September 20, 2008

Lemon Pie

Until my grandmother got sick she lived by herself in a small, cozy bungalow on Moore Street in Toledo, Ohio. The house always had the aroma of baking bread, and in the summer it smelled of cut peonies from her backyard. Sometimes when we were very lucky it smelled like lemon pie. I remember that wonderful smell once when I was seven or eight and my sister was chasing me through Grandma’s house, tormenting me as she was disposed to do, being two years older. I screeched, looking for safety, finding it between Grandma’s overstuffed green chair and the wall, a fairly narrow space. Bunny was so close I could feel her breath and I crammed myself as close to the wall as I could, trying to melt into the corner. Then Grandma wedged herself between my sister and me, her plump body straining to fit in the small space, and there she stood, my hero, my protector.

“Stop,” she said softly to Bunny. “Don’t pick on your sister.”
“She’s a brat,” Bunny said. “She took my new Nancy Drew.”
“Samantha, did you take Bunny’s book?”
I looked at Grandma’s sweet face, her frothy white curls, her starched white apron. “I borrowed it,” I said. “I just wanted to read it.”
“Well, you need to give it back. It doesn’t belong to you.” Bunny’s smile was smug until Grandma said to her, “And you’ll let your sister read it when you’re finished, won’t you, sweetheart?”
Bunny’s shoulders slumped. But Grandma looked at her encouragingly. Finally, Bunny said, “Sure,” but clearly she didn’t mean it. And she never did let me read that book. She wasn’t so big on sharing.
“All right, enough of this,” Grandma said. “Let’s have some pie.”
Her lemon pie sat cooling on the kitchen table, two inches of pearly white meringue, browned lightly on the waves and swirls. My mouth watered in anticipation of the perfect tartness of the filling and the sweetness of the marshmallow-y meringue. I always loved her lemon pie. It was my favorite dessert.
“Why can’t we go with you to see Grandma?” I asked. I was ten now and hadn’t seen my grandmother in two weeks. I missed her laugh, her comfortable hugs, her twinkling eyes. I missed the coffee-milk she’d let us drink, which she’d make in a translucent green juice glass, one-quarter filled with coffee and three quarters filled with
milk. “Children aren’t allowed in the hospital,” my mother said, pulling on her burgundy coat, examining her reflection in the mirror. The coat had a mink collar (fake fur, I’d learn later) and she looked like a queen, elegant and regal. It was 1959, a time when people dressed up to do things like visiting someone in a hospital, flying on an airplane, going to church. “But she’s doing better and she’ll be home in a few days,” Mom said. “You can visit her at Auntie Bella’s soon.”
“I want to see her now.”
Mom smiled sadly and kissed my cheek. I wanted to throw myself on the floor, kick my legs and scream, but I was too old for tantrums.
We never got to go to the hospital and never saw our grandmother again. The phone rang a few days later while Bunny and I were playing Parcheesi. She was accusing me of cheating (I’d won a game, and she was a terrible loser) and we were quarreling, as usual. Mom picked up the heavy, black receiver, waving us to be quiet, and we stopped arguing to see who was calling. Mom’s face crumpled and her eyes darkened, staring at us as she listened. I could tell she wasn’t seeing us, and Bunny and I looked at each other in alarm, allies now.

Picture from top: Grandma, Me (left),
cousin Ken, sister Bunny (right)
and cousin Irene on the bottom.

Mom sat at the kitchen table when she hung up, her shoulders slumped. We stared at her, our Parcheesi game abandoned.
“Grandma passed away,” she said.
I stared. “What do you mean,” I said, although my heart already felt as if it were shrinking in my chest.
“She died,” Bunny said quietly and came to sit on the chair with me. She put her arm around me and lay her head against mine.
Tears filled my eyes and trickled down my face. “We’re never going to see her again?” I asked.
“No, honey,” Mom said. “She’s gone from us.”
“You should have let us come to the hospital with you,” I said and Mom put her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking.
“I know. I’m so sorry.”

My sister and I didn’t go to the funeral. In 1959 people thought it best to shield children from death. When our parents came home they moved quietly, especially our father who’d been close to his mother. His eyes glistened as he hugged us to him and told us he loved us. I’d never before seen my father cry and I wrapped my arms around his neck, wanting to comfort him.
“Where do people go when they die?” I asked.
“They go to heaven, stupid,” my sister said.
“Don’t call your sister stupid,” Mom said but there was no anger in her voice.
“Maybe they go to heaven,” Dad told Bunny. “Or maybe they don’t go anywhere.”
“But if they go to heaven we’ll see Grandma again, right?” Bunny asked.
“I suppose,” Dad said.
“What if I forget her?” I asked.
Mom said, “She’ll always be in your heart, honey. You won’t forget her.”
“But what if I do?”
My mother stood for a moment, pondering. “I know how we’ll keep Grandma with
us.” We all looked at her; me, my dad, Bunny. “We’ll go make her lemon pie,” she said. And we did, with Grandma’s recipe.

These days I make that lemon pie when I’m missing my grandmother, and now, my mother and dad. It’s Grandma’s original recipe, written in my mother’s handwriting on a 3 x 5 card that’s stained and creased with use. As it bakes my mouth always waters in anticipation of the perfect tartness of the lemon filling and the sweetness of the marshmallow-y meringue, and the smell as it’s baking brings back their memories, their faces and their love.

1 cup sugar
juice of 3 lemons
3 egg yolks
5 level tablespoons corn starch
1 ¾ cup boiling water

3 egg whites
½ cup sugar
Combine filling ingredients in top of double boiler. Cook until thick. Pour into 9” baked crust. Let pie cool.
Whip egg whites and sugar. When pie is cool spread on the meringue. Bake at 375 degrees until meringue is slightly browned.

No comments: