Days of Belgian Pie

John, my last living uncle, passed away January 25, on his 90th birthday. One aunt remains and I hope she will be able to be there to say good-by to the last of her siblings. 

It is cold in Wisconsin and my uncle’s beloved parish church may be chilly as his family gathers for his funeral this week. The cold would not have bothered him during his working years on the railroad or hunting with friends and family. When he was a kid hunting was not so much a sport, but a way to keep meat, canned or frozen, on hand to feed seven or eight people. Railroad workers, both my grandfather and uncle, never made a lot of money. My aunt cooked and sewed and gardened while working part-time to help support their family. Raised on a farm, she knew how to work as well as have fun. They both had big hearts.

When my ninety-four-year-old grandfather passed away, he was buried out of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Luxemburg, Wisconsin. It was the first time I spoke at a funeral and shared with my eleven-year-old daughter the traditions of grieving in a small town where families are often intertwined, and most people have a public reputation. 

Women from the parish made the food for my grandfather’s funeral luncheon. One of his cousins, who was also in her nineties, started baking when she heard he had passed. She made dozens of Belgian pies, enough so an entire six-foot table could be filled multiple times with slices of the sweet dough pie with soft cheese topping covering prune, apple, cherry, apricot, raisin, rice or poppyseed filling. It is an acquired taste.

Noise filled St. Mary’s School cafeteria from lunch until we were asked to leave. There were a few photos, but the tradition of picture boards or videos at funerals had not come to Luxemburg. Instead conversations about my grandfather’s life were shared which often triggered laughter. Lots of laughter. For a relatively small man, Uncle John had a large and distinctive voice. His laughter may have been one of loudest in the crowded space. With our parents still alive and doing the job of representing the family, the cousins gathered our children to do introductions and talk about growing up with our grandfather. 

My Uncle John looked a lot like his father. He was fiercely protective of his family, and they reciprocated. Hopefully my cousins, their children, and grandchildren will fill another room with stories of his life and laughter. Traditions like baking Belgian pies for a funeral may have faded away, but the love of family at a time of loss holds.


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