Before roads were much of anything in most of this country, my grandmother made adventurous journeys by automobile to faraway places like the borderlands of Texas and the coast of Virginia. Born in 1915, she was just a teenage girl on the first trip. Traveling with family -- no men among them -- every couple hundred miles a tire would blow out and they would wait on the side of the road for assistance. Finally arriving at one night's stop, she remembered the Mexican women, beautiful and elegant, making tortillas around an open fire. As my grandmother told me this story, her long fingers -- blue with age but gentle and luminescent -- patted each other and turned in the motions she remembered seeing long ago.
The trip to Virginia came a couple years later. Among her memories then was the pleasure of going to the wharf and watching the young fishermen come in from the sea. She must have been popular, sitting in a white dress in the back of a Roaring '20s convertible, because she smiled as she recounted how the young men would call at her.
To set the record straight, she wasn't there to flirt -- she once corrected me when I told this story before -- though the men definitely flirted with her. She was there, because that's where the activity was -- and it was fascinating to watch the boats and their lines and the sunburnt men hauling in the fish.
These were two of her stories. There were thousands more -- about how she met her husband at a friend's wedding, and how quickly he asked her out and soon after proposed. There were tales about her husband's father and brothers -- which included an interesting perspective on the early days of professional football (and how little it paid). She told us about her parents and grandparents -- and how her ancestors came to the United States from Bohemia. Her mother, especially, was real to me as I had known her, and the love between them was palpable.
One time, living in St. Louis, when life was rocky and she was exhilarated but worn by raising her young daughters, a neighbor talked to her about how nothing is lost in God's kingdom. And the message became real to her when she heard about a man whose overcoat button was lost when jumping onto a trolley car. Those buttons were expensive, she told me, and not lightly replaced when money is low. But he prayed, and returning home that night, there was the button. In God's place. Found. And he and his overcoat were whole again.
My brothers and sisters and I grew up with my grandmother. She lived with us and watched over us like a second mom. Through the years, we all had many experiences together, which are cherished. From trips to Florida -- when her wig once blew off in the wind -- to gardening at her cabin on Castor River and making s'mores around the campfire. More recently, she has been the brightest flower in the bouquet of our family gatherings, always dressed in the most vivid colors -- with a smile and soft cheek so sweet to kiss.
My daughter, Yuliana Kurka, is named after her and her daughters. And for the past year we've visited, and they've played peekaboo, sung and sorted shapes together. Largely, I've been just a bystander, enraptured by their delight in each other. One amazing moment was watching the two reach their fingertips at each other and touch so gently and smile. It was like I was witnessing an alternative version of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. From one to another: life.
It was at one of these recent gatherings that my grandmother told me -- what sparked it, I don't remember -- that she had warned my mom not to date my father. "He's a jock, Wendy," she had said. "He'll always be a jock." And then she laughed, "But it worked out just fine." Grandmother always made clear her pride in her daughters, their husbands and their children -- all of them. And her home was filled with photos -- always up-to-date -- of smiling faces, often in exotic and adventurous locations, and she would know the latest about cousins and nieces and nephews, whose birthdays she never missed with a card.
On Friday night, my grandmother, Virginia Kurka Frenzel, passed away. She of the Adameks, the Miks and the Langmeiers. Of lifelong curiosity and insatiable reading. Of wondrous friendships and beautiful, self-tailored clothing. Of songs at Thanksgiving. Of honesty. And mind over matter. Of the sweetest cheek. Her latest journey has just begun.
In a letter to my brothers and sisters yesterday, my mother wrote, "She has left an inspiring legacy for us all. It's hard to let her go but she will always, always be with us -- and she knew that."
She was 91 and indomitable -- God's "button," found and brought home.
Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.