It’s a strange thing, but when you lose someone, when you are grieving, life sometimes throws you a little curve ball that comforts you or makes you laugh. Something goofy arrives in the mail. Your computer tosses up something funny at you. Or you hear from a friend who has no idea what you have just been through: “What are you doing? Let’s go for a beer.”
Whatever form this phenomenon takes, I find myself thinking about it around Mother’s Day. Because two years ago this month, when I lost my mom, comfort came from someone unexpected: my grandmother.
The grandmother I never knew.
“My poor mother,” was how my father used to describe her. But her photograph tells a different story. My Grandma Kunz was beautiful. With her antiquated gown and hairstyle, she reminds me of Alma Mahler.
My mother, who was into photography, gave my brothers and sisters and me copies of this picture years ago, along with a picture of our other grandmother, Grandma Rodems, who was also very pretty and stylish in that turn-of-the-last-century way. I should explain something: The generations in my family are very spread out. My last grandparent, my father’s father, died when I was 9. I had a great-grandfather in the Civil War and another in the Franco-Prussian War. “How is that possible?” one friend once asked me. Well, it is.
And talk about antiquated, my great-grandfather August Ernst was a blacksmith on Buffalo’s East Side. He was the father of the grandmother I never knew. She and my grandfather were married at St. Ann’s, the beautiful church on Broadway built by German immigrants and now in limbo.
My grandmother got sick and died when my father was 13. “And it was the night of the big fight,” he always said, telling the story. “Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling.” That was June 22, 1938.
Because my middle name came from my maternal grandmother, I took this long-dead grandmother’s name, Rose, for my confirmation name. Other than that, she was always a blank.
Until shortly after my mother died.
I was lying around the house feeling sad. My mom and I were close and one thing we loved to do together was thrift shop. Looking around, every corner of my house reminded me of her. The tablecloth – my mother had insisted I talk it down. The couch – we had bought it at a Parkside estate sale. Even a candle brought back memories. “I guess I don’t really need this,” I had brooded. My mother had replied, “Well, if it makes you happy, get it.”
Aimlessly, I decided I would try to neaten up the house. It’s something I do only on the rare occasions when I am not up to doing anything else. My mother, by the way, did not condemn me for my sloppiness. My dad was the neatnik. She was not. Once, when I was feeling guilty about shopping instead of cleaning, she waved away my concerns. “The house will always be there,” she pointed out.
Drifting upstairs, I thought of facing the dreaded task of cleaning under the bed. And I pulled out something I did not remember seeing before.
It was a plastic zip bag holding a couple of dog-eared, beat-up old books. Slipped in there was an envelope addressed to Sears, Roebuck and Co. On the back of the envelope was a note in my mom’s familiar scrawl.
“These recipes (and books) all belonged to Grandma Rose Ernst Kunz,” she had written.
Both my parents were big note writers. My dad has been gone for years but my brother, living in the house where we grew up, is always finding notes from him in the basement, telling him how to thaw a frozen pipe, or what to do in case of flooding. I immediately saw what the story was with this packet: My mom must have handed it over to me at some point, and I had stashed it away without thinking.
Now here it was. Carefully, I took out the books and looked at them.
One book had a hundred or so recipes written in pencil. On the front page she had written her name and address: “Mrs. George Kunz, 193 Choate Ave., Buffalo, N.Y.” Tucked between its pages, on the back of another envelope, was a note from my father. In his neat writing, he had listed his favorite recipes. Chocolate Cookies, Ginger Cake, Boston Cake.
The other book was equally fascinating. Pasted into it were hundreds of newspaper recipes. The vast majority, I saw with satisfaction, were from The Buffalo News, or The Buffalo Evening News, as it was called back then. There were things you would never see now. Kitchenette Kraut – yum! A recipe for oatmeal cookies began by calling for “1 Cup Fat.” Lard makes frequent appearances. And a 1928 recipe from a congressman’s wife said, quaintly, “Let boil until it spins a hair.”
But a lot of the recipes looked attractively uncomplicated. Even better, they were almost all for desserts. One of them read: “Some of you are going to see these recipes and want them for your files. Will you please clip them right now, so they won’t get lost?” My grandmother had done as she was told.
Talk about comfort food. All of a sudden, diverted by this discovery, I was feeling better. And there was an added bonus.
With the family sense of thrift – this was during the Great Depression, after all – my grandmother had pasted the recipes into what appeared to be one of my grandfather’s discarded account books. He had a men’s clothes store in Lackawanna. Written calligraphically in fountain pen were page after page of names and dollar amounts. I made out New Era Cap, Oshkosh Overall Co., The Metcalf Neckwear Co., Jantzen Knitting Mills.
One page was poignant. My grandmother had doodled a picture of the shop. She had written her name, and added: “Wife of the famous George Kunz, Esq., 1034 Ridge Road, Lackawanna, N.Y.” Then, in capital letters: “Lackawanna’s Foremost Haberdasher!” How girlish she was, and how much she loved her husband!
And how much, suddenly, I loved her.
The find was fun. But even better was the timing. It made me imagine that she was reaching out to me when I was down. Aren’t grandmas supposed to comfort you with their kitchens and their cookies? Just because mine had been dead for 80 years was no reason that she couldn’t. Gathering up the books, I went down to the kitchen. My mother was right. Cleaning could wait.
Here are two recipes that called to me.
Prince of Wales Cake
This creates a glamorous image in my mind of Edward, Prince of Wales, who was crowned king of England in 1936 and gave up his throne for Mrs. Simpson. While he was Prince of Wales, Edward christened our Peace Bridge. This recipe was sent in to The News by Mrs. Max Schimpf, 530 Northampton St.
Sift together 1½ cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon each cinnamon, cloves and allspice, and ½ teaspoon nutmeg.
Cream together ½ cup shortening (I used one stick of butter) and 1½ cups brown sugar. Add two eggs, well beaten, and ½ cup raisins, which the recipe says should be “finely cut.” (I didn’t bother.)
Add flour mixture to wet mixture alternately with 1 cup sour milk (I used regular milk with one tablespoon lemon juice).
Pour into two layer pans or one loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.
Quick Coffee Cake
This was “The News’ One Best Recipe” God knows how long ago. I liked how easy it was.
Sift together 1∑ cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, and ½ teaspoon salt.
Melt 4 tablespoons shortening, 1 cup milk, 1 cup sugar and 1 egg. Beat well.
Combine the two mixtures and pour into shallow buttered pan. (I used an 8-inch square pan.)
Mix extra sugar, cinnamon and nuts – you are on your own as to how much – and sprinkle over the top. Bake in a moderate oven (I used 350 degrees) for about 25 minutes.
Cool slightly before serving. Carry it out on the porch and enjoy with coffee or tea instead of cleaning the house.
The house will always be there.