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Speaking out: The timeless value of hands gently held

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Steve Andrist

Steve Andrist

Someone told the stale old story about what the Norwegian boy said the first time he saw pizza: “Who puked on the lefse?”

Someone else remembered the long-standing and ill-advised Scandinavian festival practice of rolling a tube steak in a piece of lefse and selling it as a Norwegian hot dog.

A third suggested that it would be interesting to roll a few thick pieces of lefse, top them with sauce and cheese and veggies, and throw them into the oven to make Norwegian pizza.

Siri, asked to play some Thanksgiving music, responded with a country nasal-twang rendition of something that didn’t come close to inducing gratitude.

These are the ordinary, family-friendly types of conversations that occur when multiple generations of a family gathers for an afternoon of lefse-making. Nothing political, nothing profound, everything inspiring.

As in most years, this year’s day of rolling and frying included just our Bismarck clan. We’ve been blessed, from time to time, when family members from other places have been able to be part of this tradition, but not often enough.

This year, though, we have a new family member in the Bismarck clan, mother-in-law Dolores Fink. In all of her 90 years Dolores has never been part of lefse-making. Rest assured she’s made more than her fair share of kuchen, and cheese buttons, and pfeffernusse, but never lefse, and certainly never lutefisk. But then the fish is a bridge too far even for those of us who don’t descend from the Dakota German-Russians.

This lefse party, though, was less about heritage and more about family.

My mother and grandmother often teamed up to make the lefse for the holiday gatherings that would bring a few, a bunch or all of our crew together at the dinner table.

Our boys learned to make balls of dough and roll out rounds during the annual baking bee leading up to the annual lutefisk dinner at Concordia Lutheran Church in Crosby.

On a recent Saturday, four generations got in on the action. Dolores was the matriarch, and Gwendolyn, her 5-year-old great-granddaughter, was the tenderfoot.

For good reason the first rounds at any lefse-making party never make it to the cooling rack. They went directly to the tummies of Gwennie and her brothers, Teddy and Arthur.

It caught my attention, though when Gwennie grabbed the fourth round off the grill, buttered and sugared it and walked it over to Grandma D.

Five-year-old hands delivering love and lefse to 90-year-old hands, 5-year-old eyes beaming with pride and 90-year-old eyes filled with joy, a 5-year-old palate and a 90-year-old palate equally satisfied.

As their hands gently touched the span of 85 years became but a moment.

When Dolores was born, Herbert Hoover was president, the country was still suffering the effects of the stock market crash of ’29, the Empire State Building was opened and gas was 10 cents a gallon.

In 2021, a 5-year-old asks Siri to play any song she can think of. Using a phone she takes a video of a family gathering and magically shares it with relatives hundreds of miles away. She learns in real time of her eighth-grade cousin’s finish in the 200-medley relay at the State High School Swim meet.

The experiences these sets of hands have had are so vastly different. And yet they have both been plunged into dough that would be transformed into delicacies. They have both passed plates to cousins and parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.

They have both been folded in prayers of sadness, prayers of happiness and prayers of thanksgiving.

The work of Grandma D’s hands is nearing an end after 90 years. But it will be carried on, perhaps for 90 years more, by Gwendolyn’s.

What comfort it gives those of us in the middle of that age span to understand that each of us has a part to play, however inconsequentially consequential, in a continuum that began long before us and will continue long after us; to realize the value of hands gently held over hands tightly clenched.

Passing time changes everything else, but blessings remain forever the same.

Steve Andrist, Bismarck, is former executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

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