It’s hard for me to not get caught up in a guilt-induced hysteria when I think that it’s been nearly four years since I’ve seen my Grandmother. I feel incredibly sad that my last visit to Arkansas was when my oldest son was five. My dad and my son visited two years ago when I had a new infant son. I decided to not take the trip, having just returned from maternity leave. It was easy to use the excuse as not having any vacation time to avoid the long travel and the unbearable humidity. After I dropped my father off at the San Jose Airport this morning, on his way to my Grandmother’s funeral, I want to kick myself for not jumping at the chance to visit more often.
My Grandmother, Louise, was a 91 year old Southern woman. Raised on a working farm in rural Arkansas, she always rose before the sun. She grew tomatoes her whole life and made a Blue Ribbon berry cobbler without having to follow a recipe. She was tough and sweet. She buried two of her four children, her husband, and her sister. She hated asking for help but generously gave it. She survived the real Depression and confessed to me on my last visit that she always hid money in a tin can in her closet.
I’ve always thought of my Grandmother as a picture-perfect 1950s housewife. She rose at dawn to make biscuits and gravy from scratch, she ironed all of her clothes – even in her nineties, and was the best baker in our family. My Grandmother kept the same housecleaning schedule that she created for herself when she married my Grandfather at the tender age of 17. It’s simple enough, every day has one major task plus light dusting and vacuuming. Her house always looked perfect. I’ve never heard her complained about how much work was involved in raising four children, keeping a tidy home, and cooking every meal without any help from a box or can.
In my Grandmother’s presence, I’ve always felt more than less-than-perfect. Sure, my full-time job is one in Corporate America and not one as the ultimate homemaker. I have a cleaning service; partly because I’m too busy to do it myself but mainly because I’m just too lazy to do it myself. I pride myself on making a healthy dinner nearly every night of the week, but have been known to refuse any request for breakfast that doesn’t involve pouring milk over a bowl of cereal. The only time I’m baking is when I’m using a Betty Crocker cake mix for my son’s birthday. In fact, I’ve never baked a cake from scratch.
How did my Grandmother ever have time to do everything she did? More importantly, how was she ever able to find joy in what has always felt like agony to me?
During my last trip, I asked my Grandmother to teach me the art of making the Fried Pie. It’s a pure Southern treat; a handheld personal pie filled with apricots that is my favorite of all Southern desserts. One evening when she was showing me how to roll out dough, I knocked over a cup of flour on the kitchen floor. Already feeling like a failure in the kitchen, my eyes started to well up with tears. I started to wipe up my mess as before the cloud of flour even had a chance to settle. I apologized and told her than I could never be as good of a baker as she.
My Grandmother bent over and started to help me wipe up the mess. And then she did something I never expected. She laughed. Looking at me straight in the eye she said “You can spend your whole life wiping up and you’d never even have a bowl of beans to show for it.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! My Grandmother gave me permission to be messy. Or at least, creative license to define cleanliness. I realized that my Grandmother had spent the majority of her life taking care of other people and cleaning up after her children. She has clocked thousands (maybe even hundreds of thousands) of hours in the kitchen. But that still didn’t stop her from growing old or save her daughter from Crone’s disease or prevent a husband from dying before they had a chance to really grow old together.
It reminded me of the famous John Lennon quote “life happens when you’re busy making plans.” Only, in my Grandmother’s case, she was busy making pies.
I know in my heart that my Grandmother never had any regrets about how she lived her life. She loved her family and loved taking care of them. I am so thankful for that trip and the hands-on lessons in making fried pies. But I’m grateful for the hearts-on lessons I learned that week from my Grandmother. My Grandmother taught me that it isn’t about how I keep my home, but about how I love the people who are in it.
Life happens when you’re busy making pies. And I don’t want to miss one moment of it.