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A Memoir of Early Childhood

Just before Christmas 2019 a box filled with  copies of my newest book arrived at my door. Here it is! A book of stories from my early childhood when I was Mary Jane Lore and my world consisted in the boundary waters of Minnesota and Ontario, Lake…

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Another Story from my Upcoming Book

Here is another sample story from my upcoming book, an example of the true (and sometimes pretty harrowing) stories that will be incorporated into my memoirs. I’m so excited about this memoir editing project and hope you will visit my GoFundMe campaign to learn more!

The post Another Story from my Upcoming Book appeared first on Wendy Gell Jewelry and Art.

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The Edge of Tenderness

Convent YearsI will love you even when my love of you is ended.I will desire you even when I desire you no more.HYMNS TO THE CHURCHbyGertrude von le FortEven as a little girl I wanted someday to become a nun. The sisters came to the little town where I…

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The Edge of Tenderness

Convent YearsI will love you even when my love of you is ended.I will desire you even when I desire you no more.HYMNS TO THE CHURCHbyGertrude von le FortEven as a little girl I wanted someday to become a nun. The sisters came to the little town where I…

Continue reading The Edge of Tenderness

Spark of Self

The world of Mary Jane’s childhood was (as it is for most children) a mythic place. The real and the child’s interpretation of the real combine into a story the adult spends the remainder of life deciphering. Mary Jane’s world surrounded her in her family and the impact of those individuals upon one another. Laughter, tears, the inevitable sufferings of love’s promises and betrayals, of nature’s wounds, of the press of history (genetic and otherwise)–all swath the child. The child makes nothing of it, and makes it into everything. Creates of it everything she knows.

The world was made of leaves, ferns, Grandma’s daisies, breezes and the lake. It was bordered by the spruce bog. Wildflowers grew there. “Do not go into the woods!” One wild flower led to the next. An old lady got lost, picking. Fishermen found her in water up to her waist. Three days wandering. Beyond safety–endless wilderness. 
“Don’t play in the reeds!” Blood suckers and leeches swam there. They would stick to your skin. They could cover your body. The boy who swam in the reeds to save Mary Jane’s beach ball lay on the grass bank screaming. All his skin squirmed with black. The grown-ups poured salt on him and the suckers fell. His skin pocked with red wounds. 
“Don’t climb into the ice house!” But the ice gleamed amber in the saw-dust and the air was cool. A child could fall between the ice blocks and never be seen again. She didn’t fall, but her father laid her across his knees and spanked her. You could have died. You could have died. You could have died. 
Did every beauty shimmer with danger? She held to her Grandpa Klimek’s leg. Her grandma’s apron is a flag in wind. Over the Gap at the end of Four Mile Bay a tornado wagged, chasing the launch to shore. Water the color of gun metal. “Please, God. Please.” The funnel broke and water poured from the sky.

Since earliest years, since the beginning of memory, the world was for Mary Jane a terrifying, beautiful place in which she could not quite find her footing. Her earliest memory is a dream which she remembered from its first appearance in her mind through numerous re-plays for years until she became old enough to pray and manufacture her own additions to “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
“Please God,” she prayed aloud with her mother kneeling beside her at the side of the bed, “don’t let the house burn down for one hundred and sixty-six years. Amen.”
The dream prompting the prayer came when she still was young enough to be sleeping in a crib. The blanket covering her was pinned down with a gigantic safety pin, presumably so that she wouldn’t kick it off. I know this because the pin and the rungs of the crib were the first thing she saw upon awakening.
Mary Jane is standing by the side of the road in front of the lodge, looking towards the water. An orange road grader is coming down the road from my right, and it is spurting fire from its stack. She is terrified because road graders are so frightening anyway, but also because this one is headed towards the house where her mother is playing cards with her friends. It intends to burn the house down, and she is too small and too scared to stop it. She will lose her mother. Her mother will die in the fire.


It couldn’t be allowed to happen.
An unspoken contract was set in place:

  • That this mother must live to come when Mary Jane called, even in the middle of the night, even from the top of the ice house, even from across the room, even from the end of the dock where deep water swirled.
  • That they would adventure together: to the sand ridges to pick chokecherries, to the islands where blueberries grew, down the dark road to the outhouse, to the city with its streetcars and the elevator at the Foshay Tower, to the sky with her father dipping and whirling and stalling and plummeting, the engine restarting, and climbing towards the sun, to the church where God hid in bread locked behind a golden door.
  • That the mother would read to Mary Jane every single night, and sing a lullaby, and close the closet door, and kiss her face, and count her toes, and they would hold each others hearts until they woke in the morning.
  • That she would teach Mary Jane to dance, to pray, to act in plays, to love the sound of words, to bake bread, to give the bread away, to be a friend, to be a daughter, to be loyal, and when the time came, to walk forward into a life of her own and she would say, “Go with my love; all I ever wanted was for you to be happy.”
  • That together they could dance and could be still, could laugh and then could scream,  could stand their ground or run away, could say terrifying things and follow them with words so loving as to melt their hearts, could lay their heads against the rough bark of the cottonwood tree.
  • That when the mother cried out, that when she wept, that when the headaches came, that when she went to bed in the middle of the day, that when she wept, that when she wept, that when she wept…Mary Jane would hear and take the pain inside herself and carry it like her own child.
  • That Mary Jane would keep the fire away.

Continue reading Spark of Self

Spark of Self

The world of Mary Jane’s childhood was (as it is for most children) a mythic place. The real and the child’s interpretation of the real combine into a story the adult spends the remainder of life deciphering. Mary Jane’s world surrounded her in her fam…

Continue reading Spark of Self

Never Again Not Weep

Eva Florence Klimek 1905

Eva makes my heart ache.

Wasn’t she a pretty one, though? She must have liked her second name, Florence, because she is careful to include it in her identification of each picture of herself in the large envelope she passed on to me before she died. Mary Jane’s Auntie Eva. Alyce’s older sister.

My heart aches when I think of her. The best I can come up with as an explanation is that she loved Mary Jane so unconditionally and with such an impossible yearning
that I rarely conquered the guilty urge to escape from her into a space where it might be possible to breathe. And when I did escape, she never blamed me; she let me go. It was as if she understood that her need to give herself exceeded a normal person’s capacity to receive.

She never had a child of her own body. She was Mary Jane’s Godmother. She took joy in that. She reveled in the responsibilities her commitment placed upon the both of us.

Just look at her–she’s not yet three years old and already taking care of her baby brother, Peter. She’s becoming the Little Mama.

Peter and Eva 1907

Mary Jane’s Aunt Edith, Dad’s sister, observed that Grandma Klimek didn’t like Eva much. And why was that? I spent years searching out clues and writing an unpublished novel in an attempt to figure it out. In real life, though, (and if there’s any truth to Edith’s observation) a turning point might have come for Eva with the influenza epidemic of 1919. When Mary Jane first heard the story, it was to explain why everyone needed to speak loudly and clearly to Auntie Eva whose hearing was pretty bad. I picture her a child, but really she would have been thirteen or fourteen when the flu showed up in Little Falls. Lester Black, Alyce’s classmate, died of it. Anton locked his doors and no one could go to school after that. The town doctor died. The children watched the death wagons go up and down the street. Then Eva came down sick. She had the flu and diphtheria combined.  Lizzie put her to bed in an upstairs room and stayed with her, while Anton put up a fumigation seal between the first and second floor. He passed food up through a lift in the wall. Then one evening, Eva died. Lizzie screamed. “Anton! Eva’s dead!!” He broke the seal, ran up the stairs, grabbed his daughter, lifted her, turned her upside-down, and shook.  Something in her lungs broke loose. She gasped for breath and lived.

Everything in the bedroom needed to be tossed into the fire. All the books, all the dolls. All burned. This detail horrified Mary Jane.

Anton took the family north to live on the farm near Warroad. Maybe it would be safe there.

Alyce and Eva at the Farm near Warroad, 1920

 Of the eight children in the one-room school, four of them were Klimeks. One of them was young Bill Mapes. They used to meet by the stream beyond the school, and teen-aged Eva fell in love. Bill was a hero who was missing one of his arms and two fingers off his only hand. When he was nine years old he and a friend were playing on the railroad tracks when a car broke loose and crushed them. The other boy lost both his legs, and Bill, bleeding from the wounds left by his severed arm and mangled hand, carried his friend on his back to the doctor’s house.

Eva and Bill had enough time together by the stream in the woods to imprint upon each other a lasting memory of love. Then Lizzie sold the farm and bought the hotel in Osakis. 

After that Eva never returned to school. She couldn’t hear the teacher. She became the family’s Cinderella. She took care of things. She learned to sew. Years later it came out that she was raped several times by customers at the hotels and at the resort. She married an alcoholic named Lloyd, a handsome sonuvagun, and moved to Minneapolis where she got a job repairing torn clothes at a laundry and he worked as a bartender on Lake Street. 
Lloyd and Eva on the bow of the Nellie-A at Klimek’s Lodge
She stopped off there after work each day and drank with him. Mary Jane remembers the dark wood of the booths, the red and white checks on the table clothes, Uncle Lloyd’s easy laughter. He was a happy drunk. There was an abundance of laughter in their drinking. When they visited the resort Lloyd dressed up like Charlie Chaplin and parodied a tipsy fellow (three sheets to the wind, schnockered, blotto) to the laughter of all the guests. And Eva? What did she feel?

When I wrote the novel, Family Heirloom, I tried to imagine how she might have felt. I called her “Julia.” I called Lloyd “Sheldon.” She seemed to whisper inside me, and I wrote:

            Julia walked along Lake Street toward her apartment wondering what else she might find missing when she went through the door. Mornings, now, she welcomed the opportunity to leave for work where she got treated like a human being. Not like Sheldon treated her. Taking everything. Taking her love and her devotion and her body and giving nothing back at all.
            All these years she tried to keep out something from her weekly check. It wasn’t that much as it was. She always told Sheldon it was five dollars less. If it was fifty dollars, she’d say forty-five and forty-five would be gone next time she looked into the kitchen counter drawer they made into their bank. She kept the secret money in a black cardboard folder on the top shelf of the closet.

            First he took the money from the drawer, then he sold the couch and after that, the chair. Almost every time she came home she’d find another thing gone. During the day she’d sit there at the laundry, sewing men’s trousers, making them shorter. She’d sew sleeves back into jackets where they’d ripped because of being yanked too hard by people without the sense to dress for the kind of work they did. She’d sit there sewing, thinking of Sheldon, and wondering what she’d lost that day.

            All these years she’d stayed with him, and nothing changed. Sheldon drank everything in sight. First he drank Ma’s good cut glass pitcher and the twelve glasses that caught the sun and threw rainbows on the wall. Sheldon drank the dining room table and the chairs. He drank the rent. He drank everything he got from tending bar at JIMMY’S. What did he expect they would eat after that? She supposed he thought she’d join him every night at JIMMY’S. Eat chips. Eat peanuts. She could have eaten peanuts while Sheldon drank her wedding ring.

Lloyd was barely forty years old when he died of alcohol poisoning. He died in the work-house in Minneapolis. One day not long before that a sewing order came into the laundry–a half dozen men’s new shirts. The right sleeve was to be cut off and hemmed in a nice tailored way. And she remembered Bill Mapes. She tailored the shirts, and in an uncharacteristic move, took them out to be delivered into the hands of their owner herself. It was he. It was Bill.

They married when Mary Jane was ten years old. Eva was forty-five.

Dave Lewis, Bill Mapes, Eva Mapes, Alyce Lore

I wish I could report that they lived happily ever after. They look happy. I believe they often were happy. Who in the world can be completely happy? Mary Jane was still very much a child when she stayed with them in Minneapolis, and they took her into the city to see A Star Is Born, and afterwards to join them in a bar on Hennepin Ave. The child took one look at the pictures of scantily clad dancers out front, and questioned her new Uncle Bill. “I don’t think my mom would want me to go in there.” He laughed and said it would be OK because he knew the owners and she’d be just fine in there with him.

Bill didn’t drink all that much. Eva should have been safe with him. But so often she couldn’t get her footing and it must have felt to her that during her years with Lloyd the ground had become slick beneath her. Vividly stamped on my memory is the Thanksgiving while Mary Jane was in high school when Eva and Bill were visiting Baudette. All of us were at Pete and Alice Lou’s house for the celebration. Eva approached her mother to wish her a happy holiday.

“Who are you?” Grandma Klimek looked down her nose.

“I’m your daughter, Eva.”

And Lizzie Klimek laughed. “Eva?” She sniffed. “I don’t have a daughter Eva.”

Alyce put her arm around Eva and led her into another room. “She’s been forgetting so much these last months,” she cooed.

 She began to cling to whatever seemed even a little bit solid. If Bill couldn’t hold her up, if he happened to be out of town or simply unavailable, then she turned to her sister, Alyce, or one of her nieces. She began to hallucinate. She called the police. She called the fire department to report the things she saw. She ended up in the workhouse because there were no treatment centers for the illness that she had–not then, not for all the years she suffered.

My heart aches over her.

I could write a book. I tried to write the book. But it was just too, too sad.

Through all this her problem with hearing continued to worsen. Finally in the 1980s her doctor recommended surgery on her mastoid bone. In a freak slip of the scalpel the surgeon cut the main nerve on the left side of her face, leaving her disfigured. One side of her face would never smile again. One eye would never again not weep.

She grieved over the decline of her sister, Alyce, whom we all had lost to Alzheimer’s disease. I still can see her bending over my mother’s coffin, moaning in a low voice, “My only little sister.”

There’s no sense in pretending it didn’t, all of it, happen, along with so much more of which I know nothing. I might not have known her very well at all. And what was it through the writing years that poured itself out in words of her — six successive drafts of the same book?

Again I find myself aware of how our souls are shaped not only by our own choices, but also by the way we are kneaded by the emotions of those whose hearts have opened to us. We are not as self-made as we pretend. Eva still works on Mary Jane with deep aching. She works with questions about the sufferings in life that never cease.

I sang Schubert’s Ave Maria, as she had requested, at her funeral Mass. My voice broke on the highest note. “It was beautiful, Mary Jane,” she would have said. “It was just perfect.”

Continue reading Never Again Not Weep

Never Again Not Weep

Eva Florence Klimek 1905Eva makes my heart ache.Wasn’t she a pretty one, though? She must have liked her second name, Florence, because she is careful to include it in her identification of each picture of herself in the large envelope she passed on to…

Continue reading Never Again Not Weep

Mistakes Were Made

Eva, Alyce, Paul, PeterMary Jane’s Uncle Peter became something of a glory guy because he flew Admiral Halsey around the Pacific during the Second World War. Take another look at this snapshot. He’s the one with sun in his face. He’s the one gazing at …

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Mistakes Were Made

Eva, Alyce, Paul, Peter

Mary Jane’s Uncle Peter became something of a glory guy because he flew Admiral Halsey around the Pacific during the Second World War. Take another look at this snapshot. He’s the one with sun in his face. He’s the one gazing at the sky. His little sister, Mary Jane’s mother, adored him. She called him her protector. They are the show-offs in the picture. A long time later she would write of him:

“Three years older than I—my idol—redhaired, freckle-faced, pug-nosed tough little Peter—my brother, my champion—afraid of no one, and I lost my fear whenever he was near, ready to defend me with his little clenched fists and challenging voice. Oh, how I loved him, and throughout our growing up years he added much to my happiness and self-assurance….I remember pugnacious little Peter always wanting to engage in fist fights or wrestling [with Paul] and the boarders cheered them on. I guess Paul was less agile as he generally got the worst of the match, even though Peter was smaller.” 

Peter, Paul and Eva  1910

Peter had a bicycle and was often willing to haul his little sister around on the handlebars. Even as an old woman, Alyce thrilled to the memory of the speed of those rides, the wind whipping her hair, the danger of the coasting down that hill close to the house in St. Cloud, and her daring brother, her best loved, her champion.

Peter Joseph. Named after Lizzie’s favorite brother Pete Friesinger, and Anton’s favorite brother, Joe Klimek. Mary Jane saw that Grandma doted on him, made her famous coffee cake for him, became flustered when he came to visit. She flitted around the kitchen in her apartment downtown. “Pete’s coming; Pete’s coming…” needing to make everything just right. And he’d breeze in and sit at the table. “I came home just for your coffee cake, Ma!” He’d praise her. “Nobody makes coffee cake like you.”

All my life I’ve heard daring-do stories of Pete. He was the first to fly airmail into the wild outposts of Lake of the Woods. He was a stunt pilot (with my dad whom he taught to fly) at county fairs up and down the country from Minnesota all the way to Texas. He could set a DC-3 down on a Pacific Island where there was as yet no landing strip. He could set a plane down in a cornfield back home, he could tip it on its nose taking off and walk away laughing. He could fix anything. He could cut down a forest to make a road of his own, and stack the logs into a wall between his and his parents’ resort. He could tell fish stories that topped his dad’s.

So why, when Mary Jane remembers him is it always from a distance? Why can she not remember even one instance when he noticed her, called her name, showed up at any event where she might shine?

It could have been because she was a shy child that he didn’t notice her. He sent her two dolls from the South Pacific, so he did know she existed. She wanted him to love her because it just seemed right. He was her mother’s favorite. But in his presence Mary Jane felt invisible. This comes as a surprise to me as I write. Of her two Klimek uncles, it now seems that Paul had showed his love more.

Such memories (or their lack) disorient. I went to see him once when he was old–maybe the age I am now. He sat in his workshop, fixing something–an air conditioner, I think. He wouldn’t speak to me. He wouldn’t look away from the machine. Someone explained later to me that he couldn’t forgive me for leaving the convent and marrying an ex-priest. Had it mattered to him that I’d been a nun? He’d left the Catholic church himself after his marriage. Maybe he was still protecting Alyce whose heart ached because of my choice. Maybe all of it had been about only that. 

Memories are dangerous. Memories of Uncle Pete might be the most dangerous of all because of the way they run contrary to common family history. Mary Jane feared him, he who was to all accounts a most attractive, most capable, most exciting man. Wasn’t he supposed to love her, his only niece?

She feared him. He had a challenging voice–so her mother said. He had a challenging voice, and Mary Jane heard that voice in the room next to her bedroom. The adults, all of them, were there, arguing. Was it about the wall he’d built? She and her cousins called it “The Warring Wall.” Was it about the sign Grandma Klimek had put in the front yard of Pete’s lodge–the one that said the tourists weren’t yet at Klimek’s Lodge and they should keep on going up the road? Grandma had kept the bit of land the sign occupied when she sold the rest to Pete. She had deeded it over to Mary Jane who then was five years old. I’d use my challenging voice, too, if I’d been Pete. But Mary Jane sat terrified on the other side of the door as the volume increased, and with it her fear. She heard her mother crying. Adults do argue, after all, but an image passed through the child’s mind: that Pete would kill her mother. The one who had always protected her would kill her now because of the land and the sign and the wall that rose behind it.

Then her father’s voice broke the argument. “That’s enough!” And the shouting stopped.

No answers exist either to vindicate memory or call it wrong. It is not so much about what happened as the way we form our souls as a container for perception. If the perceiver is a child, what then? Might we then be caught up all our lives in a partial or distorted reality? And might who we think we are also be distorted and partial as a result?

I did go to be with my uncle as he was dying. At that time I wasn’t remembering all these things. I remembered only that my mother loved him and that he and I were connected through that love. I went to bring her love to him. They tell us that the dying still can hear. I spoke to him with love. It wasn’t hard to love him. But now it haunts me that he might have heard my voice and been dismayed by the sound. That it might have conjured up in him something broken or mistaken or simply beyond his control that he’d turned from in his life. I truly hope that is not the case. Truly, I hope that all Mary Jane saw and heard and felt were hers alone — things of which he had no awareness and would be surprised that anyone, especially his little niece, could have concocted from them such a sad mistake.

Continue reading Mistakes Were Made