The trouble with giving family background is pinpointing the best place to start. Being a history grad, I know all too well that history is a series of cause-and-effect relationships. It’s cyclical. It repeats. My grandparents, no doubt, provide a telling tale of war and post-war struggles, even raising a family in a different time. Or my own parents’ upbringing at the height of a cultural revolution. With all due respect to them, this is my story.
Life in a Small Town
Growing up, I was the eldest of my parents’ two children. A small family, we were close. While I have known people who claimed to merely tolerate their annoying families, I could never empathize with those people. My family was cool. We genuinely had fun together. I never hid in embarrassment. We had one another’s backs. Any problems we faced just ended with us being drawn closer together.
In a family of four, living harmoniously just makes life easier. Not liking one another, merely coexisting in a small ranch house, would only create resentment and intolerance. But we didn’t use getting along as a bargaining chip for a happier life; we legitimately loved and looked after one another. It was a familial love that transcended selflessness. Don’t get me wrong, we had our arguments, quips, and even small doses of sibling rivalry, but it was a good family relationship overall.
We were a blue-collar family making it in a town of about 2,500 people – the kind of place “where everybody knows your name.” Summers were like any other small town in America – parades, bike rides down quiet neighborhood streets, and baseball games at the local park. Some of my favorite memories are playing catch with my dad in the backyard, as we listened closely to the transistor radio emanating play by play of Brewers games. To this day, one of my favorite songs remains Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” because, like the lyrics, “I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town” (we actually didn’t own a Buick, but rather a yellow Oldsmobile, followed by a red Pontiac).
Winters were an endless prison of nowhere to turn and not much to do except climbing snow hills and skating across sheets of ice. Between winter and summer, my younger sister and I attended a local Lutheran elementary school — about 20 students per class — keeping one another company on the 20-minute walk to and from classes every day. After grade school, we both chose a parochial high school about 30 miles away. So while most of our peers enjoyed a five-minute commute to high school, we endured snowy conditions, dark highways, and 30 minutes of driving.
Together, my parents worked their hands tired and sore to support our meager upbringing in a small house in a tiny town that led to nowhere. We weren’t poor by any means, but we certainly couldn’t afford a lavish lifestyle or many of the luxuries that some families could easily accommodate. In fact, we rarely escaped Wisconsin, only a few trips to Illinois or a drive across the Mississippi River into the Minnesota side. We certainly made sacrifices, but those same sacrifices found a way to rally us. We were in it together, each fully aware of his or her responsibilities in meeting the challenges.
My father worked as an iron worker. Every once in awhile when passing by a manufacturing plant or industrial park, I’ll catch a whiff of a foundry, conjuring up thoughts of my father walking home from work in his raggedy jeans and shirts scoured with black soot. Regardless how often my mom laundered those clothes, the stench stuck – a permanent reminder of his life’s calling. His fingers also showed traces, shown in the stubborn, black dirt under his nails. He wasn’t fond of his job, but it was all he knew — a job he held for most of his life.
He earned a modest paycheck, filling in the holes with life’s simple pleasures. He loved technology. So while we often struggled paycheck to paycheck, he defied my mom’s pleas by investing in the latest and greatest that technology had to offer. We were envied for our Commodore 64, Nintendo, and, later, Super Nintendo. I can remember when, because of his allergies (or asthma, I can’t fully recall which), he finally drove to the closest shopping center 30 miles away to purchase a window air conditioner – a purchase that infuriated my mother.
I often refer to my father as a hippie. A child of the 1960s, he had a thing for The Beatles, especially John Lennon. He collected their memorabilia and other classic-rock CDs. He even wore shaded sunglasses and sported a ponytail that only reinforced his hippie appearance (in grade school, that look mortified me when he showed up at basketball games and other events). I recall him encouraging my sister and me to “experience” marijuana at least once in our lives so we could form our own opinions.
His humor and personality were his bread and butter. He had a way of making people laugh with unbridled sarcasm. He was the kind of father who pass out a condom to his son, only to blow it into a balloon of sorts and bat it around the room. He’d always make up tall tales and found a way to convince the rest of us that they were true. It was a small town, but everyone knew my father by name and looked forward to hearing his jokes. He was the cool dad all the other kids wished their dads would be. To this day, I carry that sarcastic sense of humor in my front pocket, dishing it out in bottomless supplies. His humor was the perfect complement to my mother’s hard work and focused determination.
My mom held the family together. She was the glue. When I was a child, she worked at a cheese factory (it is Wisconsin, after all) before it closed, then taking a better-paying job at a paper-products mill in the Fox Valley. The latter meant 12-hour shifts but also one of the better-paying mill gigs in the area. While she was forced to work long hours and be gone from the house more than she preferred, we needed the money.
I love my mom like a close friend. She has an innocent soul (sometimes too innocent, as you can imagine our shock when an occasional curse word leaves her lips). She is the kindest, sweetest, most-gracious person you’ll ever meet. She’d bend over backwards, go without sleep, and sacrifice the last morsel on her plate so someone else can eat.
Those qualities stem from her roots as one of seven children born and raised in a devout Catholic family (she later switched to Lutheranism, which didn’t sit well with my grandfather). Her parents were German to the core, even possessing a last name of Liebzeit. My grandmother, all five feet of her, managed to birth eight children — a testament to her grit and strength; my grandma is, in many ways, my role model and inspiration for all she has endured, never giving up or feeling sorry for herself. My grandfather was the meat and potatoes kind, and he owned a butcher shop (some of my earliest memories of him include me running into his shop for a stick of gum, only to find him in a blood-soaked apron and carcasses hanging from the ceiling).
So What Was Wrong?
Based on this account, it would seem that we had a normal, happy upbringing. And by many accounts, it was. But oftentimes the negative has a way of overshadowing the positive, and my childhood is a collection of stories that no child should have to witness. You see, my bipolar father struggled with drugs, an alcohol addiction, and suicide. His antics continuously produced havoc on the family, making us the subject of town gossip. For all his strengths, he was equally as weak, lacking the self control and maturity to set aside his vices for the family he claimed to love so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my father dearly. As I grew older, I grew less tolerant of his games. I grew protective of my mother and sister. I wanted a better life for us all.