Talking life and death with Keta

Keta Steebs and Jay Zahn, July 2012

One of the most interesting conversations I ever had with Keta Steebs was when she told me about how she’d died. It struck me so that when I got back to my car, I jotted down everything I could remember from the talk.

Four months after she actually passed away, the other day I moved one of my endless stacks of paper and found those notes. And I missed her all over again.

Keta, whose reporting and reflections about her beloved Door County graced these pages for more than 40 years, had taken up temporary residence at Golden Living Center-Dorchester while she recovered from some trouble with her lungs. I went up the hill from the Advocate office to visit her a couple of times. Both times she did her best to be her usual robust self; the second time she was also very pensive.

Not long after my first visit, it seemed, she had come as close to dying as she would before the actual time.

“I died,” she said succinctly, as she would. “It was very spiritual; the family was gathered … but then I kind of bumped back.”

From the look in her eyes, I could see that rather than being alarming or frightening, the experience had given her a sort of peace. All that remains of what she told me about that feeling are the scribbled words, “but not afraid.”

She talked that day about how much she enjoyed the letters she’d been receiving since 1973 from men who admired her work and struck up a correspondence or relationship. “But not romantic,” she said — romance had been reserved for Herman Steebs, her husband of 32 years, taken from her too early at the end of 1982.

She mentioned her dear friends Jay Zahn and Tom Groenfeldt, who often accompanied her to plays or art receptions around the peninsula. “Jay and I, Tom and I have such interesting relationships,” she said with a wistful sigh. “We just enjoy each other’s company so much.”

I remember what appeared to be genuine surprise in her eyes when she confessed, “I’ve become nice.” Reflecting on her early life and career, she said, “I used to be a —” and then she lowered her voice, and I don’t remember if she spelled out “B-I-…” or if she actually whispered the word that rhymes with witch. I can’t speak to the truth of her statement, having only known the nice Keta in the 11 years I knew her.

The conversation turned to her funeral and the accompanying meal — “I think everyone likes sloppy joes, don’t you think?” — how she planned to be cremated and how most important she wanted people to laugh that day. She did get her wish on that count; there were enough Keta stories told after the service for a full afternoon of laughter.

“I’d like to die laughing,” she told me. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” In reality, she died in her sleep, but two nights earlier she had laughed and celebrated her 88th birthday with her friends and family — close enough.

Cross posted to Door County Advocate

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WarrenBluhm

Wordsmith, journalist and podcaster, Warren is a reporter, editor and storyteller who lives near the shores of Green Bay with his wife, two golden retrievers, and a couple of cats.