This is a tribute to my grandmother that I wrote a few weeks ago after her funeral. It’s about family and faith and life and how you get to be who you are:
We buried my grandmother this week, on a raw, blustery 28-degree day in her beloved Wisconsin. The cemetery sits on the side of a hill, fir trees scattered throughout rows of weathered headstones, the atmosphere surprisingly majestic. It’s a small place, tucked behind an elementary school, but on Resurrection Day, it will be a glorious scene as the dead in Christ finally rise to meet him in the air.
My grandmother, given her druthers, would not ask for such fanfare. Born and raised in southwest Wisconsin, she lived all but the last few years of her life there. Ask anyone in the area who Irene Fritz was, and chances are she helped that person at one point or another. She was blessed with an uncommon generosity of time, common sense and compassion — she freely gave all these things and more to people desperately in need of such gifts.
She came from farming stock, and it was what she knew and what she and her husband did for decades on a picturesque farm in the rolling hills. A giant red barn, hay spilling down, a two-story white house with old-fashioned cellar doors on the side, a garage set in the side of a hill so the roof almost touched the ground, a long dirt driveway with a cattle guard at the end — these were elements of our childhood Christmases and summer vacations.
I go back now, after the funeral, to show my kids where their grandmother grew up, where their great-grandparents turned dirt and soil and grain and cattle and pigs into food and life and the American Dream. It’s beautiful, even on an iron gray day, clouds scudding overheard, my fingers going numb and raw as I take pictures to restore my memory of what I was too young to appreciate then. The wind is whipping and the temperature is dropping.
We drive the gravel roads, see countless other farms, corn stubble poking up through the dirt, the grass still green on the hills as the approaching winter turns everything else gray and brown. Red barns, steel silos, muddy trucks and trailers, cows, farmhouses. This is real. This is what life should be.
I see all these farms, this small, yet somehow vast corner of the American heartland, and wonder: how did I get picked to be part of this? This one particular farm sitting in the midst of all the others; my grandparents ran it, made it work, raised two daughters there. One of those daughters married a boy from Ohio that she met at college in South Carolina. They had two sons, one of whom married a girl from Indiana. We live in Kentucky and have three boys, who are now sitting in the backseat of a van, looking over a Wisconsin landscape that they may never see again, but are intimately connected to.
It’s earth and blood and history and family and life and death and love, all rolled up together. It’s people like my grandmother, who worked not just the land, but the hearts of those she knew — so much so that stories of how she changed peoples’ lives are legion. Dozens of folks counted her as one of their dearest friends but couldn’t count the times she told them, “Look, I’m not very smart, but it seems like this is what you should do …” before she dispensed the wisdom of experience. And then she would give them a cup of coffee before she answered the front doorbell, the back doorbell and the phone, all at once.
She helped start a church. She made a killer breakfast to order. She learned the newspaper business after she retired. She walked a mile with my kids at age 80. She cheated at cards (but would confess after the game). She fostered a boy who desperately needed it. She was a friend. She kept chocolate chip cookies in her freezer. She saved up cash to buy her family presents. She trusted Christ, not her good works, of which there were many. She was the perfect grandmother.
Now that she and my grandfather are both gone, I don’t know that I’ll ever be in Fennimore, Wisconsin, again. I hope I am. It’s a wonderful little town with people like my grandmother’s best friend, who would do anything for you, or my third cousin (I think) who with her El Savadoran husband and six kids runs a small motel just outside of town (and put us up during the funeral for free). There’ s a World of Variety store, where you can buy just about anything you need, a bowl-n-bar where we used to keep score by hand, a cheese factory with a giant mouse named Igor out front and the best cheese curds you’ll ever eat inside, a post office where they’ll put lost photos of grandkids on the wall next to the 10 Most Wanted (seriously — my picture has been there).
And on Main Street, there’s a house with a wide front porch where my grandparents moved when they retired from the farm. That house and that farm in the middle of everywhere and the middle of nowhere — they have my DNA embedded in them.
How cool is that?