To Celebrate A Life

Terry Smogard passed away on Wednesday. She was my last grandparent and, though I loved each of them dearly, I was closest with her. In some ways that makes her passing harder. But in other ways, it makes it easier. Less regrets and fewer things left unsaid. When you’re really little, grandparents are your favorite people. They come with presents, they bake cookies with you, they are warm and funny. But when you get a little older, sometimes grandparents get a little boring. You can only play cards for so long and sometimes the generational gaps make conversation difficult. I always loved visiting my grandparents, but sometimes talking to them on the phone seemed like a little bit of a chore.

I realized I didn’t actually know how to talk to my grandma until summer of 2012. I was living in Maryland for a summer internship and the closest grocery store was a mile away from my apartment (through the woods no less) and the only one of my three roommates that had a car was crazy and mean (crazy and nice is fine, but this girl made life a little difficult for those three months). Every so often she would offer to take me to the grocery store, but I learned quickly never to ask. So I walked and I walked often because there is only so much you can carry with you on a two-mile journey. On the way there, I used the time to call people and I found myself calling my grandma at least once a week. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I remember that I started speaking to her like I spoke to my friends. Ok, not exactly like I speak to my friends, but I didn’t change the tone of my voice and only slightly edited the conversations. I was sarcastic with her like I was with my friends. I told her about boys. I told her about my crazy roommate. I told her about the parties I had. And I realized two things: first, I was wrong to speak to her differently. I’ve noticed that people tend to speak to old people in the same way they speak to children. Not in the same cooing voice, but often in the same over-simplified, superficial way. And that was my loss, because she was funny as hell. I guess I know where I got my sarcasm.

And second, I realized that a 10 minute phone conversation once a week—something that required the smallest modicum of effort from me—meant the world to her. So I started making it a habit and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The only thing I wish I had done differently is that I wish I had started sooner.

That summer she was starting to lose a lot of her mobility and, as a result, was bored. My grandma was the busiest, ballsiest person I have ever known and she hated being confined to her home or dependent on other people for anything. One day, as I was telling her about my kitchen mishaps (I didn’t start learning how to cook until I was 20, ok?) she mentioned that she could send me some recipes. I said sure, figuring she would send me a recipe for some yummy bars and a few dinners. She sent me well over 20 recipes, each of them handwritten with love. I maybe made one or two of them that summer, but it wasn’t until the following spring that I started one of the most rewarding projects I have ever undertaken.

My grandma died just after turning 90, something I can’t even fathom.  Despite knowing her for 22 years, there are so many sides of her I have never seen. So many stories I will never know. I wanted to do something special for her 90th birthday and I knew it should center around food because my grandma was an amazing cook. She knew her way around the kitchen, sure, but she also knew how to feed people. How to fill their stomachs and feed their souls.

So I decided to make all of the recipes she sent me (except a few more traditional Norwegian ones because, let’s face it, no one was going to eat lutefisk) and take pictures of the final products to turn it into a cookbook.  The entire process took about two months and I enjoyed every moment of it. Some of the recipes I made alone, tearing apart my kitchen and belting out some musical soundtrack. But I made a lot of them with friends, which was amazing for two reasons. First, cooking with people is one of my favorite things to do because you get to learn about someone while creating something with them. And then you get to enjoy what you’ve made (or laugh about how much it failed) after.  Second, everyone that helped me create this gift for my grandma got to experience a little piece of her. We laughed about how every recipe involved heavy cream and two sticks of butter. How the recipes were so different from the recipes people fawn over now (myself included) that require healthy substitutions for everything, are vegan/paleo/gluten-free/etc., or have a million exotic ingredients. These recipes were simple. Some of them were actually kinda laborious, but I mean that they weren’t unnecessarily complicated. They used spam, Hershey syrup, miracle whip, ritz crackers, frozen veggies, and a whole lot of sugar. They were hearty and very mid-western circa 1940s.

I will always remember sitting around the table, seeing the expression on my friends’ faces when I told them what exactly was in the sauce for “Apple Jelly Meatballs” (it was a mixture of one jar apple jelly and one bottle ketchup…basically the best thing ever) or watching the entire lacrosse team drunkenly devour her famous “Kit-Kat Bars”. She always laughed when I told her how often she won the hearts of drunken college students. I will always remember how something inevitably went wrong with every single recipe, but how that is simply part of the experience. And I will always remember giving her the book. She wasn’t much for mushy stuff, but I knew how much it meant to her. Almost every single time we talked over the summer, she told me how much everyone loved it, how people were asking for her recipes because of it, and how thankful she was. It was certainly the most time-intensive gift I have ever given, but I wouldn’t trade a single second.

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I called her on Monday when I received the news that she was in the hospital. The first thing I asked her was how she was feeling and I had never felt like such an idiot. Was that really all I had to say? Good one, Danielle. She responded, “Oh all right I guess. At least it’s sunny!”. I told her that I loved her and that I missed her. We didn’t talk long because talking made her very winded. Just a week before we had talked for nearly a half an hour about this and that and the other. I remember ending the conversation saying that I would call her again soon and that she should send me more recipes so that maybe I could produce another installment of her cookbooks by Christmas.

I teared up a lot on and off throughout the week, but it didn’t really hit me until last night, when I was sitting on my balcony, looking at the six or seven stars that were visible through the light pollution and silver clouds. Suddenly I started thinking about heaven and it hit me that my grandma wasn’t going to be in Minnesota, waiting to greet me with the biggest of hugs when I got off the plane. The death of a loved one is difficult no matter what one’s circumstances, but it is particularly strange when you are in a new place with new people, when the support system you’re used to having isn’t there anymore.

Thankfully, I am blessed to have friends from afar who will send me their prayers and sweet words as well as be immediately surrounded by new friends who believe hard times are best met with a shoulder to cry on and baked goods. I have been bombarded with homemade snickers cookies on my desk, a toffee almond bar on my chair, a coffee flavored cupcake on the kitchen counter, and a box of artisan chocolates I am waiting to share with my family. The sweetness doesn’t cure the sadness, but it certainly helps.

As sad as the next few days will be, I am excited to see my family, and as sad as I have been this week, it warms my heart to know that I am cared for by so many. Although October ended on such a bittersweet note, there were many wonderful things that happened as well.

First, it has been a month of friends. It started with my best friend Chantal coming to visit me for a whole week before jetting off to Africa to do the Peace Corps. She has limited internet, but is trying to keep a blog of her adventures (which so far feature a lot of bucket-baths and baby goats). I miss her every day and am so proud of her selflessness and sense of adventure. This is her last Big Mac before leaving, her favorite food.

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In the past few weeks I’ve made an assortment of new friends and have been truly touched by how quickly they’ve opened up to me. Its pretty cool to meet people who will embrace you without hesitation, simply because you are important to someone they care about.

I’ve also been spending more time with my friends from work and friends from high school who live in D.C. Whether we’re playing board games, eating BBQ, wasting time chatting at the office, or baking spooky Halloween treats, I feel like this has been a good month for relationships. I also realized I forgot to take pictures of the cool Halloween snacks we made, but my friend Kate made these beautiful sugar cookies that looked like candy corn and I made oreo balls that slightly resembled pumpkins. They were delicious (it was cream cheese and peanut butter oreos mushed together and dipped in white chocolate…pretty hard to go wrong) but the dipping was a lot more difficult than I imagined and so they turned out slightly deformed. Reactions I got included “Oh…” and “HAH…uh….cute!”. Real supportive, guys.

And I’ve also had some much-needed marathon phone conversations and novel-length email writing sessions with close friends who are far away. I was supposed to go to Boston this weekend to see some Carleton friends for Halloween, but my plans obviously changed, as life often does at the very last minute. I had been counting down the hours until I embraced my road-trip buddies and had been warming up my Russian accent for quite some time. My tears this week were for them too because I miss them more than words. But, thankfully, we have more time to make more silly memories.

Second, I’ve been volunteering. I’d like to say that it is completely selfless, that I am only looking to give back to my community in some way. That is mostly the reason, but volunteering gives me an important sense of purpose that I crave. It makes me feel needed, makes me feel important. So in that regard I guess it’s a little selfish. Although, tutoring has been very humbling because I am not as good at it as I thought I would be. I am making progress with my girl, but I still find myself struggling to teach certain things because I have never taught reading comprehension at such a basic level before. It makes me think about how easy school was for me (I worked hard, but it came pretty naturally) and how lucky I was to receive the education and have the educational support system that I did.

And last weekend I volunteered at a local autism center. It is a residential center as well as a school, and every year the people who go/live there put on a exhibition of art they’ve made as well as perform skits and showcase other talents for their family members. The volunteers’ job was to decorate the place for Halloween before the start of the show and then organize the bake-sale. I found the opportunity listing on the Montgomery County website and it ended up being me and a bunch of high school students who were fulfilling community service requirements (this was the second time since I’ve been here that people have asked me if I’m in high school…not cool). I guess being the oldest put me in a natural position of authority (which was great, I love being in charge and I like feeling needed) and so I got to delegate responsibilities and was asked to man certain projects. One of my special initiatives was to set up a coffee stand. So I found the materials and started brewing, handing out free coffee to workers and parents. I chatted with a lot of them and, once again, felt so unbelievably humbled. I can’t even imagine how challenging it must be to raise a child with disabilities, the amount of patience it requires, and the associated heartache. They all just looked so tired and there was nothing I could do to make their lives easier. Except give them coffee. So, although my job was menial, I felt like I was doing something important.

Some of the parents I met were discussing this book. I heard about it on the Daily Show and it sounded incredibly interesting, written by a 13 year old boy with autism about what goes on inside his head. It is supposed to be incredibly moving and is on the top of my to-read list. That list is getting incredibly long, but thankfully winter lends itself to cozy days spent inside reading.

Third, and along similar lines, the leaves are FINALLY changing. The weather got strangely warm these past few days, but hopefully it will return to the crispy upper forty/fifty degree weather we had a week ago. My favorite fall breakfast has been steel cut oats with cardamom in them. Who knew that would be such a magical combination?

And so starts November.

I get to see my family this weekend, my sister is visiting D.C. next weekend, two weeks later I go home for Thanksgiving (my mouth is already watering…I love Thanksgiving food so much), and then it is December. The month I begin counting down to Christmas, my favorite time of the year, the time of family, giving, and happiness. AND the best night of the year: the Smogard Family Christmas Eve Party. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that all of these things–appreciating family, friends, and counting one’s blessings–have reminded me how much there is to celebrate as I step into November. I will start by honoring the life and legacy of my Grandma.

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Comments:

  1. I love you! < 3

  2. Beautiful writing, Danielle. Your grandma sounds wonderful!

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