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A wildflower with deep roots

Tanya Friese knows all about planting

September 3rd, 2019 2:03 PM

Tanya Friese, left, and her wife, Aldona Komendacka, stand for a photo at their home in Forest Park

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By Tom Holmes

As Tanya Friese grew older, her mother sometimes called her "wildflower," an apt nickname for a woman who has always refused to fit into any box.

"Roses are beautiful," Friese says, "but they are domesticated and require a little more tenderness and care. Wildflowers bend in the wind. They are supple and strong in times of drought and in optimal conditions."

Born in Berwyn in 1968, her parents moved the family to Hinsdale so their two children could get a good education, but her father's parents were tenant farmers in Wisconsin, so this wildflower spent her summers on the farm.

"I have a sort of positive duality of life," she noted, "that you can be a country mouse and a city mouse and take the good from both of those things."

She received a scholarship to Kenyon College in Ohio where she found a way to combine the study of philosophy with playing rugby and soccer. After losing her scholarship because of a change in the Pell Grant program, she adapted to life's changing circumstances and got a job in a store in Hinsdale that sold stereo components.

From there she moved to a job at the First National Bank of LaGrange where the president appreciated her work enough to send her to DePaul University to study accounting part time. She enjoyed accounting but quickly became bored because "honestly, I had it figured it out."

Ever the wildflower thriving in any environment, Friese then enlisted in the Navy as a corpsman (medic), which in the days of the Gulf War meant you served, for all practical purposes, as a Marine. Of her 11 years as a corpsman, the majority were served alongside Marines in Afghanistan, recalling "those were some of the best years of my life."

Though officially designated a non-combatant by the Geneva Conventions — her job was to "fix people, not kill people" — her life was on the line many times. 

"When we hear 'Marine down'," she explained, "then it's corpsman up. We would run out there, sometimes under fire, and try to patch them up or go out in a helicopter, take them to a field hospital and fly them to Germany to save their lives."

"I am an official Gulf War Syndrome person," she added, "have to deal with neurological and GI issues to this day."

Following her years in the military, Friese earned a bachelor's degree in public health at Central Michigan University, worked in HIV prevention for DuPage County and with incarcerated women who were victims of sex trafficking. She then worked for a clinic that did in vitro fertilization and as a research scientist for Abbot Laboratories. She worked with people with intellectual disabilities at the Lighthouse in Chicago where she met her wife, Aldona Komendacka, and is now a professor in community mental health and systems nursing at Rush University.

While doing all that, she managed to find the time and energy to earn a master's degree in nursing and a doctorate in nursing practice, both from Rush University.

Lest you think this wildflower a dandelion seed tossed to and fro by the changing winds of circumstance, Friese also has deep roots in Forest Park.

Her rootedness comes courtesy of her grandparents, Jim and Vi Melich. 

"I would say I grew up in Forest Park," she explained, "because my brother and I spent a majority of our time at our grandparents' house at 1032 Elgin even while going to school in Berwyn and then Hinsdale. My grandparents bought the house in 1938. My mother was born there, and my wife and I are living there now."

Friese has good memories regarding 1032 Elgin. 

"Easter egg hunts and decorating the front porch with lights and greens during the winter holidays, the scent of a turkey or goose in the oven and adding leaves to our dining table to welcome those who may have not been able to make it home to celebrate an occasion with their family. My mother told me about her first kiss with her first boyfriend on our front porch."

She remembers how her grandmother Vi and her mother would garden with their neighbor, Myra Rehor. "When my grandmother died," Friese recalled, "Myra was at the house with flowers from our mutual garden and prayers. We held the memorial service at the house and the whole village showed up with food, flowers and, of course, beverages."

It was her grandparents who supported her when she decided to enlist in the Navy and when she told them that her "special friend" was a woman. 

After her grandmother died, Friese bought the house at 1032 Elgin from her mother and brother, and she and Komendacka have planted almost every square inch of their yard with wildflowers, earning their property the designation of "habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation.

In 2014, the year same-sex marriage became legal in Illinois, Friese proposed to Komendacka, who had been her partner since 2000, at Gaetano's and the couple married downtown.

Nuanced, enigmatic, "unstereotypable," a wildflower with deep roots, Friese explains, "My Nana taught me to always be true to myself, yet I can be whatever I need to be at any time."