Probably few who passed my grandmother on the street would have thought of her as a “great woman.” Yet I would beg to differ. Not that anyone is passing her now. At least if they are, they are more than unaware of it. She passed away from this world into the next more than eleven years ago. She had led a long life from 1911 to 2003. It was also, I believe, a rather great life.
She was the best cook and baker I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve met quite a few. I have done everything I can to live up to her cooking and baking skills, but I’m afraid I’m not the perfect heir.
Born in August 1911, the oldest girl of seventeen children, Julitta Kuhn found herself not just the oldest sister but the unofficial second mom of the family. With seventeen kids, it really couldn’t be otherwise. Though she helped with all things on the farm, she helped more in the house, more in the cooking and baking, and more in the child-rearing than her brothers who would spend their days in the field. When she was old enough, her parents hired her out as a cleaning woman and “babysitter,” though this latter term is far too tame to describe the kind of care she gave. Because of her familial duties, she dropped out of school quite young.
Though incredibly wise, she would never have been considered “learned” in any sense of the term. Her own mother tongue, a 1763 form of Swabian, was her only language until she was in her late 20s when she learned to speak English. Any person who didn’t speak her form of German, she regarded as “English,” even the black entrepreneur (a woman) who owned the local merchandise, retail, and grocery story.
Until the end of her days in the world, she spoke very heavily accented English, and every sentence ended with a “nun” or a “gella,” the Swabian equivalents of “right?”
My grandmother, certainly never wealthy, would have a penny only every once in a while in her own name. After placing the copper coin on the glass counter of the candy display, the owner would offer a certain number of pieces. The owner couldn’t speak any form of German, and my grandmother couldn’t speak English. Juletta would hold tight to her penny until satisfied the woman had offered her enough candy. She would then let go of the money, scoop up the candy, nod a thanks and leave. To my very central European grandmother, the black entrepreneur was always that “English” lady.
Devoted to the Roman Catholic Church her entire life, Julitta was also the very first person baptized in the newly built St. Fidelis in Victoria (Herzog, as the Germans called its southern part of town). Within a year of Julitta’s baptism, William Jennings Bryan visited St. Fidelis and christened that church “The Cathedral of the Plains,” a name that has stuck with tourist brochures, though the church never rose to the level of basilica. Today, however, the U.S. and Kansas governments have also recognized its rather stunning architectural qualities, and tourists, often bored to near death on Interstate 70, often stop to visit it. Though my grandmother’s body now rests in a cemetery in Hays, Kansas, I certainly feel her presence every time I’m near St. Fidelis.
[As an aside, one should never regard Kansas or any part of it as “fly-over country.” It is deeply mysterious and gorgeous in its own right—at least for those who have eyes to see and an ounce of imagination in the soul.]
In addition to her profound and deep faith in the Church, Julitta also kept a cedar chest of treasures her whole life. That chest, a hand-made gift from her father, always rested at the foot of her bed. In it, she kept photos, scarves from dances (which she would drop in front of a boy, if she wanted to dance with him), prayer cards, and a number of other wonders. Whether I simply didn’t care that much about the chest as a child or whether my grandmother kept it private, never thinking to show me its secrets, I’m not sure.
I do clearly remember finally getting to look through it all when she was a year or so away from death. Everything in the chest came with a story, and I’ll never forget that day with her, exploring the parts of her life I had never known. Every person should have at least one such day in his or her life. It was one of the best days in my life, and I’m pretty sure she felt the same. In that chest weren’t knick-knacks or odds-and-ends; there were precious items, each with its own essence and its own teleology. Taken together, they told the story of a life well-lived and never taken for granted.
When asked, however, Julitta never shied away from telling stories. Whenever I would ask, she would tell story after story about her parents, their rented farm, her work as a house keeper, my grandfather (the most dignified man I ever knew), my mom, her church, the nuns, her neighbors, and everything else that mattered to her. Though she possessed unquantifiable amounts of common sense, she also had a mystical streak all of her life. Sometimes, she just “knew” things, and she remembered fondly watching the “faeries dance across the wheat fields at dusk” as a child. Every night, after evening prayers (she prayed throughout the day, every day), she and my grandfather would sprinkle holy water in each room of their modest house, driving away any lurking evil spirits.
Toward the last decade of her life, her health declined rapidly. During one Thanksgiving celebrated in Boise, Idaho, she began to yell things out rather spontaneously. At one point, in the middle of an intense conversation among my mom, my great friend Joel, my brother, my in-laws, and me, Grandma suddenly screamed out, “Pass the PEPPER!!!!” We all paused, stunned, handed her the pepper jar, and then all burst into laughter—including my grandmother.
On a sadder note, I was the one visiting her in her kitchen when we realized that her eyesight had almost completely failed. Not only was she cutting up tin foil—assuming it to be onions—but red ants were swarming all over her food preparation area. My grandmother was not only an amazing cook throughout her life, she was as neat as possibly imaginable. Her home, always, was spotless. This was a huge blow to all of us.
I must also mention one other thing about my grandmother. She wielded her stoicism as an article of faith. It never failed to impress me. Things happened, she reasoned, and they happened according to God’s will. Our life, set in His hand, was what it was, and we were to accept it completely. For almost the last decade of her life, she sat in near blindness and deafness saying her prayers ceaselessly. She knew of no other reason why God kept her on this earth. Obviously, she lived to pray. When she had said all her prayers, God would take her. And, take her He did. The evening before her death, my wife, my mom, and my two oldest children (then very young) sat with grandma. She, frankly, looked like hell, but my daughter, two-year old Gretchen, kept saying to her, “Grandma, you are so beautiful.” When I asked Gretchen later about it, she said that colored lights and angels were dancing all around grandma. Perhaps the wheat field faeries had come to pay their last respects.
The next day–a priest and my mom in deep conversation next to her–my grandmother reached up and grabbed the priest’s hand and told him it was time. They said the “Lord’s Prayer,” and my grandmother died peacefully at Thy will be done.
Nothing is more important, Russell Kirk argued, than to be happy in one’s death.
RIP, Julitta Kuhn Basgall (1911-2003).