Today was the 143rd Kentucky Derby. We're a Derby family: we've been to the Derby twice as a family, I remember watching the Derby in 1992 from my apartment in Boston because my then-husband was at a Marine Corps Reserve training weekend, and my great-aunt Shirley and my great-uncle Norton always bet on the Derby. They'd usually watch it from my grandparents' living room while all of us kids were running around like crazed banshees. I know the first two versus and the chorus from My Old Kentucky Home, the state song of Kentucky. I don't think I know that much of the Wisconsin state song.
The Derby marks the arrival of May. A complicated month for me. This month has Mother's Day, my birthday, my grandson's birthday which is the same day as my cousin Ann's birthday, my second cousin's birthday which is the same day as mine, my friend Becky's birthday, and Memorial Day weekend. For 20 years we've referred to Memorial Day weekend as "Gravehopping" because it was about 20 years ago that I started going to Shawano to place flowers on our relatives' graves with my grandparents, great-aunt Kootchie, and my great-aunt and uncle Shirley & Butch. Grandpa, Kootchie, and Butch are gone now. Shirley and Grandma are both in nursing homes.
I was the only grandchild who tagged along with them back in 1997. It remained that way for three years until my sister decided to join us, which I was ok with. A few years later when my other female cousins and aunts decided to join in, my initial reaction was jealousy. My first thoughts were, "Fuck no people. This is my thing, not yours." I felt invaded upon. By the time we got to the Red River Tavern & Grocery, my jealousy had withered away and I thought, "The women in my family kick ass! We need to all do this every year." The weekend title "Gravehopping" was born.
Before we left for the cemeteries at 1pm, we had what amounted to a banquet cooked by Grandma, served in her kitchen on South Smalley Street. The menu included a mix-and-match of some of the following: teriyaki chicken wings, ham, pasta salad, a relish tray including radishes cut like roses, cucumber salad, potato salad and at least two desserts such as cherry torte and rhubarb torte. But the absolute BEST part of Gravehopping was the breakfast Grandma cooked on Sunday morning. In her cast iron skillet she fried eggs over hard in the bacon grease from freshly fried bacon. I began looking forward to that breakfast as soon as I was driving home from the weekend. However, here comes the rub.
The week before Gravehopping in 2015 my grandma picked rhubarb from her yard and while walking back to the house twisted her ankle in an uneven spot in the backyard and she fell. She fell hard and fractured her hip. Someone driving by stopped and asked if she was ok. She wasn't and somehow either my aunt Margie and uncle Dan were called or an ambulance came (I'm not sure of the details) but she ended up at Shawano Memorial Hospital and was then transferred to AMC for hip surgery.
She was picking that rhubarb to make a torte for me because she knows I love her rhubarb torte. The guilt and responsibility I continue to feel about how that one event, an event she was engaging in for me, makes me cry to this day, even as I type this on my laptop in my living room two years later.
Gravehopping was different that year because Grandma was at a hospital in Appleton and we were all in Shawano, ready to stick silk flowers into the dirt next to headstones of our ancestors. We followed our basic routine, minus the pre-Gravehopping food feast, and those of us who usually spent the night at Grandpa & Grandma's did even though Grandma wasn't there. I was the last one to leave the house that Sunday.
There were no eggs fried in bacon grease on Sunday morning, and there never would be again.
Although Grandma recovered quickly from hip surgery, when the OT folks did the home safety assessment, they determined that Grandma couldn't return home because the house was so small she couldn't adequately use her walker or other adaptive equipment they recommended for installation. So she's been at Maple Lane since around mid-June of 2015. The house was sold in the fall of 2015. I no longer have a place to come home to in Shawano. It is heart-breaking because pre-hip fracture, whenever we visited, she always told us to "Come home again soon." I don't visit Shawano often any more because I don't feel that I have a place there where I belong. I don't have a home anymore.
Quite some time before the contents of the house were dismantled and the "For Sale" sign went into the corner of the front yard, my sister got a hold of Grandma's cucumber salad recipe. I've asked Grandma for recipes many times and when relaying them, she always started with, "Well you take some flour and sugar and eggs and beat them together..." It's virtually impossible for me to replicate anything she's ever baked, cooked, or fried based on that information. However, there is one thing I've managed to translate into something edible and that is Grandma's cucumber salad.
The recipe I got from my sister doesn't list the order of ingredients, and there are a few quantities of items missing, but I've managed to cobble it together into something quite spectacular. I first made it for a Salad Bar lunch at work in the summer of 2016. My coworkers raved about it. Honestly, I'm not just making this shit up to help myself feel better. Ask anyone who was there: they loved it.
I brought it to Easter dinner at my parents' house this year and both Rog & Shirl said it tasted exactly like Grandma's.
Exactly like Grandma's. I can't imagine a greater compliment in the world. Maybe one Sunday morning I'll fry eggs in bacon grease in my cast iron skillet.