Who is This Person? by Susan Oleksiw

Whenever I’m asked the standard questions for writers such as “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Do you write by hand or on a computer?” I tend to give standard answers. These aren’t all that imaginative or accurate. “Everywhere you look there’s a story,” or “I saw a woman on the subway and thought she looked like someone who worked in the back of” fill in the blank. I can’t use any of the usual replies for Ginny Means, however, the main character in my short story in the November/December 2022 issue of AHMM. I’m not sure where she came from.

Family stories play a role in our lives by teaching us how the adults in our world behave, what they believe in and would work or fight for, but often the story carries another lesson, one that may be unintended but is far more potent. Those were the kinds of stories my father told. When he reminisced about the farm where my brothers and I were born, I scarfed up his stories about the other farmers, their quirks and histories. One in particular stayed with me.

This was a hair-raising tale about a Swedish farmer, someone he admired immensely, who had one nearly fatal flaw. That incident rattled around in my head for years until its usefulness became clear. I wrote “How Do You Know What You Want?” for the AHMM March/April 2017 issue with an unnamed walk-on character because I needed a social worker in child welfare to deliver a foster child to a farm family. I didn’t think to name her at the outset but remember distinctly describing her outfit because though she made more money than most of her foster parents (and it wasn’t a lot), she knew a social worker shouldn’t dress like it. Ginny Means, finally named, appeared to do the job, and I didn’t expect to see her again.

Opening the door to the peculiar, sometimes heart-breaking stories I was privy to in that job as a social worker in child welfare had unexpected consequences. Clients—both foster parents and foster children—I had long forgotten about tumbled into my brain, and their histories transformed into stories far more complex than anything they’d ever lived through. The second story in what was verging on a series came in the November/December 2019 issue. “Just Another Runaway” zeroed in on one of the recurring issues with foster teens—the boys who run away and are never found. Some join the army, glad to have regular work hours, square meals, and clear boundaries for their lives, while others set out to find birth parents or a single friend who moved away.

Young women were also prone to the same questions as the teenage boys—what were they going to do in their lives as adults? One girl in my caseload was determined to join the church as a nun, to the skepticism of those around her who didn’t believe she had a calling. That’s the inspiration for “The Deacon’s Mistake.”

The Ginny Means stories aren’t about any of the individual foster children or families I knew, but rather about the issues their lives raise for the rest of us. I don’t have the answers, but I continue to poke and prod a system that hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years. Over the decades we’ve developed new terms, new best-practices, new agencies, but the problems remain the same, expressions of intractable human nature that continue to defy our best solutions.

Now that Ginny Means has moved into my imagination, I want to know more about her. To that end I’ve put her in a novel, or at least a first draft. She’s turning out to be different from what I expected, and I’m enjoying discovering who she is.

1 Comment

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One response to “Who is This Person? by Susan Oleksiw

  1. Eve Fisher

    Susan, I really enjoyed “The Deacon’s Mistake” – and I look forward to seeing more of Ginny Means!

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