In the kitchen: We found solace, laughter, turkey rollups, where the food was
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Grandma Lawler's funeral was an eight turkey-rollup affair. I ate the first one while hiding out in the designated family space at the funeral home; I smooshed the last one into my mouth — I'd said it was "for the road" — while simultaneously stuffing my foot into a shoe in my uncle's entryway about 26 hours later. We had to get back to Duluth.
The rollups weren't great, but they weren't terrible either: A soft tortilla wrapped around turkey, havarti, diced tomatoes. Every other one, seemingly, had a welcome touch of zip. Like the
Turkey Rollup Manager in charge of bulk orders at the grocery store couldn't decide whether to include horseradish or not. "How about ... sometimes," she had ruled, then applied dabs here and there.
The wake was tough. Grandma was laid out in a casket, rested in a way she hadn't been in the days preceding her death. The viewing room was filled with family and friends in various stages of grief. Some studied photographs of my late grandparents and the considerable number of humans they had created. There were hugs, tears, heckles, handshakes.
When my uncle walked off alone to the front of the room to look down at his mother, I watched for a second, gulped, fled.
The room was marked "family" and inside was a sort of potluck. The theme: a family that has, understandably, spent more time bedside than at a stovetop. It was a supermarket sweep of the foods you gleefully dump into your cart on special occasions like road trips, camping, high school graduations: gallons of Chex Mix, pretzels, cookies, chocolate four ways, bottled water.
They say there's a connection between grief and food, and it's true: Things were different in here, where the food was. Lighter and off-topic. My cousin's newborn made the declarative mews of an earthling discovering his lung capacity. My cousin had three wet spit-up stains on her knit dress and was already mom-savvy enough to not care.
An aunt had made poppy seed cake, and encouraged us to try it with a side of berries.
One of my uncles squirted Reddi Wip into my cousin's mouth. We all laughed.
I passed around Ritz crackers topped with floral swirls of Easy Cheese.
"Can I try the one with bacon?" my daughter asked. "No," I said for no reason.
Soon I wasn't even putting the turkey rollups on my paper plate. I just plucked them from the tray and demolished them in two and a half bites.
There is only one dish I associate with my grandma. I don't think she ever made it for me — though my dad has: creamed peas on toast. Mix butter with flour, let it thicken. Add milk and peas. Top toast. It's delicious, though it requires seasoning. In the eulogy my uncle wrote and read — a real tear storm — he likened my grandma with loaves and fishes-style kitchen miracles, feeding a family of 10.
Earlier in her life, Grandma served hot lunch at a junior high school. At the end of her life, she served meals at funerals.
In my memories, she isn't cooking. But she was always is in the kitchen and always folding a dishrag. She used words like "warsh" instead of "wash" and "Frigidaire" rather than "refrigerator." It always smelled hot, like sun-baked leather and dish soap. She might take a break and squat on a mustard vinyl swivel stool, run her hands through tightly permed hair.
Grandpa Lawler was buried in the cemetery just beyond the creek that ran through their backyard. Grandma said she would look out the window and talk to him while she warshed dishes. Now she is buried up there, too.
After the funeral, the burial and a gathering in the basement of a church where the same women she had worked alongside served us scalloped potatoes and ham, dinner rolls, and extra-moist chocolate cake, we were invited to my uncle's house on the outskirts of town.
Somehow, magically, the food from the family room was here now, and so I hit the turkey rollups again and again and again and again.
Now the shoes were off and the kitchen was filled. Wine, beer and whatever you mix with Coke.
My oldest aunt was the last to arrive and she brought with her homemade chorizo cheese dip in a crock pot.
"I have an announcement," she said and the room, filled to the max with Lawlers, quieted. "I'd like you all to know that I am now the family matriarch."
And for the first time in days, everyone roared with laughter.