You are a part of me

(AUSTIN, Texas) — Hello again, and thank you for reading. I just got off the phone with my father, and he stated in a way that rang a little too true that I am in a morass. Part of me hates those words because they sound so final, and part of me nods my head at their appropriateness. Here is what I know: I am lightly settled into Austin. I am a waitress and host at a restaurant here, as well as a freelance writer and photographer, just getting started. And I don’t want to complain. And I don’t want to be angry and pine for what isn’t. But I do want a dream. The absence of one not only makes me feel lame but a little crazy.

In many ways, I’m glad to be here. I like having a slight understanding of a city and the time to actually make some friends, see some movies and bake things. There are opulent movie theater brewpubs here, for God’s sake. I mean, that’s amazing. In Austin, the food is great, the cost of living is reasonable, and the video store I frequent is far hipper than I could have ever hoped for. But still, every time I see a large map of the US (as I did recently at the visitor’s center in nearby Wimberley), I get downright hungry and antsy, and I yearn to travel. When I look at the colored blocks of Utah and New Mexico and imagine those wide-open spaces, I have to fight to stay present in my Texas world. I don’t want my traveling to become a neurosis, something I can’t control, but God, it only takes one whiff of drama in this town to make me want to hit the road. I have my job, and I have my younger brother staying indefinitely with me (he’s recently out of college and is looking for something as I am — but this is another story). Both these experiences are absolutely amazing and rare and feel like huge opportunities. They also, at times, make me want to hitch up my trailer and drive west. Alone.

So, in lieu of having some great bit of philosophy for you or a beautiful game plan to share, I’m going to focus this posting on something beyond what’s going on with me right now. This happened a few months in the past, but for whatever reason I couldn’t bring myself to write about it until now. It’s the story of my grandmother’s funeral.

It’s really not a sad tale, I promise. It’s more about discovery than anything else.

I didn’t know her that well, but I have this sense that she affected me more than I understand and will continue to do so. Her name was Vi Klasseen, and she was 88, and she was a world traveler who had lived in Redding, Calif. for decades. Everyone expected her to live much longer, for her death to be a drawn-out and gradual process, as it had been with her mother, who died at nearly 100. But she surprised us.  She fell and broke her hip and sometime during her convalescence, she just went. She had already requested not to be put onto one of those breathing machines, and so she wasn’t, and she died before my grandfather or any of her five kids could see her one last time. This happened a few months ago, and I didn’t write a bit of it down then but instead seared certain moments into memory as best I could. I can’t decide whether this story is complex or simple. While I was visiting California, I kind of felt like I understood things a bit, but maybe that was just wishful thinking. Or maybe I was in that comfortable place I often am where I know just enough to know that there is so much I won’t ever understand.

Yeah, let’s go with that.

Here is some of what I do know. My grandmother was an impressive lady. From what I’ve heard, she was at least six feet tall in her heyday and had feet that were size 12 or more. She had degrees from UCLA and Northwestern. When she was my age, she bicycled around post-war Europe and fell in love with France, to which she would return many times. Not long after Europe, she met my grandfather at an intentional farm begun in part by conscientious objectors to World War II (Grandpa Ted had a been a soldier during the war, but I think the two of them became pacifists). They were engaged in a matter of weeks. When Grandma died, they had been married 62 years. Before Grandma’s death, I honestly did not know that much about her, just a bit more than was obvious. She traveled; she had taught kindergarten; she was active in the Methodist Church. She lived in a dirt house that she and Grandpa had built themselves. She was generally an out-there person, and yet we never got too close. That’s the beginning of the part of her I don’t understand. There was always some barrier between us, and it makes me sad. She used to send me money along with letters that were sprawling and personal but never really warm. I should have written back more than I did. In my guilt, I had actually knitted her a hat recently. I had been meaning to send it but hadn’t yet. As soon as I heard she had died, that’s the first thing I thought about. That did and does make me sick to my heart. As my mom told me about Grandma Vi over the phone, the only words running through my head were “I’m such an asshole.”

I think that’s one of the big reasons I went to the funeral, to make up for something I wish I could have given her when she was alive. I didn’t have the money or time, and I was the only one in the family traveling from outside the state. I had already seen all these folks at my grandparents’ wedding anniversary a few months before, and both my parents were telling me that I didn’t have to come back again. But my uncle spotted me the plane ticket, and my work granted me the days, and I did feel that strong sense of duty or guilt or whatever you want to call it. So about a week after Grandma Vi passed, I boarded a plane to San Francisco.

It was a tiny catharsis toward the middle of the flight that let me know I was doing exactly what I should be. A few hundred miles out of Austin, I woke up and looked out my window onto a brown, barren, snow-dusted world. It was covered with ripples of mountains and canyons and completely free of houses or roads. It didn’t look familiar at all, but it seemed friendly to me, and I instantly felt protective over it. I had feeling it was Utah, and so I asked the flight attendant, and she confirmed this. I don’t know how long I sat there looking at my old home, my smiling and sleepy face pressed up against the glass. It was one of those pauses in time when everything felt connected.

An hour later, I was walking out of the terminal at SFO when I heard a woman calling my name. I looked to my right and saw Jen Sadoff, a friend of mine from Moab. She had just arrived in California to pick up her father who was moving back to Utah with her. I was dumbstruck. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year, and she looked exactly the same — a bright, friendly burst of Utah sticking out against my old life of California. We talked a bit and made tentative plans to get together while we were both in town. This never materialized, but that’s fine. Seeing her was enough to make the beginning of this trip feel like magic.

Not long after, I was in the back of my family’s old Toyota camper, and we were driving north. My mom was at the wheel, and my father and I were sitting at the dinette set and drinking beer as we watched videos of Centennial, a 1970s mini-series based on an old James A. Michener book. These movies were an integral part of my growing up, and something about seeing Lynn Redgrave and Timothy Dalton in their prime always makes me optimistic. Anyway, the five-hour drive was goofy and near perfect — except for the absence of my brother, who was still motorcycling around Mexico by himself then. At the funeral the next day, no one would seem miffed about this, however. In fact, the general consensus would be that he was respecting Vi’s memory by being on the road. People would leave it at that.


Everything felt new and strange in Redding. The grandparents’ dirt house and their intricate maze of gardens perched on their hillside were quiet or lacking in vibrancy or something. Without my grandmother as the rudder, the family seemed scattered. For years, Grandma Vi hadn’t been very physically active and had been losing her hearing. She was not, to say the least, the spryest person, but she was someone around which we all revolved. Now, there was no one filling that role. I hung out with Grandpa and aunts and uncles, and everything felt so final. When would so many people from this family get together again? I couldn’t imagine then, but I can now, and I don’t want to think about it.

In contrast to this solemnity, the funeral was amazing. Every pew was packed, and all kinds of people were there, from former teachers to former farmers to Redding police chiefs, past and present. In front of me was proof of how much this woman had affected this town, and I was crying before the minister even started. When he did, his presentation was fair and sweet, a mixture of adoring and real. He did a little prayer in French, and I strained to follow along. Led by my aunts, there was singing, a lot of it, as would have been my grandmother’s want. At one point, the women joked that they had originally wanted to make the entire funeral a series of hymns, and I believe it. Strong singing is something the Klasseens hold dear.

Then there were the remembrances. A microphone was passed around and my aunts talked, their words a mixture of grief, pride and humor. Aunt Joanna did a pitch-perfect impersonation of Grandma chiding Grandpa, and crowd’s laughter was seasoned with personal experience. Then some other people spoke, people I didn’t know. And then, instinctually, I knew it was my turn. I hadn’t really planned on it and didn’t know what to say, but I stood up and grabbed the mic and looked out over the very full church. Soon, a hand belonging to an elderly lady I barely knew was touching my arm tenderly. This was because I wasn’t talking. I was just standing there, silently sobbing, unable to utter anything.

This pause was somewhere between 30 seconds and a year, depending upon your perspective. Eventually, something changed, though I don’t know what, and I was able to talk again. My words came out in fits first and quickly became smoother. I didn’t touch heavily on how much I regretted or how desperately I wished my relationship with my grandmother had been deeper. Instead, as I collected myself, I told the group how incredibly supportive she had been to me, her first grandchild. As this was all rolling out, I realized how true it really was. She had always been there for me, in her way.

“I ended up working for newspapers in the middle of nowhere,” I told the crowd. “And instead of asking ‘Why are you doing that?’ — she would subscribe.”

That got a kind laugh. In my relief, I decided to only talk for another 30 seconds. In the wake of this, my father got on his feet and started crying as well. He praised the job my grandparents had done raising their kids and said through sobs that from the moment he met my mother, he knew he could trust her. I had no idea how all this was received by everyone at the time, but later, as the audience dined on finger foods together, I heard that people thought my father and I had brought a lot of heart to the ceremony. Strangers kept coming up to me and thanking me for my words. I felt like someone I hadn’t ever really felt like before, like my grandmother’s granddaughter. I have always felt a bit disconnected from my mother’s family, but there I was, one of them. And I was proud of it.


So now it’s a few months later, and I want that feeling back. I know that’s part of why I’m writing this. As I my trailer sits, settling into the soil of this friendly, out-the-way RV park, I worry that my sense of wonder and adventure is ebbing away, dissipating into all the traffic and people and cool neon signs of Austin. I can’t quite explain it, but something about being in California, in the presence of my family and my grandmother’s memory, was a reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way. Looking back, I feel this collective force giving me permission to take risks. It’s permission to be different, to not settle down, to make art. It’s permission get the hell out of Austin if I want. What’s surprising is how easily I forget these things sometimes.

OK, I’m  awake. Now all I need is a dream.

3 comments to You are a part of me

  • Nigel and Denise from Silver

    Hey Stina,

    We came across some of your movie reviews from your Silver City days a while ago and watched one of them (Kitchen Stories — good movie). So we googled you and what a pleasant surprise to find your wonderful blog. Sounds like a great adventure. Reminds me of my days traveling around Europe in the 70s. My son is about to embark on a cross country trip after spending the last 18 mths in San Diego.

    I have some good friends in Austin — Michael and Kristine Hayes. I’ll share your blog with them. Let me know if you’d like their contact info. Their great people and would love to meet you I’m sure.

    You have a great writing career ahead of you — look forward to seeing where it takes you.

    Nigel Vann

  • I just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. This one in particular really pulled on my heart strings, and I actually got teary eyed. I guess because I relate to your relationship with your grandmother. I felt the same about my grandfather when he passed.

    I always look forward to reading your posts.

    Hope you’re doing well!

  • tom henderson

    Met you in Panama City at the gas station. Have been checking your site from time to time. I hope you continue your postings. Do you remember information that I passed on to you reguarding the stock information? I am clearing some swamp land and hope to transform said land in to a true water garden, I hope. We are begining to get some of the drifting oil over here on to Panama city beaches. Well do not be a stranger….Tom

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