When I was young and had the stomach flu, my mother made red Jell-O, strawberry or cherry in her metal mixing bowl and shoved it in the refrigerator to cool. When I was too restless to stay in bed, she helped me to the couch in the sewing room, tucked my favorite patchwork blanket around me and popped a thermometer in my mouth. While I clamped it between my teeth, she dashed to the kitchen and spooned a blob of slippery Jell-O into my plastic All-Gone bowl, the words printed inside the dish along with a clown. She set it on a TV tray next to me, along with a glass of warm flat Bubble-up, and an empty mixing bowl, in case I needed to throw up before I could make it to the bathroom. My mother turned on our black and white set to Captain Kangaroo and Sheriff John and Hobo Kelly and sat at her sewing machine a few short feet away, whipping up matching dresses for my sister and me. Every now and then she’d turn around and look at me, ask how I was and bring me more of whatever I needed, even her hand on my forehead.
In fifth grade, Kendis Lescher and I bought strawberry Lady Lee gelatin dessert, a Jell-O knock-off, as an alternative to Pixie Sticks, colored paper straws that you sucked flavored sugar from. We ripped open the paper packets of our generic Jell-O, and when Miss Coppack wasn’t looking, we licked our index fingers, cracked the lids of our desks open an inch, and navigated our fingers into the powder, popped our fingers in our mouths and sucked the flavored sugar off. I spent most of that year with a red dye #5 fingertip.
I didn’t think much about Jell-O for the next twenty years, until I was seven months pregnant with my second child. Peter Rivero died and the United Methodist Women called on me to bring a Jell-O salad to the reception after his funeral. I didn’t know Peter, who was Catholic, but I knew his wife, Jean. We served on the worship committee together, and she’d held my baby, watched her grow into an inquisitive toddler, and had given her car keys to play with. So I said yes.
Of course I’d eaten Jell-O salad, at Thanksgiving dinners and church potlucks, but I only knew how to make plain Jell-O; Jell-O for the sick. I didn’t know what sort of Jell-O salad was appropriate for the dead, or rather, those who mourn them. I hadn’t been to a funeral since junior high school. Our neighbor, Bob, had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work, leaving behind his wife, and two children, about my age. Everyone was grief-stricken. There was no food afterward. But this was different. Peter was an old man, seventy or so, an acceptable age to die, so people would talk about him while spooning Jell-O salad into their mouths.
I needed help. My mother was at work and as inexperienced with death as I was, so I called my mother-in-law, a widow who’d lost her parents long ago. She served Jell-O salads at Thanksgiving and Christmas in cut crystal serving bowls. I copied down her instructions. The night before the funeral I boiled water, poured it over emerald green powder, stirred with a wooden spoon, watching the powder dissolve. I added cold water, stirred more, then dropped in chopped canned pears and dollops of cottage cheese. I didn’t own crystal, or a serving bowl, so into a Pyrex baking dish it went to cool in the refrigerator.
I didn’t attend the funeral the next morning. I wasn’t ready to face death. I watched Sesame Street with my almost three year-old, felt the daughter I was going to have kick me under the ribs. I spread Saran Wrap over my Jell-O dish, buckled my daughter into her car seat and drove to my church.
I climbed the stone steps from the street to the sidewalk, unable to see my feet over my baby-belly, one hand in my daughter’s, the other balancing my lime, pear and cottage cheese Jell-O concoction, as it jiggled under plastic warp. So this is how it was going to be with me and death––a little wobbly, a little vulnerable. I walked into the social hall, bustling with women, many of them widows, setting out trays of coffee cups, cookies, and pies. “There you are,” one woman said, and swept my Jell-O into her capable arms. “You are going to stay.” She set me to work wrapping napkins around forks. My daughter helped stack them in a basket.
Soon Jean, the new widow, arrived with those who’d attended the funeral. Some of them wore black, some had puffy red eyes, but most were talking, some even laughing. I hadn’t known that was allowed. Gratefully, they received everything set before them like an offering––cups of coffee, oatmeal cookies and small plates of my Jell-O salad.