Monday, November 3, 2014

Paying Respects

Today I went to a funeral for my cousin.

Her 90th birthday was last month ("celebrated" would've been too strong a word for it, as she spent this birthday, like the past three, in a nursing home, with very little awareness of her surroundings or the comings and goings around her). At 90 (forty-plus years my senior), she always seemed more like a beloved aunt than a cousin. Her mother was my (great) Aunt Mary, my grandfather's sister. I am not sure if that made us second cousins... second cousins once removed? She was my mother's first cousin, so that would make her...I'm still not sure.

She wasn't sick. She didn't die after "a long illness." The home had given us a few days notice that she wouldn't be with us much longer. It gave my Mom and one other cousin time to go and hold her hand and say their goodbyes. I asked several times, out of some morbidly unhealthy curiosity,  "but what's wrong with her?" People don't just...die... to my way of thinking. Not even at 90. But of course I'm mistaken. Nothing was wrong with her. She'd stopped eating. Her body was shutting itself down -- worn out. It was the end of a very long process.

A decade or so ago, she sat down, and stopped getting up. Eventually she was "confined" to a wheelchair, and then eventually, more recently, to her bed. She wasn't paralyzed. She hadn't broken anything. She just sat down. Her mind went shortly after she gave up on her body. Chicken, or egg? I have no idea.

She and her husband had sold their rambling ranch house years ago and downsized to a very modest cottage. When he died, she downsized again to a small apartment on the seedy side of town. I was only there twice, accompanying my Mom who regularly did her grocery shopping and dropped off home-cooked meals.

The upstairs neighbors in her complex preyed on her, at first stealing small things from her apartment, and eventually graduating to medication, and then thousands of dollars via stolen checks. Law enforcement wasn't remotely interested. She had no children to step up to oversee her care; she'd outlived her parents and all of her siblings. Eventually, after a herculean struggle, my mother got her into a clean, well-kept facility where, even penniless (though she was unaware of that), she was afforded the relative luxury of dying in a clean bed.

Her funeral was lovely. Like many in her demographic (and there are more 90-somethings every day, many of them, like her, in graduated care facilities that start out as assisted living and inexorably wind their way around to assisted dying, though no one really refers to it as that), she had selected the service, and paid for it all in advance when she was widowed.

We know it was just what she wanted, because she had picked it out. We could all see so much of her in the funeral; there was more of her in the details there than I think anyone had seen of her in the last several years. The casket was a beautiful shade of blush pink. The casket flowers were pink and white. My mother had displayed a few family photos on a draped folding table, and she also spent a full Sunday baking so that the guests -- 13 or so of us -- could fondly enjoy our cousin's recipes and reflect on the feasts she used to serve.

Our priest, coached by Mom, touched on it briefly in the service, but he didn't know her in her heyday. She was the ultimate hostess, and my first introduction to entertaining for the sake of entertaining, and even as a little kid, I soaked up inspiration from her as best and as fast as I could.

When she and her husband moved back here to retire, they brought with them their big-city California ways, and I, for one, had never seen anything like it.

Taco salad? In the seventies?! That was revelatory stuff! Tamale pie. Hummingbird cake. Pizza rolls. Are you kidding? Take everything that's great about pizza, and then roll it up. Man, I was in.

She had retired from a lifelong career at Swanson's, and her knowledge and appreciation of food was unparalleled, even in a family of food lovers like ours. As far as I could tell, those two were living the life -- they built their house to order, with niches like the first butler's pantry I had ever seen off the kitchen (extra fridges and freezers, all filled to bursting) and a dining room with a wall-to-wall hutch that displayed a dizzyingly comprehensive collection of Murano glassware alongside a pink china service for (at least) 20 which made it to the dining room table regularly, not just for special occasions. They had Cable TV before anyone had Cable TV, and despite our parents' stern reprimands that it made us rude guests, my brother and I invariably monopolized their remote and flopped down on our bellies on their brown shag carpet to watch the early days of MTV in front of their giant stone fireplace.

Every visit to her house, no matter how casual, spontaneous, and unanticipated, was accompanied by an unfurling of the culinary red carpet. "Here," she would say, offering a spoonful of some amazing concoction, "taste this. See if it's fit to eat," accompanied by a sly grin. She knew it would likely be the best thing anyone had ever tasted. Of course she knew.

She didn't have kids and as far as I could tell, had never had any inclination towards having any, though she was incredibly loving with us. My freshman year in college, she would send me back to the dorm with shopping bags filled with Tupperware containing everything from her homemade banana pudding layered with real whipped cream to foil-wrapped loaves of zucchini bread and brownies, stacked on top of  Pyrex square pans filled with her famous 9-inch apple pie which (in a nod to their time in Wisconsin), incorporated cheddar cheese in the crust. Savory and sweet? Get. out. She was determined that I would have enough to share -- unaware that I lived in a building filled with anorexics and bulimics, alongside WASPs who dined exclusively on the white food that they considered nothing more than necessary sustenance. I would've never told her that, partly because I think it would've broken her heart, and partly because I suspected that information might have cut into my haul. Maybe my rations would have been sensibly reduced. Instead, I thanked her profusely on behalf of my dorm, and then gamely spent my Sunday evenings methodically plowing through coolers that would've easily fed an entire football team like it was my fulltime job, savoring every crumb.

This is the territory my mind wandered to during her funeral, tuning out the Jesus-y parts, and lingering instead over memories of her Swedish meatballs, her lasagne, and her Shrimp Oliver.

Where ever she is (and I hope it includes a reunion with her husband and her dogs, and maybe a Viking Range), I think she'd be glad to be remembered for her culinary legacy, and glad to know that some part of her lives on every time we serve her tamale pie.

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