Monday, June 11, 2007

Spice and Time

I stood nervously behind my mother as we visited the nursing home where my grandmother lived in Hawaii. Her room was sunny, the walls pink. My little brother Ben was playing with his Legos on the tiled floor. I had a dog-eared copy of Anne of Green Gables—a much-loved gift for my recent ninth birthday—clutched in my hands.

My grandmother was perched, bird-like, on her hospital bed. In the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, she had been recently transferred to a facility near my aunt's home on the island of Kauai. She looked small and wrinkled. Confused.

I watched the speckled light hitting the floor, listened to the whispering footsteps in the hall and the chatter of nurses coming in and out of the room. It was vacation; my skin was slick with sunscreen. I had recently discovered the joys of coconut milk, the terror of jelly fish, and flowers so lusciously scented it was almost too much to wear them in a lei around my neck. I was very concerned that the purpled-toed plastic sandals (so stylish!) I had seen at a tourist shop would no longer be there when I could finally convince my mom (I need them!) to let me purchase a pair. I couldn't really understand why we were there in the room that smelled of baby powder and lemon juice, salt and old age.

"Karen?" my grandmother said in a soft, shaky voice. She was staring straight at me. Suddenly, I was terrified.

"No, Grandma…" I said. "I'm Molly."

She shook her head slowly.

I looked up at my mother beseechingly.

"Yes, Mom, this is Molly." My mother's voice was calm. "She’s my daughter; remember her? I'm Karen; I am your daughter." She put her hand warmly on my shoulder.

My grandmother was obviously confused. She looked haphazardly around the room; her gaze continued falling back on me.

"This is my daughter Karen," she said quietly, to no one in particular. She was smiling. The room was silent.

I looked up at my mother, somehow expecting her to set the record straight. I had been warned that this would be a tough visit, that my grandmother was not very lucid. But I found it difficult to believe that she thought I was her daughter. I was Molly; my mom was Karen. And this strange, fragile woman on the bed? I had very few memories of her; we had nothing in common. I knew only that her name was Marian. And that visiting her in this home near the ocean made my lips taste vaguely like salt.

My mom, however, said nothing. She looked sad.


I went to visit my mother in Boston for Memorial Day weekend this year. And on that Monday evening--after a full couple of days ripe with long walks and shopping trips, errands and visits to old friends--I cooked dinner. We ate outside in the hazy warmth of my mom’s well-manicured garden. It was a relaxing night before my early train ride back to New York the next morning. The fare was simple: cedar-planked salmon on the grill, fresh corn on the cob, arugula salad, and a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

When I had told my mom that morning that I wanted to bake a pie, she immediately went to an old box of recipes she has stored in a cupboard.

“My mom used to make an amazing rhubarb pie,” she said. “Maybe I still have the recipe.”

She handed me a worn index card, stained with spice and time. And in delicate cursive was my grandmother’s recipe for rhubarb pie. I was surprised to find such lovingly detailed directions; it was difficult for me to imagine the confused, deteriorating woman who I last saw in the nursing home fifteen years ago making such a pie.

But my grandmother was a good cook, my mom said. She would often have a loaf of freshly baked bread, warm from the oven, filling the house with its cozy scent for my mom and her sister when they came home from school.

The recipe was written in a very careful hand. Every 'i' was dotted perfectly, each 'y' looped with a graceful curve. It felt very personal, as if I were intruding on a private moment. Like I was holding a wispy thread of her memory - one that had floated just out of reach in the nursing home.

And the pie--sweet with a hint of sour, oozing pink inside a golden butter crust--was delicious.

I tweaked her recipe a bit; I added strawberries, took away some sugar. I used my own, well-practiced crust formula. We ate it in the garden, warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie
adapted from my grandmother

4 cups cut rhubarb
1 pint strawberries, sliced
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup flour


2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
8 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled and cut into small pieces
8–9 tablespoons ice water
1 egg white + 1 tablespoon water

  1. For the crust, mix flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Add butter and shortening, mixing with a wooden spoon and then, working quickly, combine even further with the tips of your fingers until it looks like cornmeal with pea-sized chunks.
  2. Sprinkle all but 2 tablespoons of ice water over the mixture, gently stirring and pressing with a rubber spatula until the dough comes together into a cohesive mass. If still dry, add the last of the water. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead until the dough comes completely together. Divide dough in half, form into balls, and wrap each in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least ½ hour.
  3. While dough is chilling, slice rhubarb and strawberries into ½-inch pieces. Combine with sugar, and flour. Stir to coat.
  4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Unwrap one of the dough balls and, on a floured surface, roll it out into a circle two or more inches wider than the diameter of your pie pan.
  5. Fold the dough circle in half and then in half again to make it easy to transport. Place it in a 9” pie pan, the point of the dough triangle in the center, and unfold to cover the entire pan, with excess hanging over the lip. Gently press the dough down to eliminate air pockets underneath.
  6. Put the fruit mixture into the pie pan. Top with pats of butter.
  7. Roll out the other half of the dough into a large circle. Place on top of the pie. Trim and tuck the excess dough around the pie rim underneath itself to form a lip. Using the tines of a fork, press down the edges of the crust to make indentations and seal in the juices. On the top of the pie, cut four slits to let steam escape while baking.
  8. Beat the egg white and water slightly and brush the mixture over the top crust. Sprinkle with sugar.
  9. Bake 20 minutes (crust will be golden); then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake another 30–35 minutes. Check every so often, and if the edges appear to be getting too dark, take a long, narrow piece of foil and loosely cover them.


Anonymous said...

This is a very touching story! so well written too.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful, beautiful story, Molly. So amazingly remembered and captured. Your posts are always worth the wait.

Did you ever get the purple-toed sandals?

BipolarLawyerCook said...

What a nice way to offset a sad memory with a new one. Alzheimer's is hard for everyone, sometimes hardest for the family.

Molly said...

Thanks, all!

I did eventually get the sandals, Terry - I know because I don't think I took them off for at least the next six months straight, to the annoyance of my mom.