44: Those Gentle Hands

44: Those Gentle Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Those Gentle Hands

Pie is a symbol of something bigger than

Mom and her way with desserts.

~Pascale Le Draoulec

My mother makes the best apple pie. Her apples are perfectly spiced, not too soggy, yet never undercooked. And her piecrusts are golden, flaky bursts of delight sprinkled with delicate cinnamon spice. My mother’s apple pie has always been an important part of my family’s holiday dinners.

My mother grew up helping my grandmother, who was confined to a wheelchair, with the care of the younger siblings, the cooking, and the household chores. My grandmother did teach my mother how to make piecrusts, and my mother took it from there and became the pie maker in the family. She was one of seven children on a farm in upstate New York, a farm her father had bought after the Depression. He was an engineer, educated at Pratt Institute, and very wise. He knew that the farm could sustain his family and allow them to be self-sufficient in a financially unstable world. My grandfather grew fruits and vegetables, and raised cows and chickens for milk and eggs. Pigs, cows, and chickens were slaughtered for their meals.

Pie turned out to be the most economical dessert to make. It was cheaper than making cake and didn’t use the farm’s supply of eggs and milk. Many of the fruits my mother used were grown on the farm. And it would give my grandmother a moment’s peace; she would send her children scampering off to hunt for fruit. My mother made wild raspberry pies and strawberry rhubarb pies for her family, but the favorite, by far, was her apple pie.

It comes as no surprise then that one of my mother’s favorite childhood memories was baking pies in 4-H. Her group leader would host a pie-making contest every year, and all of the 4-Hers in her group would participate. All kinds of pies and various levels of pie-making abilities were represented in this contest. The 4-H leader’s son, who lived next door to my mother on a small farm, was always the judge of the contest. My mother had quite the crush on him, and when he voted her pie the best, she swooned.

My mother’s apple pie has become legendary in our family. Her pies accessorize every holiday table. Her grandsons are especially fond of her pies, so she bakes extras for them to take away with them after family events. She makes apple pies to celebrate when someone is happy, and apple pies to comfort when someone is sad.

My mother has tried to teach me how to make her apple pie without success. The problem was she tossed a handful or two of flour into the bowl, added a shake or two of salt, and threw in a few scoops of Crisco. She crumbled it all together, added a few sprinkles of ice water, and the pie dough was magically formed. I had a notebook and pen ready to write down the exact measurements but I couldn’t keep up. When I asked my mother how many cups of flour, she remarked, “Oh, about this much,” as she held out her slender hands. The same thing occurred when I tried to figure out how much of the other ingredients she used. Needless to say, I did not inherit the apple-pie-making gene.

My mother’s hands accomplished a great deal in this world; never were they idle. She was invaluable to my grandmother, and then she raised three daughters, caring for them with a loving heart and gentle hands. My mother was a talented artist, but she only considered painting a hobby. Her hands were skilled at nursing, and her elderly patients loved her. As a teacher, she tied shoes, and tended to scrapes and bruises. She turned the pages of a beloved book and acted out the songs she sang. And she baked apple pies.

This aging woman became legally blind a few years ago. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for her to live in a world of shadows and blurry grays, unable to be as independent as she wants to be, no longer painting or able to do many of the things she loves. Miraculously, she still lives alone. She is a beloved friend, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

My mother still insists on making her apple pies for every holiday. She can no longer see well enough to peel and slice the apples. So, this Thanksgiving season, I offered to help her and told her it was because I wanted to try to learn how to make her pastry crust again. My memories took me back to the first time she tried to teach me. I was a new mother then, realizing the love I had for my precious daughter was as vast and as powerful as my mother’s was for me.

She sat in her kitchen that day and used her hands to guide her as we peeled apples together. She never even bothered to look down; instead, she seemed preoccupied, maybe thinking of years gone by. She struggled. I snuck my fingers back into the bowl, cleaning up the red splashes of peels she left behind and the speckle of seeds residing there.

But her hands, so thin and work-worn, still made magic with a handful or two of flour, a scoop of Crisco, and a splash of water. The fragrance of cinnamon, apples and pastry baking filled the air, and the latticework on her pies was like ribbons of love woven into my heart.

~Katherine Mabb

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