52 Ancestors #13: Food Roots Run Deep

Last week, I quietly looked toward the sky and wished my Grandpa Raines a happy birthday. Yesterday, I looked the same direction and wished my grandparents a happy 74th wedding anniversary. I seemed only fitting that this week’s 52 Ancestors post be about my grandmother, Doris Louise Schuster. 

Grandma was born on July 23, 1923 to George (1893-1967) and Ida (Mueller, 1898-1977) Schuster. Born in Murphysboro, Illinois, she was one of 6 children.  George and Ida both descended from German immigrants who settled in St. Clair County, Illinois.  Grandma married James L. Raines on March 30, 1940.  Together, they had 5 children: James, Kay, Gary, David and my mom, Debbie.  

The photo below was taken around the time she and Grandpa were married … I know she was 16 in the photo.  It’s bent and torn and frayed on the edges because Grandpa carried it with him during WWII. He loved this photo of her.  I remember the day he showed it to me for the first time. We had already lost her. Grandpa didn’t say anything … he never had to … but the look on his face was one of a proud husband and a man who loved his wife. 

Doris Schuster 1939

Doris Louis Schuster, age 16

Potato salad goes in the yellow bowl

Grandma didn’t exactly teach me how to cook, but I was in the kitchen with her enough as an innocent bystander (and spatula licker!) that I picked up nearly every trick she had.  What I remember most is that food was simple and she was very predictable.  Potato salad, deviled eggs, green beans, jello, fried chicken, fried fish, pot roast, mashed potatoes … and the list goes on and on. Nothing took more than a handful of ingredients and everything tasted just like the last time she made it. She and Grandpa were simple people. They didn’t need much and lived, in a lot of ways, off the land.  He hunted and gardened, she had chickens in the backyard. By the time I came around, the chickens were gone and she made mac & cheese from a box … but Grandpa loved it, so she made it. 

In my lifetime, breakfast was bacon and fried eggs with toast and black coffee.  I can still hear her clanking around in the kitchen on a weekend morning … I would sleep on Grandpa’s WWII cot at the foot of her bed (they slept in separate rooms). She would quietly get out of bed and go into the kitchen, carefully closing the bedroom door behind her so as to not wake me and grandpa. By the time I woke to smells of bacon, breakfast was ready.  She would never let me drink coffee, though. She said it would stunt my growth!

Lunch was usually a bologna sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise … or salad dressing as she called it … and “red jello”.  Not cherry or strawberry, but red.  No other color was allowed in the house. Ever. Even today, bologna sandwiches I make at home don’t taste half as good as the ones she and I used to put together and place on paper towels for lunchtime. There’s just something about Grandma’s house and food. 

Family get-togethers meant potato salad, green beans, BBQ chicken or fried fish and an unfathomable array of jello molds and cakes. We only got together at Grandma and Grandpa’s in the summer … their house was just too small for all of us to be cooped up inside during cold months.  There were a lot of us!  She had one of the original primary colored Pyrex mixing bowl sets.  Potato salad always went in the yellow bowl. Green beans always went in the green bowl. Red jello always went in the red bowl.  I have those three bowls safely displayed in my house.  I don’t know what happened to the blue bowl. She wasn’t in the habit of serving blue food … remember, no blue jello allowed … so I suspect she had less use for it!

Food roots run deep

I have endless stories about my grandparents … they were the only ones I had, or at least knew … so I’m tied to them both strongly.  He was mischievous and she was calculating and, together, they could make your head spin with the constant pranks and bickering. That’s what made them … them. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Sometime in the late 1990s, we began seeing signs of dementia in Grandma.  It was little stuff in the beginning, calling us by the wrong name or not remembering things.  Maybe we didn’t really notice at first. After all, don’t we all have episodes like that at one time or another? By the time I was 30, Alzheimer’s had fully set in and Grandma didn’t usually know where she was or who was around her. It’s hard to watching someone you love … someone you’ve known as vibrant, methodical, intelligent and even stubborn deteriorate in front of your eyes.

Even on really bad days, you could still talk to her about canning green beans or making jam and she would give you instructions … perfect instructions … on how to do it as if you were both standing over the stove.  She could talk about food and remember it … it made sense to her. I was the fortunate one. She always knew me, even in the end when nobody else seemed familiar to her, she always knew me. I will go to my grave not understanding why. Her children and husband were foreigners, but she knew me. Maybe that’s a testament to the strength of a relationship. Maybe. I’ll never know.

The last I love You

I always told Grandma “I love you” when I would end one of our visits.  Those were the last words she spoke to me on November 29, 2006.  “I love you, Niki”, she said, and they are forever etched on my heart. 

Grandma passed away in her sleep on the evening of December 2, 2006 at the age of 83. I later learned that she had asked about me when Grandpa went to visit her that morning. She always knew me. 

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