My Grandma Steffen makes the best strawberry jello you’ll ever eat. Her name is Arlene, and if you promise not to tell, I’ll share half her secret with you. She makes it with extra love, and puts cool whip on the top. For years and years, my brother and I have been skipping the “real” part of holiday and birthday meals, and getting the jump on the rest of our family by going straight to the jello. If you’ve ever had good strawberries, right from the field, then you’re half way to knowing what this stuff tastes like. My uncle would tell you “it’s like crack” – but having never gone through my teenage angst period, or made life decisions that led me to illicit drugs, I guess I’ll never know. Suffice to say, the stuff is REALLY good. I’m not even a fan of sweets, and yet, each Thanksgiving and Christmas, there I was, piling jello onto my plate, trying not to let dad catch me before I’d eaten anything else. One year my brother got super smart – seriously I think it’s the best idea he’s ever had – and he started putting the jello into those plastic red solo cups, instead of a plate, so that it was easier to eat. It revolutionized jello consumption for the Steffen family – and it changed holidays forever. But there’s something else about Grandma’s jello that I have to tell you, the other half the secret, and it’s this; the other reason it tastes so good, is because you’ve never met someone who enjoys taking care of you as much as my grandma does.
From my earliest memory of my grandmother, I remember her as a mom. My Dad, Aunt and Uncle have always been good about telling stories about their youth, and so in some ways I feel like I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s with them. When my grandfather gave my fiancée (now wife) an article from Good Housekeeping from the 50’s on what it takes to be a good wife – part of me honestly wondered how much he was joking. All the things on that list seemed to be things that I had heard stories about my grandma doing. Feeding and bathing the children, preparing them for their father’s arrival home from work, having dinner ready for him, tidying up around the house – all this and more seemed right up her alley. While I didn’t know her back then, I can imagine sitting around their table and talking about my day right along with the rest of them. I can hear her explaining to my dad why he has to be nice to his little sister, teaching her how to do her math homework, and asking my uncle about his upcoming track meet. I can see her cooking dinner in their kitchen and washing dishes in the sink, staring out the window into the woods, watching the birds she loved in the backyard. I can hear her calling out from the front porch for them to come in at night – because that’s what you do in small town Eau Claire, Wisconsin – and if I’m honest, I can even see her sneaking a few naughty things they did past grandpa, to avoid getting his heart rate up. Some women aspire to be “more than just a homemaker,” my grandma took housewife to a new level. I truly believe she felt it was her calling from the Lord to be an excellent wife and mother, and never missed an opportunity to serve Him, while she served them.
She and my grandpa were meant for each other. She just recently told me so. She said that when she first met him, she had been seeing someone else, but called him up to tell him he need not call on her again. She had met the man she was going to marry. She was dedicated to him, that’s for sure. Upon returning from active duty in WWII and getting a job, my grandpa had to spend extensive time in a hospital far away from home, for tuberculosis. My grandmother stood by him. He took a job in Washington D.C., working for a politician you may have heard of, she picked up her life and their family and followed him. He became a newspaper man, eventually becoming the Editor in Chief of the Eau Claire Leader Telegram. This meant years of late nights, early mornings, and phone calls when someone didn’t get their paper like they were supposed to – and she selflessly supported him through it all. It can’t be easy to play “second fiddle” – but I think it’s a state of mind – and one she never had.
I was her first grandchild. It’s hard to improve on perfection, and I think she knew it would be all downhill from there. In all seriousness, whether it was my little brother, or my step-siblings who entered the picture later, there was never a moment when you didn’t feel smothered by the love of Arlene. She initiated each holiday with a hug, but it was really more like a squeeze. If you weren’t careful it might just squeeze the life right out of you. She LIVED for her family, and never was she happier than when they were all together in one place. She loved and accepted any and everyone into our family, and in spite of any failing, you could always count on grandma’s love – even in the form of a card on your birthday, anniversary, Christmas or sometimes for no reason at all. They usually contained a check, and if you hadn’t cashed it in a week, you could expect a follow up phone call to make sure you hadn’t misplaced it. She wasn’t angry, just wanted to make sure you didn’t need another one.
As we were growing up, we would make the voyage to Eau Claire to see them around the holidays and in the summer. My brother and I, being “active” little children, took to exploring their house and turning it into our playpen. Their house had lots of historical stuff, grandpa’s doing I suppose, but it also contained a magical device unlike anything we had ever seen or otherwise experienced. A clothes chute. That’s right, a hole in the floor, with a big wooden cage underneath it, was the coolest thing about grandma’s house. We must have spent HOURS climbing up and down through, that hole, until, one sad day, I became too large to fit through it. Sadness ensued, but it was nothing that a Ham and Swiss sandwich and some jello couldn’t fix – and grandma was ready with both.
As the years went on and I became her “adult” grandchild, her love manifested itself in both new and the familiar ways. There were still hugs, there were still cards, and there was still jello – but as I got married and started a family of my own, I began to experience her love for me, through her love for them. She and my grandpa once informed me, that they would have been happy no matter who I married, but that I made the right choice by choosing Emily. And you have never seen a woman beam with pride and joy, like she did the day she first held my son Ezekiel. She was smitten from the start, and it only grew with each impending grandchild. Her family was STILL her life – and we all knew it. I have many amazing memories of her laughing and playing with my kids, and those of my siblings, and the sound of her patented “nnnnnneeeeeeeat!” – whenever something neat, actually happened.
The loss of my grandpa a few years ago shook her to be sure. They were married 66 years, and when you spend that much time in love with someone, how can there not be hole in you when they are gone. But she continued to be the woman God created her to be. A social butterfly, massively involved in her local church, and a matriarch of deep faith. She once told my uncle that she had never struggled with spiritual doubt, because she’d always “just known” that her Lord loved her. An amazing blessing to be sure, and one she shared with neighbors, friends, live-in house guests, and anyone her grandsons stopped in with on a random trip to Milwaukee or Green Bay. She loved to love, and she did it well. She singlehandedly made the spiritual gifts of service and hospitality come alive to me, and for that I will forever be indebted to her. That and her cream cheese French dressing and garlic powder chip dip, now THAT stuff is like crack. But I digress…
God created the world in six days, literal or otherwise doesn’t really matter. He said let there be light, and there was. He said let there be land and there was. He said let there be man and woman and we were. And at some point, I believe He said, let there be strawberry jello… a wonderful gift, if only just for me and my brother, to help us make it through some challenging family holidays. Then, today, on a seemingly normal Monday in December, I think God wanted His strawberry jello back. Earth has been blessed with it, and with her, for 92 years, and so today, God said; “Let there be strawberry jello in Heaven…” – and there is. Grandma passed away peacefully today, in the arms of her children, singing praises to her Savior. The way she wanted to go. The way we all should go. And while this Christmas will be stranger and much harder with her gone, I take great pleasure in knowing that she is face to face with the One she has been serving all these years. I have no doubt that at 1:40 this afternoon, Arlene Steffen looked into the eyes of Jesus, and He said to her – “well done, my good and faithful servant” – and it was music to her ears. I don’t know if there will be strawberry jello at my house this Christmas – and if there is, it won’t be quite as good. But there will be some at a table in Heaven, in a room made just for her – and someday down the road, I’ll walk in, give my grandma a great big hug, sit down and eat Heaven’s best strawberry jello, from an eternally full red Solo cup, that’s waiting just for me.