Gift is in the giving: Family continues honoring relative’s memory with free dinnerPublished 8:01am Wednesday, December 25, 2013
About a dozen family members set tables, organized the kitchen, prepped food and bickered with each other Tuesday morning.
That may have looked like typical preparations for a Christmas Eve at some homes, but this was different. The group was setting the scene for some 300 eager guests who would arrive at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Austin on Christmas Day. For Gladys Bliss and her family, this has become the typical Christmas. Today, they will celebrate with the community during their free Christmas dinner for the 16th year.
Since the first year of the event, the pain and suffering has disappeared, but the dinner continues to be in memory of Gladys’ only son, Peter Klein, who grew up with four sisters. He died in 1998 after he broke his neck riding a dirt bike near Maple Island. He was 32. The empty seat at Thanksgiving that year was a little too much to bear.
“Thanksgiving was a bad day,” Gladys said. “Every first holiday is bad, and they sometimes continue to be bad for a long time.”
So the family decided to surround itself with more people, more love and more to celebrate, not mourn.
Gladys’ daughter Kim Madson admits the reasoning for the event came out of their own need.
“We did it to help ourselves,” Madson said about the first year.
However, the dinner has really been a blessing for others every year since: those who have no family, nowhere to celebrate on Christmas or simply need the fellowship. For the first year, the family organized the meal and setting at the Mower County Senior Center, and about 85 people attended, Gladys said. The family paid for all of the food and handled all preparations until the event began to grow beyond their financial limits. Several years later, the family moved the event to its current location at St. Olaf. Thrivent Financial now offers a check to make the event possible, and Hy-Vee Catering supplies sliced turkey and ham that Gladys and her crew cook on Christmas Day.
Of course, the family has grown over the years, as well. Nearly 40 family members — from Gladys and her husband, Charlie Bliss, to daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — help at the event. They come from within Austin, and as far away as Colombia in South America to join. And more will fill their own duties when time comes, as this year’s youngest family member is just 8 weeks old.
Despite the growing number of family members, the event has become somewhat difficult for several to attend, as they have moved away and are raising families of their own. At one point, just a couple years ago, family members thought about retiring the event. However, that’s not really their choice anymore. They’ve created something the community expects, loves, and perhaps needs.
“We had people come up to us and say, ‘We would be alone; we wouldn’t have a holiday,’” said Gladys’ daughter, Melodee Morem.
Grandchildren felt the same way. After all, for many of them, this is Christmas tradition.
“This is their Christmas to them,” Morem said.
Melodee’s daughter, Danielle Morem, strongly feels that way. Celebrating Christmas at someone’s house with only part of the family and unwrapping presents isn’t as significant. The free community dinner is cherished.
“I feel like we couldn’t give it up,” she said.
As the daughters and grandchildren recalled how they once thought about ending the event, they felt a little remorse. They wouldn’t do it. Danielle, who has been at every dinner since the beginning when she was 11, wouldn’t let that happen.
“I’ll take over it, grandma,” Danielle said. “I’ll handle it.”
But that’s not really her choice, either.
“You’d probably have to sign a contract,” Gladys jokingly replied.
No single person can lay claim to the tradition. It belongs to everybody, including the community.
People may always associate Gladys as the real leader of the event.
“She’s the warden,” said Gladys’ husband, Charles Bliss, trying to help out but not get in the way.
Some turned back to their duties on Christmas Eve morning — setting tables, decorating, cooking — and still had plenty of work to do before the big day. In a sense, however, it wasn’t really work. Danielle could see it was quality time spent, ensuring Christmas would be celebrated the right way.
“We get to have a Christmas that is really the meaning of Christmas,” she said.