“Hmmm, nutmeg,” I said as I ate the second of about a half-dozen donuts she forced on me, although I have to admit I didn’t resist all that much.
“My secret ingredient,” Shelly said. “ ’Course, how secret can it be? Everyone can taste it. You’re supposed to taste it.”
“A dozen dozen donuts is a lot of donuts,” I said.
“A gross.” Shelly paused. She held her dough-and flour-encrusted hands away from her body while brushing auburn hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist. “I hate that word, gross. It sounds so—gross.” She laughed, as freely and effortlessly as she had over the phone. Shelly had the rare gift of making complete strangers feel as welcome and comfortable as lifelong friends, and unlike some politicians I could name, she didn’t misuse her power to further her own agenda.
“The donuts are for the fishermen,” she said. “The old man and kids and brothers-in-law and nephews. I make them every year, and they take them when they all go up north for the fishing opener—it’s this week end. They stuff them in their pockets to eat while they sit in the boats and on the docks and along the shore or wherever it is they sit while waiting for poor defenseless fish to bite their hooks.”
“I take it you’re not a big fan of fishing.”
“A little boring for me, but anything that gets the old man and kids out of the house at the same time is a good thing.” Shelly chuckled as she swept the hair off her forehead again. “While they’re gone, me and the girls like to go out to the clubs and flirt with young men.” She quickly raised and lowered her eyebrows Groucho Marx—style as if she couldn’t think of anything more fun.
“Who’s the old man?”
“You call your husband the old man?”
“Well, he is three years, four months, and twenty days older than I am.”
“Does he ever call you the old lady?”
Shelly made a fist, punched the flat of her left hand, and ground the knuckles into the palm. “Not if he’s smart,” she said and chuckled. “We’ll be married thirty years in December.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
She brushed the acknowledgment away with a cloud of flour. “Don’t do that, congratulating someone just because they didn’t get divorced. It’s no big deal. Not like I won the Twin Cities Marathon or something.” She stopped; thought about it for a moment. “Actually, maybe it is,” she said and laughed some more. She dropped four donuts into her deep fryer and watched them intently, flipping them with a wire spatula after about a minute, then removing them a minute later.
“Ever think of doing this professionally?” I asked.
“What? Work for a living?” Shelly prepared another batch. “So, McKenzie. You want to talk about Katie’s letters?”
“They’re the letters Katie sent to my grandmother when she was in Europe in the thirties, so actually they’re really Nana’s letters.” Shelly shook her head. “We called my grandmother Nana. Isn’t that precious? If my grandkids ever call me Nana—” Shelly punched her hand and ground her knuckles. “Anyway, I don’t know why the Minnesota Historical Society would want them.”
“Who said they did?”
“Josh Berglund. When he called and asked if I had anything, letters, diaries, that belonged to Katie. He said that Katie had been involved in a lot of civic work in the thirties, during the Depression, and the Historical Society was putting together archives about that period. I told him that there was nothing in the letters about that. I read the letters. I kind of inherited them when my mother died. She died of cancer fourteen years ago.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said.
“It was very hard,” Shelly said. For the first time the music in her voice became somber. “Watching her die.”
“My mother also died of cancer,” I said. “I was twelve.”
“I was thirty-nine.” Shelly brushed her hair up and off her forehead again. “It’s starting to be a long time ago.”
“That’s what I tell myself, too.”
“We move on.”
“I read the letters,” Shelly said. “There wasn’t much in them. Some family stuff. Katie was unhappy in her marriage, but then she met a guy and it all worked out.” Shelly’s laugh returned. She pointed at me and said, “You men do have a way of boosting a girl’s spirits. After that, mostly the letters were about her travels through Europe. I suppose there might be some historical significance to that, comparing old Europe to new Europe, but otherwise, I don’t know why anyone would find them interesting.”
“How many letters were there?”
“Seventy-four. Enough to fill a nice-sized carton. Katie wrote every two weeks like clockwork. She would have written more frequently except for the mail back then. She explained it in one of the letters. She’d write Nana—it would take about a week for the letter to arrive from Europe. Then Nana would write back, another week, and so on and so on.”