Tag Archives: traditions

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.



Aunt Beth and Vivi, Year One of the Cherry Pie


Something Old, Something New

Jamie paintingToday I spent eight hours on my feet volunteering at a consignment sale.  The significance of the date didn’t hit me until 7:30 p.m., when I went to write a check for the two tubs of summer clothes and sandals I had bought for my kids.  March 5, 2014.  The ninth anniversary of the day when Richard and I said our marriage vows.  I wrote about it last year in “The Artist At Our Wedding.”

Part of me is glad that I was too busy today to dwell on the date, to mark every hour by remembering what I was doing at that exact time on that day in 2005.  I spent this day in the YMCA gym sorting clothes, checking for stains, running back and forth, tossing shoes into the right box, making conversation, making new friends.  

 Last night, I tagged my own items to sell.  It makes me sad, every time, to pin and price the clothes that my darlings wore.  The yellow dress Vivi kept clean through the Easter egg hunt last year, when her hair was still long and trailed behind her as she ran around Nana and Papa’s garden.  The orange and yellow Hawaiian shirt that Carlos wore at Cocoa Beach on the day we went to see the Mars Curiosity Rover launched into space.  A pink sequined top and ruffled skirt that Vivi picked out for her first day of kindergarten.  Tiny shoes that never touched the ground.  Pajamas that had swaddled my nephews, passed down to us for our season, then passed along again.  That blue sun hat that Carlos hated, the one with the Velcro strap that was too strong for him to undo.  carlos hawaiian

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

I had that talk with several other mothers today–how sad it makes us feel to say goodbye to the clothes from our kids’ yesterdays. But it just isn’t possible to hang on to every precious thing.  I try to remind myself that they outgrow their clothes because they are healthy and strong.  Changing is a part of being OK.

A wedding anniversary.  One life ended.  Another life begun.  I wouldn’t have these children if that March 5th wedding had ended in a happily ever after.  Would I notice the bluebirds as much?   I often wonder what it would have been like to have children with Richard.  But I don’t have much time to chase that wonder because I am so busy living THIS life.  That something old.  This something new.  This always borrowed.  This beautiful, sometimes blue.

I’m Dreaming of a Big Gay Christmas

The writing prompt this week is “The Best Gift You Could Give Me This Christmas,” courtesy of Deanna Dennis at A Long Run.  This one is easy peasy!  I don’t really have a list of presents that I am hoping for this year–I just want a Big Gay Christmas.

Big Gay is my stepmother.  My fairy stepmother, because she has a gift for spreading magic all around her and making it look easy.   Christmas Eve at their house is my favorite family event of the year.  We call her “Big Gay” because we have more than one Gay in the family–my sister is named Gay and our stepmother is, too.  And we grew up in Gay, Georgia for that matter.  So when Daddy married Gay, we had to distinguish–thus Big Gay and Little Gay.

Here are a few things that make a Big Gay Christmas the best day in my year:

1.  Big Gay puts great thought and effort into decorating.  It makes me feel special to be surrounded by that much beauty.  Even during the years when she worked retail and didn’t get home until 8pm on Christmas Eve, we still had a glowing tree, fresh garlands and coconut cakes.  She once told me, “There’s so much in life that you can’t control, it just makes sense to me to make things as lovely as possible when you can.”

The dining room tree, reflected in a silver bowl.

The dining room tree, reflected in a silver bowl.

Nana's tree

Nana’s tree is silver and gold.

2.  Big Gay gives gifts that are carefully chosen for each person.  And every gift is wrapped in gorgeous paper and ribbon with a handwritten and tied gift tag.  One year, she gave me a white terry bath robe “because writers need a good robe.”  There were plenty of years when our gifts came from the pawn shop, but they were just what we had asked for.  One year when the grandchildren were small and LOVED opening presents, Big Gay went to the dollar store and bought all five of them 20 presents each.  Every plastic soldier or bottle of bubbles was lovingly wrapped and ribboned, then piled up in the middle of the floor so the kids could sort through 100 presents!

I wrapped these, but I stole all the ribbons from Big Gay.

I wrapped these, but I stole all the ribbons from Big Gay.

3.  Everyone gets a place at the table.  This might require extra tables in the kitchen and out on the porch, but each guest will have a seat and a lovely plate full of good food.  Big Gay makes sure the kids have tiny forks that fit their hands and cups that they can hold.  Papa asks the blessing and cries.

The slowest eater in the family.

The slowest eater in the family, still working on her biscuit.

gay decor two

4.  Even though Big Gay’s house looks like a spread in House Beautiful, it’s home.  It’s comfortable.  You can take your shoes off and unbutton your pants after dinner.

Barefoot with my baybuh.

Barefoot with my baybuh.

This was the year I bought Vivi's tights at the consignment sale and the elastic died!

This was the year I bought Vivi’s tights at the consignment sale and the elastic died!

5.  At Nana and Papa’s house, the kids can be kids.  This is the best part of Big Gay Christmas to me–there is magic tucked in every corner.  Frosty leaves his hat lying around.  Jumping on the furniture is tolerated and soccer in the library is perfectly fine.  Santa calls to tell everyone it’s time for bed.  Elmo chills out with a smoke.  We laugh and we laugh and we laugh.

gay santa calls

Santa calls to make sure the kids are heading to bed.

gay tree two

Nana loses a few ornaments each year to tiny curiosity.

gay soccer

Soccer? Sure. Just keep your kicks low.

gay globes

It always snows on Christmas Eve…at least in the snow globes.

gay furniture

Jumping on the furniture is fine.

gay ginger

Gingerbread houses sprout here and there.

gay frosty

Frosty left his hat in the kitchen.

gay elmo smoke

Even Elmo gets to relax.

That’s the present I’m most excited about this year–Big Gay Christmas.  It’s fabulous.  

My writing group is pondering this theme today.  Check out other thoughts at A Long Run!