sounds like a picturesque scene, right? Like most adventures with my husband of 21 years, this otherwise perfect event was injected with an unexpected dose of chaos.
As the orange moon peaked above the eastern sky, we swatted at dime-sized mosquitos and wondered if we’d be able to find our way back to the dock. The meager beam from our pocket flashlight could barely manage to illuminate the end of our kayaks, let alone a shoreline. It did, however, serve as a beacon for millions of parasitic bloodsuckers.
Determined to stay until the moon was fully above the horizon, we weren’t about to be dissuaded by pests or the fear of getting temporarily lost on a three-mile long lake, but then we heard—The Noise. It sounded like a cross between a snarling mountain lion and a horny thoroughbred and filled the night air with such presence, there was no more room for the mating calls of bullfrogs or the plunk of feeding fish. All animals froze and listened. Our thoughts of a romantic evening on the lake were erased by a terror that may have been induced by a recent binge watching marathon of Stranger Things.
I estimated the sound came from an area roughly one hundred yards from our location just as the snarling turned to lowing turned to huffing turned to snarling again. By then I knew a cow was being attacked by a carnivorous beast that was sure to stalk us when we reached the shore line.

Eddie woke me from a terror induced stupor by paddling around my kayak in repeated loops only interrupted by wild airborne swings of his paddle. I assumed he was attempting to scare off the hungry beast should it decide to go for a swim. In reality, he was on the move because the mosquitos were threatening to lift him from his seat and deposit him, bloodless, into a lake filled with bottom feeders.
As soon as the moon reached a high enough position we could pretend the mosquitos and The Noise were not the determining factors, we got the hell out of there.
While we were safely in our truck, I was able to laugh at another one of the crazy situations we are always getting ourselves into. I told Eddie, “You know, we should write a book about all these stories.” There is no doubt we’d have enough fodder for a tome roughly the size of a set of encyclopedias.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Power of Observation

School is back in session! I'm excited to get back in the swing of it, but it sure is hard to be stuck inside all day. Thankfully, the weather has invited numerous opportunities for outside excursions. 

The Creative Writing students and I walked to the park for an exercise in non-judgmental observation. Too often the chatter in our minds disrupts true seeing. We establish opinions about people, places, and things too quickly. Our hastily conceived notions interrupt understanding. We see what we want to see; we see what we expect to see. This ten minute exercise challenges students to write down everything their senses observe, reserving judgement or interpretation until later.

After brainstorming a large list of items, students then go back and look for patterns that might suggest conflict or contribute to a mood or theme. Sometimes details result in inspiration, sometimes not. Such is the way. Regardless, the art of observation and the habit of keeping a writer's notebook are key components in a writer's craft. This semester's students are off to a great start! 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

An Adventure In Writing: Using History’s Mysteries to Inspire Fiction

I spent June 20-24 teaching a youth writing workshop at Iowa Writers' House and met eight fantastic young people. We dove into the mystery that inspired Seeking Signsthen students brainstormed and theorized a way to their own unique pieces of flash fiction. Each time I do this with kids they surprise me with their enthusiasm, problem-solving skills, and creativity. Below are some of my favorite student quotes and pictures from our week together.

Luke and Orson brainstorm in the sun room at Iowa Writers' House.
I've rediscovered all the things I really like. — Avery

We stretch our legs with a trip to the Haunted Bookshop.
Mystery, murder—you found your people. —Luke

Thalia finds some Shakespeare at the bookstore.

It was nice to spend a whole week with people that have the same interests as you. —Maria
Bailey, Maria, and Natalie work on a spontaneous problem
to get their creative juices flowing.
Pads of paper, sheets of stories. —Natalie

Maria and Thalia bond over a sharing session.

It was nice to meet new people. —Bailey
Students video chat with Johnny Houser, caretaker of the Villisca Axe House.

Murder mysteries are so much fun! —Thalia
There's a story in every cup.

It's so satisfying to come up with a theory that works because it's so complicated. —Maria
Students read their flash fiction pieces and have
a picnic on the last day of workshop.

We have grown together and are like a small family now. —Luke

Thanks to these great young people and the hospitality and opportunity offered by Andrea Wilson at Iowa Writers' House, I can't wait to do this again next summer! 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Scribbler

Flight by Hannah Dennis

I'm very proud of Central DeWitt High School's new literary magazine, The Scribbler! Here's the link to Kate Howes's article printed in the DeWitt Observer about the magazine, as well as a link to the literary magazine itself. CDHS has a lot of creative talent! 

"They Have a Voice Here", article by Kate Howes

The Scribbler, CDHS literary magazine

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Character File #23—Claudius Abercromby—Age 6

The ladies settled into our small, college apartment, like a flock of displaced chickens. Humble though it was, we were proud of it, and had spruced up the place with a swift vacuuming and a swab of the toilet brush. My mom, sister, two aunts, and several cousins alighted on bits of mismatched furniture.

Aunt Janet settled her spindly body in the captain’s chair, one of Mom and Dad’s old, faded recliners. We called it that because it seemed to be everyone’s favorite spot. It wasn’t until she sat down that Eddie and I realized there was one very important oversight we made prior to my family’s arrival. We didn’t put the lizard back in its cage. Claudius, our two-foot violent and cranky iguana, perched himself on top of the captain’s chair like he owned the place. Thankfully, Janet didn’t notice him even as he rose from his reclining position to arch his back menacingly. Eddie and I exchanged a bug-eyed moment of thanks that she didn’t see him and silently hoped for a chance to snatch him from his parking spot without anyone, especially Janet, noticing anything was amiss. Claudius settled back in and for a while, was forgotten.

We let the iguana run around the place most of the time because it was more “natural.” We thought he might be happier if he could have free range, so to speak. It was a college try all right, but no diploma. We fed him a wide assortment of vegies and fruits, made sure he always had fresh water, but despite our care, he seemed determined to hate us all. The thing was actually quite intolerable. He deposited giant bird-like steamers behind our potted plants. His most endearing feature, however, was that his favorite activity seemed to be the thwacking of unsuspecting people with his long, scaly tail. And he could really thump you one if the whole distance/timing thing was on… and it usually was. Little bastard.

My Aunt Janet was no dummy though. It didn’t take her long to realize that there was nothing inside the four-foot cage on the other side of the room, knowing full well that we had recently acquired a lizard. She asked, “Where is that damn thing, anyway?”

This question, coming from the woman who had a county-wide reputation for single-handedly shooting bull snakes, skunks, possums, raccoons, and (to our dismay) a great-horned owl on her property without the aid of her much bigger (but not meaner) husband. This particular moment, given her past, seemed like it would result in the death of Claudius before anything inconvenient happened to Janet.

“If he comes out of nowhere at me, I’m warning you, it won’t be pretty.”

Eddie, seeing no further sense in hiding anything said, “Well, actually he’s right behind you.”

Janet didn’t know whether he was being sarcastic or not, but leaned forward so as to check the floor behind the chair. Claudius, instantly aware, rose up again from his comfortable position and arched his back. He gave Janet the “I see you now, and I’m pissed, so be prepared to die” gaze that meant full-on revenge. He rose up a titch more, and just as Janet began moving her gaze to the top of the chair, he thwacked her, hard, right on the side of her curly head. 

Panic rose like a bombshell in our apartment. Janet ran screaming to the other side of the room, the rest of the ladies leapt up on chairs, hugging each other and shrieking. Claudius remained on his captain’s chair, ready and very willing to strike again.

I collapsed into fits of uncontrollable laughter, doubled-up and crying, while Eddie heroically grabbed the killer-iguana-on-the-loose, and placed him in his giant, lidded aquarium.  

His ornery nature made him a less than cuddly creature, to say the least, but I cannot deny he was good for a few laughs. It was also about time some animal got the best of Janet. I’ve no doubt, left to her own devices, she would have seen a quick end to him, but no harm came to Claudius that day; he was safe to be cantankerous for a few more years.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Author Fest

Clinton County is turning into a mecca for authors! Many of us gathered at the public library yesterday for the Friends Author Fest. Pictured here are Kim Jacobi, Lexi Birks, me, Tom Henricksen, and Bill Mueller. Thank you to the Friends of Frances and Christine Gilroy​ for organizing the event! 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Our Iowa's Latest Country Character

Look who's in the latest edition of Our Iowa Magazine! Mr. Bill Homrighausen is the latest "Country Character" featured. This gentleman and patriarch of DeWitt has a lot to teach his fellow Iowans... young and old alike. I love this man. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Dandelion" Published!

Photo courtesy of Paul Hudson

"Dandelion" was published in Barely South Review! You can find it here: Barely South Review Spring 2016.