You know how it is, the tastes and memories of childhood create a longing in our hearts for times we’ll never see again, for people whose faces glance at us in frayed sepia tones between the pages of a scrapbook. I find myself yearning for warm summer days in Iowa with my great-aunts and great-grandmother Blanche—long, light days with ripe tomatoes, watermelon, and hordes of relatives gathered at the kitchen table. My mother had left when I was four, and my grandmother was raising me. In Gram’s twenties, she’d been anxious to escape the farms where hard working women raised huge families and bent over a wood-burning cook stove. But for all the getting away she’d done, running off to get married in age 16 and sailing on ships to Europe between the wars, by the time she had me, she’d begun revisiting her roots. That’s how I got to Iowa, and that’s how I learned to make lemon meringue pie with my Aunt Edith.
Every summer Gram would drive her pink Nash Rambler up to the farm near Muscatine, less than a mile from the great Mississippi river where the mystique of the Indians who once fished and camped on the banks is not quite gone. If you close your eyes, you can hear the call of an owl, the slap of the river on the bank. I discovered that the Mouscatin Indians used to live on the land that Blanche and I weeded on dusky evenings.
I guess I was a slightly mystical child because I wanted to know the history of everything. I’d curl next to Blanche on the featherbed hot summer nights while she murmured stories of her life and the 19th century. Born in 1873, three years before Custer’s Last Stand, she married Lewis Garrett on New Year’s Day in 1894. Two months later, when Lewis died of 24 hour pneumonia, Blanche was already pregnant with my grandmother. Blanche married again and had six more children. Edith was one of the girls in sepia photographs along with Grace and Celia, chickens, old cars, and my mother as a small girl.
Edith was thin, unlike my other well-endowed aunts, soft-spoken, and had blue eyes like me. Her kitchen was heaven. It gleamed and sparkled, this white, modern, fifties kitchen complete with electric stove and oven, a mixer with a stand, a utility room with proud washer and drier. Blanche spit every time she saw that washer and drier just sitting there, envious because she’d had to wash her clothes in a pot that boiled in the yard. On sunny days, the clothes snapped on the clothesline.
Today Aunt Edith measures flour and Crisco into a bowl, mixes it into crumbly pieces, pours in enough cold water for it gather itself into a ball. The ball goes onto the floured table where we roll it in a circle with the rolling pin. The ballet of this pie is accompanied by the sound of ticking clocks, ticking away the time of my childhood, the time we are using now to make our pie until one day time will stop as everyone here—my grandmother, Blanche, and Edith, even my mother in far away Chicago, will all leave to enter that other world. I wonder if there is lemon meringue pie up there—wherever that is.
But today, it seems we will all live forever. Edith shapes a round, perfect world of crust and slides it into the metal pie pan. I love crimping the soft dough between my fingers and thumb. Her crimps are high and proud so the pudding will not spill. Some things in this world can be controlled, can be brought into alignment with the proper technique.
While the crust bakes we make the lemon pudding and whip the meringue. Edith teaches me how to break the eggs so not a speck of yolk escapes. With the mixer I whip the egg whites into a froth. We pour the thick, yellow pudding into the crust and use a white spatula to mound the meringue high on top, making little peaks that turn golden brown in the oven. After ten minutes and with great ceremony, we take the pie out of the oven and proudly place it in the middle of the table. Everyone gathers to admire it, cutting thick slices to have with coffee.
Edith and I make lemon meringue pie for the next forty years. Every year of my childhood and then adulthood I came to this house by the Mississippi River to get a taste of my roots, despite the mother who disfavored me and the growing silence of the dead around us.
Even on that last August day, Edith and I had planned to make pie when we got the call that my mother had died. We sat at the kitchen table and cried for her and for all the ones we’d lost, the clocks still ticking. After that she wiped her eyes and got out the glass bowl, the flour tin, the Crisco. She clutched her side, already on her own downward slide toward that other world, but together, step by step we made lemon meringue pie that hot August day, sweat dripping down our faces. When it was done and the meringue was golden, we sliced it and placed it onto plates. We cut an extra piece for Gram, for Blanche, and for my mother. There could have been a table full of invisible guests, but we stopped there. She perked the coffee as we always had, and as if we knew this was the last time, she lifted her fork to me. “A toast,” she grinned, and scooped the pie into her mouth. It was still warm, our pie, still fresh from our efforts. All our years together tasted sweet in my mouth. Edith and I savored our lemon meringue pie as if it were the last pie we would ever make.
And it was.