About a month ago, along with my good friends, Jodi and Mike, I entered the world of Toastmasters. I did so not only to confront an old demon, public speaking, but to have the rare opportunity to see an audience’s reaction to my short stories. Although nerve-racking, I’m confident my writing and my voice will grow from the interaction and exchange.
If so, I might just try my hand at podcasts.
The following is my first Toastmaster’s speech, voted best of the day.
Nonna and Papa were first generation Italian Americans who grew up in the same immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, Both came from very large families, totaling 22 children, but when they married, they had only two: James and Arlene,
James is my father.
My name is Anne Celano Frohna. I am the third and favorite of five children born to James Vincent Celano, Jr. and Mabel – but don’t tell her I told you – Charline Lemmon.
By the time I was born, Papa’s custom tailor shop, Celano’s, was considered the finest of its kind in Chicago, having dressed the city’s most well-to-do men – from Moguls to Mob bosses – for decades. It was located along the city’s famed Michigan Avenue, once known as the Miracle Mile for its high-living splendor.
Born on a farm in Missouri, Mom’s family was early pioneer stock from Germany, Scotland, England – and most heartbreaking for Nonna – NOT Italy.
You see, Arlene’s four, children are full-blooded Italian. My two brothers, two sisters and I are what Nonna used to call her “Bridge Mix” – a chocolate-covered combo of nuts, fruits and creams favored in her ever bountiful cupboard of candies.
But tainted as our gene pool was in her eyes, we’ve always considered ourselves Italian – at least in our emotions, devotions and appetites.
We hardly knew Mom’s family, just Lottie, her only sister, and her husband Joe and their four children, But barely, They lived in Springfield, Illinois and for Mom, that was at the opposite end of the universe from the one she and Dad had created along the prosperous north shores of Chicago.
We did make a trip down to Missouri in the seventies to pick up a Palomino pony from her sweet Uncle Howard. There, we met a few of Mom’s family. Some were very kind, others, as tough as their lives had been.
Mom and Lottie had it tough too. Especially during those early years of uncertainty, of being on the streets, far from their roots, begging for food, frightened for their Mom.
At 17, after graduating from an academy which she paid for by working a soda counter at night, Mom headed to Chicago where her blonde hair, slate blue eyes and classic features led her to become a very successful model; which she followed with an equally successful career as a businesswoman during an era when sexism was sexy.
And then she met Dad and gave it all up.
Such an unlikely pair.
Dad was Nonna and Papa’s Golden Boy: a charismatic, social, spoiled, risk-taker, who preferred the golf course to the lecture hall and “the deal” to a full day’s work. Dad had a big heart, a big ego, a quick wit and a penchant for trusting the wrong people. He also had a good deal of trouble with fidelity, yet his adoration of Mom was confusingly constant. He wanted his family to have it all and gave most generously… even when he knew how heavy the cost would be.
Mom had worked her entire life – not only to survive but to succeed, not only to grow, but to become someone entirely different than the Mabel of her midwestern youth.
Trusting few, befriending fewer.
She found her way – her own way – with a unique blend of curiosity and cynicism about everything.
This unusual pair had a tumultuous energy which brought both great joy and sorrow into our lives.
But I am who I am because of it. Because of them.
And even though this particular gene pool has its dark and powerful undertows, I think that the me I’ve come to be is a good thing.
So here I am, with my husband, Kurt, and our two daughters, Eva and Sophia, We came here from Wisconsin six years ago and bought a house on five acres up Williamson Valley.
It was time for a change.
To shake off the grey.
Our happy, little home on our windy, little hill is something akin to the Island of Misfit Toys, but add to it a regular stream of wayward animals – and people – and thrift store finds faded, sagging and stained, but solid, well-loved and wonderful to be around.
And quirky, musty, dusty, one-of-a-kind things, by painters and woodcarvers and artists with needles, by masters of words and masters of song, dabblers and travelers and dawdlers alike telling their stories with every stroke, every weave, every weld, every word,
I’m a storyteller too.
I’ve been one my entire life.
I even managed to make a living at it, writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, museums and publishing companies around the Midwest, retelling histories, exploring nature, writing about people and ideas, traditions and innovations.
I started writing professionally after I earned my B.A. in Sociology – a degree so utterly useless in the real world that I figured a Master of Arts in English would surely rocket my career into deeper poverty and obscurity.
I received my diploma in the mail, at the beginning of a two year stint I spent teaching English in Japan, in the little farming town of Shintomi, on the eastern coast of Kyushu. I recently wrote a book about the experience called “Just West of the Midwest.”
It’s a comedy… mostly.
You can see read it on my blog: dogearedstories.com, where I ply my penniless craft and fill the pages in order to feel like me I want to be, the third and favorite child of Jim and Cherie Celano, born into this world a couple months early on the fourth of October in 1963.