Friday, September 12, 2008

Apple pie, anyone?

I've had an hankerin', yes hankerin' dammit, for a piece of my grandmother's apple pie. We called her Maw Maw, but her real name was Vera.

She was my dad's mother and raised nine children through the Great Depression with my grandfather by working multiple jobs, growing their own vegetables and canning everything she could put away for the winter.

Pa Paw Hardin died when I was about 12 or so. My memories of him are brief and sketchy, but I do remember that he loved to tease and have fun when we went over. Everyone called him a "character" because of his love to laugh. I remember watching him actually plow the patch of land behind their house and he would often let me distribute the seeds of corn and okra down the long empty rows while he covered them up. I remember "getting" to hoe the weeds sometimes too and I felt like I was a farmer myself. The whole thing couldn't have been more than half a football field, but it felt bigger to me back then and when the corn was at it's peak, it was a fun southern jungle to dart in and out of while I played with my brother and my cousins.

I learned how potatoes grew under ground and summer squash splants spread out so quickly that you could almost watch it literally growing. I learned that you picked okra, that odd pod of seeds so common in gumbo, wearing gloves because the fuzzy outer shell made your hands itch if you didn't. Fresh tomatoes and radishes, collard greens, and even watermelons were available all summer. Around the rest of the yard, there were large and shady fruit trees, from several kinds of apples, to cherries, figs and even walnuts that might hit your car if you parked under it too long.

Maw maw didn't miss an opportunity to stock up on everything nature had to offer. She was responsible for feeding eleven mouths after all, three meals a day for quite a number of years if you think about it. Her plan was to capture as many apples as possible when they were ripe or even fell to the ground on their own, sit in her big recliner with her feet up, and peel and cut the apples into pieces. Some of these pieces would go directly into a big pot on the stove, where she would make apple sauce and start canning. The rest, she would lay out on wire racks in the sun to dry so that she could store them until the apple season was over, but still cook them up into her signature dessert. After Pa Paw died, I spent even more over there- just me and her.

Those were precious moments for me. Coming over to her house, as soon as I'd open the door, I'd smell the most amazing amalgam of cooking apples, cinnamon, clove and allspice. She was often making the dough for the pie crusts at the kitchen counter and I'd sidle on up to the bar to watch, mesmerized. She had the most efficient system of adding water to the flour, stirring it up, adding lard, and kneading the dough on her floured countered until it met her expectations. I wish I could remember the exact process so that I could duplicate it in memorial.

Then there was the time that I told her that I wanted a goose down pillow just like hers. I loved sleeping in her big bed and smelling her home remedy linaments and ointments (a stinky mixture of Absorbine Junior and who knows what else?). The next day, we took a ride in her little Chevy Nova to town to the cloth shop. She purchased some striped heavy canvas and proceed to sew the perfect little pillow for me before my very eyes. I loved to watch her sew and knit and crochet. For a woman with a second grade education, she could do almost anything. that would keep a family going.

I watched excitedly as she took her two big down pillows and slowly removed the seams along the sides. What in the world could she possibly be doing now? Within minutes, I watched her reach deep inside and grab a huge handful of feathers stuffing them down into the perfect little pillow she was making for me. From her two pillows, she was able to skim just enough for me to have my own. I couldn't believe it then, that someone would so something for me that was so simple, but carried so much power.

As soon as I walked in to her little ramshackeled house, her reaction was always the same- a look of pure pleasure , like only I could produce that kind of exhiliration. I've often wondered if she had this reaction to everyone. After all, she had 9 kids and by the time I came along, tons of grandkids. Maybe she did love us all the same, but to me, her reaction told me that I alone was special, and that her day was now complete that I had come to see her.

So now, I forever have this sensory memory of smelling the oh so heavenly scent of apple pies and feeling oh so special. Sometimes, she'd actually stop what she was doing, begin cutting a small circle out of the pie crust scrapts and then spooning the piping hot apple sauce on to one side. She'd carefully pinch the dough closed to form a half moon and she's fry it up right then and there just for me. NOTHING compares to a pie made with love by your grandmother just for you and no one else. So on days that I feel kinda beaten down or empty, I have a hankering for Maw Maw's apple pie.

She died a few years back at age 99. To the end, through the nursing home years, even when her mind was failing, I could always detect a certain light in her eyes when I'd come for a visit or to push her wheelchair through the garden. I don't know if my perception was always true, but I kinda need to believe that it was. Especially on quiet days when I'm feeling reflectful. Like today.

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