The Hardest Times

Elderly woman with a young girl.

“This is what I know: God can make something beautiful out of anything, out of darkness and trash and broken bones. He can shine light into even the blackest night, and he leaves glimpses of hope all around us.” – Shauna Niequist, Bittersweet

To be honest, I never know if I should write posts like this. You know, just because it’s a food blog and this post is not about food and sometimes those what-do-people-actually-want-to-read-about? kind of questions cloud my decision making. But the weird and kind of reassuring thing about life is that the hardest times come for everyone. Whether it’s you reading this blog, or me writing this blog, or the elderly man who sits on the same bench by the lake everyday, or a regular A-list Hollywood celebrity – we all experience loss and death and pain. And life still continues on around us, and it feels more than a little unnatural. And maybe, hopefully, there is comfort in knowing that this is a shared experience. Even if the timing of our losses don’t all line up exactly, we can know that we are not alone in this. I am not alone in this.

Recipe cards.

Last Monday night, in the middle of the night, I woke to my phone ringing. It was my uncle, giving me the middle-of-the-night news that is never good news – in this case, that my grandma had unexpectedly passed away. My grandma. No, no, no. Hadn’t it just been a few days ago that we were sitting with my grandma, talking about Pinterest and recipes and the latest Shauna Niequist book? No. This can’t be real.

It came too soon. My grandma was not exceptionally old or sick. She lived a full life, yes. But unlike the extended and prepared goodbyes of long-term illness or hospice (which are also never easy), it all happened so fast and we were zero percent ready to say goodbye. She still had so much life in her. In just a blink, she was gone.

Following on the heels of my grandma’s passing, the Jacob Wetterling news broke. We cried and turned on our porch lights and looked down the street to see our neighbors doing the same. All of Minnesota’s hearts were broken.

And as if the world weren’t already heavy enough, soon after, we learned that a vibrant 21-year-old named Rene Dreiling, a former resident of the orphanage where we worked in the Philippines and a close friend of my siblings, lost his life while hiking solo in the Grand Tetons. And we cried again for this young life, this spark, gone too soon.

How. Why. No, no, no. Can’t even breathe – it just hurts everywhere right now.

This week, between the tears and the hugs and the moments of big, heavy sadness, the shared meals with extended relatives and the poring over pictures and hand-written recipes and memory books, the lighting of porch lights for Jacob and the prayers for Rene’s family, the feeling like I could never possibly get up off the couch and do any sort of work or normal life thing ever again, I’ve been holding tightly to this belief and this hope that God doesn’t cause our pain, but instead redeems all of it and will someday set the world right. I love that image – SETTING THE WORLD RIGHT. There are so many wrongs to be righted, so much hope we hang on that idea, and thankfully, as our pastor Greg Boyd says: God is always unequivocally on the side of life.

People sitting in a living room.If not for this tiny sliver of end-of-the-rope faith, I really do not think I would’ve been able to get out of bed this morning.

Sometimes I like to think of this blog as a mirror. In sharing about myself and my life and my current struggles, my hope is that I am holding up a mirror so that any of you out there who are walking a similar journey right now can see yourself and your story and your emotions reflected in this space. I mean, I really don’t hope that you’re in pain. Please, no. I hope you’re in a joyful and abundant season of life. But because of the humanness of this experience of losing someone, I do hope that you can look in and say – yes, I know that feeling. I’ve been there, too.

And in that, a little spark of human-to-human connection is made, and those connections, I think, help to outweigh the overwhelming sadness. For me, and maybe also for you.

People sitting around a living room.

I had the honor of speaking at my grandma’s funeral on Sunday. Here’s what I wanted the world to know:

In Memory Of My Grandma

When I think of my grandma, the first image that comes to mind is her happy, punctuated laugh. If you’ve known my Grandma for any length of time, you probably know the laugh I’m talking about – it starts with the slightest pause and a knowing smile and it lands with a loud “HA” as she throws her head back and leans into the joy of the moment.

Two women smiling.

When I think of my grandma, I also think of food. Admittedly, maybe this is because I have somewhat of an obsession with food and cooking and recipes, and I guess in that way maybe my grandma and I were very similar. There are so many memories I have with my grandma that hold a lot of significance to me, and it’s the specific foods we shared and the feelings I had in these moments around the table that really anchor each of my memories most vividly.

The Hardest Times.

Breakfast Conversations

Grandma’s breakfasts were simple and delicious. Growing up, a visiting breakfast with grandma was never complete without a batch of her famous Overnight Caramel Rolls (although I think if she were here today, she’d want me to make sure you all knew how easy they were – something Grandma insisted about all her recipes). A smart grandchild would always wake up just a little earlier than their siblings and cousins to run into the kitchen and snag one of the extra-sticky middle pieces. We’d go back for extra finger swipes of the sticky caramel sauce from the bottom of the pan while grandma would refill mugs with 8’oclock hazelnut coffee or freshly squeezed orange juice and ask us intently about every detail of our lives. And I mean EVERY DETAIL. I’m not talking about knowing what sports we played or what we did for work. She knew the first and last names of our friends, which cities we’d been traveling to that month, the books we’d been reading and what we liked about them, where we liked to go for coffee, and the color and style of our prom dresses. My grandma was deeply curious and interested in the details of our day-to-day lives and she never stopped asking thoughtful questions.

Elderly woman and man sitting at a table smiling.

She loved to hear about others’ lives and stories, but when it came to her own life, I’ve always known my grandma to be a very private person. So a few years ago, it would again be at the breakfast table over coffee, caramel rolls, and an Arizona sunrise, that my grandma would allow me to be the curious one as she shared some quiet reflections with me about losing their daughter, Susan – a loss that is always felt but rarely talked about in my family. She got out Susan’s pink photo book and pointed out pictures of Susan in dress up clothes, or sitting at the piano, or blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, always with a big smile on her face. She told me sweet and funny stories about her little girl’s personality, interests, and quirks, and I wish so badly that I had every word of that conversation recorded. I will miss breakfasts with Grandma – not just for the caramel rolls, but for the meaningful conversations that came along with them.

Christmas Traditions

If Grandma’s food and tradition and love were to all be perfectly packed in to one day of the year, that day would be Christmas. My earliest Christmas memories are rich with the smell of grandma’s homemade lefse being spread with butter and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon, and grandma running around the small Worthington kitchen in a red Christmas apron. I can hear the stories and the songs, the bells on the tree, and the laughter pouring out from that old folding table in the back also lovingly known as the “kids’ table”, where, away from the supervision of the adults, Jenny, Melissa, Kristin, and I would load obscene amounts of butter onto our third helping of grandma’s already buttery dinner rolls. I can feel the cold wind as we made our way out the door to church, and then a familiar glowing warmth as we’d see Grandma up in the front of the church, beckoning us down next to her, where she’d sit her little granddaughters on the bench and give us all the smile and nod, which, to our great wonder, meant we could press a few keys on the organ as people filed out of the church.

Young girls sitting at a table.

An Open Heart

Food was not only a way for grandma to serve others – it provided some real-life examples for us to experience what I would call her Open Heartedness. She loved to learn and think and try new ways of doing things in life, and that could often be seen in a tangible way through food.

When my siblings were adopted, during one of their first visits to Arizona, my grandma asked them what kind of foods they liked. After not getting much information out of them, she took matters into her own hands and found a recipe online for biko, a sticky rice dessert made with coconut milk and brown sugar that is popular in the Philippines. I’m pretty sure she had no idea what she was doing, but that wasn’t about to stop her from getting some Filipino food up in that Arizona house. She made that biko with Roselyn’s help that day, and in doing so, she expressed her open heart not only for my siblings but for the country where they were born.

Four people smiling at the camera.

Three years ago, my grandma and grandpa invited my husband Bjork and I to attend a play with them at the Guthrie called Clybourne Park. We knew nothing about this play, but we knew a good meal was part of the deal, and we weren’t about to pass that up. So after sharing grilled salmon and cobb salads and introducing Grandma to quinoa and edamame at the Good Earth, we took our seats in the back of the Guthrie and watched as the actors’ performance tackled hard issues surrounding racism and prejudice and gentrification in probably the most provocative and moving theater production that I’ve ever seen. Here’s the thing I keep thinking as I reflect on that day: I’m pretty sure most grandmas do not eat quinoa or edamame, or invite their grandchildren to the theater, but beyond that, I’m even more sure that they don’t usually take their grandchildren to plays like the edgy, tense, and thoughtful Clybourne Park. I am so grateful that my grandma was not afraid of the new, the challenging, the deep thinking side of life, whether that meant trying quinoa and edamame and biko for the first time, or gently encouraging her grandchildren to engage in conversations about race. This is my Grandma’s open heart.

Grandma was steadfast in her devotion to Jesus, and she embraced those who were different front her with an open heart and gentle spirit that was, at its core, Christ-like. I think I speak for all of the grandchildren when I say that she is someone who showed us how to live and love well.

Three people smiling at the camera outside.

Grandma, you are one of a kind. We loved you and we liked you. We’ll miss you forever.

Friends, here’s what I think you should do today: call your grandmas and your dads and your moms and your kids, and just check in and see how their day was.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, right? Just another normal day, loving and giving and saying the things we need to say.

Oh, the sweetness of a normal day. ♡

Woman looking at two girls on a deck over water.

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” – Mary Jean Irion

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