Short Stories 

 

 

 

Sunday
Aug022009

A Portrait of a Midwestern Life by Linda Saslow

 

A Portrait of a Midwestern Life by Linda Saslow

Linda Saslow

It was the 7th day after my Grandmother died when the automated e-mail arrived; Reminder: send holiday flowers to Edna. The benign automated message made me feel empty.

I had just returned two days before from the funeral half a nation away in rural Wisconsin. It was cold, as December always is in the Midwest. I spent three nights in hotel rooms in Milwaukee and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin with my mother. I was happy to be there. I don’t imagine she was. She hadn’t spoken to her sisters for several years. This is bad blood I do not share.

I had tried to fly out the Friday before the Sunday viewing, but a Midwestern blizzard shut down Mitchell Field and all flights out of LAX to Wisconsin were cancelled. I was sad not to get the extra day with my family prior to my Grandmother’s viewing and funeral.

I’ve always felt a bit odd about viewings. I’ve been to several and they say that the more you attend, the less they freak you out. The funeral home had made up my grandmother so she looked so much younger than her 94 years. Beautiful, but a bit eerie. Maybe I was prepared because I’ve seen every episode of the HBO show Six Feet Under.

Despite the fact that we were gathered together expressly to mourn a great woman, it was a nice time. My grandmother was a Lutheran Dairy Farmer’s wife who had borne six daughters. I was happy to see my five aunts and two cousins and their families. These were adults I had not seen in years and children I had never met. If there had not been a corpse in the room it would have been quite a party.

After the Sunday night viewing we all went to my aunt’s house in Plymouth, Wisconsin to reminisce. My mother went back to the hotel. I joined the group at the home where my Grandmother and two aunts who cared for her had lived for the past several years. We looked at photos of my grandmother from babyhood to her confirmation to her wedding to her older years. We ate home-baked cookies. We ate a simple dinner. We joked. We laughed. We talked about what a fine woman she had been.

Monday was the church funeral. Some previous occupant of my room had set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. ,so I took a bath and went to the lobby of the small rural motel looking for coffee. I woke up the night desk clerk who was asleep on the lobby couch. I asked for caffeine. She was happy to oblige. She put out the stale baked goods in the breakfast room and I sat there glancing over a free copy of Newsweek. It all seemed so banal.

At six, my mother woke up. She wanted cough drops. Since I was dressed, I said I would walk out into the small village in search of some. I walked two blocks over icy sidewalks until I found a gas station mini mart open. I purchased my mom some cherry flavored cough drops and bought myself a truck-stop variety hot chocolate from the machine. I put on a second pair of long underwear after I returned from my walk. Fifteen months back in California after nearly a decade in the Midwest had made my blood thin.

A few hours later, my mother and I headed out over icy roads in snow flurries to find the small town where she had been raised. We headed over hills and through the forests. We slowly drove past a half frozen small body of water called Crystal Lake. It was too early in the season for ice fishing. When we entered my mother’s home town I read the population sign. It was now 385. The last time I was here -- probably five years before -- slightly more than 400 people lived in the town.

We parked next to a snow bank in front of the small Lutheran Church. My mother used a walking stick to make sure she did not slip on the ice. She really isn’t old enough for a cane. Yet, she has a bionic ankle from a bad break on a previous trip to Wisconsin about ten years before. I was along for that trip too. That was a much happier occasion – we were taking my then three-year-old daughter to visit her still lucid Great Grandmother.

On Monday morning, in the church most of the family was already assembled. My grandmother in her casket lay in the foyer. In the sanctuary I glanced at the stained glass windows that my great grandparents had paid for. I’m always a sucker for good antique stained glass.

I stood in the receiving line as second cousins, great aunts, neighbors and assorted members of the congregation streamed in. I saw my grandmother’s younger sister Lillian for the second time in two days and probably the fourth time in my life. She looked just like Edna and at 92 was not one bit senile. Not like my Grandmother Edna who had been plagued by intermittent and creeping Alzheimer’s for the past five years or so.

One relation or neighbor told me he had hunted deer in the forest that edged my grandparent’s fields of corn and alfalfa. I told him I liked venison. He told me he had shot a deer last night. I probably hadn’t seen the man since I was ten, if ever. But, he was close to my grandmother.

In the funeral service the pastor mentioned how my grandmother was born about the same time that the Titanic sank. He mentioned that she was a great cook, particularly of donuts. I have many fond childhood memories of these donuts. He emphasized that she was a hardworking dairy farm wife and mother of six daughters. He mentioned her factory work at Sargento Cheese after her children were grown. Of course, he mentioned her love of Jesus Christ.

Since I’m now a Jew and my voice is not so great, I did not sing the hymns – but I did read along. I said the Lord’s Prayer which I’ve had memorized since I was about eight. I looked at the antique stained glass windows a lot.

After the service my mother and I drove to the cemetery with the funeral director and the pastor. The funeral director was about my mother’s age and they were old friends from high school Christian youth group. The pastor mentioned his new horse that he had purchased in addition to his older pony. Having four children in farm country, two horses are in order. I mentioned my own 13-year-old’s equestrian volunteer work with special needs individuals and horses. He said that those horses must have very special personalities. I agreed.

We got to the snowy cemetery where they had somehow managed to dig a hole in the frozen ground. I got out and walked though the snow drifts. My mother stayed in the car due to the bionic ankle. My aunt told me that this cemetery is where my great grandparents on both sides of my mother’s family are buried.

More kind words were said by the pastor. We recited the Lord’s Prayer again. Then one of my aunts took the roses from the arrangement on the casket and gave me one.
Back in the church basement we sat and shared a meal for which my grandmother had written the menu when she was still lucid. There was hot German potato salad, a variety of cheeses, fancy fresh fruit, cold cuts and good bakery bread. My grandmother apparently had specified that grocery store bread not be served.

The church members had made a variety of cakes and bars to end the meal. The coffee, unfortunately, was decaf. This is a world far removed culturally, geographically and economically from the Starbucks yuppie lifestyle that I routinely enjoy.

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