My little sister, Gretchen Kaye Carlson Kost, died Monday, January 30, 2017. A dearly cherished daughter and sibling, wife and mother, cousin and conspirator, she was a friend first, a friend often, and a friend always.
She was also a displayer of dimples, which as a kid she often labored to hide, scowling in photographs when not in the mood or of the inclination to be told what to do, which was pretty much always. But when the grownups were smart enough not to push, that smile was dazzling, and it was usually accompanied by peals of laughter. Engineered in part by repeated listens to “Free to Be… You and Me,” she established an early, unflagging sense of egalitarianism that extended to our beloved little brother Grady, guaranteeing that any Cracker Jack, Smurfs, or comic books were carefully and equally divided and distributed.
Friday night sleepovers with Grandpa and Grandma Jones were our sweetest reward. Fuzzy red footie pajamas were zipped up sometime between the beginning of “The Dukes of Hazzard” and the end of “Dallas,” and if we could keep our eyes open we were allowed to stay up late for Johnny Carson, joining Grandpa as he chuckled at the master’s perfect timing. The next morning, Grandma would set out the tools to fry up homemade donuts, and Gretchen – nicknamed “Dutch” and “Dutchie” by Grandma, which our mom detested but I secretly loved – would run point until the entire dining room table was covered with cooling rows of delectable golden sinkers.
With two brothers and no sisters, Gretchen forged special bonds with her closest confidante Heather and her cousin Andrea. Over the course of countless slumber parties, Heather and Gretchen developed that shorthand communication that evolves into a private language. At the lake cabin, Gretchen reassured Andrea, who we liked to acknowledge as our “genetic half-sister” because our moms are identical twins, that an inflatable raft ride would be safe by measuring Andrea’s height against the oar to show that she would never be in over her head. The thoughtfulness of that gesture leaves an impression.
Gretchen knew no equal at Ms. Pac-Man, often drawing a crowd at the Pirate’s Den or Pizza Hut while she effortlessly chomped her way through board after board on a single quarter. Was it her mathematically inclined mind or her thriftiness that drove her coin-op success? I suspect a bit of each.
My sister was a swift assembler of jigsaw puzzles, outpacing anyone at the table with a ratio of four or five pieces to one while filling in colorful montages of songbirds, great apes, or Muppets. One Christmas, our rambunctious dachshund Tandy managed to devour the entire contents of a sizable box of Turtles caramel pecan clusters recently unwrapped by Gretchen. My highly subjective memory of her reaction recalls equal parts fury at the consumption of her gift and genuine concern for the well-being of one rather sick wiener dog.
For the earliest and most formative years of my life, Gretchen was my steady and constant companion. When I was Darth Vader for Halloween, she was Darth Vader for Halloween, and that made me feel good. Of all my life’s decisions, one of which I am very proud is that I never sent her away to go play with someone else. Instead, she tagged along on every neighborhood adventure – matching or besting the older boys who climbed trees, built forts, raced banana-seaters with playing cards in the spokes, inflated thick wads of pink bubblegum, buried and eulogized departed squirrels, and scrambled into the bookmobile for fresh literature.
We compared reading notes often, and Gretchen was lit from within whenever she encountered a female protagonist who modeled grace, compassion, and character in the face of inequitable and unjust patriarchy. We thrilled at the dignity of Hester Prynne and delighted in the violent gesticulations and extravagant contortions of Hester’s little imp Pearl. We discussed the sensational Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, who would later inspire the name of Gretchen’s life-saving beagle, agreeing that the two finest words in American fiction might just be “Hey, Boo.”
Required by our mother to attend water safety lessons, we tuned our ears to the radio pop of the late 1970s and early 1980s that was played by the college-age staff at the Concordia pool, ever after identifying certain singles as “swimming songs.” We rocked down to Electric Avenue with Eddy Grant, we tumbled for Boy George and Culture Club, we looked out across the nighttime with Michael Jackson, we got delirious whenever Prince was near, we stood there with our backs against the record machine and jumped with Van Halen, we waited for Hall & Oates when the light was fading fast, and when we heard the angel voices of Mr. Mercury and Mr. Bowie, we turned away from it all like a blind man.
The preceding words came more quickly than I expected, but for Gretchen’s husband Rob and their children Hattie and Beck, I am afraid that none will suffice.
Gretchen, as soon as possible and in your honor, I will eat my fair share of a large pepperoni and mushroom from Duane’s House of Pizza.
See you around.
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