I like a quiet church with candles for company.
Churches feel holiest to me when there’s no one around.
Just the echoes of prayers, weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations, confessions, masses, communions.
Shared rosaries, stations of the cross, choral singing, organ playing, lamentations at Easter, celebrations at Christmas.
All of this only applies to Catholics; I speak from narrow experience.
We spent a lot of time in church as kids, until it got too much and we began to dodge our religious obligations. That we skipped mass sometimes was a shock for our parents, and we were punished if they found out.
But Mom shocked me more in her 70s when discussing Adam and Eve and the miracle of Jesus rising from the dead when she said "I don't believe that stuff".
Who kidnapped our mother?
I can’t ask when this seismic belief shift happened, as Mom died in 2012, a devout church-goer til the end, just like Grandma Lena.
It's a quirk of life that as you get older you have more questions, but you can't ask them of those who have the answers. Unless you visit a psychic or have supernatural powers yourself.
My Plan B is to contact as many cousins as I can in the year ahead.
Maybe, through conversations, photographs, and memories, we can piece together the bare areas of our shared past.
Talking to my cousin, Lois Thielen of Grey Eagle, has certainly been a recent life highlight.
Through her, I have found some answers, deepening what I know about Lena and her family.
How is it that you can grow up a few blocks away from your grandmother and see her most days, but have no meaningful conversations about the most important things in life?
Like, how did she get through World War I with my grandfather in France fighting the Germans, when she was pregnant and newly married, and they themselves were only a generation removed from Germany? They could even speak German! This was never discussed, with us at least.
Grandpa was injured in the war and returned to Minnesota with mustard gas burns in 1918. He received treatment in Little Falls that saved his life.
Marriage, a baby, a battle-scarred husband – what a volatile mix for a new bride in her early 20s.
What of Grandpa Joe’s fickle drinking ways over a 60+ year marriage – how did Lena handle his occasional binges and disappearances?
Why did she adore him so much when he was so naughty (I'm still discovering just how naughty)?
And why didn’t she tell us she had a famous bun recipe (below) that she and her sisters all made for decades – even when she didn’t talk to one for 40 years because she had married a Lutheran?
Giving Annie the silent treatment because of religious fundamentalism was hypocritical.
Lena’s sister Katie knew she and Joe were up to no good when they kept finding her hairpins in odd places after Joe’s visits. Like in the barn.
Joe and Lena were playing with fire and brimstone, and it was a jaw dropper to realise (via ancestry.com, confirmed by Lois) that my prim Grandma was several months pregnant when they walked down the aisle of the little St Rose of Lima Catholic church in St Rosa in 1917.
It was only last week that Lois unearthed Joe and Lena's first daughter Evelyn's birth certificate, showing clear proof of her pre-marriage conception.
“When I was asking for this information years ago for my family history research, all I got for a birthdate for Evelyn was that it was 1918,” Lois says.
None of it matters now. But if you grew up in a family like ours, such secrets were tightly held. Maybe, like Lena’s, for more than a century.
“From what I have heard, neither of Lena’s parents would have been that condemning, and most of her siblings would have been too young to understand what was going on,” says Lois. “Then I’m struck by the fact that her youngest sister, Loretta, was born about three weeks after Lena was married and died in October 1918. There was a lot happening.”
Like me, Lois laments that Katie, who knew the whole story, passed away in the mid 1990s.
Joe and Lena had nine more children.
Sadly Evelyn and her sister Leona were both claimed by pandemics two years apart when Evelyn was seven and Leona just four. Uncle Joe Jr was under five and my mother and her twin brother Jerry nine months old when Evelyn died in 1926, two years after Leona.
Lena may not have known at the time that she was pregnant again, with Irene.
How devastating it must have been to bury first one and then a second small daughter, including Evelyn, whose looming arrival catalyzed Joe and Lena’s swiftly organized wedding.
I know that Lena made Evelyn and Leona’s dresses, and that they were buried side by side, both wearing white stockings and pretty white shoes.
While visiting Mom, we went through an envelope of childhood treasures – hers, Lena’s, Joe’s, and what remained of Evelyn and Leona’s.
My sister and I sometimes visit the girls at the Calvary Cemetery on the edge of St Cloud, close to the Assumption Cemetery where their parents and some of their aunts, uncles, and siblings are at rest.
We placed their faded Valentines and other small treasures in a waterproof bag and buried it in the rich Minnesota earth above their grave.
When we visited again the following year I searched carefully, but the bag was gone.
It can’t have just blown away.
Maybe they pulled it down to laugh over and play with for eternity.
The Lena I knew expressed few opinions about social issues, politics, even recipes.
Her approach to childminding was stoic silence.
There were no cuddles, stories, or warm interest in her grandchildren, except for Jeff, our youngest brother, who mowed their lawn and recently unmasked Grandpa as a remorseless killer of the garden-raiding chipmunks and squirrels he fed by hand with peanuts and corn kernels.
The only sparks I ever witnessed from Lena ignited when 70 something Joe talked for too long to the widow next door.
Yet her Thielen family remembered her when young as a vibrant leader who played the piano and laughed often.
"I really do think the pregnancy before marriage and hiding it was the most traumatizing event of Lena's life," says Lois. "It was even worse than losing the girls, because at least she could be open about the illness and deaths of her children. Image seemed very important to Lena."
Perhaps her subsequent reserve was a protective shell. Like so many of her generation, Lena had learned that love hurts.
But when Grandpa Joe was admitted to the Veteran’s Hospital before he died in 1985, aged 93, Lena would softly coo and pat his hand and smooth his hair, loving gestures not bestowed on anyone else.
Lena died in 1995 at 100.
Her three younger sisters all followed over the next 18 months.
It’s gratifying that Lena lived long enough to make peace with Annie, whose only sin was to marry someone of another religion. Lois and Katie brokered their reunion.
Lena’s favorite song, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, was sung at her funeral.
I like that song too.
It reminds me of her.
We left the St Rose of Lima church to its peaceful shadows, for a Lois Walk to visit friends and family in the adjoining cemetery.
The church walls shimmered with reflections from candles lit by others, and by Lois and me for Lena, her siblings, and our families.
I like to think that Lena and her girls were with us as we remembered them.
That maybe they, too, sometimes visit the little church where Lena and Joe got married, Evelyn still a secret beneath her mother’s gown and pale wedding flowers.
The Thielen Sisters’ Buns
“All four of my Dad’s sisters made these buns for many years,” says Lois.
The recipe originated with Lena’s neighbor nearly 90 years ago in St Cloud. They were made in bulk for telephone company and creamery meetings and graced many a family gathering, she says.
Ingredients 8 cups flour, 2 eggs, 1 1/2 cups water, 1/3 cup butter, 1 cup milk, 2 packets active dry yeast, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 teaspoons salt
Method Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup water (water should be warm, about 105-110 degrees). Heat 1 cup of water, milk, sugar and butter in a saucepan until about 105 degrees; remove from heat. In a large bowl, combine 4 cups flour with the heated mixture, yeast mixture, and eggs. Beat well. Add the rest of the flour and mix well. Knead dough until smooth and springy, about 10 minutes. Cover bowl and set in a warm place; let rise until doubled. Punch down; shape into balls. Place on greased baking sheets. Let rise until double. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until light golden brown. Yields about 3 dozen buns.
Reproduced from Let’s Eat, published by St Joseph’s Parish in Grey Eagle, 2010.