A lot of my summers saw long stints staying with my grandparents: specifically, my grandmothers. I come from a family of matriarchs, women with iron-clad opinions and a level of stubborn resolve that could baffle. So it was with these two women that I laid much of the foundation of who I would eventually become.
Where I'm from in Minnesota, jello is what is given for a grieving heart. Or a celebrating heart. Either way, jello is the balm to soothe any outlier emotion that leaps outside the bounds of "Minnesota Nice" (the Midwestern nom de plume for England's "Stiff Upper Lip"). When Monica died, our family was visited by the savory jello moulds, most commonly gifted by (and I shit you not) Great Aunt Ole and the gaggle of octogenarians that still live in Madelia.
These are the jello moulds I put together when I realized I had never grieved these two women.
Grief Jello Mould -Mrs. Clarence Zangle
1 c. Midwestern Hospitality
A dash of overbearing, looming expectation
2 heaping tbs of distant relations
A quart of Jello and Cottage Cheese
-Mix together until all components are fully creamed; sprinkle with ennui for effect
I didn’t cry when my grandmother died.
Not at first, anyway.
I remember the call came in the middle of my 3rd period English class. I stepped out into the hallway, took the call, and continued teaching. I had explained to each of my classes that day that I may be receiving such a call, and I apologized for breaking our zero phone policy.
If you’ve never worked with kids before, you’ve never seen the best of humanity nor the height of exquisite empathy.
“But Ms. Kunkel, aren’t you sad?”
Of course. But she was very sick, and has been for a very long time. She isn’t hurting anymore.
That’s what you say because that is what you have to say; you are, afterall, a professional above all else. She had been sick, it had been that way for a long time, and she didn’t hurt anymore; she was dead.
And I didn’t hurt because the truth of the matter was so black and white: she was here, then she wasn’t.
Rudimentary. Mathematical. Removed.
My kids gave me hugs on the way out of class that day, I scheduled my sub, and got ready to drive home for the funeral.
The thing I want you to understand first is this: I love Monica Welke. I can’t brown meat or chop onions without thinking about her; for the first few years after her death, I couldn’t do either of those things without crying. When I was a kid she only gave us soup and scrambled eggs because she was terrified we’d choke to death. Whenever I came over as an adult, she would make Manwiches or Roastbeef because she knew they were my favorite. But only hers; for some reason it never tasted as good when it was made by anyone else. Still doesn’t.
She kept Little Debbies snacks hidden in the house for us, always stocked the fridge with Pepsi, never coke, because it was what she liked best. When she was diagnosed with diabetes, she still kept the stuff around and would ask for “a little sip” because it was still her favorite.
Christmas was another favorite: She would have us all over to her house, her tree torn to hell from the recent stray she and my grandfather had rescued; it was decorated in maroon and it was so lovingly done up because this was a woman that, after her first husband had left her, after the war had turned him into a monster and eventually into a ghost that haunted Madelia and my childhood, she would make the most beautiful lamps and beaded purses. God I remember the lace and beads and stern warnings to stay away from her work. And so that tree was brilliant, and stood out in a house plastered with victorian imagery in every shade of teal. We would all gather there, and it was warm, and soft and perfect; and stinky as hell. We are a family equal parts norwegian and german and god almighty my grandma would break out the pickled herring, the rye and the sauerkraut with dumplings and fennel seeds. The lefse from the woman down the street that had been making it for the town of Madelia for the last 50 or so years, even after she’d had a triple bypass because, as my grandma put it, “Like hell her daughter could take it over; they’d lose all her business!”
Monica was a giftgiver: she would get the SEARS and JCPennys catalogues and have my siblings and I take turns circling what we wanted, making sure to put our initials directly next to them, so she knew exactly what to get. She hated that the catalogues got smaller every year. But even in the hospital for her last Christmas, she had our gifts picked out and ready: she always had them ready. The woman had them stockpiled for years for each of us, hidden in the hall closet. It wasn’t until last year that the last of the Monica gifts were given out.
Monica was a storyteller, and loud. She was opinionated, and kind and open-hearted and generous. I can still hear her laugh, the way she yelled for any of us “COUUUUUUURT!” for my aunt or “ROOOOOOOODGE” for my grandpa. How she hooted “NAY!” after anything that was maybe a little off color. And she held the opinion that Chef Boyardee was good I-tal-ee-ann food, but it got too spicy after they changed the recipe. She was ashamed of her teeth and afraid of gatherings of people. She never went to my shows or attended my school functions.
But I spent a large part of my childhood watching cartoons in her livingroom (she loved cartoons, they helped her sleep), and going out in her maroon car, my legs sticking to the nogahide as we drove to Lake Crystal to get cookiedough Blizzards from the DQ. And how she stormed into that DQ when they skimped us on the cookiedough (it’s still my favorite icecream; I blame her). How she would sit up and play Scrabble and Crazy 8s until 7 in the morning with me in the summer (don't tell your mom I let you stay up this late). Or that I had always asked for an Easybake oven, ever since I was 5, and she got me one for my graduation from high school, because “you need to make sure you eat enough in college”. I remember all of the windows being down in the house because they didn’t have a/c, no one did in Madelia, and I would sleep in her bed, listening to the sound of the corn fields rustling, the roar of traffic from the interstate miles out across the prairie, dulled by distance and the chirrup of crickets and cicadas hiding in the mulberry trees just outside the windows and I would drift off to sleep, safe, contented, and sure to my bones that I would always have her.
I didn’t look at the body during the visitation or the funeral. It wasn’t my grandma, and the embalming fluids had mixed badly with the chemo treatments, so the thing in the coffin looked nothing like that big gregarious woman that I loved. In a way, that was a little easier.
A little harder in that I still hadn’t understood what all of this meant.
I was too busy taking care of everyone else: my brother, the sensitive empath that feels everything, my mother, who just lost her best friend. I was there with her when the funeral directors spoke in those measured saccharine voices, dripping in perfected tones of soft consolation. I held on to her, to my family, made jokes, made every attempt to keep them together. I am very good at taking care of other people first.
And it was a traditional Madelia reunion: Olie brought the jello mould, the green one with the carrots in it, because that was her specialty. My godmother brought sandwiches for all of us. We were plied with soup and biscuits and every casserole (hotdish, in Minnesota) you could think of. When we got home that night, there was more jello on the front porch. No note. No idea who it came from. But in our circles of Minnesota, everyone knows everyone and grief is hungry work.
The funeral was in Albion. My great grandparents were immigrants that came from across the ocean to make a life for their family. Clara and Rudolph were both in Albion; so were my two great aunts, and my grandmother’s stillborn son. It was decided that she would be happiest if she got to be back with all of them. Albion, the town itself, doesn’t technically exist anymore. Just like so many towns in the midwest before it, once the highways came in, the towns shrunk around the kernels of the farming communities that fed them, then died after even those faded. But the church was there, and an elite team of church basement ladies ready for every wedding and funeral to make scalloped potatoes and ham (what we in my family call funeral fare). It was a strange place: an old white clapboard church, one lonely monument in the stark white wilderness of a Minnesota winter; the plains barren, but there this was, the forgotten cornerstone of a community long gone, propped on a little hill, surrounded by graves and black wrought iron.
I write this like I felt it that day: putting it off as long as I could.
I didn’t cry.
Not at all.
We were almost through the entire funeral service, the tiny chapel cold and drafty out there all alone on the prairie, nothing to protect it against the gusts of ice and snow mid-January. The white walls nearly blue in the way shadows turn murky blue in the winter, and I remember the hollow feeling as I held my brother’s hand, felt the squeeze around my waist from my husband. It was a bright clear morning, but it was so dark and lonely in that church and I could feel that cold right through my chest, numbing me.
Then the congregation lurched into “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”.
I love singing. That is my favorite part of any service, the old hymns and the beauty in their plainess, the humbleness of their devotion and the abject beauty of looking for something greater than yourself, a group of voices coming together to praise, to celebrate, to grieve.
“I am weak but thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to thee
Just a closer walk with thee,
Grant it Jesus is my plea
And my voice cracked. At some point, everyone else had stopped singing and I was the only voice in that room. And I cried. I cried and I cried and I cried and I sang that song all the way through, my whole heart breaking.
“Ms Kunkel, aren’t you sad?”
No, I was devastated. I was a mess. I was angry because she had given up and I hadn’t been there with her. I was mad that I would never play crazy 8s with her, or have another Christmas with her and the godawful smell of far too many fermented foods and her laugh and that house and the way it smelled when she browned meat and onions together.
When we went back to her house after, her Christmas tree was still up.
We haven’t had the heart to take it down yet.
I can imagine the “nay” that would get from her now.
Sour Plum Preserves- Mrs Leonard Kunkel
3 lbs unripened plums, halved, pitted and quartered
3 cups of sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup lemon juice
Stir ingredients constantly over low heat; know that it will likely burn anyway.
My other grandmother couldn’t cook.
She couldn’t be emotionally involved without being manipulative, and she couldn’t cook, but she could take you for a ride with a game of Rumicube. I like to think this was the trade off she made with some lesser demon: can’t cook worth shit, but you’ll beat Cathy Sam Alaska black and blue in tile to tile combat.
Regardless of her culinary non credentials, we were forced to her house every Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, uncomfortable in fancy clothing and dreading what eldritch horrors we would be subjected to in her kitchen of monstrosities.
Don’t worry kids, we’ll stop at McDonald’s on the way back.
The rule was this: eat a big breakfast and arrive early to Doris’ house in an attempt to mediate the disaster. After that followed the steps:
Step one: avoid the “famous” potato salad. To this day, I am still not sure what was in it and at this point I am too afraid to ask, but I know for damn sure it wasn’t supposed to be green.
Step two: show no fear. The ham can smell fear. The scalloped potatoes thrived on it.
Step three: The butter is safe. And the SunnyD. And if you can see the sell-by date on dinner rolls, those are fine, too. Hide everything else in your napkin and surreptitiously sneak it to the trash can. God help you if the turkey becomes sentient and gives you away.
Doris Kunkel was a nurse. This is what she bragged about; and it was always about comparing and competing and counting beans to see who had the largest pile.
But she wasn’t a nurse, was the thing. Like so much of what she bragged about, it was illusionary, a phantom credit to her own name that amounted to very little in the grand scheme of a once bustling town now withering on the Minnesota prairie.
It meant nothing: it meant so much to me as a child.
She was a monolith and I would do near about anything to make her happy: I am not a straight woman. I have never seen myself as strictly male or female, bending my back to shimmy into a place right between the poles. But for her, I would be a little doll, primped and pretty and ready to be taken out on the town, another bean to her pile, another credit to her role. She would take me out to be seen by the town, Paul’s girl, my pretty little granddaughter, then we would go back to her home, the plums pickled down in the basement turning brown and dry since WW2, waiting, waiting…and I became a blank space, shuffled off into a corner to wait, wither and brown.
You don’t trust the food, you don’t trust the person. This is the lesson Doris Kunkel taught me. That, and looks are more important than truth, and turkey has a collapsing point (it’s 6 hours, by the way, before it utterly caves). I grew too tall, too smart, too mouthy to be the thing she could put on display. I was punished with neglect: if she loved you she doted, if she resented you, silence. If she loved you, it was off to the VFW (look at the skinny thing, how much she can eat!) if she despised you, you weren’t fed. Nothing fed with nothing, air fed with air.
Life disappointed my grandmother, and so she made her hoard of beans larger than life, a pillar to the world:
My grandfather came home from Germany and liberating the camps and he refused to be the tin soldier to tout about, the dashing hero home from the war. He drank, and she grew inward and bitter and mean.
She was a nurse, and a shitty cook and at one time, dying of typhus, she was told that the only way to save her life was to have more children. The only way to save her life was the end of her career and the shiny trophy hope she’d been polishing for years: that there was a life greater than the sum of mainstreet Madelia.
My great grandparents raised my dad. His mother saw him as her cause for sickness, the unnameable thing that had wrought destruction on her dreams, and for the rest of her life I watched him have to constantly kowtow and make up for something so systematically ingrained in his makeup, that he had utterly no control over. It wasn’t the truth, but it was the picture she saw, the mark of tragedy that she could play, and it seeped into so much of our lives.
I struggle with how to talk about this woman. I loved her. She was cruel. But she had been sold a bill of goods: a conundrum: How do you maintain equilibrium when all that you were promised as a girl was a lie?
Her husband came back damaged, her body failed her, and she never got to use that training she’d worked so hard for, was so proud of; all of that to work in the meat processing plant, angry at anyone with a bean pile higher than hers.
How can you cook when you can’t find the terms to nourish yourself, and the fields that you planted are bare?
Doris was a terrible cook, a barren field. Her crops went untended and in the end yielded no fruit.
And I loved her.