The Pie Maker
During a Summer vacation in the 1970’s, I visited Katherine, my mother, in Valdosta. For most of the flight home I planned how I would pick blackberries from a cluster of brambles that have flourished since my childhood. Then, I would ask Katherine to make a blackberry pie. In exchange, I would organize the “stuff” in her dresser and bureau drawers, some that dated back to the 1940’s.
Katherine agreed to the deal and started selecting mixing bowls and a baking container. I also started to perform. Within a few minutes, I recalled a shocking memory from childhood that caused me to pause, sit, and just prepare to “bite the bullet.” I had made a deal with the worst pie maker in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. I had not yet travelled to South Carolina, but I was sure she could have worn the crown there. I took immediate comfort as I remembered that my opinion reflected consensus among the other eight members of the household at that time. Katherine never challenged our assessment, but one day she reminded us that her efforts to help put “bread on the table was more important than desert.” Thereafter, we muted our comments.
The contents in the bureau drawers seemed to be saved by decades, in descending order. Among those in the third drawer was a receipt from a local store, written in 1944. It was her initial payment of 50 cents on the “lay-away plan.” She wanted a pretty dress to wear next Easter Sunday. My immediate reaction was to ask why she kept the receipt so long. Then, upon thoughtful reflection I appreciated the value and the longevity of these keepsakes. My mother was a Colored lady. In 1944, her little piece of paper was the only proof she could present to a challenge of non-payment, or worse, theft. Time had not extinguished her caution.
I did not finish the job before my vacation ended. As for Katherine’s blackberry pie, I was still bound by my vow during childhood to silence my criticism.
When I returned in December the weather was cold and rainy. On the second night we sat at the kitchen table. My mama just wanted to talk to her baby. It did not matter that I was age 41. I was her baby 41 years ago, and I’ll be her baby forever. I noticed that she repeatedly scratched the area under her shoulder blade. She also sensed that I was about to make a comment about it, so she preempted my remarks. “You know, the place that you shouldn’t scratch is the place that feels so good when you do.” I just looked at her eyes, which signaled my silence. I also saw that look 41 years ago.
Then, there was a sound that triggered another childhood memory. The third “tap, tap, tap” was the unmistakable sound of water dripping from a leaky roof. Katherine and I acted quickly to find a bucket, responses that we also had not forgotten from decades ago.
Katherine brewed another pot of coffee. I was praying that she wouldn’t offer me any homemade pie. But she did issue a reminder and some advice. “You know you didn’t finish your job in the drawers. I expect you’ll get it done before you leave, because you gave me your word. Your Word. The one asset you can’t afford to squander is your word. Once you give your word and keep it, folks will consider you reliable. Break your word and you also break your reputation.” Subtlety was never one of her traits.
The thunder did not disturb my resumption of sorting the contents of the third drawer. It was where I also found two preserved treasures: War Ration Books, issued to me by the Office of Price Administration during World War II. The thunder, rain, and leak stopped. In the new quiet and calmness, my Mama and I examined the books and reminisced about some activities of those times.
On the next day I got busy “keeping my word.” In the second drawer I found a life insurance policy. With her sister’s consent, Katherine had purchased the policy to help, if needed, to pay the burial expenses of her sister. Her sister had been dead five years. The insurance policy was found in December; the expiration date was in the coming February.
I had one drawer to sort, and I promised to come back soon and finish. I did return in the Spring, to supervise the installation of the new roof, purchased by the benefit payment from the insurance policy.
The ration books, receipts, insurance policy and other vestiges were capsuled in time in those drawers.
My mama did wear the dress she purchased on the layaway plan the next Easter Sunday, 1945 — at her father’s funeral.