…and other stories about when mashed potatoes aren’t just mashed potatoes. 

My aunt Diane Blake Rittenhouse, of the Gilpin County Blakes, went to be with her Lord this past Wednesday. I have no words to describe this feeling of fractured-self inside me, this connection, like a pair of tin cans strung up between adjoining houses, that holds me to the pain of those in my family whom this loss will hurt the most. I am not new to the experience of death, but I learned a long time ago that every loss is both new and old, in that it comes with its own flavors and aches at the same time as it renews the old pains of losses long passed.

It feels disingenuous to wax eloquent about the pain of so many people. But it feels wasteful to not mark the experience of that pain with some token, some concrete acknowledgement that it is felt, that it is present, that it may pass, but it will last for a long time.

I have no words for this loss that is both mine and so much more than mine. But a while ago, I gathered together words to describe the feeling of community that necessarily precedes agony such as what my family is feeling now. So for myself, for my family if it helps, and in memory of the most wonderful Diane, I share these words.

My grandmother and grandfather were named Jane and Joe. My mom and my oldest uncle are also named Jane and Joe. My other aunts and uncles are named John, Judith, James, and Jeffrey, in order from oldest to youngest. My grandparents are from a little town in Missouri called Aurora, and our family dates back to some of the earliest European settlers in the southern colonies. (From my rudimentary understanding of US history, my guess is that our ancestors were among those who were sent here against their will to farm tobacco in a penal colony. But you know; proud to be an American.) It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but all of these fun facts are important when trying to understand the ethos of the Rittenhouse clan. We’re hicks, rednecks, roughshod and backwater and we have been since we stopped being European. I’m about as blandly Midwestern as they come, but my family is specifically from the Ozarks, and if you’ve ever been there, you know that’s a special kind of Midwestern.

My grandfather and grandmother were interesting people, to say the least. Riddled with children and blessed with a steady income, their family grew up thriftily, but well. My grandfather was boisterous and gregarious, my mother was quiet and kind. My grandfather once bought my grandmother a 24-karat gold watch chain, early on in their marriage, when she was working hard to make sure their two children were fed three meals a day. My grandmother was livid. I have that watch chain, now.

When their children were, for the most part, still in high school or younger, their house was always bustling with people. Friends of the family, family of friends, neighbors, pastors, teachers, coworkers, all would come over and stay for dinner without much notice. The Rittenhouse house was known for its hospitality: a sign that I wasn’t lying about the Ozarks. No matter how many people were at the table, my grandfather would take the same portions of food, so my grandmother would frequently not eat in order to stretch the meal she’d made for six and make it last for twelve. When the numbers got so large the seams of the house creaked as if they would burst, my grandmother would throw her hands up and send one of my uncles to go pick up Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Once their children started having children and bringing the broods back to that big bulging house, in order to appease the picky eaters, and keep my grandmother and aunts from spending the night in the kitchen for cooking and then dishes, we got KFC at least once a month. Two tubs of original recipe, at least one of which had to be full of drum sticks. Two or three huge sides of mashed potatoes and gravy, and some coleslaw and biscuits, even though Grandma’s were better. That peppery, greasy smell meant family, and those buttery potatoes tasted like love.

My grandfather died after a stroke and cancer. I was young enough that I don’t remember which killed him. But his condition was declared terminal months before he died, and my grandmother brought him home and kept his hospice bed in their room, and cared for him dutifully every day until his last. And then, a few years later, she moved out of that bulging house and in with my uncle in Missouri, fully intending to live out her years as his maid and babysitter, right where she belonged. In the Ozarks.

When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my grandma came to live with us, in Chicago, replacing my uncle’s cows and compost heap with our doctors and hospitals. She didn’t like being treated like a child, and she liked even less feeling her mind slip away from her, so every month we’d get KFC with enough drumsticks for everyone to have two. She’d never finish hers, but the smell of the chicken was enough to remind her we loved her.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother had asserted that she didn’t plan to live much longer. She felt her usefulness had been expended and she was ready to go whenever God saw fit to take her. But God didn’t see fit to take her until weeks after she’d given up getting out of bed. God didn’t see fit to take her until she’d forgotten every face, every smile, every smell, and every song. Her condition was declared terminal years before God finally saw fit to take her, a minute or so after she forgot how to breathe. She spent her last hours of this life on her hospice bed in my mother’s living room, my mother and aunt and I singing hymns and reading Proverbs as she stared blankly at the ceiling.

And when the family got together in the church the week later, there was no visitation. There was no wake. There was no funeral. My grandfather had been cremated and buried in a tin behind their old house in Missouri. My grandmother wanted the same for herself. And she hated funerals. So instead, we gathered in a large room, put pictures of my grandmother’s ninety-four years all around the room, and served up some peppery, greasy family with a heaping side of not-as-good-as-Grandma’s coleslaw and biscuits.

We don’t get KFC every month like we used to when grandma and grandpa were around, but that’s probably for the best. Four out of five doctors would call that too much of a good thing. But when we do, no matter where we are, no matter who we are with, we tell the stories of the watch chain, of the house bursting with relationships, of the family that most likely started out as a couple of prisoners shipped off to the new world, and led to a kinship clan so tightly knit that no number of miles, no number of diagnoses, and no number of doctors is going to keep us from sharing our fluffy, buttery love.

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