Today is my Grandma Steutermann’s birthday. She would have been 110, if she were still alive.
I spent many childhood summers with my grandparents. Grandma taught me how to crochet, quilt, and, importantly, how to make her signature coffee cake. It looks a lot like the bread I made the other day, but it tastes sweeter and is topped with cinnamon and sugar.
Grandma’s coffee cake was legendary. I have no idea whether it was a family recipe handed down to her. I only know that she made it by the barrel, or so it seemed. When my family would arrive at her place in the country outside St. Louis from our suburban Chicagoland home, she would have three loaves hot and ready for us. When we left, she’d pack up three loaves for us to take home. One summer, I asked her for the recipe. Of course, she didn’t have one, so I watched as she made her next batch—not a measuring cup or spoon anywhere near—and wrote everything down. It may have been my first reporting assignment, and I’m so glad I did it, because I seem to be the only one in the family who has the recipe. Years back, Grandma’s daughter asked me for the recipe. A year ago, her niece asked for it, too. Times passes, but I still make it. Most recently, last summer, for my Dad.
Today, when I run the math, I realize Grandma lived through the last global flu pandemic—the Spanish Influenza—which killed people worldwide in the tens of millions from, roughly, January 1918 through December 1920. My Dad wasn’t born until 1937, but he doesn’t remember Grandma or anyone else sharing stories about those grim times. So, I asked my brother, the family historian and genealogist. Nope. No one in the immediate family died of influenza, according to Kirk.
Granted, these family members lived on farms in rural areas; they were naturally socially distanced. But my curiosity wasn’t sated. Call it the journalist in me, I guess. So, I did a little online research and discovered people in and around where Grandma grew up most certainly did die of the influenza—farmers in the prime of their lives were reported to be collapsing in fields and dying in buggies on the way to seek medical help. But I also learned the shrewd response of the St. Louis government helped stem losses in the nearby city.
Basically, people were told to shelter in place. Schools, movie theaters, and churches were closed. Sporting events canceled. Eventually, as the death toll climbed, a stricter quarantine was imposed, banning public gatherings, and closing down all businesses except those deemed essential like banks, grocers, and newspapers. Sound familiar? Also essential were the embalmers and coffin makers.
By the end, the city of St. Louis tallied 31,500 cases of Spanish Flu and 1,703 deaths.
According to The Daily World newspaper, “Thanks to the quarantine, St. Louis’ death rate in 1918 was lowest among major U.S. cities. In Philadelphia, where bodies piled up on sidewalks when the morgues overflowed, the death rate was nearly twice as high.”
Even in Grandma’s remote neck of the woods, people died.
According to the Washington Missourian, many people with last names I recognize from my childhood summers died in and around areas where Grandma lived—St. Clair. New Haven. and Union. We may not remember personal stories from those times, but, at least, some lessons learned have not been forgotten.
In Hawaii, we’re now up to 90 cases, four on Kauai. School closures were extended through April. Just this evening, to spike our blood pressure just a little more, a tsunami watch was issued across Hawaii after an earthquake stuck near islands off Russia. Thankfully, it was canceled 30 minutes later and all returned to normal. Well, as normal as things are right now.
P.S. No, I don’t use Crisco nowadays;-)
11 Comments Add yours
This is lovely: your grandmother, the recipe, and the unexpected segue into pandemic. My parents were both alive during the Spanish influenza. My father would have been ten, freshly translocated from Chicago to Milwaukee, freshly fatherless (divorce), but he never talked about it. My mother would have been four, newly adopted out of an orphanage–and never talked about it either. Now that you mention it, I’m wondering if they did have any stories to tell. No one will ever know. In any case, happy birthday, Grandma Steutermann! Your coffee cake looks scrummy.
Thanks, Anne, for your kind words. I keep thinking maybe they don’t personally remember; however, I’ll bet they heard stories. Maybe they just got diluted over the years, because, so many more stories steam-rolled out–the wars, the dramatic stock market crash and subsequent depression. So many stories from the first half of the last century.
Kim, thanks for the wonderful reporting. Oh yeah, I’m trying the recipe too.
That makes me so happy, Gay. As I recall, it takes about five cups of flour to get the dough just right before setting it aside to rise. Let me know how it turns out!
I wanted you to know I’ve really enjoying your posts. Please keep it up!
Hi Dana, it’s been a long time. Eric said he saw Nick the other day. Be well!
Kim, you wrote a beautiful article on my mother’s birthday. Thank you for all the wonderful comments about your grandmother.
Milt Sent from my iPhone
I have wonderful memories of Grandma and Grandpa Steutermann, Dad. I’m so glad you made sure they were a big part of my life. Love you.
This is fantastic! I’m really enjoying your new posts; thank you!
Had to say that my mom made an awesome coffee cake, so I personally love this in so many ways, not least of which is your childhood spelling of ‘doe’! 🙂
I will add my own PS: my sister who does a lot of wonderful baking still swears by good ole Crisco (mixed with butter) for her pie crusts–just learned that this past Christmas. Interesting, no?
Continue taking care and writing for the greater good!
(I follow you as a fan–met you briefly at Kilauea Lighthouse and tried to comment about how I loved your relationship with Mark Twain but was inarticulate with something of a starstruck effect, I think–or just exhaustion?!)
Hi Tina, great to hear from you. Thanks for reminding me of our connection. I wish I could remember how old I was when I wrote, “doe!” Early teens, I suspect.