My family, My Culture

Last year when I was running for Congress I heard about the Midwest Storytellers Project. It was entering it’s 6th year. I reached out to them to participate. I thought it would be a way to get some publicity for my campaign. They never got back to me.

About two months ago I received an email from Michelle Rogers with USA Today/Gannett Media asking if I would be interested in telling a true, personal story for this years Midwest Storytellers Project. The topic is My Family, My Culture. It required three coaching calls, a tech rehearsal, and then the live show on June 17th. I immediately responded, yes.

Here were the requirements:

-The story is true, and about the person telling the story.

-The story should last between 7-10 minutes.

My Family, My Culture

This should be easy

I sent Michelle my coaching dates and now I would finally have a platform to share a story. But where to begin? My Family, My Culture. My Family, My Culture. My Family, My Culture. Over the next two weeks I drafted, edited, practiced, but I couldn’t get comfortable with the topic. I felt bad about leaving people out. I felt bad about not giving all my family equal time. If I were talking about Missy and the girls, I was thinking about my mom. If I were talking about my mom, I was thinking about my grandma. What about all those other families and people that took me in over the years and had become became part of my family. What about all my former students and players. I was lost in my mind somewhere between my head and my heart.

Then life, as it does, got in the way. My family and I stepped away for two weeks on an Adventure of a Lifetime. While my family and I drove all around the country I allowed my body to be occupied by driving. I allowed my eyes to take in the beauty of the things I may never see again. All the while trying to figure out what it is that makes my family my family, and my culture my culture. Over the rivers, across deserts, through mountains, and next to an ocean places that are not my home I I think I rediscovered myself. My story isn’t about the people who left. It’s about the people that have surrounded me my entire life. My mom. My grandma. My Missy. My daughters. All five have and continue to shape me and my life.

First Coaching Call

6 minutes

Because of the trip I had to reschedule my first coaching call. Rescheduling, not a great way to begin this relationship. I don’t really remember it. I had all these ideas swirling around in my head about the topic. I had a story to tell but sitting on my back porch with three strangers even in a virtual setting I could feel myself just bombing. I was a lot more anxious than I thought I would be. I’ve never truly been comfortable in the virtual world. I never really got in a good flow. I was sweating, my heart was racing, and my mind was a jumbled mess. Was this a panic attack or a stroke? I stopped speaking after about 6 minutes. I felt like a fool.

Melanie Laughman of The Cincinnati Enquirer lifted me up. She gave me some great suggestions. I took a ton of notes and I went back to work. I had a week to tweak my story.

Second Coaching Call

8 minutes

What a difference a week made. I took the advice from the coaches and over the next week I focused in on a more definite ending and adding some details about my mom, grandma, and my very own daughters. I felt at ease and the story naturally flowed from start to finish. Although, the ending still needed some work.

Third Coaching Call

Landed right on 10 minutes

The coaches loved the story. I however didn’t. They gave me some really great suggestions. I still haven’t really figured out what was different from the second call. But the story is solid. I have just under three weeks to get it right. I once again started to get lost between my head and my heart.

Hey Ken can you join us?

3:06 pm An email from Michelle Rogers

Can I be this unorganized? Missy was in her office working. I was laying on the coach watching Tumble Leaf with my daughters it was about 3:15. I had about 45 minutes until the final coaching call and tech rehearsal. Before setting up my camera, changing my shirt, and prepping for this 4 o’clock meeting I decided to look in my email to make sure I had the link for today’s rehearsal. That’s when I saw an email from Michelle Rogers from the USA Today asking if I could join the meeting that had started about 15 minutes ago.

How could this be? Is it self sabotaging? I had no time to waste. I opened up the StreamYard link and entered as Terrae Howell was talking. I was literally glowing. The afternoon sun streaming in my kitchen windows lit me up so brightly that I could barely even see my face. The only visible part of me was my 18th Street Brewing t-shirt with it’s skull and cross bones logo. The skull has 4 eyes with 18 check marks. I was totally embarrassed on multiple levels.

But, I just went with it. Chiristine volunteered to go next. As she shared her story my screen read you are now backstage. No one can see you. I turned up the Ipad to listen her story about Irish dancing. I tried to clean up my shot. I Quickly tried to give myself some shade by hanging up a sheet over my sliding glass door. I got out my dry erase board, wrote out some notes to follow, tried to reposition my camera, and all to quickly her story ended.

Camera back on. Who wants to go next? There were 3 of us yet to share. I was still glowing and my camera was to low and I still had on this ridiculous t-shirt. Ashleigh, thankfully volunteered. Back to being back stage. I got Stella and Geri upstairs. Changed my shirt, brought all my equipment into the our living room. It worked for my 2nd and 3rd coaching calls. As much as I wanted to have a scrabble board behind me the afternoon lighting in the kitchen wasn’t going to work today.

I got back in front my my camera. Ashleigh’s story was great. She had great anecdotes, it had a flow, I found myself shocked and uplifted. When asked if anyone had questions I gave my comments on all 3 of the presenters. I apologized for my tardiness. When the question was asked who would like to go next. I jumped on it.

It was the best one yet. But, I still don’t have an ending and I believe some of the transitions need work.

Write it out Ken

In a final attempt at preparation I am going to try and script it out. Not to use on Thursday but to organize my thoughts. I’ve shared different versions of this story four times now.

My Family, My Culture

Impossible to summarize in 7-10 minutes but here I go

I’ll start by sharing a secret that only my closest family members are aware of, and only a few of them truly understand.

I come from a long line of absentee fathers,

I come from a long line of absentee fathers. My father wasn’t around. His father wasn’t around. My mom’s father wasn’t around. In fact, after my mom married the man who became my dad. I learned that his father wasn’t around. How is that ever possible?

Thankfully, I have always been surrounded by strong women. Women who have spent their lives building a community and making their own corner of the world more beautiful, loving, and caring.

That starts with my mom. Have you ever meet someone that sees the good in the world? Have you ever had someone give all of themselves to you? That’s how my mom always has been. That’s how my mom has always made me feel. There is a certain level of empowerment in truly believing everything is going to be ok. There’s a certain whimsy in truly believing that you can be whatever it is that you want be in this country as long as you don’t hurt anyone else along the way. And for the life of me I can’t imagine why she is the way she is. But I’m so lucky that she is my mom.

Married, divorced, two kids, all on her own before she could legally drink. Can you imagine?

Did you ever know what you wanted to be in life?

Did you ever know what you didn’t want to be in life?

I never wanted to be my parents.

In the sense that I never wanted to be a young parent. My mom must have felt like Atlas carrying the world on her shoulders during the late 70’s and into the mid 80’s being a single parent to my older brother and I. She was constantly trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. We grew up on welfare, food stamps, free and reduced lunch, Head Start, and the Boys and Girls Club.

One of my earliest memories is standing in a line outside of Lincoln Plaza in Cedar Lake, Indiana. I remember asking my mom why we were standing in line. An older gentleman said we are here for a handout. My mom was quick to correct him and called it a hand up. Despite these circumstances and because of my mom my brother and I had a great childhood.

My life has been a case study of nature vs. nurture. Although, to me it’s always been nature and nurture. Both random when you really think about it. I lean more towards nurture because it’s the only somewhat controllable part of the equation. I’ve tried to live a very intentional life. Whenever I came to a big decision I’ve always thought

“What would all those fathers do? And I’ve done the opposite”.

It has always taken a village to raise children

The first village I was ever apart of was a neighborhood called “Little America” by it residents. A diverse place, full of colors, languages, and beliefs. Basically, a bunch of DP’s trying to make the best of their American Experience in a multi generational households. The Montasiewicz house was just off Taney Place in Merrillville, Indiana. Polish in name. But filled with Latin flavor. Nothing like the rural trailer park I grew up in.

I remember the first time my mom’s boyfriend brought all of us to that house. I was shocked. For me it was the first home I knew of that wasn’t on wheels.

I was 5 and the warmth of this house wrapped it arms around me then, and the thought of it still warms my soul today when I think about it. Jerry Montasiewicz had married Trinidad Catalina Lopez twenty years earlier. He fell in love with a woman very similar to my mom. Married, divorced, but she had 4 kids. Fifteen years later their son had fallen in love with my mom. It’s funny how life works

We were complete strangers yet they both welcomed us in with open arms. For the rest of my childhood this was always a safe place. It was a place were time seemed to stand still. It was a place were meals were made and stories were shared. We never left empty handed. It’s where my love of cooking and music began. You could smell the food and hear the music from outside. Flour tortillas being warmed on the stove. The enchilladas, chorizo, and spanish rice. Johnny Cash in the garage. The smells and those sounds still fill my house today.

At 8 I finally had a dad

It was a shotgun wedding, but I didn’t care. I finally had a dad. Rick Montasiewicz never let me call him dad until that day. My brother and I were the ring bearers. After the ceremony was over I remember saying,

“Thanks dad” A few moths later I helped welcome my younger brother into this world.

From that moment I’ve always been helping out with kids. A caregiver if you will. Changing diapers, feedings, and as always my favorite play time. I vividly remember tiptoeing past my parents bed, scooping up my little brother and taking him downstairs each and every weekend morning. I don’t really remember why. I just remember it always felt right. I knew my parents were tired. I knew they could probably use some sleep.

I just wanted to help out. I’d warm a bottle up, If there was a religion in our house it was probably sports. While feeding, burping, and playing Ricky and I would watch ESPN back when it was just highlights. Then, I’d turn on his favorite show Winnie the Pooh and have my own breakfast.

Shortly thereafter my younger sister was born and the beat continued. As I became a teenager I took on and was assigned other childcare duties. Basically, I was a live in baby sitter for the next decade. I’d fall asleep at night alone in my bed but when I would wake up I’d be sleeping three deep. At some point every night my younger brother and sister would find their way into my bed. Granted we didn’t have a lot of room for 6 people in a 1,200 sq ft house with 1 bathroom but we made it work and I couldn’t imagine or want to change a thing.

In 1997 my world changed,

I would be eighteen years old by the end of the year. As my junior at Crown Point High School I realized I had a real possibility to be the first person in my family to go to college. Get your education don’t forget from whence you came. But first I had to begin breaking away from my family. That started with getting my brother and sister out of my bed.

Then, I met a girl. Do you remember when you first feel in love? I do. May 17th 1997 I met my Missy. Up until that moment I had been able to avoid any type of serious relationship. But, her smile. I’ve done and will do anything to see her smile. It’s lifts me up when I’m feeling down. It warms my world when it gets cold. She’s another reason why I’m here today. She is the biggest part of my story as an adult.

As a child sports were my religion

As an adult it’s been education

For eleven years I was a public educator in Indiana. Which was not then, nor is it now an easy thing to be. It’s a profession under attack from the private sector and a State House that has been waging a war against it’s educators. But, as I learned watching my mom you keep moving forward every day and don’t share the ugliness of the world with kids.

The secret to education,

Is the secret of life

The secret to teaching is making connections. Giving your students a part of you. Each and every year I would welcome all my students and their families to my family. 120 students a year plus 120 more players and studio kids. I’ve called myself a silly uncle or a chatty cousin. For the next 181 days I was going to be apart of those families lives and them mine. The ups and downs. Our success and victories. Births, adoptions, and deaths. My first year of teaching a student of mine’s father died unexpectedly. They don’t teach you how to teach that. Like my mom before me, I just kept showing up. Like my grandmother showed me, I showed them I cared. Like my wife has shown me, a smile goes a long way.

She and I, along with other students have stayed in contact over the years. She coincidentally enough, is an educator in Oklahoma and our conversation continues. She’s a part of my family. As well as many other random conversations with former students and their parents in random locations throughout Indiana such as Chocolate shops, Walmarts, trails, gas stations, and grocery stores.

If you want to make god laugh,

Announce your plans to the world

That girl I met back in 97. We dated on and off during our time in college and shortly there after. We got engaged. Then, we called off the wedding for a multitude of reasons. After stepping back and not rushing into something we, as we always have, stayed in touch, continued growing as individuals, and will have been married for 12 years next month.

Have you ever seen the movie Idiocracy? The first 30 minutes are great. Missy and I took a very pragmatic approach to becoming parents. We knew we wanted to wait until after we had checked a bunch of boxes. First of all not being young parents. Next, get some professional and financial stability. But once we started actively not trying to not have a kid, it just didn’t happen. What was the problem. We were both healthy. We both got checked out but nothing.

All of this preparation couldn’t have prepared me for when I feel in love all over again and in someways for the first time. Two times in ten months I held my daughters in my arms for the first time. Both under as different a circumstance as they different people. Each time I realized everything I had done up until that moment in my life had meant nothing to them. Whoever I was before didn’t matter to them. Now I’m a dad. I promised them that as long as I’m alive they’d always have someone to listen to them, to encourage them, and almost as important tell them no. Or at least tell you what you shouldn’t do.

Everything I had done up until that moment in my life,

Had meant nothing.

I thought I knew what love was,

then I held my daughters in my arms for the first time

The moment I understood my mom’s secret

Now that I have my own kids I finally understand how my mom is who she is. I understand how she was so strong, loving, and caring during all those difficult times. She found another level of being in supporting and loving her kids. For the life of me I’m not sure why anyone would walk way from all of this.

Life is a series of moments. Each day is an opportunity for all of us to reinvent ourselves. My family is huge. My culture is one of acceptance, modeling behaviors you want others to pick up on, and being the change you want to see in the world.

My family?

Perfectly blended.

My culture. All that other stuff.

Thank you to everyone who has invested their time in me, and to all of you for investing your time in all of us this evening.

Or something like that


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