The tree lights flickered merrily in the window as we pulled into the driveway on Stout, but no one was home. Den deposited me on the davenport with one of his mother’s ubiquitous crossword puzzle books. He removed a pile of newspapers and a stack of folded laundry and disappeared to change.
A few minutes later a burst of frigid air accompanied Jerry and Virginia in the front door. They’d been across the street at Katie Yates’ at a holiday celebration. I knew Jerry from Terrace Foods where my mother shopped, but this was the first time I’d seen Virginia, and my first impression was ------ I’d have known who she was anywhere ----- even on the unfamiliar streets of New York City. Dennis looked just like her. They both had the long thin Irish face and those melancholy eyes that tilted down at the outside corners; eyes you never knew whether they were going to twinkle with humor or well up with compassion. And she was so pretty.
Several years ago Dennis performed in drag in a skit for a youth retreat. I hadn’t seen him in his dress, pearls and wig until he walked on stage. I think I actually said out-loud, “My gosh it’s his mother ---------- if she only had a beard.” When I relayed my observation to Gina, she winked and starting plucking at a stray chin hair. “Soon we may look more alike than you think,” she said as she yanked it out.
At that first meeting she didn’t chat me up. She promptly apologized for the clutter with a dismissive wave of her hand and seemed to accept that the presence of a strange girl was quite an ordinary occurrence. It probably was. She had three sons after all. She asked me if I was hungry and, without waiting for a reply, immediately headed for the kitchen to find something to feed me. This was my first encounter with the Queen of the Kitchen.
We all knew, if you wanted to talk to Gina, the kitchen was where she held court. Something always seemed to be simmering on the stove or baking in the oven. I’ve never known anyone who could stretch a pot of spaghetti further. Her raspberry freezer jam was the only jam anyone would eat at my house for years. And, what she could do with Cool Whip, a box of Bisquick and a dozen overripe, bruised peaches that didn’t sell at the store was not to be believed. I think Virginia invented comfort food and it was her mission in life to comfort and feed everyone on the planet -------- at least everyone she encountered personally.
Like her mother, Mattie, before her, she never sat down at the table, but ran back and forth from the kitchen making sure plates were full, bringing fresh biscuits or toast. It wasn’t hard to overeat at her table, because she took it as a personal affront if you didn’t clean your plate ---------- at least twice. And she didn’t believe it was possible for anyone to NOT want dessert.
In 1965 Den and I stopped at the house to pick up our son, all of two years old at the time. Gina was babysitting so we could visit my own mother in the hospital where we had just learned there was nothing more doctors could do for her. Mom was dying. Gina was in the kitchen and she cocked her head and said, “Well------?” I just shook my own head in mute reply. “You must eat,” she said. I insisted I truly wasn’t hungry. She pushed me into a chair, picked up a spoon and began to hand feed me cooing to me like I was a toddler. “There, isn’t that good? Open wide. Doesn’t that taste wonderful? Don’t you feel better?” And you know what? She’d sweetened that spoon with so much comfort and love; it was good and it did taste wonderful.
She and I and the kitchen did have a problem early on. I was accidentally locked out of my parent’s house at the end of a movie date one evening, so Den took me home with him. Virginia found a bed for me, something she did for scores of folks over the years. The light was always on and the latchstring was always out at her house. Both Virginia and Jerry had to work early the following morning and Den had an early class at Gonzaga so there was no transportation to get me home before late afternoon. Now we all know Gina was a somewhat untidy housekeeper so I thought it would be thoughtful of me, and a nice surprise for her, if I were to clean up her kitchen. By the middle of the afternoon the kitchen was pristine, the counters were empty, everything was washed, sorted and put away. The floor was mopped. I’d even cleaned the refrigerator. She came in from work, took one look at her kitchen, and it was obvious she was NOT happy with me. She didn’t say much, but started loudly banging pots and pans together and muttering under her breath as she started dinner. Within half an hour the kitchen was back to its original untidy state. For years after, she told me to stay out of her kitchen, because she was still looking for stuff I’d put away in 1960.
I wouldn’t say she was tactless, but she called things as she saw them and you weren’t always quite sure what was going to come out of her mouth. She had some pretty definite opinions about things and sometimes she’d get those opinions stuck in a loop. For some reason she became increasingly incensed about the unfairness of men having to dress in tuxedos and starched shirts for formal occasions while the women turned up barely covered. We all got so we could recite the litany with her. She’d look at us in disgust and say, “Well, whatever.” Then she’d escape to the kitchen to prepare some kind of snack for everyone. Whenever a conversation became too intense for her she’d disappear into her kitchen sanctuary. “Well, that’s the way it is,” she’d say, effectively ending any conversation about anything uncomfortable. Although she was essentially blunt and open about most things, there were places she didn’t want to go and we learned to respect that or, perhaps---more accurately--- we discovered if Gina didn’t want to discuss “it --------- it,” whatever “it” might be, was not going to be discussed.
Once when she and Jerry visited us in Seattle, I introduced her to our brand new pastor. I can still hear her telling him how most children were certain their parents had conceived them by Immaculate Conception. I have no idea how that conversation got started. She turned and drifted away to talk to someone else, to get another cup of coffee and a cookie. Our pastor was still laughing. “Delightful lady, your mother-in-law,” he said. And she was.
Gina wasn’t prone to lavish anyone with praise or flowery compliments. Her love was demonstrated in the action of taking care of her family. Family members individually contribute their own unique gifts to the whole. I always saw Jerry as the hands, the worker bee, while Judy was the lovely and loving princess, the quintessential big sister. Bob was the funny, popular charmer and jock. John was the brain. Dennis, as a middle child, was never sure where he fit in, but, as he grew older, he became the spirit of the family. Virginia though-----------she was easy to peg. Virginia was the heart and soul. She was the devoted wife, mother, grandmother and friend. She extended that devotion to all who crossed her threshold. Everyone, once she’d fed them, became part of her family.
Personally, she gave me a great gift. When she gave me her son, she gave him with open hands and an open heart. I’ve heard frightening tales of interfering mothers-in-law, but she didn’t take on that classic and stereotypical role. She allowed us to develop our relationship without her input, but always with her support. And because she’d fed me, I too became part of her family. We both relished the fact we shared the same birthday, the same middle name and she was glad Don Stewart and I were southpaws like her, since none of her biological children opted to be left-handed. That way, she said, “I might get some left-handed grandchildren.” She got several.
Hers was a long life and a life well lived; a life lived selflessly in service to the people she loved. The hole she leaves is deep. Her kitchen feels empty without her. I’m not sure anyone of us has the gift to feed each other as thoroughly as Gina did. We never left her presence hungry in body, mind or spirit. That was her gift and we all were blessed at her table.
Years ago I heard a brief story I’d like to share as we bid Virginia farewell. You may have heard it before but I think it bears personalizing and repeating today.
We are seeing her off on a new journey now, the most incredible journey of a lifetime. She’s boarded the ship in the harbor and we stand on the shore saying our goodbyes. Our hearts are sad and our eyes are full of sorrowful tears. We watch the ship, with Gina on board, sail into the sunset. We watch it until it reaches the horizon and bit-by-bit sinks below the curve of the earth. We watch it until it totally disappears from our sight beyond that sunset and we sigh and say to each other, “Well, There she goes.”
But the story doesn’t end there. On the distant and opposite shore the sails begin to billow above the horizon and slowly the ship rises into full view headed cheerfully for port and home. The people waiting there ----- Jerry, Dennis, Mattie, Paul and Jane, Uncle Bob ----- Pennie and many others very likely have tears in their eyes too, but theirs are happy tears and they point at the incoming ship, backlit with the sunrise, and they joyfully call to each other, “Look----look. Here she comes.”
Bon Voyage, Gina