By Jan Worth-Nelson
To understand how writer Gary Gildner feels about his Flint childhood in the 1950s, some Latin is in order.
Flint — specifically Flint’s legendary Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and school and its devoted diaspora — is at the heart of the second essay and central to many of the others in Gildner’s new collection, How I Married Michele and other journeys, just out from BkMk Press in Kansas City. The Flint essay is titled “Juventutem Meam.”
For 21st century Catholics, accustomed now to the decades of the English mass, the words might as well be Greek.
But if you were an altar boy in the Fifties, as Gildner was, in the era before Pope John 23rd yanked Latin from the sacristy, you would know in your bones, from endless repetition, that “Juventutem Meam” are the words that start the Latin mass.
They mean, “To God who gives joy to my youth,” Gildner confirms.
Though the stories are not simple and their plot lines not always happy, joy permeates his memories.
“In the boom years following WWII, Flint was amazing,” he recalls in a phone interview. “I couldn’t have been happier.”
He notes technically the family’s home, the school and church were outside the Flint city limits, but he said the family always identified with Flint, regularly coming in for shopping and entertainment.
Always prolific and still vigorously productive at 83, Gildner has published more than 20 books, including eight poetry collections, four short story collections, a novel, one collection of essays, and two memoirs. His 2008 book The Warsaw Sparks documented his adventure coaching a baseball team in Poland when Gildner was on a Fulbright professorship in 1987-88. He had a second Fulbright in the former Czechoslovakia in 1992-93.
The Flint of Gildner’s memories is largely gone — the school closed in 2009, the buildings demolished in 2019. He has not been back since 2014, a period of eight years that has torpedoed the city into a world unimagined in so many ways, But he retains an ongoing, intense writer’s love for what the city was, and its effect on him endures.
Through it all, Gildner says, “I have never divorced my emotional appreciation from the narratives that I learned and heard — and the way of telling a story” at Holy Redeemer and from Flint and his family.
Born in West Branch in an apartment over his Gildner grandfather’s lumber yard, Gildner was the oldest of three kids. When he was six, his parents moved the family to Flint, where his father, an auto mechanic, carpenter and gardener, sought opportunities from the post-war boom.
Housing was hard to come by following World War II, but Gildner’s father found a converted garage across the street from Bendle High School, After a few months, the family moved to a house at 2014 Buder St., Gildner still remembers.
“My dad promised my mother it was temporary,” and eventually he built her a house off Maple Road where she lived the rest of her life.
“A lot of my poems come from that house [on Buder Street],” Gildner says. “It had a lush back yard with a magnificent cherry tree, two long rows of Concord grapes which my mother made jelly from every year. The house behind us was owned by the Hill family — their son Eddie was my best ‘non-Catholic’ buddy.”
He says he loved the nuns at Holy Redeemer — Sisters of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame — and Holy Redeemer added one year at a time from eighth grade on just in time for him to graduate from high school there.
Gildner says he used the Latin phrase for his Flint essay as a tribute, because “I did appreciate very much what those nuns gave me and also other things that the Catholic Church gave me — they gave me drama.”
Two examples make his point.
One time playing softball, his favorite teacher, Sister Lenore, was pitching.
“I caught one of her easy pitches, and I drove it straight back at her. She had a gorgeous Italian nose and the ball landed smack on her nose and made it bloody. I thought, oh my god, I’ve broken that poor woman’s nose,” he recalled, and in fact,”In subsequent days, it looked a little off center.”
But during the game, “She pulled a hanky out of her clothes and said, the blood has stopped, let’s play ball. How could you not love a woman like that? ”
The other involved a surreal moment with one of the parish priests. The pastor of the parish at the time, Father Louis P. Gauthier, would give a home to a lot of priests who were troubled, Gildner recalls.
“One was a chaplain from WWII who suffered from PTSD. He was a big guy, carried himself like an athlete. I was serving mass with him one morning — how we always began our day. The entire student body’s waiting for us to come out, but before we walk out of the sacristy to start mass, he spots my duffel bag with a football in it. He picks it up and he starts to hold it.
“You’re the quarterback, right? Show me how you grip the ball” the priest demanded. “Now we’re talking about football — the mass has completely flown out of his head, and he was retreating to a happy time — because he was burdened. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. but I was on the priest’s side — he had been so sad and that moment he was suddenly accessible.”
After Holy Redeemer, Gildner went on to Michigan State (“The nuns were terrifically disappointed that I didn’t go to Notre Dame,” he notes) and eventually became a professor, retiring from Drake University in Des Moines to write full-time.
Like many Michiganders, Gildner inherited Polish connections that were deep and braided. His grandfather, Steve Szostak, immigrated to Michigan at 16 in the early 20th century. He worked in the factories in Detroit but saved up enough eventually to buy a “pretty little farm” up north, 187 acres where Gildner as a child spent blissful summer visits.
That grandfather, who spoke only Polish as a matter of principle, Gildner suspects, loved the Polish writer Joseph Conrad — known only to him as Józef Korzeniowski — and kept a Conrad book in his pocket all his life. When he died, his wife buried the book under his arm. Gildner was 11 at the time and didn’t know anything about it. But later, Conrad became important to Gildner himself. Trying to track down more about his grandfather for a memoir, he found the unearthed connection with the Polish writer stunning.
The Flint essay is one of 15 in the collection, put together from more than 20 years of Gildner’s writing covering a lifetime of experiences — not just in Flint, but at his Polish grandfather’s farm, in Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, in Iowa, Idaho and his current home in Tucson, Arizona.
His father and both siblings — Gloria and Greg, both of whom stayed in the Grand Blanc/Flint area while Gildner journeyed the world — have died, as well as his mother, who passed at 97 in 2014 in the house off Maple Road. The occasion of her death was his last visit to Flint.
He has two children: Gretchen, from his first marriage, who bore two of his grandchildren, and Margaret, from his second, who just gave birth to her first child, his third grandchild.
Gildner recently had two stents inserted into his heart after two arterial blockages were discovered. He spends his mornings writing and his afternoons walking and swimming laps at a local pool.
He said he found it remarkable to learn that although two arteries were virtually wholly blocked, his cardiologist told him his heart is “in magnificent shape” and it created alternate ways around them.
Explaining the title and the significance of How I Married Michele, Gildner says the many journeys of his life are what made it possible for him to marry again — that each adventure of his life prepared him for the next. He says the book is a love letter to Michele, a way of explaining who he was and is.
He and Michele had met when she was a student in one of his poetry classes. After the class, they got together for one evening, and then did not see each other again for more than 20 years. She is a civil rights lawyer who moved from Tulsa to join Gildner in Idaho after they reconnected; they married in 2009.
He was aiming to understand, he says, “How you’re able to be a full human being with another person because of all your experiences. We are the sum of our scattered details, which aren’t so scattered after all,” he said.
“Our lives are messy, many great things are messy, democracy is messy — something we have to put up with.”
He eventually dropped away from Catholicism, partly because of a pressing need to find the truth.
“I’m ‘fallen away,’ but I don’t feel that I have fallen away from everything. I just separated myself from a certain amount of ritual and sloganeering. For people who have been raised as I was, there’s a certain complexity to it that ironically fits in beautifully to my need to try to discover ‘where the dog is buried.'”
It’s one of his favorite phrases, translated from Polish, a stand-in for finding out where the truth begins.
“The whole idea of where the truth begins visited me more and more and more,” he recalls. It’s a drive that has not subsided. As he says, “The era we are in, we are battered with ignorance more and more and more.”
When he was at Holy Redeemer, “We got lots of Latin, and all the math, and history — all college prep…the precision and logic engaged in all the math and the Latin appealed to me. But then the contradictory stuff came in. They told us certain things cannot be understood because they’re a mystery, and those mysteries make us stronger.
“I started asking myself, what does that mean? Those non answers would pop up that would drive me batty after awhile.”
And his impulse to write about his grandfather, movingly captured in the essays “Journeys We’re On,” and “Where the Dog is Buried,” furthered that need for truth — so often conveyed through stories.
“I was well into My Grandfather’s Book,” he writes, “When I realized that that was what I was really writing about: story, narrative, the accumulation of detail and color, the human back-and-forth we use to help us describe the journeys we’re on, getting a chance to see who or what we might be while we’re at it…”
But Gildner understands that nailing down “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” remains as elusive as the mysteries his Holy Redeemer priests proffered.
“Just plain old remembering, though, is sometimes rich enough,” Gildner writes in the conclusion to the title essay.
The Flint essay first appeared in New Letters, a magazine of writing and art at the University of Missouri — Kansas City, and received 2012 special mention in the Pushcart Prize literary competition.
“My history with Flint is ongoing,” Gildner summarized when asked about the hold the city has had on him. “I have never really left Flint. The reason why I was interested in fleeing Flint after high school was that I wanted to see more — the world was much bigger than Flint, but I have come to learn that you can find the world in a molecule..both approaches aim at finding the truth.
“Flint has given me a great deal and I am grateful for it,” he says. “I can’t imagine ever completely divorcing myself from Flint.”
More about Gary Gildner and his books available here.
How I Married Michele can be purchased here or through your local bookstore.
Banner photo of Holy Redeemer church, January 2022, by Tom Travis.
EVM consulting editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.