Orene Dunzweiler is larger than life, something I’m trying to focus on as we anticipate her suddenly looming, inconceivable death. I feel dizzy at the thought of her not being here and after a morning of sobbing all I can do is write. I hope to document some shred of how important she is to me, to my family, to so many other people, before she passes. After too many deaths of loved ones in recent years, so many of them premature, it feels important to say it now.
Orene is and always has been bigger than this moment. Bigger than everything around her practically, both physically and emotionally. I have to believe that means she will continue to be a force after the cancer takes her away from everyone on this earth whose lives she’s touched, shaped, inspired and made more colorful, more cheese-filled, more cared for, more grounded in the good lessons of kindergarten and Christianity, and simply more joyful. Over more than seven decades.
Physically, she has always dominated. Standing at nearly six feet tall, maybe taller, she is the tallest woman I’ve ever personally known. And all that height is full of ample warmth and invitation. Softness. Teacherliness. Firmness. Perfect for hugging and getting a hug from. Orene – or Grandma Orene, as my kids now know her, just like I called her mother Grandma when I was a child – was a kindergarten teacher before retirement. She has been a lifelong churchgoer and churchgiver, attending services at the First United Methodist Church on Sacramento’s J Street every Sunday, leading the “children’s time” for years – which meant reading a book to the kids in attendance about halfway through service, right before they were released to the children’s care room where they could play freely so the grownups could focus on the sermon. She mastered children’s time like no one else could, both gentle and assured, kind and commanding. Her voice projected naturally to the back of the sanctuary, but never felt too loud when you were up close. She held kids on her lap and others gathered around on the steps, all in an instant Rockwellian sort of image of simultaneous squirreliness and calm.
She has prepared and served countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners to the surrounding community – often alongside my mom, her good friend from age 11 onward. The two women have traveled throughout California and across the country for Methodist women’s conferences and other trips, both when they could walk well and when they couldn’t, adjusting transport accordingly for the latter in recent years. Always coming home with tales of the phenomenal speakers (and the duds), and fun side excursions.
Our families have grown up together, becoming family ourselves. My sister and I, the Smiths, along with other family friends the Joneses, and the Dunzweiler kids, Krista and Glen, spent holidays together, attended each others’ birthday parties and swam in each others’ backyard pools. (The Brooks and Helsel kids were also in this mix.) We took weekly art classes from Orene’s mom, our “Grandma” Burt, giggling and occasionally getting in trouble while eagerly focused on the candy that we got to pick out ourselves after class – all the while learning real principles of drawing a proper person, animal or landscape. Or using colors with exotic names, like our favorite: Burnt Siena. We begged our parents to go to each other’s houses – usually my Grandma’s, since it was closest – after church each Sunday, for mac and cheese and to be able to walk down to the neighborhood market to trade empty soda bottles for nickels to buy individually wrapped candy from the bulk bins. We’ve spent a part of nearly every Christmas of my life together, my parents and sister and I through my childhood – and then my husband joining the mix when he entered the picture – stopping by the Dunzweiler house for a late Christmas Day visit, gorging ourselves on Wisconsin cheese curds sent direct from the Midwestern arm of the family, and on Krista’s warm sausage-cream cheese dip from her little crock pot, a recipe that she swears is easy but seems from another magical planet.
Over the last five or six years, Orene has bequeathed what seems to be all – but I’m sure is only a fraction – of her Mother Goose book collection upon my family, importantly passing along a love of the classics to my own children who have already broken the spine of several tomes out of an obsession with MG’s lilting rhymes. The Mother Goose connection also spans generations in reverse, for Orene’s artist mother Frances Burt was also a writer of some notoriety, active in the National League of American Pen Women and known locally in her day as “Mother Goose,” dressing as the classic character and reading from the famous storybooks to children at various local events and historical societies. It is because of the Burt-Dunzweiler family that I know practically all of the Mother Goose rhymes ever written. Even the weird ones. My own kids got their first magazine subscriptions from Orene, to their very own age-appropriate kids magazines, with jokes and drawings and short stories. All of these things are because of a love of children and children’s literature and a belief in treating kids as miniature human beings that Orene and her family has always held. It’s a marvelous gift of thought and respect and nurturing that if I can emulate, I’ll feel I accomplished something important in life.
The book with the worst of the broken spines is also one of the biggest MG books Orene has given us. And it was the very first. She gifted the “Mother Goose Treasury” to my husband and I before our daughter, our first child, was born, with the inscription: “To Laura + Brandon – Just in case you’ve forgotten Mother Goose Rhymes, this book is for you in memory of our Mother Goose! With love, Orene.” The “O” of Orene marked with a happy face, in her signature style.
She got sick a few months ago, at first unable to use her legs, and then learning it was cancer. In and out of the hospital, with thankfully cinematic and comedic Facebook updates from Glen, keeping Orene’s many fans and family members apprised of the ups and downs in her treatment. A few days ago an infection sent her back to the hospital, seemingly minor at the start, but her cancer-and-chemo-weary body has been unable to fight the latest installment of illness. Now Orene and her family face a decision about palliative care or hospice, and while the difference isn’t totally clear to me what is in sharp focus is the change in her fight. Krista assured me this morning on the phone from the hospital that her mom would want me to remember her as she was, not as she is now. She urged me not to worry about being unable to get to the hospital, and that things are happening quickly.
But I do feel worried and guilty. Guilty for not getting there. And selfish. I want to say all of this to Orene in person and to read her a Mother Goose story, as I’ve done so many times to my kids. The legacy she will leave is so huge – I want her to know that and feel it. And my words now feel like a clumsy jumble of spotty memory and emotion and panic. Insufficient. It seems impossible to honor her fully, such an extraordinary life, with an essay – there’s so much left out.
I just pray that she feels all the love that she has given generously and freely over her lifetime flooding back toward her now. And that she knows how much she means personally to me, to my sister and parents, and to my own young children just setting off on their life journeys. I am grateful for all of the children’s books and gifts over a lifetime. For all the giant Ziplocs of cheese curds sent home with me after the holidays. For the persistent open door. For her dependability, reliable goodness and no-nonsense attitude about life. For her generosity and humor. For her ability to raise children into incredible adults who are strong and creative and brilliant and kind. For her tremendous hugs. And for the book signings and talks she arranged for me in recent years in my hometown, always connecting me with my important past and inspirational, supportive people and loved ones – the members of FUMC and the amazing Pen Women, the latter Sacramento chapter now a petite one. I worry what will come of it after Orene is gone.
Grandma Orene, Mrs. Dunzweiler, Orene Burt, or just Orene with a smiley face O. However she’s been known, she is and will always mean to me love, family and the ultimate in giving. Her life makes me better understand the meaning of “life-affirming.” A balance of energy and positivity. Optimism and love. Determination and pragmatic hope. Evidence: These perfect quotes Glen shared from the hospital this week.
“I’m not afraid of dying, I just have too much to do.”
“Give me a hug.”
Orene, if you can read or hear this, we all love you so, so very much. You’ve changed us and made us better. Thank you for that. And for all that you do. If anything remains on your perpetual to-do list, we will do our best to handle it. I can only imagine it’s full of notes to be written, cards to be sent, cheese to be Ziplocked, books to be given, dinners to be made and thoughts to be shared with your scores of loved ones. Giving you a gigantic Orene-style hug from afar.
12.27.18. Orene passed a couple of weeks ago, just 10 days before Christmas. The day before a super-milestone birthday for my mom. We wept and toasted, holding sadness and celebration together in our hearts simultaneously, each fighting for space, each demanding attention. The shock remains, even through the regular updates and heartfelt stories and pictures – including of her incredible Christmas bell collection – shared on her Facebook memorial page, established by her son. Her legacy of enormous love and imagination will live on.
I found these online in a United Methodist Women’s newsletter from two years ago, in which both my mom and Orene, nominations chair and president respectively of the California-Nevada Conference of UMW at the time, wrote messages to members. I love them for how closely they resemble the church cookbook recipes (and therefore dishes, period) of my childhood – easy, based on a blend of packaged, prepared ingredients and fresh stuff, and formulaic in a very comforting way. Not high cuisine here, but good, homey dishes, casserole style, easy to execute for a crowd. These were the dishes the ladies served at their “Fall Event” in 2016. Reprinted precisely from the newsletter below. Enjoy.
POULET DE NORMANDIE
4 cups stuffing mix (shredded, not cubed – Pepperidge Farm 7 oz., if you can find it)
1 cube margarine, melted
1/2 C. mayonnaise
1 C. chicken broth
2 1/2 C. cut up chicken
1 1/2 C. milk
1/2 C. chopped onion
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1/2 C. chopped celery
- Grease and flour 9″x13″ pan.
- Mix together stuffing mix, margarine and chicken broth.
- Put half in bottom of pan.
- Mix chicken, celery, onion and mayonnaise.
- Layer over bread mixture.
- Top with rest of stuffing.
- Beat 2 eggs and 1 1/2 cups milk.
- Pour over all, cover and refrigerate overnight. Stir mushroom soup until smooth and spread over top. Bake 45 minutes at 325 degrees. Let stand a few minutes before serving. Serves 10-12.
PUMPKIN PIE CRUNCH
1 can (15.5 oz.) pumpkin
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
3 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 cup unsalted butter (1/2 lb.)
1 cup pecans or walnuts, chopped
1 package yellow cake mix
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 9″x13″ pan.
- Combine pumpkin, milk, eggs, sugar, salt and pumpkin pie spice. Pour into pan.
- Gently sprinkle cake mix powder over pumpkin mixture. Top with pecans or walnuts.
- Drizzle melted butter on top.
- Bake 25 minutes uncovered. Cover with foil and bake 25 minutes more.
- Remove from oven and uncover (steam will be hot). Cool completely.
- Cut into squares and serve with whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 15.