Category Archives: Family

This Isn’t About Me. It’s the Penguin.

Sooooo…Vivi is at sleep-away camp for the first time ever in her whole entire almost nine year life. Yep.

camp vivi

I’m fine.

Seriously. Totally OK.

But I’m concerned about Pengy.

13407328_10208186601535779_6369165784709053266_n

He stayed like this the whole ride home.

He doesn’t look like he’s OK with this AT ALL. I think he thinks that she’s growing up so quickly. I bet he thinks that he’s not quite sure what to do with himself without her. I can just look at him and tell that he’s wondering if she’ll ever come back and if she’ll still need him then.

I’m fine, but the penguin is struggling.

Pengy and Vivi have been inseperable since she was about 18 months old. We met Pengy on a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. Since that day, there’s been no other friend for Vivi. He sleeps under her chin every night. He snuggles under her elbow while she’s reading a book. He even sits beside her at the dinner table some nights.

Pengy has been to many cities and a couple of countries. The rule is, Mommy carries Pengy while we travel. We have lots of rules about Pengy–Pengy stays in the car if we go out running errands. Pengy stays home instead of riding to school in a backpack. Carlos is not allowed to touch Pengy.

And she’s gone for a week. Who is Pengy without his Vivi?

When she first started talking about sleep-away camp, the question of Pengy came up–would he be safe in the woods? Was he too old to sleep in a tent every night? Santa brought Vivi a Siamese kitty, which she named Artemis and declared to be her second favorite friend. Artemis went to camp. She’s young and strong and not afraid to sleep in the woods at night.

13335834_10208143352814588_7406977808814004280_n

 

Things change, right? Kids are supposed to grow and move on to other stages in life and sometimes we put away childish things. Pengy will always be #1, the original beloved. Nothing can take the place of Pengy. Still. It’s hard.

So yeah. I’m fine. But the penguin is lonely for his girl.

Give What’s Left of Me Away

Daddy’s birthday was always so easy to remember–the last day of May.

A sadness hung around the edge of today. I did a pretty fair job of keeping it at bay, but it knocked some tears out of me about 4:30 this afternoon. I was cleaning out files from my computer at work and I came across this picture. A reader named A.L. sent me this poem a few weeks ago. She said it had helped her and she thought I might want to read it too. I did. Thank you.

when i die

 

“So when all that’s left of me is love, give me away.” That’s where we are today, on what would have been Daddy’s 74th birthday. Looking for a way to give away this love that I can’t give to him anymore.


After work, I had to go to Kroger. In the checkout line, a voice behind me whispered, “Hey, purdy!”

I love Hank because he always always always says, “Hey, purdy!” when we bump into each other at the hospital or around town. Not hello pretty lady or hi beautiful. “Hey Purdy.” This is the language of my people. He’s a sweet soul.

Hank’s buggy was loaded down with big bags of Cat Chow. In addition to being a kind-hearted hospice nurse, he’s a one-man cat rescue operation. He feeds a couple of colonies of feral cats (and catches them for spaying) and finds homes for as many kittens as possible.

I pulled out my wallet and handed him a couple of twenties. “My daddy loved kittens, so here’s something for the fund. If you see any yella ones, feed them a little extra for his birthday.” He did so love a yella cat.

kitten-873392_1280

At his memorial service, Brett told a story from right after Daddy and Big Gay got married. Daddy was still trying his best to make friends with his new step-daughter, so he asked Brett to ride along with him on a call to a farm. After the doctoring was done and they were about to leave, Daddy told Brett that there was a litter of kittens in the barn. “Go pick one out and you can bring it home.” So Brett did, even though they both knew her mama was not going to be pleased. Later that night, she heard Big Gay complaining about the kitten (because their house was already busting with animals, naturally). In a commiserating tone, Daddy straight up lied to his bride: “Gaaaay…What was I supposed to do? Brett BEGGED me for that kitten!” That’s how much he loved kittens.


I’ve put in four tomato plants this year and they make me happy and sad all at the same time. I wasn’t going to put any in, but our neighbor, Coach Cavin, had some plants left over from the ag class that he teaches at the high school.

Those plants have shot straight up over the last couple of weeks. I can’t look at a tomato plant without thinking of Daddy. He loved starting plants from seed in the greenhouse. Instead of flat orderly seeding trays, he started his plants in white styrofoam coffee cups so he could write the variety on each container. By the time Easter rolled around, each of us left the house with a flat of tomato plants to grow as best we could. A couple of years ago, he started something like 200 plants!

I think of the summer that Vivi toddled over to the corner of the kitchen where he kept his harvest. Before anyone noticed, she had taken one bite out of every tomato in a half-bushel basket. There was the bumper crop summer when he made shelf after shelf of salsa. He and Big Gay lived most of the summer on tomato sandwiches with great gobs of mayo.

Daddy came from a long line of farmers. He once said that most people today were so out of touch with how food really gets to their tables, that if an apocalypse happened and we had to rebuild the food supply, most people would start by building a grocery store.

YUF

 

Tonight, I got another chance to give love away in his memory. In addition to the West Broad Farmer’s Market (my new favorite weekend destination!), the Athens Land Trust runs a program called Young Urban Farmers.  In conjunction with our county high schools, YUF gives students a chance to earn and learn. “Throughout the program year, the students develop business plans, create sustainable agriculture-based products and sell them at the West Broad Farmers Market.” Last weekend, I bought a beautifully constructed cedar bluebird house and a tie-dyed shirt colored with blueberries from students in the program.

Students who complete all of their assigned work in the farming program are paid $7.50/hr. The Athens Land Trust is raising funds right now to keep the program going. I made a donation of $74 in memory of the greatest tomato fan who ever lived. These kids will know that the food system does not begin at Kroger!


That’s how I got through today. Giving away all that’s left of my father–love.

Your Name Is Your Shield

At my nephew’s Jackson’s graduation last week, the valedictorian–Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo–thanked one in particular.

“Mrs. Prothro always called me by my full name.”

The young man had thousands of people listening, and he used that stage to thank a teacher for calling him by the name his parents gave him. Born in Mexico, an immigrant to America, there’s no guessing how many names he’s been called. We can be casual about learning foreign names. Anunziata becomes Nancy because it’s just…easier.

His story reminded me of a day 25 years ago when I was calling the roll on the first day of ENG101 at Auburn. “Srinivas Pochana?” A lanky young man who had folded himself into a desk in the front row raised his hand slightly and nodded.

“Did I say your name correctly?”

“You can call me Tom.”

“Do you prefer Tom or Srinivas?”

He laughed softly. “I grew up in Alabama–I’m used to being called Tom.”

I think of Richard’s grandfather Jack, who was given the surname Grayson by a bureaucrat because it was “more American” than his Russian Jewish family name.

We show respect to one another when we learn each other’s names. I knew Grandmama Irene had accepted Gennaro into the family when she said, “What a minute…it’s not Geronimo….I think of that old movie star Ray Navarro and then I put the G on there….Gennaro!”

Names matter. Learn to pronounce them. Ask what they mean. Ask how your new friend was given that name.

Honor names. If Tiara become Terrence, honor Terrence’s name. His father does, why shouldn’t you?

If we can learn how to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Monet, and Kardashian, we can learn to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m all for nicknames and endearments among friends and family. My grandfather called me Punkin Snooter, Miss Priss, or sometimes Lucretia because he said I looked like his mama. He called my cousin Pat by his middle name, Luke, to the point that someone at our family reunion once asked about the twins, Pat and Luke. He himself was named Meredith Gaither Mathews by his own parents but went by Dick. My sister, his first grandchild, was given his name. My brother is Samuel Joseph after our father, Samuel Fuller and his father, Milton Joseph. Joe passed along Samuel to his first son and Joseph to his second. We like family names.

 

roots

 

With all this thinking about names, I started watching the reimagined “Roots” tonight on the History Channel. It’s tough to watch but deeply worth it. No fact in it was a surprise. Every story of the slave trade takes us back over the history but this one tells the story with such excruciatingly relatable detail that the story of Kunta Kinte breathed for me. He was a young man in the trading city of Juffure (in Gambia), a man whose father taught him to ride a horse and whose mother sang to him at night. A man who prayed when he felt lost. A young man with a history and a duty to his family. A young man whose family connections got him taken captive and sold as a slave by a family his father had angered a generation before.

Even when Kunta Kinte is enslaved in Virginia, and dubbed “Toby” by the lady of the house, he insists on his own name. It’s not a spoiler (since the original miniseries has been around almost 40 years and 50% of Americans who owned a TV watched the original) to say that even when he is whipped and the overseer screams, “Say your name so you know what you are!” Kunta Kinte will not surrender his name.

Because as his father had told him under the stars back home, “You are Kunta Kinte, son of Amoro Kinte….your name is your spirit. Your name is your shield.”

Our names, and the family they connect us to, are our key to connection and our shield against being lost.

rufus mccrary family

We inherit so much along with our names. This is a photograph of my grandfather’s grandfather, Rufus C McCrary, and his family. Rufus fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was one of the few members of his unit who survived. When this photograph was taken, his eldest daughter Lucretia was already married and away. In 1902, Lucretia gave birth to her youngest boy, Dick, would one day have a girl, Janice, who would one day have a girl, Ashley…whose grandfather told her she looked like Lucretia. Whose father fought in the Civil War.

It’s all that close. Still.

In the Big Gay Library

I got to spend 24 hours with The Gays this weekend–my stepmother, Big Gay, and my sister, Little Gay–which means we spent about 18 of those hours talking about books. It. Was. Heaven. All three of us are voracious readers, each in her own genre, but with enough overlap that we can give each other great recommendations. I read mostly literary fiction. Big Gay prefers non-fiction, mainly history and memoir. Little Gay has been reading a lot of fantasy lately and she’s not sure why. And she and I both dabble in Young Adult. We can’t wait for Vivi to be old enough for Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy (both Little Gay’s discoveries).

On the walk over to the football stadium to watch Jackson’s high school graduation on Thursday night, Big Gay and I hung back to talk books. When I told her I had finished The Map Thief from the stack of books she had passed along to me last time I was home, Big Gay gasped, “Ayshley! Could you believe THE NERVE of him?” Oh, to have the confidence of a mediocre white man who makes a living stealing rare maps from libraries then selling them to his cients.

“What else have you read that you liked?” she asked as we walked past the police cars blocking traffic. “Language Arts!” She thought on it but it didn’t ring a bell. “The book I gave you for your birthday and when you found out it was about autism you told me not to read it?” She was still at a loss. “You know, the one about the father of the boy with severe autism, and the boy is aging out of his group home so the divorced parents are setting up private care and the father flashes back to a friend he had in elementary school…(and then I told her the twist)” She grabbed my arm. “Yes! It just about broke my heart.” I nodded. “I had about 30 pages left one day after reading on my lunch break and I had to go back and shut my office door so I could finish it.”

Big Gay asked if I had read The Elegance of the Hedgehog because it was the last book to leave her in a puddle on the floor. I pulled out my phone and sent myself an email with the title so I wouldn’t forget to read it. “There are passages in it where the language is so beautiful that I cried when it was done, not because it was sad but just because someone could write something so breathtaking.”

Smiles, everyone!

Smiles, everyone!

We found our seats in the stadium and settled in for the ceremony and the heat and the bugs. The valedictorian, Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo, gave a charming speech about how proud he is of his Mexican heritage and how thankful he is for the opportunities he’s had in America. He encouraged his classmates to “take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way,” like he had. Little Gay and I started talking about immigration–we have a family friend who needs papers. “I’m reading this book Americanah about a Nigerian woman who comes to America to study then ends up staying on a work sponsorship and getting her green card, but her boyfriend can’t get a sponsor so he tries to go to England and he overstays his visa there and has to go through all these awful things to try to work…” I told Little Gay to read that one and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other novel Half of a Yellow Sun. “I learned so much in that book! It’s about the Nigerian civil war in the 1970s with the Biafrans–have you ever heard of any of this?” As we sat there whispering about books through the boring choral tributes to high school teachers, we concluded that our education had been totally Euro-centric. There was ancient Egypt, something about Rommel in the desert, then apartheid. That was it for African history at our high school.

The morning after all the graduation hoopla, we got right back to talking books. Big Gay and I went into “the rat hole” (the utility room) where she keeps her recently read books. I whooped to receive a copy of The Nest because ever since Jill wrote about it on Bookreasons, I’ve been 15th in line on the library hold list for it. I can’t wait to read this story of four wobbly siblings and their joint inheritance that’s in jeopardy. I saw she had read All the Light We Cannot See–all three of us agreed it was sublime. On the theme of women’s stories of World War II, Little Gay and I agreed that The Nightingale really delivered but Big Gay hasn’t read it. She gave it to me for Christmas but had to wrap it before she had time to read it! I promised to bring it to her on my next visit and then I told both of them to read The Light Between Oceans, a between the wars story about a childless Australian couple who live on a lighthouse island in the Indian Ocean and what happens to them when a child comes into their lives.

Little Gay and Big Gay

Little Gay and Big Gay

We went into the library (most houses have a den, but Big Gay and Daddy made theirs a library with floor to ceiling book cases and two comfy chairs in front of a double window). Big Gay moved stacks of gardening magazines off the wooden chest and I held the lid open so she could pull out more books. The Monuments Men led us to talk about art theft, which scored me Big Gay’s marked up copy of Museum of the Missing and got Little Gay and me talking about taking a trip to Boston to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, site of a yet-unsolved robbery in 1990. That led to talk about the great art collections of the American industrialists and the long history of thievery among cultures–the Elgin marbles and the looting in Iraq and how we all want to read The Lady in Gold, about one family’s fight to get a Klimt painting returned after it was stolen by the Nazis.

That reminded Big Gay of a quirky little book called No Voices From the Hall, the memoir of a man who snoops around English country houses that fell into disrepair after World War II when families didn’t have the resources to maintain them. I pulled out a biography of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who during that same thin time turned Chatsworth into a thriving estate. Big Gay and I are both fans of the Mitford sisters (Deborah being the youngest of them) and have swapped many books about them and by them over the years. Little Gay didn’t know their story, so we talked about Debbo, Diana, Unity, Nancy, and Jessica. And apropos of interesting women and British history, I took a copy of That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.

13327634_10208133357404709_1812243487365768491_n

We sat in the sun in the comfy chairs and talked across the morning about Catherine the Great, bad marriages, Marie Antoinette, Paris, Napoleon’s sister Pauline. From Daddy’s big leather chair, Little Gay confessed to never having read To Kill a Mockingbird and I confessed that I had read Go Set a Watchman. We talked on about Truman Capote and Nell Harper Lee and Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Molly the Yorkie curled up on the back of the chair and nodded off once Big Gay pulled out her notes from book club so she wouldn’t forget to tell us about any gems on the “To Be Read” list.

This is my happy place, surrounded by briliant women, new ideas about old things, patient dogs, and comfy chairs. Read on, read on, read on.


So She Can Live Without Me

On the day my daughter was born, she started living without me. I mean “without” in the sense of “outside of.” Her body began to live without my body.

That day, her birthday, has meant something special to me for eight, almost nine years. It’s the day I became a mother. I’ve marked each year of her life with big parties (there have been ponies involved more than once), but this year is going to be different. It’s got me a little choked up.

Vivi has been wanting to go to sleep away camp so we’ve decided that this summer is her time to try it. I never went to camp, so there’s no legacy here. With the rampant enthusiasm of my friend, Bryn, I found a camp that looks like a perfect fit for Vivi. It’s a camp about leadership for girls. Teaching girls independence and competence. Cooking over a fire, playing in a swimming hole, singing songs together, paddling a canoe, sleeping in tents.

kayak-1199485_1280

All great, all great. But after I clicked the Register button, I realized that Vivi will be at camp on her ninth birthday. I broke the news to her and her reaction was, “COOL!!!!” OK. Maybe it’s just me having a hard time with this.

Planning her birthday party has always been my special gift to her–a way of showing her how extravagantly she is loved. This year, my gift to her will be letting her go. Pushing her in the direction of living without me.

Since my dad’s death, I see the importance of making sure my children can live without me. I felt something similar after Richard died–I only had grief, not struggle on top of the grief. My husband was dead, but I knew how to do the taxes and change the outside flood lights and check the air pressure in my tires. I only had to learn how to live with missing him, because I already knew how to live without him. Same with Daddy–I miss him, but I still know everything he managed to teach me about living. He didn’t do things for me. He taught me how to do them myself.

Last night, I asked Vivi, “Is there anything about camp that worries you?”

“Not making friends.”

My heart seized up. What if that happens? What if, even though I know the counselors know how to make sure everyone has a good time, what if my little girl spends a few moments sitting on the edge of her bunk feeling alone in the world? GULP.

“Well, I don’t think that will happen, sweetie. You make friends everywhere you go. If you do find yourself feeling apart, be kind to someone else who might be having a tough time. The best way to have a friend is to be a friend.”

“Or what if I make friends then I have to leave them when camp is over?”

There’s that too, baby. There’s that too. “You’ll be able to see each other at camp next year!”And then I went to my room and cried a little bit with fear for her. But she’ll learn. She’ll learn to tell herself these things when I’m not there beside her. The only way for her to learn that she can navigate the world on her own is to let her live without me.

We spent Easter Sunday in the woods at Cowtail, riding ATVs and slinging mud around. I’ve never been comfortable driving the ones you steer with handlebars–I like driving the Mule because it has a steering wheel, a brake, and a gas pedal. The kids love the Mule because we can pile all of them in the back and go caroming over stumps and rocks, weaving through trees and plowing through mud holes. The kids have to wait until one of the adults will drive them.

carlos mule

Victoria rode shotgun with me for a couple of trail rides. It was tough driving in the rain. We had to remember to keep our mouths shut while hitting the mudholes at full speed–mud gets EVERYWHERE when you’re hooting and hollering. She’s never driven the Mule but she’s sixteen now and knows how to manage a steering wheel, a brake, and a gas pedal.

I gave her a little push and she tried driving it. She wouldn’t let the Littles ride in the back–it had to be just the two of us. And she may have pruned a sapling or two on the tight corners. But she did it.

After a while, I relaxed enough to look out at the scenery, which I never get to do when I’m driving. I saw dogwood trees that nobody planted, just blooming in the woods in the rain. I saw chunks of pink quartz peeking up from the earth. I saw 20 colors of green.

Victoria learned how to enjoy the Mule without me and that gave me the opportunity to sit there beside her, fully present.

As we ground our way up Rock Hill, she said, “I can’t wait to bring my kids to Cowtail. It’s cool to think that they’ll be playing with Grant’s kids and Jake’s kids and all the cousins.”

That’s family. Growing into that fine balance where you know you can stand on your own but you never have to be alone. With and without.

victoria mule

Chili Dogs and Sawdust Make Me Cry

Last week, I ruined a pan of milk gravy that I was fixing with porkchops. I cried over that pan of gravy, but not because it had too much salt yet still tasted like cornstarch. I cried because I couldn’t call Daddy and laugh with him about how bad I had messed it up. He was the master of gravy. Back when he was feeling like himself, he would have gasped and squawked and cried, “How could my own child not know how to make milk gravy???” He would have carried on the same way he did when I confessed that I didn’t know how to cut up a chicken. We would have laughed about it and he would have told me to put a potato in soup if I ever add too much salt. And we would have talked for a while then said, “I love you” before hanging up.

I ate that damn gravy, every salty bite, because I didn’t want to let it go.

 

wood-877368_1920We’re replacing the boards on the deck. The day the nice man from Lowe’s delivered the lumber and piled it up in the driveway, I started feeling a little strange. A soft, gray sort of pining in my chest, a little lost echo. After the first day of construction, I stepped out on the deck and smelled the pine tang of freshly sawn wood. Instantly, I started crying. The smell of new lumber–that’s what had stirred up my feelings. My daddy is supposed to be around for construction projects. At least he was up until a few years ago when Joe and James took over. When I needed a fence put up or taken down, or a door hung or a cabinet replaced, it was Daddy who brought the saws and the nail guns and the levels. Now I hire a stranger.

All that sawdust flying around revealed a perfect little cobweb in the corner of the window, only visible once it was covered in bits of wood shavings. In the mornings, I sit on my corner of the loveseat and watch the dew and sawdust sparkle on the fine threads of the web. Memories are like that–here is this fine thing that you never noticed and now it’s visible.

A seed catalog came in the mail on a day when snow swirled outside the windows. I cried over that catalog and the thought of all those tomato plants that won’t get planted this winter. Daddy had a greenhouse and a green thumb. He started his vegetables from seed, in row upon row of white styrofoam cups. He started using those instead of seed trays a few years ago because he could write the variety on every seedling, never confusing a Better Boy for an Early Girl. At Easter, each of us would leave with a tray of tiny plants for our own garden plots. One year, he started 200 tomato plants. That was the year he learned how to can salsa, too.

Daddy and Big Gay waged a quiet battle of encroachment in their garden. It started out as a vegetable garden with one of the large plots set aside for Gay’s flowers. Then the next spring, the flowers had spread to an adjoining plot. Eventually, peonies and antique roses and poppies and larkspur and a carpet of dianthus took up half of the garden space. Just like Nazi Germany (to hear Daddy recount it), the flowers infiltrated borders and claimed land that was destined from the beginning of time for turnip greens and potatoes.

If there aren’t any tomatoes this year, I’ll understand. I can even grow my own but I’ll have to buy a few from the nursery, the week after Easter.

The worst bout of tears blindsided me on a Saturday while I stood over a frying pan of hot dogs. When I was little, there was no greater adventure than a Saturday spent “riding around” with Daddy. Country veterinarians work on Saturdays, too. Riding with Daddy meant going all over the county in a rattle trap Ford pickup truck that smelled like worm pills and Marlboro cigarettes. I felt so proud when he let me hop out of the cab to open and close cattle gates. Sometimes I got to see an actual horse and maybe even pat it on the nose if it wasn’t feeling too poorly. At every farm, he introduced me as his baby.

As we drove along on calls, Daddy listened to talk radio back when it was talking and not shrieking. He’d listen to Ludlow Porch out of Atlanta. I remember one time hearing Ludlow say that something cost “a grand.” I asked Daddy what a grand was and he laughed and said, “All the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.”

de3c02294fe0fa70fb4b5f064f8d71cdAround lunch time, we’d stop at a little gas station/grocery store like Red O’Neal’s or Mr. Connell’s and get us a pack of bright red hot dogs, a can of Castleberry chili, and a bag of Sunbeam buns. Maybe a couple of RC Colas or a grape Nehi. Back at his clinic, which was built onto the corner of a big cattle barn, so it always smelled like manure and fresh hay, Daddy would plug in the electric hot plate and we’d fix up a plate of chili dogs on top of the surgical table. When the chili dogs got good and hot, I’d get the bottles of ketchup and yellow mustard out of the door of the medicine refrigerator. I still remember how the well-sealed door popped open so hard that the little glass bottles of insulin and rubber-stoppered test tubes of blood rattled in their racks.

As I stood there frying up hot dogs for my own kids, I realized how we have no idea which memory will stick. What will it be sixty years from now that brings a tear to Vivi’s eye when she remembers me? Will she have a photograph (or a story on the ancient internet) to jog her memory? If only I had a picture of a hot plate of chili dogs bubbling on an operating table. Or if that clinic still existed so I could go back for a moment to capture its sharp clean smell of disinfectant, its rattling refrigerator, and the baying of a dozen dogs in the kennel wishing for a bite of whatever was smelling so good.

What I wouldn’t give for a Saturday morning driving around the countryside with my Daddy, learning about grand things and simple things and picking out a bag of potato chips from the wire rack by the cash register of a gas station.

I’d give all the money in the world, Shug. All the money in the world.

Somebody Has to Bake the Pie

In my last appointment before the holidays, my therapist and I talked about how this year would be different without my dad there. Big Gay does so much of Christmas for us, but there were a few things that belonged to Daddy alone.

Like we usually had one present that was just from him to each of us. For many years, it was Far Side desk calendars. Or it would be smell-good stuff from the drug store. Or fancy coffee. Or step ladders–that was a fun year.

Over the years, he bought a set of cranberry red Waterford champagne flutes, one or two at a time and we used them to drink a toast on Christmas Eve. The first year, when there were only two for Big Gay and him, he said, “I saw these and had to buy them because they were the only thing I ever saw that was almost as pretty as you.” Then we drank her health.

And he made the sweets, candies and cookies and especially pie. I think the pie phase started about fifteen years ago. He liked mincemeat–maybe the only person left in Georgia who ever liked mincemeat–so he had to learn to make it for himself. There were five or six kinds of pie at every holiday dinner.

When the pie phase held on long enough to become A Thing instead of a phase, Big Gay surprised Daddy one Christmas with a new Kitchenaid mixer. He was so excited that he kept it on the floor by his reading chair all day, so that he could “reach down and pet it.” Joe offered to make him a little wagon so he could drag it up and down the street and show it off to his friends.

Sometimes Christmas and pie led to strife. One year, I walked into the library and Daddy was sitting in his reading chair staring off into space. When I asked what was going on, he pulled a little face and said, “Mark said my pie crust might be better if I used half lard and half butter instead of all butter.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Can’t we have ONE HOLIDAY when you boys don’t argue about pastry?” (Mark is Little Gay’s husband, and in addition to being a neurosurgeon, mountain climber, and lawyer, he also took a year off to work as a pastry chef. I shit you not. And he’s pretty good-looking too. But he can’t dance, so there’s that.)

Whatever the ratio of butter to lard, Daddy always made a lattice-crust cherry pie for my sister-in-law, Beth. She got to take the whole pie (or whatever was left) home on Christmas Eve (and return the pie pan sometime in the summer or just buy him a new pie pan for Father’s Day). It was their special thing, a simple way that he showed her he loved her.

When I was telling my therapist about all these holiday traditions, it was the cherry pie that made me break down in tears. She told me that the plain truth is that if a tradition is important enough to the family, those who are left behind after a death have to decide to be responsible for carrying the tradition forward. Somebody’s got to quit being sad and bake the pie.

Mark would be the logical choice, right? I wasn’t exactly operating on logic when I set my heart on making a cherry pie for Beth.

I asked my friend Jo, who is a brilliant cake baker, for her pie crust recipe. She chuckled and said, “Pillsbury–the kind you roll out. It’s in the freezer section in a red box.” I filed that away… right next to my overblown intention to look up some Ina Garten or Gale Gand recipe for Pâte Brisée and learn how to make it from scratch. I was doing this task to uphold a cherished memory of my father–no shortcuts.

Except time got cut short. I meant to practice one weekend and forgot and then it was the day before Christmas Eve and I hadn’t even bought the Pillsbury pie crust in the red box. Dammit. All I had made was a shopping list when time ran out–I had to get myself to Griffin for the service to scatter Daddy’s ashes. For the second time in a few weeks, I started crying about that cherry pie. I had held it up as a moment of happiness, a moment of forward motion in this season of loss.

G took the list from me and promised that he would go to the store for the supplies.

Then when I told Big Gay about my plan, she opened up the kitchen drawer and gave me Daddy’s….wiggly pastry cutter thingy that you use to make the lattices for the crust.

I should have asked Mark what it was called, but he had lost the power of speech after I confessed I was using Pillsbury crusts. Even though his lips were pressed in a thin line at the thought of Poppin’ Fresh, he didn’t say a word to discourage me. He even handed me the wood-handled metal scraper thingy that you use to push flour around and said, “Every pastry chef needs a (insert technical term for scraper thingy).”

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

Mark has already told me how to weave the lattice together, so next year will look less wonky.

The next morning, I got up early to give it one good try. Vivi stirred the cherries and sugar and almond flavoring while they bubbled on the stove. Victoria washed up the pans. I cut lattices and patted butter and crossed my fingers. I remembered to put aluminum foil around the crust edges, just like Daddy did.

My favorite moment of baking that pie wasn’t later that night when Vivi showed it to Aunt Beth. My favorite moment was a few hours before that, when I tucked the pastry tools that had belonged to my father into my own kitchen drawer. When I decided that I will make a cherry pie every year in memory of my dad and his kind heart. He had a knack for knowing how to delight each of us in a simple and profound way.

It might take our whole family to get this pie right. That’s OK. My pies will only get better with Mark’s advice, Big Gay sharing the tools, G running to the store, and Vivi stirring the pot. It’s the same lesson that my therapist told me: if it’s important enough, the family will take up the responsibility for making sure it gets done.

It takes a family to make a family.

Even if that first cherry pie was a hot mess (I used the wrong kind of cherries so it wasn’t tart, way too sweet and the crust was merely serviceable) Beth texted today to say that she had eaten another piece for breakfast.

Sweet.

10496262_10206950517154442_3565513196035020409_o

Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie