I never met her, my father’s mother, Gladys Ella Stowe Arhelger. Born in 1891 in the small town of Friendship, Wisconsin, she knew her way around the kitchen, and was known as a masterful cook and baker. She was also a survivor, and endured some of life’s toughest circumstances.
My Grandmother Arhelger, who died while I was just a baby, married Louis Frank Arhelger in 1914. They had 5 children. My grandfather became a Congregational minister. They lived in New Richmond, Wisconsin and made their way, as best they could, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Being resourceful and hard-working, they had a good life. My father recalls tender moments with his father—sitting on his lap, eating ice cream—and the loyalty and love of his mother, caring for the family.
And then things changed. It was 1937, before the time of adequate antibiotic medications. My grandfather became quite ill with pneumonia, dying soon after. Now at the height of the Great Depression, my grandmother was left to care for her children, while dealing with the shock and grief of her husband’s death. But loss was not new to her. A few years earlier, her 3-year-old son, Stanley, died, likely from a Wilms tumor. Like so many during the early 1900s, she found herself dealing with seemingly unsurmountable events, and cruel twists of fate.
But this is not a story about loss and grief. It’s about fortitude and resiliency, reaching deep inside, to make your way through what challenges you and takes away foundation and stability. This is what my grandmother Arhelger did. Yes, she had some gut-wrenchingly hard years. But she made her way and provided for her family.
My father describes how my grandmother spent her mornings in the kitchen, baking up breads and donuts and cookies and more. He was the delivery boy—pulling along his “Radio Flyer” red wagon—filled with grandma’s creations, to sell to friends and neighbors. She found the means to support her family, and she did it.
My father says that his mother was a saint, and an amazing person. He says she was proud to have produced 2 MDs and 1 PhD, the American dream of the time. I don’t doubt any of it. I just wish that I could have known her. What I do know is that I sure do admire her: her tenacity and ability to forge on in life, no matter what is thrown at you. I understand that her road was not always easy, and that she experienced her own “dark nights of the soul.” But she made it through. That is what is important. To get to the other side. Make your way through the mess. To me this is the badge of not only a survivor, but a thriver. And a thriver she was.
A few years back, my cousin, Nancy, sent me a little silver spoon that belonged to our Grandmother Arhelger which had the engraving “Salmagundi” on it. Nancy was not sure what it meant. My father did not know either. But both recall the spoon being associated with some sort of a luncheon club that my grandmother belonged to. I cherish this spoon. It’s really all I have from my grandmother. To me it signifies the joy she likely felt while working away in her kitchen, baking and cooking and creating. It represents her ability to make a new life, and to launch into “luncheon clubs” and be back in the world, after experiencing tremendous difficulties and deep sadness.
I will never forget you, Grandma Arhelger. Thank you for passing along your love of the kitchen and cooking and baking to me. And to my brother Jim, an accomplished baker and chef in his own right.
Who in your family, or in your life, has inspired you? Who has left an imprint on your spirit, on your life? Take some time to acknowledge them. If they are alive, thank them. Nothing is more meaningful than a letter or phone call from someone whose life you have impacted positively. Not only will this action make the recipient of your gratitude feel wonderful, but you will feel heartened, too.