She moved the coffee maker so we could shove Marie Callendar pie tins and Pyrex mixing bowls into every corner of the cream linoleum countertops. Our kitchen was small like every room of our 600 square foot home, but on Thanksgiving Eve we were the pie factory.
Dinners were fine. She overcooked chicken and had no secret recipe for spaghetti. But dessert? For the most important meal of the year, Mom was always in charge of the pies.
Those Wednesday evenings she came home from work with supplies. She tied her apron around her slim waist, took her rings off and set them by the sink, and I stayed in step with her like a magician’s apprentice. Her recipe cards may well have been spells, stained with butter and aging, set before us propped up on a flour jar.
As we worked our way through the requested pies – apple, pecan, and more than one pumpkin – I studied her and I studied our craft. My face close to the ingredients, I waited eagerly for instructions, grateful to be in on the magic. We used a spice called “Pumpkin Pie” and I wondered if it could ever be used in anything else.
One year she tried to make a pie with Splenda because everyone was trying to cut back on sugar and it was the ugliest, most disgusting pie you have ever tasted. Rather than leave it in the garbage, Mom brought it with us to Gramma’s and we all laughed at it on the counter pretending to be like all the other pies.
Mom ate a piece and called it good. I think she might have been lying, but maybe partly to herself. She chose to see the good in things even when it had an aftertaste. I apprenticed that, too.
Like in most families I knew, both of my parents worked full time. My mom made her coffee in the dark, lonely hours of the early morning and got home just in time to put something on for dinner before bedtime. The TV was on while we ate and only my brother and I sat together at the kitchen island or table. Mom did her best to keep up with laundry or dishes or tidying up while we did our best to avoid string beans.
We didn’t have many long days together even in the summer, but I caught her wisdom in the spaces between. I heard how she talked about her friends and the people she didn’t like, too; how she treated them like Splenda pie and looked for the best in everyone. I noticed that she didn’t feel threatened by anyone else’s success. I found her praying, glimpsed her bible with highlights and scribbles of thanks to Jesus for loving her so well. I watched her turn other peoples insecurities into water that slid off her back.
I always wanted more time with her. I loved school, but I cried when it started back up because I would miss going to work with her and staying up late with her. Maybe missing her is why I pushed her away.
When I joined a religious sect at 15 that told me she had little to teach me, I believed them. I felt lonely and desperate for guidance and I found people who had time to train me.
But on the night before Thanksgiving I looked only to her. I didn’t always appreciate the ways my mother was teaching me, didn’t think I wanted to be like her (maybe I didn’t think I could be), but I followed lockstep when it came to Pumpkin Bread. From age 5 to 18 I gave into her wisdom in our tiny kitchen every time. We baked the pies and treats for holidays, cupcakes for school parties, snickerdoodle cookies for my boyfriend in the Army which I still to this day cannot get right without her.
I wonder sometimes what those hard years were like for her when the memory of her little girl bounced around the kitchen while her teenager whose disdain and hubris exhausted her. Did she find rest in our traditions? Is that why she wrote in her journal that she knew I would grow out of it? that she was proud of the woman I was becoming?
I did grow out of it and the gut-punch to my ego when I realized I’d been so wrong is the best pain I’ve ever felt. That humiliation brought me home to her. I regained the admiration every little girl has for her mother, but so much more, too. I became aware of deep strength in her I didn’t notice before: strength the color of grace. My mom didn’t let me spiral into shame when I woke up. She just kept making pie.
I guess I learned what it was like to be the Splenda Pie.
I spent the decade or so we had together as adults learning all I could from her. I watched her heart break and all of her plans crumble and I watched her hold onto hope even when it was too dark to see. I saw her make lots of mistakes – even pointed out a few – and drew from her stubbornness that there is a kindness to this thing, put another way: that God really likes my mother. I took notes on her confidence in the good even when so much seemed so bad.
Even in her dying her skillful faith kneaded and stirred. She spent years and years trusting in a way that made it automatic. She didn’t need to reference a recipe for peace and hope and joy. She knew it by heart.
My daughter did not get enough Thanksgivings with her. The three of us in a kitchen with flour all over and the scent of cinnamon will never be the way it was in my imagination. It’s my turn to teach even if I don’t feel ready. And on the night before Thanksgiving when I am furrowing my brows at her handwriting on a card, my daughter in an apron ready to stir, learning from me how to do things you’re not good at, Mom will be there, too.
Though I refuse to use Splenda in pie.