by Kayla Matzke Newbanks
I rolled out the pie dough as evenly as I could, gently pressing the rolling pin down all directions. My great aunt Grace corrected me, telling me I was putting too much weight on the pin. It needed to be effortless, a simple motion repeated to create the paper-thin crust.
Right before high school, I was spending a week of summer at Grace’s farm east of McClusky, North Dakota. I came to learn how to make the perfect pie, to soak up all of her knowledge about the simple pleasures in life, like making the best dough recipe for German kneophla.
Like my mother, I spent some time each summer at the farm, canning beans, picking potato bugs off of the potatoes plants in the garden, painting fences, and playing in the barn. But it never really struck me until I was 13 that the farm has been Grace’s home since birth. The old white farmhouse she grew up in used to stand 50 feet south of her current doorway. The thousands of acres Grace and her husband farmed is the same land my great grandfather purchased when he came to North Dakota.
As she corrected me again in her stern German way about my dough rolling, I breathed in the familiar aroma of her kitchen, a combination of dill, hints of the mornings’ coffee and real cream. Grace was an idol to me, the closest thing I had to a blood grandmother. She was the keeper of tradition, a link to the past and a cord connecting me to the magnificent, do-it-all women relatives I never knew – women with no dishwashers, no Walmarts, and no other way of carrying on everyday life without the skills their mother’s taught them.
The farm lies in the pothole region of the state, flat prairies pocked with pond-like depressions. Between this desolate, flat land and the empty skies lies my family story. To me, Grace was the keeper of this land’s history.
When I roamed the vast farmyard, I could envision the old two-story farmhouse and Grace’s stories that went with it. I imagined my great grandmother on the porch, her apron revealing the pooch of her lower belly stretched from bearing twelve children. A tight bun clenched atop her head, she’s banging the supper bell just before sunset.
Near the sunflower field I could imagine my own grandmother – a woman I never knew – posing for one of those black and white pictures in a musty album. Names I’d heard before and faces I’d seen in yellowed photos came alive. The farm became more than Grace’s home, the place we spent holidays; it became my past, my history. My roots were deeper than those of the countless summer’s harvest of durum and barley. Along with the crops, I grew from this place.
As a girl, I’d walk to the field near the old railroad tracks, to pick chokecherries. By late afternoon on most summer days, I was sent out to Grace’s raspberries lining the Quonset. Not long after I located the ripest of berries, Grace would join me with her pail and straw hat. Her fine-boned feminine frame still strong, she would squat examining her plants. Reviewing my progress, she would advise me on which berries should be picked and tell me to look around the whole bush for the fruit. “Here, let me show you. You have to look around the entire shrub for berries. See?” she would say. If only then I would have realized all the value in Grace’s knowledge and appreciated her simple lessons.
As I neared adulthood the farm became proof of my long-dead relatives existence, and their story was mine. After hearing some of the farm’s past from Grace and paging through worn photo albums, I couldn’t wander the farm without feeling a connection deeper than blood to these people I never knew.
Today as Grace has completed weekly rounds of chemo, fighting her second battle with breast cancer in almost a decade – at 76, a fight she might not win – everyday activities like baking pies and gardening are put aside. Her life is different without hair and a left breast.
At the end of August on her birthday, my mother and I drove 70 miles to the farm to celebrate Grace’s birthday. “I’ll put on my wig,” she said when mom told her we were coming up to celebrate. Thunderheads tailed us as we drove along Highway 200 to the farm. We passed farmers combining fields, trying to finish harvesting before the storm. The scenes out the window only reminded me that illness and age had seized the vital woman I adored, a woman who should have been caught up in harvest too. Driving down that lonely two-lane highway I wondered what would become of my family’s long tradition of working the land.
As we pulled into the driveway, Grace greeted us at the door like always. Her salt and pepper wig wasn’t the same as her sun-kissed light brown hair. Her body was smaller and her skin paler. Grace moved slower as she led us from the atrium to her kitchen. Her body seemed weary from a fight. Her freezer wasn’t filled with prime cuts of beef from the last butchering and homemade buns frozen for summer sandwiches; it was stocked with TV dinners for the days she couldn’t find the strength to leave bed. I realized her kitchen was lonelier and her garden smaller. The land is emptier, too, since my aunt stopped farming it and rented it out. Driving home that night after visiting, I wished I could travel back to the summer days of picking raspberries and cooking with my beloved aunt whose days are dwindling.
Months later, as the cold of winter settled among the prairies sucking all the life out of the stubble of wheat fields, my mother told me Grace’s cancer had moved into her brain. My throat swelled and my stomach churned; it became real to me that her fate was terminal. Tumors were cluttering her brain like weeds. Her eyesight and hearing started to fade. Like the winter’s long hold over the prairie my aunt’s cancer had seized the strong woman I so admired.
“Is that Tiffany?” Grace said, mistaking me for my sister, as I entered the house during my last visit at Christmastime. She sat immobile on the couch with a quilt on her lap. “Come sit next to me,” she said. Her head was swollen, and the clear light blue of her eyes seemed murky and gray. I’d never seen her so frail. Tears flooded down my cheeks as she made small talk with me. I hoped she couldn’t see them but I knew they were clear, even to her worn sight, as she stared at me. I told her about the supper my mom and cousins were preparing in her kitchen.
“Be sure to check those potatoes,” Grace said. “The cream will curdle if you don’t watch them. They need to be checked,” she said with the same attention to detail she always had when she was in the kitchen. It’s always been Grace’s concern for details and love for those she was serving that made all of the meals she cooked memorable.
Evening set in and a blue glow bounced off the snow from the night sky leaking into the farmhouse windows. I thought it could be one of the last times my family and I sat amongst my aunt’s dinning room table with her. Grace sat in her wheelchair at the head of the table like always. Her favorite Christmas apron draped onto her lap even though she didn’t have the strength to help prepare our meal. “Let me know if you need anything,” she said as we ate.
I headed to the kitchen after gathering dishes from the table and Grace said, “I should be in there helping them.” Even though she has lost the physical ability to perform the tasks that are so important to her like gardening, canning and cooking for loved ones, her will to do those things hasn’t died.
Roaming through my memories at Grace’s farmstead, I will never forget the vibrant colors that glowed in her pantry, reflecting a rainbow of preserves and vegetables in Kerr jars; the smell of her kitchen and her magic with plants. Above all, I will never lose the simple recollections of her teaching me the very activities she loved, like how to roll out a proper pie crust.
Already, I’m missing this woman, the emblem of the maternal side of my family. I’m mourning the loss of the things she could have told me, could have taught me. I’m mourning the moments I won’t have and my connection to those before me. I’m missing the farm and the warmth of her home, the connection to my history that will inevitably be severed. The land and its keeper are slipping away from me.
Writer’s note: The author wrote this personal essay in the final months of her great aunt’s life. Grace lost her battle with breast cancer in January 2009.
Kayla Matzke Newbanks is a writer residing in San Diego, Calif. where her husband serves in the Navy. She has a bachelor’s in print journalism from the University of Montana.