Chapter 1: There Are No Sharks in Lake Michigan
1 There Are No Sharks in Lake Michigan
When I was a kid, teachers used to tell my parents that I was “special” or “unique.” At parent-teacher conferences, they’d say things like, “Well, he sure is… eccentric” or “You know, he’s just not like the other boys.” I thought these comments were a good thing, and seeing as I never heard these words used to describe my two older brothers, they built up my confidence. Then, around middle school, I began to realize that in addition to being creative, getting good grades, and having a knack for making people laugh, I was also gay.
Once I started to put the pieces of my identity together, a battle broke out in my head. What I had been taught about gay people from a young age, what kids my age were saying about gay people, and what I felt in my heart began fighting and tearing me apart.
I was told being gay was a choice, a sin, and an embarrassment. Of course these things aren’t true, but younger Chasten didn’t know that. Back then, the outside world was telling me otherwise, and I spent years believing there was no future in store for me. Childhood was fairly sunny and easy. However, once this piece of my identity became clearer, hiding it felt like concealing a giant, glittered, fanged beast inside my stomach. One simple slip and the beast would come tearing through my guts, flop onto the floor in front of the classroom, and shout, HE’S GAAAAAAAY! as the entire classroom pointed and laughed in the most humiliating way. In order to keep the beast quiet, I paid very close attention to the way I walked, talked, and acted, because the world just wasn’t ready to accept LGBTQ+ people as equals (yet).
My parents had always encouraged me to be myself, but I knew that meant the version of myself that fit the norm. At the time, growing up in a politically and religiously conservative place like Northern Michigan meant that being straight was the only thing you could openly and safely identify as. There wasn’t much room for difference. A lot of people back then (and, sadly, some people to this day) believe that being gay is a choice and that all LGBTQ+ people deserve to be mocked, harmed, or worse. Some politicians still use harmful tropes to advocate against protections for LGBTQ+ people.
I knew that being gay meant I’d rather have a boyfriend than a girlfriend. Other than that, I was confused as to why the world thought that made me so different from everyone else, but I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it. I didn’t have any gay role models, I never saw myself reflected in the characters I read about in books, and there weren’t many characters in movies or television shows living a happy, gay life.
In 1998, when I was nine years old and just starting to understand what these questions swirling around in my head meant, a show called Will & Grace aired on television. It featured two gay characters navigating work, life, and love in New York City. Not only did it show me for the first time that there were other people like me out there, but the show had a huge audience! Sure, it had its fair share of backlash for featuring gay people, but the show was winning awards and receiving good ratings. I remember my fear of laughing too enthusiastically whenever actor Sean Hayes’s hilarious, very outrageous character, Jack, dramatically and loudly entered the room. If anyone heard how happy the show made me, would they think I was gay? The few times I did watch the show in front of my family, it was both torture and therapy. I loved seeing someone “like me” on TV, but I was nervous for anyone to notice that I loved it. I wished that I could live somewhere like New York City, where it would be okay to be like someone on Will & Grace, where I could find friends who would be kind to someone “like that.”
Then, in 2003, comedian Ellen DeGeneres started her own talk show, Ellen. A few years earlier in 1997, DeGeneres came out as gay. The show she was starring in at the time was promptly canceled, and Ellen struggled to find any work in Hollywood, just because she’d had the courage to come “out of the closet.” Eventually, she was given her own talk show, but she wasn’t allowed to talk about her partner or being gay at all. She was even advised not to wear jeans because they could make her “look gay.” How exhausting!
Ellen’s show was always on when I came home from school, and watching her make my mom laugh hinted to me that there might be a future where all LGBTQ+ people could do great things, be whoever they wanted to be, and not be seen as unusual. For a long time, Ellen was the only LGBTQ+ person I knew about. Even though I saw a few gay characters on television, gayness was something distant, almost like a luxury or a privilege. Famous people on television in Los Angeles or New York could be gay, but not an awkward kid from the Midwest who spent his Saturdays at the bowling alley and read books with a flashlight under the covers. It felt as if growing up somewhere like Northern Michigan meant it was impossible that I could be gay—gay people weren’t found in places like that!
I had no idea that just sixteen years after Ellen aired its first episode, I would be flying to Los Angeles to be on the other side of the audience, talking about the first version of this book, and reflecting on the fact that my husband had just finished a strong and groundbreaking campaign to be president of the United States of America.
As I stood backstage at the Ellen show, a woman quickly blotted my nose with a little more powder, checked my outfit, and told me to listen for the cue.
“Please welcome my friend Chasten Buttigieg!” Ellen announced. The sound of applause filled the television studio, and I stepped out into the bright lights, all cameras pointed at me. I was thrilled that someone I had looked up to as a kid was saying my name. Best of all, she said it right!
Yeah, what’s up with the name? you’re probably asking. Okay, let’s get this out of the way, shall we? The last name Buttigieg (pronounced “BOOT-uh-jej”) is Maltese (from a small group of islands in the middle of the Mediterranean). My husband’s father immigrated to the United States from Malta in the 1970s, and I liked the name, so I decided to take it when we got married. These days, Buttigieg is the name that gets recognized (you know, that whole husband-running-for-president thing), and it’s my uncommon first name that typically confuses people. Pete Buttigieg’s husband? What’s his name? It’s not uncommon for me to have to repeat my name over and over again at the coffee counter until it is ultimately shouted back as “Chastain,” “Justin,” or “Charles.”
Chasten (“CHASS-ten”; rhymes with CLASS-ten) is a difficult name on the first try, but I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years. It’s usually, for better or worse, one of the first things people ask me about when we’re introduced. I didn’t appreciate my name’s uniqueness until later in life. I’ve never met another Chasten, but when I was younger, my name was just another thing that made me stick out. Kids can be cruel for no reason, and my name was an easy target. One of my worst bullies used to call me “Chasteen” and “Chastity” at the back of the school bus. Now that I’m older, I think about how lonely or sad that bully must have been to not have had anything better to do but make fun of somebody’s name. I’ve found that most people who are making fun of others usually have something else going on in their life that causes them to lash out. Rarely is whatever a bully has decided to focus on ever about the person being bullied (though that doesn’t justify the behavior!). In this case, I guess Chasten was just too unique for Becky on the bus.
When I walked across the stage at my high school graduation, my name was announced as Chase-tin J. Gleezeman (it’s actually Glezman). My cheeks burned red with shame. Even at seventeen, I was still embarrassed of my name. Oh, come on! I thought. After all those years at school, they still couldn’t get it right? Correctly pronouncing someone’s name is an easy way to show them that they are valued. (Similarly, don’t be afraid to correct someone if they don’t address you the way you prefer. And if anyone has an issue with being asked to do the bare minimum, like I said, it’s a reflection on them, not you. Sometimes, rather than working on themselves, people will channel their anger and confusion into hurting others, even with small things like names.) On the bright side, at least high school was over when they butchered my name onstage, right?
Mysteriously, the story of how I got this unique name is inconclusive; there is an answer, but it’s an incomplete one. My mom used to take on shifts as a nursing assistant at our local hospital in addition to managing our family’s landscaping business, and she swears that a woman she worked with at the hospital was putting on a Christmas play that featured a character named King Chasten. As soon as she heard that name, she loved it. Of course, I’ve done extensive research, and I can’t find a King Chasten anywhere. As I’ve said, I’m very mysterious.
Regardless, it’s not pronounced like the verb, which means “to have a restraining effect on” and which is the opposite of my usually peaceful, nonbossy personality (at least I hope). It’s pronounced with a short a and a hard t: CHASS-ten.
If anything, my name is an expression of my parents’ creativity. My mom and dad, Sherri and Terry Glezman, are loving, dedicated people who live for their friends and family; they always made sure their three children’s lives were full of little adventures (and some bigger ones). The way they raised us was neither hands-off nor controlling, which allowed me to develop my independence in a genuine way without feeling totally on my own or without good guidance. Though we’ve had our hard times, certain phrases ring true: my parents always “wanted the best for me,” and they absolutely “made me who I am today.” Since understanding that is part of the point of writing a memoir, family is where I must begin.
My grandparents planted permanent roots in Traverse City, Michigan (population 15,559 as of 2022), in 1959, when my grandfather was relocated as part of his service in the US Coast Guard. Since then, the extended family nearby has grown so large that we can’t fit into a single house for our holiday gatherings. Instead, we now squeeze close to forty people at a time into my father’s finished barn. The woods and waters of Northern Michigan provided a lot of necessary set elements for my “go rub some dirt in it, you’ll be fine” childhood. Our family now splits our time between Michigan and Washington, D.C., and every time I come back to the Midwest, I am reminded just how special our little slice of paradise is.
Traverse City is surrounded by an abundance of nature. We have four distinct seasons here, each full of its own unique charms. Although a lot of locals will tell you the winter is the longest and worst season, I appreciate the variety, and my parents made sure each season was as special as possible. The woods are dense and lush green, perfect for hide-and-seek and building forts out of fallen trees and branches. Michigan is surrounded by four of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan being the closest to Traverse City. (If you hold up your right hand with your palm facing you, it looks like the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, which is why we’re called the “Mitten State.” Traverse City would be near the tip of your pinky, and Lake Michigan touches everything on the left side of your hand map.) The water is fresh (meaning no sharks!), and some of the lakes are so clear and turquoise blue that you can see fifty feet or more to the bottom. At least, that’s what it’s like in warmer weather; when it’s cold, the lakes freeze over. Which means in the summer, you’ve got fishing, and in the winter, there’s… ice fishing. Luckily, there is always an abundance of wildlife roaming around “Up North.” We typically see deer and turkeys in our backyard, and it’s not uncommon for the occasional black bear to wreak havoc on birdfeeders, garbage cans, or campers’ coolers.
The weather in Northern Michigan brings out the best and worst of every season. There are harsh and freezing-cold snowstorms in the winter that occasionally pile snow so high, you can’t open your front door. We had a lot of canceled school days when I was a kid, which were typically spent outside making snowmen, sledding, and digging snow forts with Dad into the side of the hill in front of our home. After hours in the snow, when we could no longer feel our toes, Mom would call us in for hot chocolate and chicken noodle soup, just like in the commercials. As the snowplow truck finally reached our neighborhood to clear the roads, signaling that we’d probably have to go back to school the next day, we’d shout our displeasure from the frosted windows. One winter, my dad, with help from a few neighbors, built an ice-skating rink in our backyard using a tarp, a garden hose, and some cheap lumber. We’d spend all day on the ice and even shine lights on it at night, devoting every moment we could to skating and playing hockey until the ice finally began to melt in the spring.
The summers in Northern Michigan are perfect, just hot enough for a day at the beach. We have so many lakes in Michigan that the rule of thumb says you’re never more than six miles from water. And in the fall (arguably my favorite season and not because I’m unapologetically obsessed with pumpkin spice lattes), the temperature dips into “sweater weather” and the leaves on the trees burst into red, yellow, and orange hues.
My dad leaned into every season. He especially loved decorating our house for Halloween and Christmas, and helping him became one of my favorite traditions. In the fall, we’d go to a farmstand and pick out buckets of apples for Mom to make pies and applesauce with, and we’d select our perfect pumpkins for carving. (I was always a fan of the bumpy, misfit pumpkins that nobody else seemed to like—I wonder why!) Dad covered every inch of our front porch with cobwebs, hay bales, and cornstalks. We’d build coffins out of plywood that my dad would jump out of to scare trick-or-treaters, and one year, Dad set up a zip line from the roof to the big tree in our front yard to swing a ghost across, scaring little candy-seeking ghouls and sending them running back to their parents’ arms. Just a few weeks later, as winter started to peek around the corner, Dad and I would ensure every tree and window had Christmas lights on them. There were a few years when my parents made us wear snowsuits under our Halloween costumes, so Dad and I made sure Christmas decorations were up before Thanksgiving, in case early snowfalls made it too hard to decorate outside.
Spending time outside was important to my parents. They often valued playing outside more than reading indoors. The best example of the kind of rough-and-tumble, free-spirited childhood I had happened at Fish Camp. What’s Fish Camp, you ask? Well, Fish Camp was the annual father-son tradition in our family. And it all centered around—you guessed it—fishing. My mother’s uncle, Uncle Gene, has a cabin far out in the middle of nowhere in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. For those of you unfamiliar with the great state of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula (“the U.P.” or, as us Michiganders call it, “the Yoop”) is the northernmost and mostly rural portion of the state that hunters and vacationers all enjoy equally. Remember the hand map? There’s a stretch of land northwest of the mitten, separated by Lakes Michigan and Huron. Use your left hand to visualize it, palm facing you, with your thumb pointing up and your fingers running horizontally. Fish Camp is at the corner where your left hand’s thumb and pointer finger meet, at the same latitude as Quebec, Canada—way up there!
Every summer, my dad, my two older brothers, and I would make the journey to the U.P. together. The four of us would pile into Dad’s truck and make the seven-hour drive north with a truckload of coolers camping gear, and a bag full of Dad’s homemade beef jerky. Along the way, Dad would stop at the Mackinac Bridge—the suspension bridge that connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas (aka your right and left hands; I won’t let the hand map go, I am so sorry)—so we could take in the view and buy a pop from the convenience store. We’d play car games across the U.P., listening to talk radio or the local country music station, until the only signs of civilization were the occasional pasty stand (a meat pie native to the U.P.), fish bait shop, or gas station (which most likely sold pasties and bait).
Once we made it to Baraga (with a population of less than two thousand), we’d stop and say hi to Uncle Gene and “Aunty Mares”—that’s Aunt Marilyn in “Yooper” speak. (Folks who live in the U.P. call themselves “Yoopers,” and Yoopers call everyone who lives south of, or “under,” the Mackinac Bridge “Trolls.” Get it? We’re a fun people.) Yoopers have a thick, unique northern accent, some of which has rubbed off on my family over the years. Once, during a college theater production, the director kept stopping the rehearsal to make me repeat the line “Oh my God” properly, since I apparently kept saying “Oh my Ged.” Every student watching in the audience was laughing hysterically as I kept repeating the line over and over until the director threw her hands in the air, gave up, and left the stage in a huff. It took me a long time to hear the difference. Most of my Michigan accent has stuck with me, especially my overuse of the expression “ope!” (which is usually used to mean “excuse me” or “wow” or “oops” or “oh no she didn’t!”).
Uncle Gene had the thickest Yooper accent of all. Waving from his front porch, he’d see us off to camp while shouting something like, “Hey! Dem skeeters are bitin’ real hard—make sure ya ladder on da bug dope.” (That’s, uh, “The mosquitos are real bad, so be sure to wear plenty of bug spray, dontcha know.”) A few more miles into the forest was where the real adventure began. Dad would park the truck at the camp gate, and we’d throw on our backpacks, strap the coolers and fishing gear down onto an ATV, and complete the journey into camp on a small two-track trail littered with potholes and covered in tree trunks left over from the last thunderstorm. The act of parking the truck, throwing on your backpack, and trudging through the rich, copper mud was thrilling. You truly felt cut off from the rest of the world. Before cell phones, we’d call home from Uncle Gene’s house and let Mom know we’d made it to Baraga, and then she wouldn’t hear from us for a week until we reemerged from the woods and arrived back at Uncle Gene’s for a much-needed shower and a phone call home.
There was no electricity or running water in the cabin. And, not that we ever needed it when I was a kid, but no Wi-Fi, either! In the daytime, in addition to fishing, we’d practice shooting clay pigeons or targets with rifles Dad brought. I became a good marksman, even though I was always uncomfortable around guns. I never really warmed up to handling something that could hurt me or someone else. I knew I could make mistakes fishing, but those mistakes most likely wouldn’t kill me! Guns made my stomach queasy. I always handled them with care and extreme focus, and of course Dad would have never let me be irresponsible with them, but I never felt at ease during target practice. Shooting guns was anxiety-inducing for me, rather than a fun and relaxing activity with the guys. Seeing the gun cases set out on the picnic table made me nervous, and although my dad has gifted me a few guns for birthdays over the years, they remain in his safe back home.
Dad took gun safety very seriously, and he prided himself on teaching his three boys responsibility in every sense. He taught us how to clean a gun, carry a gun, and safely use a gun. This became something I could discuss with many voters on the campaign trail who had strong concerns about gun safety and ownership or their right to own guns, including sharing my own experiences as a teacher having to run lockdown drills with my middle schoolers in a new age of terrifying gun violence. Although I have different political opinions from some gun owners about the need for guns, I am glad my dad showed me that there are gun owners who take responsibility and care very seriously. I just don’t want to own one.
My favorite part of Fish Camp wasn’t shooting; it was the fish. Evenings were spent cooking what we’d caught that day. Dad would send me to pump water from the well, then we would fillet and clean the fish, toss them in some batter we had brought from home, and fry them in a skillet over the campfire. Sometimes while Dad was gutting the fish, he’d brag to everyone that he had caught the biggest fish that day, and we’d immediately plunge into a playful argument over whose fish was biggest. Dad would pull each fish out of the bucket and compliment the fisherman. “All right, Chasten! Look at this one!” I know, it’s just a fish, but Dad’s compliments always built me up.
I always felt closest to Dad at camp, and moments like these dinners around the fire, when oftentimes it was just him and me preparing a meal off the bed of his pickup truck, made me feel especially helpful and important to him. The simplicity was remarkable. The sun would set, we’d build a bonfire and grill some fish, and Uncle Gene would drive out to camp to tell us scary stories about man-eating wolves, close encounters with bears, and the occasional camper-abducting alien. Once the fire died down, we’d be left in the darkness with a night sky full of stars so spectacularly vivid, it felt as if you could reach your hand out and scoop them out of thin air.
We slept in sleeping bags on bunk beds made out of old lumber, with Dad sleeping closest to the cabin door with a gun propped up near his bed just in case a bear or wolf came too close to camp. This was done for safety, but also, I’m convinced, just to scare the bejesus out of me. Right when I’d start to doze off, my dad would say something like, “Shh! Did you hear that?” I’d sit up, fumble for my glasses, and turn on my flashlight. There was nothing outside, of course, and Dad couldn’t keep himself from snickering. My brothers would join in, which made falling asleep that much harder—not only was I scared, but I was usually embarrassed, too.
Fish Camp was supposed to be a time to demonstrate my masculinity and my ability to “man up” (whatever that means). But then you would hear the mice tearing into the Pop-Tarts left out on the counter and try your best not to squirm while they feasted a few feet from your head, which I suppose wasn’t seen as particularly “manly” either. It was never a question of if there were mice in the cabin, just… where. I’d try my best to hide my squeamishness and fear from the rest of the cabin. My two older brothers were much closer with each other, and as the odd one out, I was an easy target for a quick laugh. Not that I didn’t get my brothers back, though. Just as things were quieting down, I’d tap my fingers on the wall of the cabin to make it sound like a mouse was crawling up the wall. Whoever was on the top bunk usually fell for it.
I always prided myself on my performance at Fish Camp—throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was driven by a desire to do well. Not because I loved fishing or whatever competition I was in: I mostly wanted to prove to my parents and brothers that I wasn’t a wimp and that I could do hard things on my own. Especially the things I knew they couldn’t. We were a competitive family, and putting my best foot forward, both to win and to impress my parents, was always the name of the game. Whether it was a game of Monopoly or volleyball, if there was a hint of competition, then we were all in it to win it.
Back home, my older brothers were Dad’s boys, always fixing cars or lawn mowers or up early in the mornings to hunt with him, while I usually ran errands and spent more time with Mom, tending to the house and poring over my homework. I was secretly very good at a lot of things involving the Great Outdoors, but there was no getting past the fact that my brothers and I were just very different from one another. I sometimes wondered how my parents had had them and then me. They didn’t seem to like me occupying any of their spaces, and the spaces I occupied—like the library, the bowling alley, and the stage—didn’t make any sense to them. While I was typically following the rules, mostly out of fear of sticking out too much, my brothers were more comfortable pushing the boundaries and getting into trouble, sometimes in pretty complicated or unusual ways.
This sense of adventure and fearlessness usually peaked at Fish Camp. There was the time they almost started a forest fire because one of them had stepped on a ground nest of bees, gotten stung, and decided that they needed to go back to the scene of the crime with a gallon of gasoline and a blowtorch to seek revenge. This came to my attention when my oldest brother zoomed into camp on a four-wheeler and jumped off so fast that the ATV kept rolling for a few more yards. Just as a small plume of smoke became visible on the horizon, Dad came rushing out of the cabin, grabbed a jug of water and a shovel, jumped onto another ATV, and zipped off into the woods. It was a small fire that was easy to put out, and thankfully, the forest was saved. My brothers had a good laugh, but Dad was furious. While Dad raced to clean up their mess, I remained in my folding chair next to the cabin, reading my books and enjoying an ice-cold Barq’s root beer.
Fishing was where I excelled. Was it my favorite thing in the world? Far from it. Was I good at it and did I therefore try my best to outperform everyone else because of this? Of course. I was a confident fisherman, great at tying hooks, and never minded getting my hands dirty or slimy. This quality later helped me succeed equally well at raising cows and, eventually, at handling our newborn twins with a lot of dirty diapers and spit-up. One of my brothers, however, hated touching worms and putting them on the hook. I knew if I acted the way he did when handling a little earthworm, I wouldn’t have heard the end of it. There would have been dramatic reenactments of the shrieking and complaining that night around the fire. If I were to point it out, though, I’d probably get a tough-love smack on the shoulder and be told to “shut up.” There were peculiar boundaries when it came to who got to poke fun at whom and for what.
The crown jewel of Fish Camp brags came one summer when my dad, a few hundred yards down the river and cussing so loud that the fish probably covered their ears, lost his favorite lure after his line snapped while reeling in a strong fish; about an hour later, I caught an impressive largemouth bass. The catch was so impressive that Uncle Gene had to set his line down and come take a picture of it on my disposable, waterproof camera. “Holy wah! We bedder measure it up and tell da DNR, eh? Dat’s gotta be a Michigan record right der, Chassin!” When we finally got back to the cabin and began gutting it for dinner, there, lodged deep in the fish’s throat, was Dad’s favorite lure. I was really pleased with what this said about my fishing skills, though of course I never would have said that out loud.
Just kidding. Everyone hears this story… annually, at every family gathering.
My dad is a no-nonsense kind of guy, reserved but very funny in his own way. He’s stout, not too tall, but sturdy, with a trimmed mustache and a shaved head. He had high, unspoken expectations of me, but most people know him for his gentle spirit, generosity, and love of surprises and scares. It’s not hard to go about town and run into someone who knows my dad. They’ll tell me about the kind favors he has done for them, like plowing snow off their driveway early in the morning before they need to get to work or springing into action to help fix an appliance or a burst pipe. Dad will always drop whatever he is doing to help someone else. It’s always a pleasure to hear my dad laugh because it rarely happens, but when it does, especially when he’s really proud of his tomfoolery, it’s hard not to laugh with him.
When I was young, I thought I was his easiest target, but now I wonder if he played tricks on me so much because he thought the opposite. Maybe he saw pranks as tests and learning opportunities for me, or gifts that told me he trusted me and that he knew I wouldn’t set anything on fire. I wonder if my dad knew that I could handle a challenge, that I was up for the push? I knew he wanted me to be strong, brave, confident, and trustworthy. I think Dad saw something unique in me, something that set me apart from my brothers, and he knew I needed a different kind of guidance from what he offered them. Deep down, Dad knew I was more sensitive than my brothers, and he wanted to protect me in his own way, even if it often went unspoken.
Some examples of Dad’s loving pranks: In the summers, he would take us out on the lake on our small pontoon boat, and after I watched the classic man-eating shark movie Jaws—at way too young an age—he would swim under the boat and pull my legs from below so that I thought I was being attacked by a shark. (There, uh, are no sharks in Lake Michigan.) At Fish Camp, our usual fishing hole was a big, muddy, tree-lined riverbank; if you navigated the mud well, you could wade out into the slow-moving river all the way up to your chest. One year, a sturgeon jumped out of the water about fifty yards down from where I was standing in the middle of the river. I’d never seen a fish that big before (they can grow up to eight feet long), and my dad shouted from downstream, “Get out of the water! They’ll eat your legs!” You’d think that, as a teenager, I’d have been able to recognize when he was teasing me, but when it came to monsters in the water, I never took my chances. I waded as fast as I could out of the river, and my dad couldn’t stop laughing. My scream was most definitely heard from miles away.
Unfortunately, autumn didn’t offer young Chasten a break. Every year around Halloween, WTCM, the local country radio station in Northern Michigan, would play a Halloween song called “The Legend,” which said with frightening detail that every seven years a creature that was half man, half vicious dog (but not a werewolf?)—and was known as the “Dogman”—roamed Northern Michigan towns, terrorizing farm animals and tearing apart its victims. (Every year, the song would say, “The seventh year is here.”) Whenever the song came on, even though my dad knew I hated it, he would crank the volume up, rolling down the windows and howling as I pleaded with him to cut it out. When we went camping, he’d ask me as we walked through the woods, “Chasten, do you think the Dogman is out?” or whisper, “The seventh year is here,” and I’d grip my flashlight tighter as Dad cackled.
This particular torture reached its peak one Halloween when he put on a wolf mask, scaled a ladder up to my bedroom window, and scratched at the screen. When I woke up, I thought I saw the Dogman glaring at me from outside. My bedroom was right next to the back porch, so by the time I’d jumped out of bed and sprinted to the living room, the Dogman had also shifted positions and was visible outside the porch door. The Dogman was wearing my dad’s clothes, but that didn’t reassure me at all. I thought he very well may have eaten my dad already, then put on his clothes. That’s a thing that absolutely could’ve happened. Hearing her son screaming bloody murder, my mom came rushing in, at which point my dad opened the door and took off his wolf mask. Mom was livid, but Dad, of course, could barely contain himself. He still calls me, every Halloween, to play the song through the phone whenever he hears it on the radio. If it’s the month of October and Dad is calling after five p.m., I have to think twice about answering my phone. I still hate the Dogman, and I’m still suspicious of open water.
The most educational of Dad’s pranks took place at Fish Camp when I was about thirteen. From the cabin, we’d take our four-wheelers through the woods, following two or three trails my uncle had cleared or mapped for us, until we emerged at the river. From there, we’d walk along the steep riverbank until we found a spot we liked, miles from another human being. The silence was peaceful, but it was also a reminder of how far away from everything we truly were.
One day at camp, my brothers wanted to go to a different fishing hole than the one we’d ended up at, so my dad agreed to find a new location with them. Dad made sure I was fine to stay where I was alone and said he’d come back to pick me up in a little bit. They all rode off on their four-wheelers, and I settled in for a solitary span of fishing. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I was more than happy to be alone. As I believe I mentioned, I was a skilled fisherman—I didn’t need someone to babysit me.
Some time passed, longer than necessary to drop my brothers off and come back, but it was still daylight, so I wasn’t too worried. I just kept fishing. But then the sun began to set, and I started getting worried. I pride myself on having inherited my father’s excellent sense of direction, but I wasn’t sure walking miles alone through the woods in the dark was the wisest choice (again, I was thirteen). My mind started racing: What if it rains? What if Dad never comes back? What if I die at the age of thirteen on a rocky riverbank surrounded by nothing but mosquitoes and half-eaten Cheez-Its?! I had been confident in my abilities to survive while the sun was up. I had water, food, and an eye on the horizon. Besides, monsters come out only at night, right? I mean, the song never mentioned the Dogman walking the woods looking for kids to eat during the day!
Dad had never told us what to do if we found ourselves alone in the middle of the forest at night. What I did know was that I had waterproof matches in my tackle box and how to start a fire, so that’s what I did. I continued fishing to keep busy, but as the sun started to disappear behind the tree line and the sky was getting darker and darker, the fear really started to set in. A few hours had passed. Was my dad lost? Bleeding on the ground in front of a hungry bear? Had the giant fish ghost who haunted the riverbank snatched him up and led him to a watery grave? Eventually, I packed up my tackle box and turned my back to the river, figuring the monsters—except for the fish ghost—would come from the woods. Now I was worried. Even more than worried, I was mad. Why hadn’t Dad come back? Why would he leave me? Across the river was a steep bank, and the woods rose above me by about a hundred feet. Surely the wolves were perched there, watching.
Finally, I heard a four-wheeler in the distance. The moment Dad came into the clearing, I was running to him, asking why he had left me for so long. Before he could turn the engine off, I was shouting. I must have sounded like a parent myself: How could he do such a thing? Didn’t he love me? Why would he abandon me in the middle of the forest? Leaving his own child to fend for himself in the middle of the woods at night? I could have been eaten! BY THE DOGMAN! (Maybe this one was a little less than parental.) It turned out that Dad had been on the other side of the river the entire time, watching to see what I’d do.
Dad believed in pushing us out of the nest to see if we could fly. Like it or not, I’d extended my wings and flown. Riding back to camp, I was fuming. I couldn’t look at him, I was so mad—I felt like he had broken my trust. It took me years to understand how much he had trusted me and what that lesson meant to both of us. He wasn’t trying to hurt my feelings or scare me; he was simply testing me because he thought I was mature enough to be tested.
Mom still gives Dad a lot of grief for the tricks he played on me when I was younger, but when I tell the story of Dad leaving me in the woods, she seems more proud than protective. I think she knew he had done right by her and me, making sure I could take care of myself. I was going to be all right. I always felt closer to him on those trips—he gave me more than enough room to explore and be myself, without ever actually causing me harm.
At home, things felt different. Dad was back to working long days on landscaping jobs around the area, so he came home tired; he had a lot of responsibilities both at home and at work as a small business owner. When we were at camp, Dad leaned into every adventure, even the most mundane, like lying on the picnic table looking up the stars or roasting marshmallows over the campfire. Back home, Dad tried his best to stay awake at the dinner table while talking to my brothers about football or hockey. When the conversation turned to me, I usually told him about something I was reading or a fun fact about geography. He’d act interested because he knew I was. As a father myself now, looking back at everything he was trying to do for everyone, I realize he must’ve been exhausted all the time.
While my dad took it upon himself to teach us how to trust our instincts and fend for ourselves (safely and responsibly!), my mom, Sherri, taught us the value of routine and reward. She is joyfully loud—in the best way—and wonderfully eccentric. She has jet-black hair that’s often expertly held in place with a whole lot of hair spray. (I remember as a kid waiting on Mom to get ready to leave—you knew it was almost time to go when you heard the sound of aerosol coming out of the can.) She wears a necklace and bracelet with individual charms that correspond to each of her children and grandchildren. When she used to yell our names, it was often so loud and insistent, you’d think there was a serious emergency: a large object about to fall and crush her or a pet-related tragedy. Usually, she just wanted help carrying groceries into the house. She’s never afraid to dance or sing in front of strangers, even if she doesn’t know the words or have the right moves, and she loves to host family and friends, which means she always wanted the house in perfect shape. In a very mom way, she decorated our kitchen with those wall hangings that stated things like IT IS AROUND THIS TABLE WE UNDERSTAND BEST THE WARMTH OF BEING TOGETHER, and there is always a nice-smelling candle burning in the house.
Mom loves to love, a trait that has trickled down to me too. She pours herself into her friendships and her responsibilities as a mother and grandmother. When I was in third grade, I used my saved-up money to get a sticker picture from the photo booth at the Disney Store in the shopping mall. I brought the sticker home as a gift to Mom. She was so touched that I had spent my own money on her (I did learn the art of gift giving from her, after all), and she proudly placed my Winnie-the-Pooh sticker on her mirror in the bathroom so she could look at my smile every morning. Time can be cruel, especially to stickers, so the image is long gone, but there are still remnants of the sticker there today, which she refuses to wash away. Mom loved my gifts, no matter how bad they were (don’t get me started on the Popsicle-stick Christmas ornaments that she still hangs to this day!). She was also an encouraging audience member. While she would be folding baskets of clothes or painting her nails at the kitchen table, I’d do my best pop diva performance on the karaoke machine in the living room, costume changes and all.
Mom and Dad were very adamant that we spend time together as a family, especially at mealtimes. If everyone was home, we ate dinner together as a family. Even if the meal was rushed because we needed to get somewhere after dinner, spending time as a family was important to my parents.
My parents also valued a strong work ethic and taught us to “earn our keep.” They were also very strict about money, and whatever money we had to spend on ourselves was earned or saved from birthdays or special occasions. It always surprised me when other kids talked about getting money, or an “allowance,” from their parents for no reason. My parents wanted us to learn the value and benefits of hard work from an early age. It was expected that I vacuum, dust, sweep, mop, and clean my room every day. On the weekends, Dad would typically need help in the yard or down at the barn. We could earn some spending money if we helped with extra chores beyond what was expected of us. “Why would I buy a dishwasher when I gave birth to three?” Mom always joked as she piled the dinner dishes up next to the sink and my brothers and I argued over whose turn it was.
When it came to family finances, Mom ran a tight ship. She was great at stretching a dollar and making sure we always had plenty of food on the table, and it always felt special, even if a lot of it was canned or from a box. On Christmas mornings, Mom would serve her famous homemade cinnamon rolls, a tradition that continues to this day. We would come home from evening church service on Christmas Eve, my parents would kiss us good night, and I’d fall asleep watching the snow flurries outside my window while the whirling and knocking of the old bread machine on the kitchen counter hummed me to sleep. Mom would have to get out of bed at three a.m. to roll the dough out onto the counter and cover it to let it rise once more before the sticky buns were tossed into the oven as we opened presents around the tree.
Dad had his special treats too. When I was very young, in the fall and winter, Dad often brought home meat from the buffalo packing slaughterhouse where he sometimes picked up extra hours. It was always a special night when he brought home ribs; even though he’d work late on these nights, we’d stay up waiting for him to get home and grill immediately. In the summer, we would line up along the side of the road to buy sweet corn from a well-known local farmer. You had to watch the news to see when he was available.
Mom taught me the important lesson that it’s not necessarily what’s on the table that matters, so much as who is sitting around it. She loved having her kids and husband gathered to share a meal, no matter if it was an expensive steak dinner or boxed macaroni and cheese. She continues to seek out meaningful time and connections with the people she loves, and taught me how a simple call or homemade batch of soup for a sick friend can go a long way.
Mom and Dad were good at making everything special, whether it was a good year for the family business or not. Money wasn’t always steady, and I remember when Dad would come home with payment for some work he completed. Mom would drive up to the bank and deposit the money before we headed to my brother’s baseball game or a rehearsal, because the money needed to be in the bank account the next day to cover the bills. I started to learn that our relationship with money depended on how we prioritized it as a family and how quickly or slowly we spent it.
In the years after I finished college, when I had to pay for something I didn’t quite have the money for, I sometimes thought about the moments when Mom was stressed about money and how she made it all add up. I’d think about Mom, in a bathrobe, her hair still wet from the shower, getting her purse and writing me a check for school lunches, saying that it might not be enough for the entire week. Today I realize how difficult it must have been for her to express that kind of worry to her kids. Mom and Dad did a good job at hiding the hard parts about money from us. We were blessed in many ways, and my parents made sure that we expressed our gratitude and appreciation for those blessings. They never wanted me to feel bad about needing money, but I began to understand that money can be a tough subject, especially when you need to think about it every day and with every purchase.
They wanted their kids to value that hustle and for us to see how hard they were working for what we had. I didn’t want to be a burden on my parents: if I needed to ask for money, I would spend a long time in my bedroom working up the courage and preparing my sales pitch as I waited for the right time to approach my parents about the upcoming field trip or the theater class that my friends were signing up for.
My parents worked hard to give their kids everything they could imagine, especially the things they didn’t have when they were our age. I was lucky to come home to a clean and safe home, a warm homemade meal, my bedroom with books I loved on the shelf, and two parents who loved me very much and wanted to see me succeed.
Mom and Dad still live in the same three-bedroom, single-family house I grew up in. They bought it when Mom was nineteen and pregnant with my oldest brother, right after they married one year out of high school. My father prides himself on having the nicest lawn in the neighborhood—as a landscaper, he has carefully trimmed, pruned, mowed, and planted the finest of every plant to his liking. Not a blade of grass untouched, no tree ignored, every flowerpot expertly placed. I remember Mom spending hours outdoors with Dad, planting flowers and vegetables and arranging every decoration until it was just so.
We always had four-legged friends in the house, the first of which (in my time) was a Pekingese named Brittany. Brittany was succeeded by a black Lab named Brisco, whom Dad trained extensively. Open the front door, and Brisco would run outside, grab the newspaper from the mailbox, and bring it back into the house. Most days, the whole newspaper would make it into the house. Other days, Dad would be shouting swear words as he ran out into the snow in his slippers and underwear to pick up loose pieces of newspaper that had flown out of Brisco’s mouth. Brisco followed Dad everywhere.
The backyard we grew up playing in has since been turned into Dad’s large garden, where he grows his own vegetables that always find their way into Mom’s signature salsa. Dad now practices making his own maple syrup, smoking his own beef jerky and sausages, and, during the holidays, crafting his own garlands with fresh greens from the Upper Peninsula as he watches TV and periodically checks on the smoke shack.
My parents run their own small landscaping business, and from the time I was about ten, I was helping out in some way. Every night, Dad would bring home the hydroseeder—a giant tanklike trailer filled with water and grass seed to spray on new lawns-to-be. My job most evenings was to go out to the driveway and spray down the hydroseeder with the garden hose as Dad asked me about my day at school. I was happy to help Dad, and even from a young age, I saw the exhaustion in his face when he came home. My dad has broken his back multiple times, but as soon as he recovered enough to lift something, he was right back to work. To this day, he continues to work long hours, in the sun, on his knees, straining his back and refusing to quit. Dad inspired a can-do, just-let-me-do-it attitude in me. For better or worse, that’s come back to bite me when I overpromise or stretch myself too thin among friends, work, and responsibilities at home. Dad made it look a lot easier than it feels nowadays.
Working for the family business also included spending time with Mom in her office, stuffing, licking, sealing, addressing, and stamping what seemed like endless envelopes. These were the days before email, when invoices were delivered by the mail; the people owing money would send paper checks that we then deposited at the bank. Sometimes, however, Mom would have me send invoices on the fax machine, and sending faxes was the most boring, tedious, and time-consuming task. A fax machine is an electronic scanning device that can send and print images via a phone line, sort of like printers that can text each other. In the 1990s, it took about five minutes to connect to the telephone signal. The machine would scan a piece of paper (such as an invoice), and the phone line would carry that scanned image in the form of code to the other person’s fax machine. Upon arrival, the receiving fax machine would print that image out on paper, whether the recipient wanted it or not. People still use fax machines today, but they’re much, much faster and easier to use now.
In the winters, my parents operated a Christmas tree lot, where they would sell evergreen trees and wreaths. The lot was located next to a local bison farm, so families could make a big day of it: they’d come to see the Glezmans, buy a Christmas tree, pick out a wreath my mother had made, and feed the bison some hay through the fence. I was still quite young when Dad ran the lot, but I remember visiting him daily. Mom and I would bring a warm meal, and we’d sit in the camper turned office, waiting until a family came to buy a tree. Sometimes it was so cold that we’d watch the customers’ cars from the windows to see whether or not they got out before we put our coats on to go greet them. There was a small heater in the camper, which is where I preferred to be. Once a family picked out their tree, my brothers would help move it and tie it onto the roof of their car, and Mom would help me count the money in the register out of the little white shack we’d decorated with Christmas lights. There was an old, dusty radio in the corner tuned to the local Christmas music station.
Because of the landscaping business, the Christmas tree lot, and the simple fact that my family had lived in the area for a long time, we always ran into people my parents knew, especially my dad. People always had something nice to say about Terry and Sherri Glezman. They are generous, loving, hardworking people who love their friends, their community, and their work. Throughout my childhood, the Glezmans were a happy crew—always busy, always ready to help, and almost always together.