Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Remembering Gen

It wasn’t always easy—she and Earl raised eight kids in a two bedroom, one bath house—but Gen Duffy lived her life with her own unique brand of wisdom and humor. South Dakota Swedish Norwegian Lutheran farm girl wisdom and humor that she transplanted to Minnesota and applied as needed every day for nearly 70 years.

She had the good sense to accept people for who they were and not to try to change them into someone or something they weren’t. And to love them on those terms—for who they were, not for who or what she may have felt they ought to be.

She raised her kids that way—accepting and loving each one for who they were, not trying to make them into someone they were not. Her kids knew she loved and accepted them unconditionally and grew up loving and accepting each other. She more than anyone else made the Duffys the strong, loving family they are today.

She had the wisdom to let her kids be kids. Growing up Duffy, you got to play with fire, run with sharp objects, blow things up and hit them with axes. You got sent outside to play every morning. You came home for lunch, went out again, came home for supper, then out to play until dark.

There were days when the other mothers along Talmadge Way must have thought of the Duffy kids as a roving gang of hell raisers. Gen got her share of phone calls.

When she wasn’t getting phone calls, she was getting other things done. Cooking breakfast and lunch at the A&W she and Earl bought. Doing laundry and ironing for a family of ten. Sewing clothes. Teaching kindergarten, When the neighborhood needed school bus service, she made it happen. And every summer, she and Earl spent their vacation, volunteering for Saint William’s Parish Diner at the State Fair.

She was the first one up in the morning and the last one to bed at night, and yet, somehow, she found the energy to go square dancing with Earl at the Eagles Club on the weekend.

Her brand of love and acceptance shined at Christmas. She used to keep a stash of presents, wrapped and ready for stray people her kids would bring home on Christmas Eve. Nothing flashy or expensive. Just a little something so whoever it was could feel welcome and have something to open.

I got one of those presents my first Duffy Christmas—a pair of thin black cotton socks, from K-Mart, (where she worked for 25 years). Somebody brought a stewardess they’d met on the flight home that year. She got a couple of embroidered dishtowels.

Gen was one of those people the whole community could count on—a joiner, a show-er upper. She hated bowling, but for years there, she bowled on the K-Mart team in some league.

Then there was the Friendly Fridley Seniors Club. She didn’t just go to the meetings. She got involved and made things happen. She had a way of calling members up and extorting baked goods or other commitments for meetings and fundraisers.

Those poor seniors never knew what hit them. It was never, “Would you please…?” Or “could you…?” It was always. “What can I put you down for?” Or, “Do you want to bring coffee cake or rolls?” She never gave them way to say “No”.

She used the same technique to get us to come home and do yard work in the spring and fall.

At Christmas, she sold Friendly Fridley wreaths to a long list of regular customers in neighborhoods up and down the River Road. You haven’t lived until you’ve helped her on wreath delivery day. She rode shotgun and checked off names on a list. You shlepped the wreaths and made the collections. Her wreath bookkeeping was meticulous. Just a couple weeks ago—in the hospital right before Christmas—she was on some family member’s case. They owed her $69 for Friendly Fridley wreaths.

To her, food was an expression of love, and she instilled that love of cooking and food in all her kids. In good times or bad, in sickness and health, food is the Duffy way of telling the world you love it.

So Gen and her kids—and now her grandkids—have a way of describing people and events from family reunions, to birthdays, to weddings, to baptisms, even funerals—in terms of what food was served, how it was prepared, and how it tasted.

If anyone she knew took a trip, Gen would sit at her kitchen table and describe it to you a meal at a time—whether she had been on the trip or not.

She knew who ate what in Italy. How the fish (she would say “feesh”) tasted in Norway. Only last week, the last time I visited her at the hospital, she was talking about how good the meals were on the farm growing up.

She loved cheap processed food as much or more than haute cuisine. She was at death’s door a couple of weeks ago. Her heart was racing. Her blood pressure was out of control. Somebody slipped her some Cheetos and Pepsi, and she more or less instantly took a big turn for the better.

There was that wonderful quirky sense of humor. Her older brother Clifford—a gentle, soft-spoken farmer—used to tell her, “You’re weird.” Then he’d say, “But weird is good.”

I agree. Gen’s brand of weird was especially good when viewed from the perspective of a son in law.

One year for Christmas she gave her sons in law gift wrapped packages of meat. Not prime cuts from a premium butcher shop either. This stuff was labeled “Random Meat” and came from Country Club Market—.Super Valu’s downscale chain Presents being presents, she’d taken a pen and blacked out the price.

I think it was that same year that she gave one of us son-in-laws an old furnace blower motor she’d found under the basement stairs. Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like a couple pounds of random meat and a blower motor.

Earl passed away in 1976, and Gen continued to live in that beautiful little home, she made, surrounded by all the beautiful people she’d made, and all the people they brought home to her. She enjoyed 62 years in that house—a proud, independent woman right up to the end.

In many ways, she did some of her best work in her last years, loving and accepting grandchildren and great grandchildren for who they were, giving them savings bonds at Christmas, painting, gardening, going to church, jockeying slot machines at the casino (her other church), staying richly and wonderfully involved with the world.

So many stories. So much laughter and wisdom and humility and love. There isn’t time for all of it here right now. I understand there’ll be a mic at lunch, and the Duffys want me to encourage everyone who has a Gen story to share it with all of us then.

Finally, the 25th chapter of Matthew, verse 21 reads in part, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant… Come and share your masters’ happiness.”

Please stand and join me in a big, long, round of applause for Ole and Selma’s girl. For the love of Earl’s life. For Pat, Kay, Mike, Jim, Tom, Tim, Mary and John’s mother…

Well done, Gen… Really, incredibly well done.