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Nana's Pie MAG
“When life gives you lemons …”
It’s the age old phrase that encourages people to make the best of their problems. But in my case, 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 ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s – her lemon custard pie. Folks who lived in the surrounding neighborhood came over specifically for a hunky slab of Nana’s pie. It might seem like a cliché, but race and gender were set aside if only for a nibble. With a gorgeous, finely 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 good-byes. 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 24 hours of 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 poles 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. After years of seeing her become more fragile, brushes with Death became more subtle; you never knew when to expect him to strike.
I stayed at her side for the entire 24 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 20 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 crawled into the creaky hospital bed, curled 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 found beauty in everything.
I thought that was 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.
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. And so, answering the funeral director’s questions – What’s your Nana’s favorite flower? Coffin or cremation? Do you want a slideshow? Funeral home or church? – was simple.
It’d been a week since that dreadful Sunday; 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 customers.
I dropped a family-sized bag of potato chips into my cart while he made his way toward 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, after his divorce, always said that lifting and ladies were his passion. Nana had tended to his garden twice a week, growing him plenty of roses to gift his conquests. I wondered if he’d have to start purchasing flowers from the supermarket now.
“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 said, winking.
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.”
How I wished my Nana was still here. Bart found an excuse to leave me, pathetic and sad, in aisle six. I missed my Nana’s cold hands and the long fingernails she had parted my hair with. There were so many things I took for granted, like the simple trips to the store where I’d childishly whined for pan dulce while she picked up that week’s groceries.
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.
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 an “organic yellow lemons” 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.
“Sorry, doll.” her voice was quiet and raspy, laced with the scent of cigarette smoke. “Our next shipment isn't due for another few days.”
I watched her walk away, succeeding in not dropping a single plastic box. As I gazed at the retreating worker’s salt and pepper locks, I was reminded of afternoons I spent with my grandmother, cheap gloves hugging my hands, her graying hair drenched in black dye. I remembered the way we looked in the mirror afterward, 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 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: the proper way to clean a bathroom, how to make my own masa.
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. I wracked my brain for another place to find lemons.
In the end, I decided to go home, unloading the groceries onto the kitchen table. The air was stiff from inactivity. 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 them a nice, long whirl. I poured the salsa into a hand painted, wooden bowl, sprinkled salt on it, then gave it the proper send-off to the fridge.
After, I slumped onto the padded, kitchen stool – also wooden, 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 hotheaded 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 to pray for my happiness. But I knew they were sick and I knew that there wasn’t much time left for them, despite Granpo only being in his late fifties when he passed, and Nana being in her early sixties. 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. Finished, I cleaned up after myself, another lesson they had instilled in me.
A new grocer had opened a year ago, and I’d only entered once. I had turned right around after seeing the steep prices and the crazy products stocked on their shelves: fermented teas, chia seeds, vegan bacon. 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!
The parking lot was congested with cars, which was the last thing I’d been hoping for. The doors automatically slid open, revealing people 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. 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. But 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.
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. The wealthier, more upscale part of town was in the same area as the organic store. Even the roads were different: a distinct line marked the division of the town, the smoothly paved road transitioning abruptly into the faded, cracked one.
I was not eager to go back home. It meant facing the empty kitchen and hearing my solitary 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 and she’d be humming a tune, singing the music despite not knowing the words.
But now, home meant 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. 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 vehicles, overflowing, onto the street.
I felt unwelcome, and turned right, trying to navigate my way out of the neighborhood. Unknowingly, I turned down an empty, shaded cul-de-sac. It was almost hidden from the rest of the area. The homes were shades of 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.
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. 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. I abandoned them in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Nothing mattered, but the …
Lemons. I was beneath the tree, my 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 up to the tree. 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. 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 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 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 for 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.
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 yards. Children ran in the streets when it rained, their naked skin dirty from the mud they’d been throwing at each other. Parents here returned home late, later than bedtime, because they had worked long hours – as maids, busboys, construction workers. They did so much and earned so little.
Nana had not been fit, and her body couldn’t afford to be active. She had type 2 diabetes; it was so bad that she’d had fingers amputated. But damn 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. But 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 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. Nana’s clients, members of my Granpo’s family, neighbors and their children, even the nice Mr. Bart with a lady friend on his arm. The wake, hosted at my house, featured a long table in the backyard with a plaid sheet, where the food I prepared sat alongside contributions from the guests. I was talking to my cousin Leon, who was eating a slice of the lemon custard pie, when Bart approached me. His plate caried a thick slice of the pie 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, then completely rounded out with the chewy graham cracker crust.
“Nana would have been proud.”
I nodded, accepting their compliments.
“Thank you. It was certainly difficult 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 a produce truck transporting lemons to our area was in an accident on Highway 66. What bad luck.”
Leon and I murmured our agreements, shaking our heads in sync.
“That explains the 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.”