Tag Archives: family

Build Me a Son Like Joe

For 50 years, the world has been home to my brother Joe. For 48 years and 2 weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of being his little sister and sometimes making him cry.

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

Aunt Smarts, Aunt Fancy, Unca Joe, Aunt Sassy

When we were little, I’m sure I made him cry in frustration a time or two. Now that we are older (some of us more than others…), I like to make him cry happy tears by holding up a mirror to show him what a fine man he has become. I wrote that piece a few weeks ago called What Does Love Carry In Its Hands? My brother is the perfect example of how to be good at loving the world. His hands are never empty–he carries hammers and hams and small people who need strong men.

He’s made me cry a time or two. Like that time when Richard was in the hospital and I invited the family over on Labor Day. When I mentioned how much I hated the chain link fence around the pool, he and Daddy set to work and by the time I got back from Kroger with dinner, my family had that fence rolled up and gone. I stood in the bedroom window and watched them, crying. Joe is the kind of man who always has tools around, in case something (or someone) needs fixing. After all that sweaty work, Joe manned the grill when it was time to cook dinner. I handed him a pack of tofu dogs. He cried.

Mr. Fixit

Mr. Fixit

A few months later, everybody cried when Richard died, but Joe didn’t show up with empty hands. We had planned to greet family and friends after the service at the church, so there were sandwich trays for that crowd. I hadn’t planned on all the folks who gravitated back to the house afterwards. We didn’t have much lying around to feed them. Then Big Gay opened after a knock at the kitchen door and there stood Joe with a glistening glazed ham. “Did you just drive around with a ham in your car?” she asked. “Yep,” he said. “Someone died…you make ham.” I cried.

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Baby Carlos and Unca Joe

Now that I have a son of my own, I cry when I see my little boy run to his Unca Joe for a hug. Back when Carlos wasn’t very social, Unca Joe was the first relative that he identified with, that he sought out, who was allowed to love on him, whose name he remembered weeks later. Joe picks Carlos up and tosses him over his shoulder, toting him like a sack of giggling potatoes. That sight always makes me cry. Joe teaches Carlos that he is loved and he is safe. Last year, we were at Cowtail for Easter. Joe had a drill out, fixing an old chair. The loud noise made Carlos cry. Instead of telling Carlos to toughen up, or saving the task for later, Unca Joe called Carlos over and explained the drill to him. He helped Carlos hold the weight and aim the bit then let this little boy do the work. Carlos crowed with delight. I cried.

Sack of taters

Sack of taters

When Joe’s oldest son was christened, I didn’t know what kind of gift to give. Instead of a thing, I found this prayer and shared it with my brother. He cried.

A Father’s Prayer for His Son

By General Douglas MacArthur

Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee—and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here, let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those that fail.

Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high, a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men, one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously.

Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the meekness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

He read it, standing there in the colorful nursery of his own tiny boy. He cried. He handed it to Daddy, and Daddy cried too. The only person in that room who understood how much Joe loved Grant was Daddy, because he could look upon a son who had been built strong and funny and kind and gracious and brave and gentle.

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

A fine family: Joe, Jake, Beth, and Grant

Joe, I hope that you know you are loved and admired every day, not just early in November. I hope that you know that, judging by the men you are raising, you have not lived in vain. I hope you know that our father, who loved you so, could dare to whisper, “That’s my boy. I have not lived in vain.”

Happy Birthday. Now let’s eat some smoked pig. We can blame the smoke if there’s any crying.

Household Spirits

“Mommy, I’m having that anxious feeling again.” Vivi and Pengy curled up on the couch next to me, ten minutes past bedtime. I stretched her legs over mine so i could rest my hand on her knee.

“What’s got you feeling anxious?”

“I’m scared of ghosts.”

Roman statue

Roman statue

I gave her a skeptical look. “Are ghosts real?”

“No…I know, but Myca was talking about maybe Biscuits is a ghost cat. Like there’s this cat spirit and it lives in the woods until it decides to come out and haunt a family…”

Biscuits heard her name and promptly hopped up on the couch with us. I tucked a long curl behind Vivi’s ear. “Honey, if you know ghosts aren’t real, it doesn’t really make much sense to get worked up thinking about them.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about them. They might hurt us.”

“OK. Well, if you are going to think about ghosts that might want to be hurtful, then why don’t you also think about the ghosts who are on our team?”

She twisted up her face and gave me a sideways look.

“So let’s say there is some kind of life after this one and there are some ghosts that linger on. If that’s the case, then the spirits that want to take care of us hang around us too?” She was thinking about it. “Like Papa. You’d have Papa on your team of friendly ghosts.”

“And he’d be…” She threw her voice down into a gentle growl. “…you better get in here!”

“Right! When you were a little baby, there was one night when I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I remember leaning over your crib and wishing I could quit worrying and go to sleep. So I summoned my protector spirits and asked them to sit on the roof of the house and watch over us.”

She lit up. And I did too.

“I imagined my Pop on one corner, and my Grandmama Eunice on another corner and Daddy’s daddy–the first Carlos Jose–was out there, and I imagined Richard right up on top of the roof because he wasn’t afraid of heights. Now we’ve got Papa up there too, watching out for us.”

Vivi shook herself back into worrying and stuck her finger in her mouth. “But how could they keep us safe from mean ghosts?”

“Papa was a really good shot when he was young. He won riflery medals. And he was strong! He could throw a cow to the ground with a rope and his bare hands.”

She caught the tail of the story and held on. “What about your grandmama?”

“Oh, well she was a gentle lady but she would not tolerate any foolishness. And if you messed up, she made you pick your own switch. Do you know what that means?”

“Like you had to spank YOURSELF?”

“No, you had to go out to the yard and break off a switch and then she would spank your bootie with it.”

“What about your Pop?”

“Pop wasn’t a fighter that I know of, but he chewed tobacco…”

“So he could SPIT AT THEM!”

“Yes!”

G walked into the den. I asked him, “Hey, Daddo. What would your father do to protect us if he was a friendly ghost?”

“Oh, my father, he was a pretty laid back guy.”

“Right, but if someone threatened you?”

“He’d get his father’s Beretta from the war.”

Vivi hooted at the idea of all these fiercely friendly ghosts hanging out on the roof.  “What about Richard?”

“I always pictured him right up on top of the roof, sitting lookout. Richard knew a lot about how to take care of himself. He knew how to fight…”

“Like karate chops?”

“Not exactly, but, well, just stuff. He wouldn’t let anybody get in this house.”

It took a few more minutes, but eventually we sent her off to bed with no more worries about ghosts in the night.

Our talk got me thinking the Roman belief in household spirits. The lares domestici were the spirits of family ancestors who watched over the home and hearth. Each lare protected a specific physical spot (for example, a 1961 ranch house with a little girl trying to avoid her bedtime).

If the family moved, they took their lares with them. The lares sat out on the table during meals. They received offerings on important days and they witnessed family events like marriages. Remember, in the movie “Gladiator,” those small carved figures that Maximus carried with him in a little leather pouch? Those were his lares.

Roman bust

Roman bust

On that night several years ago, when I couldn’t imagine a way to let myself rest now that I was responsible for a tiny sleeping wonder of a child, I called upon my lares domestici. Pop, who smelled of Levi Garrett and I can hear his smooth fingertips glide over the pages of a Louis L’amour novel while he guards his corner of the roof. Grandmama Eunice, dressed for church in a purple pantsuit with her purse on her lap, keeping watch over her corner with a Sunday school teacher’s all-seeing and all-loving gaze. Carlos Jose the First, quietly singing a lullaby in Portuguese and watching over the dark backyard where the hummingbirds sleep. Richard sitting watch on the crest of the low shingled roof, never in need of sleep, never daydreaming.

Now I see Papa sitting beside him. Telling stories, talking politics, enjoying each other’s company. Keeping watch until morning.

When my child finds herself wandering off into the frightening dark maybes of the world, I call her back and remind her that there is more good, more protection, more fierce and unfailing love around her.

 

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.

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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.


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.

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Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie

 

An Orange in the Toe of Your Stocking

This morning, when I tied the last few bows around the last few presents for my kids, I remembered a similar feeling from when I was a teenager, many Christmases ago. I loved wrapping presents. Loved it loved it loved it. I wrapped all the gifts my mom had bought. Then I went up the road and wrapped presents for my Aunt Dixie. Then Mom drove me into town and dropped me off at Pop and Grandmama Irene’s house for an afternoon so I could wrap presents for them, too.

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Grandmama pulled everything out of the hall closets and made sure each box was labeled on the outside (so I wouldn’t have to peek inside to see what was what). I laid out the tubes of wrapping paper, the scissors and the tape on the braided rug in their bedroom, right in front of the warm gas logs. I worked along steadily in my own happy place. After a while, Grandmama came in to check on me. When she saw that I had it under control and there was nothing she needed to do, she stretched out across the white coverlet on the four-poster bed.

Like so many things in Grandmama’s house, we kids walked carefully around that bed. And woe be unto you if you so much as laid a hand on or god forbid leaned against the spindle that ran between the footposts. That bed was so old that it had been made by slaves owned by Pop’s side of the family. I had seen Grandmama lie down for a nap before, but never across the bed to chat. She stretched out on her side to watch me with one hand propped under her head. Her feet hung off the side of the bed like a teenager at a slumber party, with her shoes clear of the perfect white chenille spread.

“I sure am glad you like to wrap packages because I surely don’t.” She grinned and bounced her foot. I remember feeling that I needed to be careful, to not break this gentle magic. Grandmama was almost always busy and not much of a chatter. Most every action and word in her world had a POINT. I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I asked, “Did you like to wrap packages when you were my age?”

“Oh, we didn’t have any such as that when I was your age.” (I want to type that as “yo age” because that’s how she talks, not a terminal -r to be found) “For Christmas, we might get a piece of candy and an orange but that was it. Daddy always got us an orange.”

Grandmama was born in 1918, so her teenage years were the dark years of the Depression. Aunt Eula, Grandmama’s older sister by a few years, had come to stand in the doorway. “Irene, remember that year we got an apple AND an orange?” They went on to tell me about life on the farm down along the river, how they each had two dresses–one to wear and one to wash–while I sat there wrapping gifts in shiny paper and tying ribbons.

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Twenty years later, I told that story to Richard and my dad one morning while we were sitting out on the deck in the sunshine. Daddy was born in 1942, but his brothers were 10 and 13 years older, so they were young in the Depression. Their father made a living cutting lumber for furniture makers in Atlanta and business had just about dried up. Nobody had money for furniture. Daddy told us how things got so bad one winter that his father had to leave a guard with the team of mules in the woods so that no one stole the animals for meat. That winter, my Grandfather Joe didn’t know how he was going to pay his hands, much less have anything left to make a little Christmas for Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Charles. Then just a few days before Christmas, he got an order for lumber, and it was enough to, in Daddy’s memory of hearing the story when he was a boy, “pay the hands, buy a little wooden train for Kenneth and Charles, and surprise the family with a bag of oranges.”

These two stories explain why Santa puts an orange in the toe of my kids’ stockings every year. This year, slogging through my own cold Depression, I keep hearing my grandmother saying “Daddy always got us an orange.” I think about how this might be the saddest Christmas of my life because I won’t hear any stories from my dad. He won’t be baking pies or slicing tenderloin for Christmas Eve dinner. He won’t be wearing a red and green tartan buttondown shirt under his flour-covered apron. He won’t make us a bag of oranges to take home from the box Uncle Kenneth sends up from Florida.

Those oranges in my kids’ stockings remind me that our family has had it worse. We’ve lived through some lean times and mean times. Some years are so bad you gotta worry about hungry folks boiling the mule. And some years you get an apple AND an orange.

I am the product of many generations of people who found a way to hold some sweetness, even in the darkest time of the year.

And that is why there will always be an orange in the toe of your stocking, kids.