Life Sucks, But At Least There’s Pie

You can’t predict the moment your parents become people.

As children, it is during our most vulnerable stages when we are our most forgiving and forgetful. And our parents are, on the contrary, as guarded and behaved as we will remember. Through infancy and childhood, our parents are the pinnacle of stability and security. With her first wobbly steps, a baby leaves one parent’s arms and stumbles ungracefully into the other’s. Between belly kisses, bubble baths, and bedtime stories, our mothers stand strong and resist revealing their cracks. As children, we do not yet conceptualize the sort of parental woes like debt and death and divorce and the desperation to halt time and cure loneliness. Crafting wonderful disguises, our parents appear invincible. But only briefly.

What would you do if your mother collapsed beside you in agonizing grief? Or if your father hurled the vase of flowers he’d just bought for her at the glass sliding door? Our parents don’t do that — until Patricia’s husband knocks at the door three times and your mom combs her knots faster than you’ve ever seen and blots her face dry and your dad cusses and mutters under his breath and grabs a newspaper as if he’s been reading the whole time and suddenly it’s just you standing alone on cold kitchen tiles and when Patricia’s husband who just had a baby and isn’t a person yet peers inside and asks, “You alright, hun?” you lie and laugh and fold your arms — defensively — , “I slipped and broke the flowers I bought.” And from that moment on, your parents slip faster and show you the people they have been all along.

Most times, it’s much more subtle. You just don’t know when to look out for it. Momma likes carnations and her momma liked lilies, so when Grandma passed, we alternated each month with carnation and lily bouquets. Grandma believed that in all of our instantaneous moments, awake and asleep, we are guaranteed a breath. When our contract expires and the gap between the last breath and no breath exceeds its limits, we are guaranteed death. The day she passed, two things were certain: In that same day, she lived and died, and the absence of one insured the presence of another. And on the drive home, we discussed neither.

That night Momma cooked and cooked and promised us pie because Italian families customarily ate after every occasion, morbid or otherwise. When we were younger and relatives passed away, our mother told us to play in our rooms and promised to bake our favorite dessert if we played past our bedtimes. She called it “Super-duper Concentration Time” because “moms need extra time to make desserts for those they love most.” We hadn’t understood death yet. And this bought her time to grieve. To scream. To demand “why?” to a ceiling that did not answer. To cry until she thought she heard one of us barreling down the stairs — we never did, but she still called after us to make sure her vulnerability did not unravel. My dad excused himself on these nights and came back the morning after. His grief and screams and demands and cries were the same, I think, but he never taught himself to hide them. So he hid himself from us.

When my father passed, Mom didn’t make me go upstairs. My brothers booked their flights home, and I sat silently in the corner rocking chair. I watched her dig through the cupboards. Cherries were out of season this time of year, so we agreed on blueberry filling instead. And somewhere in the middle of her meticulous routine of mixing the sugar and flour and butter by hand, we said nothing, and she just stopped.

“Momma?”

She wiped her forehead with floury fingers, inhaled sharply, and admitted it.

“I have never. In my life. Served a homemade pie.”

So we left, both drove to Jewel as she had done alone a few times prior, and picked up two pies: one cherry, one blueberry. And with the first slice she murmured, “Life sucks, but at least there’s pie.”

And with that, my mom became a person.