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).”
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.