Katherine (Younker) Schmidt was raised on a farm in Ellis County, Kansas. Born in 1922, she endured the dust bowl, an alcoholic husband, being a single mom, and too many orthopedic surgeries to count. She came from Volga German immigrants, grew up speaking German, and only had an 8th grade education, yet by the time she retired she was probably better off financially than most of today’s educated suburbanites. She got up at 5:00 every morning to go to work as a cleaning lady for a college dorm, and when finished went to her second job as a seamstress at a custom drapery shop. She never wasted a penny, but also never missed sending a birthday card with a $10 bill slipped inside.
My birthday is May 12. Hers was May 11, and we both epitomize the stereotypical bull-headed, stubborn Taurus. My mom says any artistic talent I have came from her. She was a wizard with a sewing machine and designed and made most of her own clothes. She wasn’t an affectionate, saccharine sweet grandma, but there was no doubt she loved all of her grandkids and was proud of every one of us. She had a great sense of humor, spoke her mind, was a good Catholic, though not overtly religious, and always had some cans of Old Milwaukee in the fridge. It will be hard to say goodbye, but the last year has been a difficult one for her. She got by on sheer tenacity, and I’m glad she can finally get some rest. Here are a few random memories that will always make me smile.
- Grandma was forever buying things and then taking them back. She once returned a coat to JCPenney two years after she bought it. It was never used, had tags, receipt, and all, but my Aunt Betty was mortified. “People in this town KNOW me, and know she’s my mother, and she goes and does stuff like that.”
- We lived two hours away, but my family never missed a holiday at her house. So many Easters, Thanksgivings, and Christmases. Everyone packed in around her kitchen table, eating in shifts. Turkey and out-of-this world dressing. This marshmallow cranberry frozen salad. I remember drinking a fuzzy navel for the first time at her house when I was probably in 9th grade and feeling like one of the adults.
- Once she was babysitting me along with my older cousins, Vern and Tammy. Those two fought like cats and dogs. I don’t remember what Vern did to Tammy, but the next thing I knew Grandma sat his ass outside on the porch, and he didn’t get to come back in for a very long time. She and Vern were talkers, and he called her all the time, just to shoot the breeze, right up to the end.
- It took many years before I realized that her favorite expression of exasperation, “YAY-zuss Gott,” was German for “Jesus Christ!”
- When I was maybe 12, we were out Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I found this set of New York Times crossword puzzle books that my mom liked and weren’t easy to find. I was a few dollars short, and asked her to lend me the extra. And she did without question. I didn’t appreciate it then, but knowing now just how frugal she was with money, I realize what a big deal it was.
- We always had well-stocked Easter baskets waiting for us after Mass, including a big chocolate bunny. When I was about 10, she changed it up, and gave us white chocolate bunnies. Being 10, I ate the whole damn thing. Then threw the whole damn thing back up. I’ve never gone near white chocolate since.
- Putting things away in her kitchen was slightly overwhelming. She was into the whole reduce, recycle, reuse thing before it ever became the creed of tree huggers everywhere. Obviously the lessons of the Great Depression sunk in, and there was never a bread bag, margarine container, jelly jar, or paper sack that ever went unused. There comes a point in time when you can only use so many Cool Whip containers.
- I’ll miss her crazy stories and gossip about people from town and bingo and work. I had no clue who any of them were, but listening to her describe how Rosie this-or-that cheated at bingo, or that Mary so-and-so said something about Helen whats-her-face was entertaining beyond words. Her stories about some woman they knew who had the mouth of a sailor literally brought me to tears.
- When Barry and I were dating and he first met her, she thought his name was Perry. They hit it off right away.
- She started collecting Santa Claus decorations about 25 years ago. When my mom and her sisters cleaned out her apartment before she moved into assisted living, she had boxes and boxes of them. Most of them were all richly designed, detailed, embroidered, made from velvet, satin, or brocade fabric. She let me pick out two of them last Christmas, and I got one more huge tall one this Christmas. They’ll always remind me of her.
- Grandma had a closet full of all kinds of fabric, catalogs, wallpaper books, magazines, and clothes. I first discovered Cosmopolitan magazine, and cleavage, snooping through all the stuff in there.
- My Uncle Guy, my dad’s younger brother, who knew my grandma before my parents were even married because he ran around with my Aunt Gerri, gave her endless shit. And she loved every minute of it. Though it’s hard to find super funny without context, some of his antics included photoshopping a large picture of her to look like she was giving the finger, writing a ridiculous letter to the editor that he read at her 90th birthday party, and captioning pictures of her saying all kind of outrageous and inappropriate things.
- My grandma drove like Dale Junior. She had a gold Chevy Nova, and I remember driving home from bingo one snowy night with my cousin when I thought we might not make it back in one piece.
- We took many a summer road trip with Grandma. My Aunt Gerri lived in Utah and my Aunt Pat lived in Minnesota, and we made at least two cross-country journeys to each place, six travelers of various combinations of my cousin, aunt, or my brother and sister packed into a big ol’ Buick. One trip with her car to Salt Lake City was rife with car trouble, squabbles, and mountain driving. And there was never a time when we filled gas that she didn’t have to note the number on the odometer, and calculate the gas mileage, and then discuss it. Every. Single. Fill.
- She was always known to me as Grandma Schmidt. Of course I knew her first name was Katherine, but would have never called her that. One day I answered her phone, and the person on the line asked, “Is Katie there?” I told her she had the wrong number, and hung up. Then she called back again. “No, there’s no Katie here,” I said, and then someone took the phone, explaining to me that Grandma was Katie.
- Grandma was always ready to party. She had an epic riverboat casino party in Kansas City for her 75th birthday, and a blowout for her 90th that I think half the town showed up for. She had a regular weekly card game, and was well-known at every smoky bingo joint in Hays, Kansas. The Elks, the Legion, the VFW, church basements…if there were little balls rolling around in a cylinder, she was there. I spent many an awesome Saturday night as a grade schooler sucking in copious amounts of second-hand smoke, playing my cards with Grandma. She’d warn me which ones to stay away from, either because they were “bad” cards, or because some of the other possessive cutthroat oldsters would have my head if I took one of “their” cards. Once I won a $12 pot, and had to split it like three ways. Bought a Kit Kat at the concession stand with part of my winnings. Best. Night. Ever.
- My son, David stayed with my parents for a week when he was seven. My grandma, mom, Betty, and Gerri drove with him from Kansas to Iowa where I picked him up, and then went on to visit Pat in South Dakota. Grandma was a talker, but she has nothing on David, who can run on for days on any given subject. He sat in the back between her and Gerri, and entertained her the whole trip. But at one point she asked my mom, “Does he EVER stop talking?”
- My grandma’s house was small. Two bedrooms with a basement apartment that she rented out to college students. When we’d stay with her over holiday weekends, my parents would be in the guest bedroom, I’d get the couch, and Chad and Kim had a foam mattress on the floor (sucks to be the youngest – ha). Grandma would get up at zero dark hundred to go to work in the morning, or actually even if she had the day off, and she did not give one single shit if anyone else was sleeping or what time it was. Clang, bang, rattle, whoosh, whirrrrr, clank. Coffee percolating, pots and pans noisily being put away. Better chance staying asleep on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Holy shit, she could have woken up the dead from their graves.
I’m sure there is more, and I’m sure she’ll have a hell of a wake where some stories will be told, but right now I’m feeling tired, a little lonely, and a lot older. Bye Grandma. It was fun while it lasted. Tell Aunt Pat we miss her. And try not to be too demanding of the wait staff up there.
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2014