“When life gives you lemons...” The age old phrase that encouraged people to accept what they have and make the best of it. But what if you wanted oranges for orange juice? You're probably not going to drink lemon juice in its place. Sometimes you need something that you can't go without. In my case, it was lemons. Life decided not to give me freaking lemons, no matter how much I needed them.
My Nana had always been recognized for one thing in her life- one thing that shined through all the hazy darkness brought about from the harsh discrimination in the 40’s and 60’s, and that was her lemon custard pie. Folks who lived in the surrounding neighborhood would come over specifically for a hunky slab of Nana’s pie. It might seem like a cliche, but race and gender were set aside if only for a nibble. With a gorgeous, fine ground graham cracker crust and the delicate custard, nothing could be wrong in life.
I guess that’s what I was trying to convince myself by recreating it.
I’d spent a good amount of time in Nana’s dusty old attic, rummaging through boxes in the hopes of finding her recipe. It took hours, stretched over the course of an entire week before I found the stack full of recipe books, and then another two months before I found the one she had hand written. Crazy old lady never knew when to quit hoarding.
Of course by the time I’d found it, it’d been too late. While I was setting a box of graham crackers in my shopping cart, the doctors phoned me. They told me, Nana wasn’t doing so well, and that I better get there quick to say my goodbyes. Boy, were they right. Nana’s eyes were burdened with large bags, accentuating the wrinkles of her tanned skin. The gray haired doctor, the one who’d told me jokes while I held Nana’s small hand, turned to me.
“Listen, sweetheart,” he said, plain and simple. “She’s been put on life support, and according to her will, she’s asked to be taken off within twenty-four hours with no improvement.”
I remember nodding numbly at the man, and collapsing into the chair at her bedside. I gripped the rosary that I’d strung around one of the holes on her bed, praying to God that her condition would improve.
Subconsciously, I knew. It’d be hard not to have the nagging suspicion after she’d been put on dialysis a week prior. Or that the past year she’d been growing weaker and weaker, relying more on her automatic wheelchair to get from place to place. But after years of seeing her fragile like this, brushes with Death became more subtle, and you never knew when to expect him to strike.
I stayed at her side for the entire twenty-four hours. She never woke once, but I didn’t lose my faith. She deserved my love and strength, as that’s all she’d ever provided for me the past twenty years of my life.
Nana died on April Fool’s Day, a Sunday, and it was about the worst practical joke the world could have sprung on me. I had crawled into the creaky hospital bed, furled at her side after they unplugged the machine that kept her heart beating. We were lying together reversed of how we used to whenever I woke from a nightmare, my head in the crook of her shoulder, arms encasing me. I held her tight the whole time, stroking her glossy black hair, feeling her chest rise at a decreasing rhythm. I sang her the tune my late grandfather would put me to bed with, “Ba Ba Black Sheep”. She always loved my voice, even if it cracked and had to strain to hit the higher notes. She could find the beauty in everything.
I thought that had been the hardest thing I’d done all my life, holding her close as the light faded. I’m ashamed to admit it, but now it just might be finding a simple, netted bag of lemons.
While it was hard to come to terms with, talking with the funeral director about the arrangements was a breeze. What’s your Nana’s favorite flower, coffin or cremation, do you want a slideshow of pictures, funeral home or church were the simplest possible questions the director asked me. My Nana and I knew everything about each other, from the color my toenails were painted to when she needed a touchup to cover her gray hairs. We loved each other dearly, a feeling so strong not even Death could infiltrate. I told the man all the information; roses of all colors, ashes please, a slideshow would be lovely, definitely a church, thank you.
It’d been a week since that dreadful Sunday, taking the coroner a full 48 hours to submit her report, then another day to process the final wishes, three to get her cremated, and one day for spare funeral planning. I was at the store picking up ingredients for food for the wake, when a man I knew spotted me.
“Hey, Trudy baby!” He shouted to me, weaving his way through a stream of steadily flowing customers to checkout lane 1.
I dropped a family size bag of potato chips into my cart while he made his way towards me. Only when he was within hugging distance did I acknowledge him. “Hi there, Bart.”
He scratched lazily at his spray-tanned arm. “How ya holdin’ up, Trudy baby?”
Bart was an old bodybuilder, who completely transformed his life. Once, he used to be pale and pudgy, but after his wife left him, he swore to become a different man. So he did, frequenting the weight rack and dowsing his body in coloring chemicals. Bart had quite the reputation- he didn’t have kids or any other stereotypical tie that would bind his free time. Lifting and ladies were his passion, he always said. Nana tended to his garden twice a week, growing him plenty of roses to gift to his newest conquest. I wondered if he’d have to start purchasing flowers from the supermarket.
“About as blue as the Texas bonnet, Bart,” I told him honestly. Bart had been nothing but polite to me, so who was I to lie?
“I sure was sorry to hear about your grandmother, she was like Elvis. An oldie but a goodie,” he winked.
I couldn’t help but crack a smile at the man who was half a decade older than my late Nana yet refused to admit it. “She sure was, sir. Sure was.”
The both of us scooted closer to the shelf stacked full of snacks as a woman pushed her empty cart down the aisle. Her child wailed in the cart’s seat, tugging on the tendrils of her curled hair. “Mama!” he cried, yanking hard enough for the woman to jolt downwards. She scolded him as they continued walking, past the Doritos, past the Ruffles, until they finally turned right at the end of the row so I couldn’t watch them anymore.
How I wished my Nana was still here. Bart found an excuse to leave me in aisle 6, pathetic and sad. I missed my Nana’s cold hands and the long fingernails she had always used to tickle me with and part my hair. There were so many things I took for granted, like the simple trips to the store where I’d childishly whine for pan dulce while she picked up that week’s groceries. It was not often that I’d get my way, no matter how much I begged. Only a few times did she relent, cupping my chin in her pointer finger and thumb, brushing the wetness from my cheeks.
“Save your tears, mija.”
Shaking myself from the aching loss, I looked down at my shopping list. Chips, pretzels, flour, all crossed off the list. Tomatoes, garlic, avocado, chile, lime, habanero, lemons. With a renewed sense of resolve, I pushed the shopping cart into the produce section. Everything was where it should be, and I picked up extra items- tomatillos and cilantro namely, I decided that I was making salsa verde for tomorrow in addition.
I tossed a good, four limes into a clear produce bag, placing them gently into the wired cart before yanking another bag for the lemons. The lemon custard filling for the pie called for the juice of seven fresh lemons.
Wait a second- where were they? The bin in front of me was filled to the brim with green limes. Not lemons, despite the store’s misguided promise of the “yellow lemons- organic” label. I rummaged around between the limes, searching for at least one golden oval. Nada.
I checked under the main bin, looking for stocked extras. For once, this particular produce section was completely empty.
“Excuse me,” I grabbed the attention of a nearby worker whose hands were full of strawberry cartons. “Are there no more lemons?”
The woman took one look at the abundance of limes behind me before she adjusted the precarious arrangement of packages in her arms. The visor was cinched tightly around her forehead, salt and pepper locks slipping from her ponytail.
“Sorry, doll,” her voice was quiet and raspy, with the faint smell of cigarette smoke. “Our next shipment isn't due for another couple days.”
I watched her walk away, succeeding in not dropping a single plastic box, but never once turning around for a second look.
As I gazed at the worker’s dalmatian tendrils, I was reminded of the afternoons I spent with my grandmother, cheap gloves hugging my hands, her graying hair drenched in black dye. The way we’d look in the mirror afterwards, her skin glowing with a newfound sense of youth. Her sly grin as she gently stroked her own hair, then as she reached out to brush mine. The worn pads of her fingertips as she tried to untangle my knotted curls. “Díos, mija,” her breath tickled the side of my neck. “What did I tell you about taking care of your mane?”
Brush it 100 times, Nana. Exactly 100. Unlike my grandmother’s, my hair was thick and curly, poofing with the Texas heat. As a kid, my grandparents instilled me with crucial selfcare lessons; like the proper way to clean a bathroom, how to make my own masa- tortillas are the vehicle for many hispanic dishes, and how to tame my rebellious hair. My late Granpo, bless his heart, with his hands shaking from Parkinson’s, would sit down with me, brushing. He would brush and brush, and brush, going back and forth between English and Spanish, until he reached ciento, one hundred.
I’d finished paying for my groceries, the lack of lemons still weighing heavily on my conscience. I knew my Nana would have wanted her lemon custard pie at her wake, after all, it had been her signature dessert. Just like how macaroni and cheese made with plenty of Velveeta was my grandfather’s, a dish we were sure to serve after his respective funeral. The shopping cart seemed to steer itself to my Granpo’s red, wheelchair accessible van. The flimsy plastic loops of the bags strained to support the weight of my purchases as I numbly loaded them into the backseat. My head was spinning, calculating how much daylight I had left, and where I could get lemons.
In the end, I decided to return back to the modest home I was raised in, unloading the groceries onto the kitchen table. The air was stiff from inactivity, as if I hadn't been home in days, when in reality it'd been under an hour. The Texas heat was unrelenting, simply opening the door released enough hot air to send a balloon to the stratosphere. Before I could go out in search of lemons, I knew I needed to get some of the other plates prepped. The tomatillos, roughly chopped onion, cilantro and two serrano peppers went into the food processor, and I gave it a nice, long whirl. I poured the salsa into a hand painted, wooden bowl, sprinkled salt on it, then gave it the proper sendoff to the fridge.
Afterwards, I slumped onto the padded, kitchen stool- also wooden, and handcrafted by my grandfather then painted by my grandmother. The two of them had been quite the team, carving and decorating, cooking and baking, and raising me. They were the perfect match for each other, both with their own family drama and hot headed latino tempers. I could never fathom the concept of their absence, of not having them in my life to pester me about trivial things or pray for my happiness. But I knew they were sick and I knew that there wasn’t much time left for them, despite Granpo being in his late 50’s when he passed, and Nana being in her early 60’s. They were lucky enough to have found each other, and I was more than blessed to be brought up by them, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when the good times didn’t continue rolling in our favor.
I made one last salsa, red hot- my Granpo’s personal favorite, and the one Nana would use to top everything- tortillas, huevos rancheros, toast, hamburgers- whenever something needed a kick, she would have added this. Finishing up, I cleaned the dishes, another lesson drilled into me- cleanliness, before I patted my hands dry and found the car keys once again.
A new grocer opened up not even a full year ago, I’d only entered once before turning right back around. The store had been full of organic produce, which wouldn’t have been so bad except for the hefty price tag that came with it. Not to mention the crazy products they had stocked their shelves with; fermented tea, chia seeds, vegan bacon, and something called sprouted bread? I had no clue what those were and I was not inclined to try.
But at this point, I was willing to sell my left kidney to the owners of the weirdly popular shop, if only for a bag of lemons. Please, let there be lemons!
Moments later, the red van started with a groan, creaking as I shifted into reverse and backed out of the narrow driveway. The drive to the organic food store was long and boring, as it was on the complete other side of town. Upon my arrival, the parking lot was congested with people- the last thing I’d been hoping for was to be around a bunch of strangers. Summoning my will, I exited the car door, and entered the unfamiliar terrain.
The doors automatically slid open, a gust of cool air immediately welcoming me. People were frantically moving to and fro, never once taking a moment to apologize if they bumped into someone else. Children ran around with mini shopping carts of their own, one in the process of piling their cart high with chocolates and candies. I smiled fondly at the child, who was excited at the prospect of eating all that candy until his mother tugged his wrist, chastising him as they abandoned the cart. I moved quickly to the produce area of the store, fancying the moment when I could leave and make the lemon custard. Fruits of all colors grabbed my attention, shiny red apples- mmmm, manzanas, tangy oranges, limes the color of wet grass, and yellow...
Yellow bananas. No lemons. You have got to be kidding me! I cursed spanish nothings under my breath as I hastily turned around to march outside. What a waste of time, why do I even bother?
The van rumbled to a start once more, and I angrily steered it out of the parking lot. The neighborhoods that whirred by in the window descended into tired, old houses- crumbling at the corners, practically tearing at the seams. The wealthier, more upscale part of town was in the same area as the organic store, new and bricked nicely. There was even a difference in the roads, as you get closer to my house you would be able to see. A distinct line marked the division of the town, the dark, paved road ends abruptly, right where my faded, cracked one begins.
I was not eager to go back home, because that would mean I’d have to face the empty kitchen, smell the dusty air, and hear my own breathing. I wanted nothing more than to see my Nana, half draped across the counter as she read a cookbook, simultaneously stirring a pot at the stove. The aroma would be divine, maybe today she’d have been making arroz con leche- my favorite treat, or perhaps preparing sopa de verduras- she always told me I needed to eat more vegetables. She’d be humming a tune, singing the music despite not knowing the words.
But if I went home, I’d be greeted with nothingness. I was alone, just like I always feared I would be. I turned the wheel down a posh looking street. The houses were built tall, floors stacked on each other like crackers, white and prim and everything I was not. At the corner of the street, a little girl had a stand, selling cookies. The cookies were packaged into boxes, divided separately into plastic bins, labeled Thin Mints, Tagalongs, Samoas. A woman with long blonde hair, tied into a knot on her head jogged past her. The girl shouted something, her princess dress waving in the faint breeze. A bit guiltily, the woman backtracked, handing over a few dollar bills in exchange for a box of cookies that she clutched to her chest as she continued on her run.
The steady stream of cars horizontal to me slowed, and I was finally able to make it past the sign I’d been stopped at. The van and I rolled along the smooth road, slow enough to peer at the cars we passed. Shiny cars, sleek with wax were parked in every driveway, sometimes there were multiple of them, overflowing, stopped parallel to the street.
I felt unwelcome, and turned right at the first stop sign I encountered, trying to navigate my way out. Unknowingly, I turned onto a cul de sac, empty, and shaded. It was almost hidden from the rest of the area, the colors a dark brown instead of the light reds, greens and whites I had seen before. I parked beside the sidewalk, sitting in the driver’s seat, thinking. My grandmother was dead. The only mother figure I’d had in my life was gone, up in the heavens, no doubt teasing my grandfather about his messy hair. Tomorrow was her wake, and what was I doing? I was going on some wild goose chase for lemons of all things, and for what? To make some pie that she was known for? My grandmother was a strong latina, and she was known for much more than just a silly pie.
With new resolve, I turned the key in the ignition, the van’s engine roaring to life with newfound vigor. Drops of rain had begun to gradually sprinkle, falling more and more rapidly until my windshield was slick with the sky’s tears. The wipers cleared the blur, and that’s when I spotted it. A tall tree, with yellow little ovals strewn about.
“Lemons,” I whispered under my breath. The notion I’d had about forgetting the pie instantly fled my mind as soon as I spotted them. Acting on impulse, I yanked the car door open, leaving the engine going as I tore down the street in my flimsy, plastic sandals. They slapped noisily against the wet tar, becoming increasingly sticky as I continued. I abandoned them in the middle of the cul de sac. Nothing matters, nothing is...
Lemons. I was beneath the tree, dark hair matted to the sides of my head, my ears becoming kin to the tangled mess. Water dripped down my chin, splattering onto the equally wet grass, slipping down my arms as I reached upwards. The golden oval was firm in my hand, the skin barely moistened from the rain. I yanked, pulling lemons from the tree one by one.
I could not believe what I was doing, I was stealing lemons from a person who worked so hard to tend to them. But I could not take back this sin- and I refused to stop. I needed this. I wouldn’t let myself be halted at the notion that I was undeserving. My Nana lived her whole life believing she was less than others because of her race. In her memory, I refused to do the same.
Once my arms were full of the sour fruit, I marched barefoot back to the clanky van.
“Hey! You there!” a person shouted. I turned on my roughened heel, hair whipping against my shoulders.
“Those are my lemons!” the man stomped down the steps of his porch. Díos, I’m in trouble.
I hadn’t thought of this- a confrontation. Fearfully I ran back to the car, feet burning as they found the torn bits of road, pebbles embedded in the raw skin.
“Stop!” he screamed now, running full force after me. He chased me to my car, but I was faster. The door was slammed before he could grab me, and the engine was revving while I shifted into first gear and escaped.
The smoke billowing from the van’s exhaust pipe clouded the lavish neighborhood from my sight as I raced down the smooth road, lemons sitting precariously on my thighs. The transition from smooth pavement to rough was immediate, the van bouncing from every dip and crack in the road. The houses were dark, fences built high to give each other privacy. A man at the stop sign tipped his fingers to me, silently thanking me for letting him cross the street. I gave him a smile in return, one hand on the wheel, the other stroking a lemon, searching its skin for any imperfections. There were none, just like the neighborhood I stole them from. Everything was polished and perfect, the women fit and active, the men home by supper, and the children cleaned and in princess gowns.
The area I was raised in was far different. To the privileged, my home might have seemed poor and unwelcoming, a metal wire gate enclosing the front and back yard. The children run around the streets when it rains, their naked skin dirty from the mud they’d been throwing at each other. Parents return home late, much later than bedtime because they’d been working all day and all night, as maids, busboys, construction workers. They would do so much and earn so little.
Granpo would come home after a long day, fingers black from the coal he’d shoveled into railroad cars, his dinner wrapped in tin foil in the cooling oven. I was supposed to have been asleep, Nana put me down for bed hours earlier. Yet every time I heard that front door swing open, I’d come racing from my room, wearing one of his old shirts that hung like a dress. He’d pull me into his arms and give me a slobbery kiss on the cheek, the type of kisses I hated receiving, but would feel a gaping absence when they were no more. I’d wipe the small trail of spit he left on my face, and see Nana standing there, hands planted on her hips.
“Mija, estás durmiendo?” She’d scold me, but she was happy to see her husband so I never got in trouble for being out of bed.
Nana was not fit, and her body could not afford to be active. She had type two diabetes so bad that she’d had fingers amputated. But damn her if she wouldn’t continue to care for me, cooking and cleaning and gardening, and doing all the things she loved.
If the man I stole lemons from were to look at my house, he’d frown. My front yard did not have a wide tree, vibrant with fresh fruit. However, it did have a garden, roses of all colors rising from the dry dirt. And that was something to be proud of- something my Nana worked hard for.
Once I was home again, I gathered all the ingredients I needed for the custard. My arms grew tired from whisking, I felt drained of effort. Making the pie did not make me feel close to my Nana like I’d secretly wished it would. Instead it made me sad.
The funeral was a lovely service, many people came. Clients of Nana, members of my Granpo’s family, neighbors and their children, even the nice Mr. Bart with a lady friend on his arm. Afterwards, I traipsed into the bathroom, tear-stained and frizzy haired. I ran through the tangles in my hair with the compact brush I kept in my purse, and began counting.
One, dos, three, cuatro... Switching back and forth between languages like my Granpo used to until I reached one hundred. Even then, I was not satisfied. I paced the bathroom floor for what felt like an hour before I finally felt able to leave the church.
The wake was hosted at my house, people streaming in and out. I lined a long table in the backyard with a plaid sheet, where the food I prepared sat alongside contributions the guests brought. Bart approached me while I was talking to my cousin Leon, who was eating a slice of the lemon custard pie. Bart’s place had a comparably thick slice as well.
“Trudy baby, this pie is delicious! Just like your grandmother used to make,” the elderly bodybuilder praised. Nana had made Bart his very own pie for his birthday, and he ate it all in one sitting. He didn’t share a single bite, claiming that it was his cheat day and he could eat however much he wanted.
Leon shook his head in agreement. “It definitely is.”
I blushed, forcing a forkful from my own plate into my mouth. The tang from the lemons hit my tongue first, followed by the sweetness from the powdered sugar dusted on top, completely rounded out with the chewy graham cracker crust. “Nana would have been proud.”
I nodded, accepting their compliments.
“Thank you. It was certainly a difficulty getting ahold of the lemons,” I trailed off, partially wishing to fill them in on my rainy adventure the day before.
Bart tilted his head to the side, carving another bite from his slice with his fork. “I would think so. I saw on the news this morning that the truck that transports lemons was in an accident on highway 66. What bad luck.”
Leon and I murmured our agreements, shaking our heads in sync.
“That explains the seemingly abundance of limes then,” I replied.
Leon’s brown eyes squinted into mine, the Texas heat making his dark hair stick to the back of his neck.
“Leon?” I asked, taking another bite of pie.
“Nana didn’t use lemons for the custard, Trudy,” he stated. “She used limes.”