Yes, that’s the name, and I’ll get to that, but first, about the potato pancakes:
My grandmother made me potato pancakes for me one fall morning. I sat at her rickety table, on a rickety chair, and watched while she mixed the pancakes, fried them, and carried them over to me. She had a sign taped to her refrigerator: “My kitchen is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.” The sign was faded, tattered, and grimy under its protective Saran Wrap shield.
“My son Donald won’t eat here,” she told me. “He says my kitchen’s too dirty. When he comes up we eat out.” She said it matter-of-factly. She didn’t clean her kitchen. My standards were less refined than Uncle Donald’s, or maybe I was just too tired to worry about it.
I had just made the eight-hour drive from the Chicago suburbs, where I was teaching, to Grandma’s house in Upper Michigan. I grew up in Eastern Oregon’s high deserts and pine forests; nothing had prepared me for the Midwest’s autumn. When I left Chicago Friday afternoon the trees were just beginning to turn. As I drove north through Lake Geneva, Waukesha, Lannon, Green Bay, Appleton, and Peshtigo I drove from late summer into full autumn. By the time I crossed the river dividing Marinette, Wisconsin from Menominee, Michigan the colors were so bright I could scarcely keep my eyes open. Trees splashed lemony, golden, amber, orange, rose, red, and burgundy against a sky deep and blue enough to drown in.
When I drove up Grandma’s gravel driveway and past the twisted apple tree where my father used to wait for the school bus I was nearly asleep at the wheel, exhausted both by the drive and the sheer intensity of the colors. They poured into me, the visible manifestation of the icy, pure, air. In the midst of all that vivid clarity the grubbiness of Grandma’s blue gingham tablecloth back under the saltshakers and the honey bear was not of much interest to me.
I slept fourteen hours straight curled up on the tiny bed in Grandma’s cedar-scented spare room, the same bed I had slept in on childhood visits, the bed where I had read English Orphans, and The Bobbsey Twins at Cherry Corners. I woke at noon, showered, dressed, and went to find Grandma. She sat in her living room, crocheting, keeping a sharp eye on the crackling wood stove. Icy, pure air swirled in through the open living room door, and mixed but did not blend with the hot air around the stove. It felt like a marbled cake looks, hot and cold, side by side.
Grandma finished her row and looked up at me. “So what do you want to do today? I am at your disposal.” She smiled.
I knew what I should do. I should load Grandma into the car and drive her forty miles to visit her brother; the drive was too much for her these days, and she only got to see him when other people could drive her. But I looked out the open door at the green grass under the apple trees in her orchard, at the yellow and red-striped apples on the ground and in the trees, at the brilliant forests beyond, and I said something else.
“I want to walk through the Forty, and then I want to make a pie,” I said.
“All right,” said Grandma. “What kind?”
“We’ll need to get some butter from the store.”
“Okay. But let me walk through the Forty first.”
The Forty had been in my family since my great-grandfather had gotten it by guile. Actually, he had acquired a good part of the Upper Peninsula that way, earning the enmity of a good part of the population as well.
There had been hard times, and everything but the Forty had been lost. When the Depression hit the Forty was the way Dad’s family survived. They cut junk wood, peeled it, and trucked it to the paper mills downstate. Now that only Grandma was left the Forty had grown up into a nearly impenetrable tangle. Only the road leading down into the swamp, up over the little hill, and then down to the creek remained passable. Every time Dad saw it he talked about how the Forty needed to be cleaned out not as a means of income, but for the sake of the woods themselves. On that fall day it looked to me like the woods were doing just fine on their own.
I walked down Grandma’s driveway, crossed the cracked, twisting, one-lane road that ran by her house, and found the old railway cutting that led to the road into the Forty. The Germans have a word: spazieren. It literally means “to walk,” but really it means more than that. It means to walk thin-skinned, to not just pass through the world, but to absorb it, to become a part of the whole, to see with the soul as well as the eyes. That was what I did that day. The birches and maples were so brilliant it seemed it must be warm—but the breeze was chilly. I walked to the creek and back, over and over, until I was sated.
Back at Grandma’s house, I found her waiting in her rocking chair on the porch, purse by her feet. We drove up the road to the highway, then went south to the store. Late Shasta daisies still starred the grass, tucked into fence lines and spreading through the neat little fields carved out of the trees.
The woman running the store had gone to school with Dad. Grandma had known her mother. She introduced me: “This is Dan’s girl. She’s going to make us a pie.”
“Oh,” the woman said. “How is Dan these days?” She didn’t ask, “Dan who?” Memories are long in Upper Michigan.
We bought butter and sugar. “But don’t you already have a bunch of sugar in the basement?” I asked Grandma.
“I’m saving it,” she said.
I thought of my Aunt Dora, who never really got over the rationing in World War II. She died with an attic full of toilet paper and sugar. I didn’t ask why Grandma was hoarding fifty-pound sacks of sugar in her cellar beside the canned venison, corn, and tomatoes. I didn’t really want to know.
Back at Grandma’s I took a basket and walked up the hill to the orchard. Apples were everywhere. Grandma left them for the deer, mostly, taking only enough for her immediate needs and for applesauce. I could afford to be choosy.
I took a long time choosing my apples on that bright fall day, picking up the windfalls, turning them over, polishing them on the skirt of the apron I had borrowed, tucking them into my basket if they passed muster, tossing them away for the deer if they didn’t. Back in the house, Grandma had cleared and scrubbed the table, mostly. I ignored the dingy corners; I wouldn’t be rolling pie dough there, anyway. Two bowls stood there as well as the sugar, cinnamon, butter, and rolling pin. I set the basket of apples down beside them and marveled at the impromptu still life Grandma and I had created.
She gave me a knife to peel the apples. I carried the basket and bowl out onto the porch, sat on the massive granite slab she used for a front step, breathed in the intoxicating air, looked at the brilliant trees, and peeled and sliced my apples. Grandma’s nearest neighbor—yet another old schoolmate of my father’s—drove by. She waved at me, then turned into the dirt road that led past our Forty to her white farmhouse, set back behind the meadow.
I finished the apples, stood, and carried everything back inside, leaving the door open.
My pie dough breaks all the rules. The first time I made it my mother yelled at me. “That’s not the way,” she said. “You don’t put your hands into it and smoosh it around like that. You’re working it too much. It’ll be tough.” It was a lingering sorrow for her that her piecrusts weren’t light and flaky; she had hoped for better for me. And there I was, squishing it around like Play Doh.
Against all reason, the crust was perfect—light, golden, and flaky. Mom shook her head and let me make it my own way after that. To this day, I have no idea why my piecrusts turn out.
That day at Grandma’s I made the crusts the way I always do—with lots of butter, flour, a little sugar and cinnamon, and more elbow grease than the experts recommend. I worked butter and flour together, worked it some more, added a little water, worked it some more, sprinkled flour, sugar, and cinnamon over the blue-checked vinyl cloth, lifted Grandma’s scarred wooden rolling pin, and started rolling the crusts. Bits of greasy dough still clung to my butter-softened hands..
I looked out the window as I worked, felt the chilly outside air swirling around me, cutting through the heat from the stove, and gently, so gently, I felt myself slip into place. I thought of my mother making pies, of Grandma making pies, of her mother and grandmother before her, of all the women who had gone before me in an unbroken line, all making pies very much the way I was making this one today.
I finished rolling my crusts, slipped them into pie plates that were older than I was, filled them with apples from the orchard, covered them with sugar, cinnamon, and butter, rolled the top crusts, cut graceful curves, arabesques, and flowers into them, laid them over the apples, crimped the edges, sprinkled them with more cinnamon and sugar, and put them into Grandma’s oven. And all the while I thought of the women before me, kneading bread, making pies, roasting meat, gathering fruit, comforting children, patching clothing, and they felt so close I thought I might touch them, if my hands hadn’t been covered in pie dough.
I had grown used to hearing people bemoan the fact that the world was changing past recognition. There at my Grandma’s grimy table I realized that in some important ways that wasn’t the case. The things that are central to life—the round of the seasons and the nurturing of family—still happen much like they always have. Bread and pies are still made the same way they have been made for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. They make a small, still pool of eternity—one into which anyone may dip. Such things are the lifeblood of history, the things that bind daughters to mothers to grandmothers—and that keep us alive. They are things that bind us beyond knowing, things that lie deeper than mere acquaintance. We may not like each other—we may not even know each other—but the things that are really central to survival don’t differ that much from culture to culture, generation to generation. We feed our families and ourselves. We defend our children. We all make bread. Most of us make pies.
I napped while the pies baked. They came out crisp, golden, and perfect. When I woke they sat on the gingham tablecloth and Grandma dozed in her chair. A farmer—yet another of Dad’s school chums—was cutting hay in the field next to Grandma’s house.
“Take him some pie,” she said when she woke.
I cut a big piece, put it on a plate, and carried it through the new-mown hay. He pulled the tractor out of gear, jumped down, smiled, and ate the pie leaning against the tractor’s big wheel.
The next day Grandma and I got in the car and drove the forty miles to her brother’s house. On the way home we drove slowly down the empty road, carefully avoided the snapping turtles sunning on the warm pavement, and counted deer in the fields while the evening came down around us blue and deep, turning the trees from yellows, reds and oranges to blues, purples, and blacks. We saw a fox. “I know where its den is,” Grandma said. I stopped the car and she led me through the brilliant forest to a secret hillside and showed me where the vixen had raised her cubs that spring. I wondered if they were still using the den; I was not enough of a naturalist to know.
Back at Grandma’s house the cut apple pie still sat on the blue gingham table cloth, its golden filling oozing out into the pan. Grandma and I each had a piece with ice cream, sitting in her living room, looking out at the darkening hillside, listening to the sounds of the night. Both of us were quiet. When the pie was gone I carried our dishes back into the kitchen, hugged Grandma goodnight, went down the hall to my cedar scented room, curled up on the child-size bed, and fell asleep to the sound of deer munching apples in the orchard. The arms of all the mothers before me wrapped me in comfort.