The Makings of an Extraordinary Pie

Photo by Miika Silfverberg - originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

Photo by Miika Silfverberg – originally posted to Flickr as Young rhubarb

It was the sure sign of spring—those first green tufts of rhubarb pushing their way through a patch of the garden that may just a month earlier still have been covered with snow. After seeing the rhubarb, we knew the growing season would soon follow and the garden would once again be full of green and growing things. With their agrarian roots, my parents both tended the garden, but it was my mother who found a use for the rhubarb.

She showed my siblings and me how to tame its tartness by dipping the stalks into a cup of sugar. I imagine that her mother may have shown her this on the Iowa farm where she started her life. Picking the pinkest stalk available, I would dip one end into a cup of sugar so it was completely covered with the miniscule crystals of sweetness, the juice from the cut end of the stalk leaving just enough moisture for the sugar to stick to; I’d bite off the coated end and immediately taste a tart and sweet mixture of flavors that made my mouth pucker in delight.

Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 10.53.59 AMOf course, rhubarb is the perfect conduit for sugar, as proven by one bite of my mom’s rhubarb pie, a particular favorite. My mother and I would pick a variety of stalks—the ruby red ones, the ones that were both pink and green, and then a few that were perhaps a little too green. But mixed with flour, sugar, and butter, the mixture would meld together into a tangy, sweet concoction that tasted perfect between the layers of a flaky pie crust.

Admittedly, rhubarb is not the most popular of vegetables. I believe the reason we may have had it was because it was a food that the earth could provide, and in my parents’ upbringing, no food went unused. Even a vegetable that needed a great deal of sugar to make it palatable. Now as I see rhubarb come back in my garden, spring after spring, I am reminded of that some things will always be.

But in truth, I let this harbinger of summer go to waste. I get excited about its growth, but don’t pick the stalks when I should, always thinking that I don’t have enough time for pie or muffins or even a simple rhubarb sauce. Soon their leaves start to turn yellow and their stalks shrivel, as if shaming me. I think of my parents and their disdain for waste. I look at the waning crop and admonish myself to be a better steward of this steadfast plant. Perhaps I should be gentler with myself, remembering that my mother baked pie when she was off from teaching school in the summer and had more time to show me all the steps to baking a pie—from mixing the filling, to rolling out the pie crust, and knowing when the filling was bubbling up just enough to tell us it was done.

***

After my mother had moved out of my childhood home with its massive garden, we went for one last look before the closing sale. Surveying the garden, which was overrun with weeds, I asked my mom, “Do you want anything from the garden?”

“Will you see if there is any rhubarb?” she asks. Sure. And there is, among the stinging nettle, wild daisies, and bindweed. Of course there is rhubarb. There always has been. I gingerly make my way through the weeds and begin breaking stalks off. “How much do you want?” I call up to my mom, who’s watching from the deck. “Oh, I don’t know, a few stalks,” she answers.

I pick a fistful of stalks, and not eager to stop, I get a few more, knowing that this rhubarb, the last that we will pick from this garden, will make an extraordinary pie.

Lessons from a Life

This week, guest blogger and WordSister Brenda van Dyck continues our meditation on fatherhood.

Finally it happened. Father’s Day came and went, and instead of feeling sad, I was grateful. Every June in the eight years since my father died, I have met Father’s Day with dread; the day was an annual reminder of what I no longer had. But this year, I found myself thinking more of my five-year-old daughter and what my dad can still teach her.

My daughter, Shelby, was born three years after my dad died. He was 41 when I was born; I was 41 when I gave birth to my daughter. I think that’s as far as the similarities go. For him, I was the fourth child to come in the four-and-a-half years since my oldest sister was born (yes, that’s right, four kids in four-and-a-half years). For me, the birth of my only child was a much sought-after and anticipated event.

Brenda and Shelby

Brenda and Shelby

In the months after Shelby was born, I mourned the fact that she wouldn’t grow up with my dad around. He was grandfather to nine others before her, and in many ways, he was a better grandfather than father; without the responsibility of having to provide for his grandchildren, he was more relaxed, more playful, and more able to enjoy them without worry. She wouldn’t experience his sense of humor, gentle teasing, or steady presence.

Despite his absence, he can still teach her things.

My father was stubbornly stoic—a man of few words and even fewer expressions of emotion. He wasn’t one to give advice. But he taught me a lifetime’s worth of values, not from what he said, but from how he lived.

Here is what I think he would say to her.

Work hard and you will overcome your struggles. There is always value in working hard. My father only had a primary school education; he grew up in a village in Yugoslavia where more schooling than the basic Catholic primary school was a luxury that few families could afford. When he was 14, my father moved to Munich during World War II to become a baker’s apprentice. In the long trajectory of his life, he would live through the war, immigrate to another country, learn how to fix mainframe computers, and retire from a steady career working for Control Data. He made the American Dream his own.

You are not a victim of your circumstances. Despite what you witness, despite what you live through, know that you will live through it. My father didn’t like to talk about growing up poor or living through the war. He didn’t say much about his father, who died when my dad was 16. There was certainly a lot of pain in his life. And while he was not given to emotion or affection, the hard times of his life shaped him into a man who was strong and quietly compassionate.

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Four kids in four-and-a-half years

Family is the glue that will keep you together. Family will help you keep perspective on what’s really important. My father’s immediate family, consisting of my dad’s parents, three brothers and two sisters, was broken up by poverty and war. After my father was about 12, the family never lived together again because of various circumstances. But when my father came to the United States, joining an aunt and uncle and their children in a small house in the east side of St. Paul, he finally experienced the family life he had longed for. It gave him the semblance of a normal life at last. He would go on to meet my mother and raise four children in a very conventional and blessedly uneventful way. And they created a solid footing for the next generation to come.

Don’t be a phony. If you are overly concerned with what people think of you rather than being a good person, you’ve got it wrong. My dad could always spot a phony, and he wasn’t shy about showing his disdain for those who spent more time trying to appear to be hot stuff rather than being authentic. He wasn’t impressed by wealth, and was even turned off by it, but he was more impressed with authenticity, kindness, and respect.

Parents love you the best way they know how and they aren’t perfect. They will disappoint you, hurt your feelings, and even fail you. Learn to forgive them for their shortcomings, because it will make you who you are. There are many things I wish my father had done differently. I wish he’d been more communicative and more nurturing for starters, but I know that he did the best he could. And what he did do in providing a stable home, was pretty darn good.

Be responsible and dependable. Do what you say you’re going to do and be the kind of person that people can count on. My father was reliably on time. If he said he would do something, he always followed through. I hope that I have inherited that quality from him.

Lastly and maybe most importantly, leave those around you better than when you found them. Through your love, your gifts, and your efforts, make this world better. Do right by your family and friends and the rewards will come back to you. This, in essence, was my dad’s life. It’s what he did for me, and it’s what he has enabled me to do for my daughter.

Brenda van Dyck is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis with her family. She writes memoir and essays, bolstered by her WordSisters since first joining the writing group ten years ago.