This story is by Anouchka Oppinger Bowne and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It would come down to the pie crust in the end.
Standing in her kitchen, Moira eyes the crumbling pastry crust with equal parts disgust and desperation. “How can this be happening … again? I have followed every step of her recipe to the letter,” she mutters, glaring at the tattered book propped up in front of her.
Although it is only May, the summer is already promising to be brutal. The air conditioner hums continuously in Moira’s small, tidy bungalow but provides little respite from the Texas heat. The humid air presses down on her, making it difficult to breathe. As she pulls her dark hair back into a ponytail, Moira marvels again at how she has gotten herself into this mess.
Her family is having its annual start-of-summer party tomorrow. Moira has always brought a store-bought dessert for the occasion, but this year she decided to make her mother’s tarte aux fraises. The thought of the plump, sweet strawberries, French pastry cream, and flaky pie crust transports her to the summers of her childhood.
Moira’s parents divorced before she and her younger brother, Max, were old enough to remember. Earning only a meager salary from her job at a local travel agency, their mother spent her weekends baking pies to sell to friends and local businesses to make ends meet. Moira watched in amazement as her mother whipped up these confections, rarely consulting the recipe book for the proper measurements. Her mother’s pie crust, when it emerged from the oven, was layer upon layer of flaky, melt-in-the mouth perfection.
The pie crust in front of Moira is decidedly not perfection. Far from it, she thinks, as she throws the crumbling mess in the trash. Is it any wonder, really? Mom never let me help in the kitchen.
Wistfully, Moira thinks back to those summers when she pleaded with her mother to let her do something—anything at all—to help. But her mother always shooed her out of the kitchen, telling her that she was almost finished or that Moira could help next time. But there was never a next time.
Back then, Moira knew her mother’s reasons were merely excuses even if she did not understand the why behind them. Was her mother worried that Moira might make a mistake? The pies helped pay the bills so perhaps that was not a chance her mother could afford to take. Over time, the anticipation Moira felt when she heard her mother take out the mixing bowls from the cupboard slowly gave way to quiet acceptance. And, eventually, Moira stopped asking.
As her mind skitters along the memories, Moira’s nine-year old daughter comes barreling into the kitchen.
“What are you making, Mom?” asks Willa.
“I’m making your grandmother’s strawberry pie.”
Sighing, Moira pushes a wisp of hair out of her eyes. One more try.
Moira blends the flour, salt, and sugar together. She adds the cold butter, blending until the mixture is slightly coarse, and then adds several tablespoons of ice water. Gathering the dough into a ball, she wraps it in wax paper and puts it in the refrigerator.
Her thoughts turn back to those long ago summers. Growing up as latch-key kids, Moira and Max enjoyed a freedom their friends openly envied. They left the house early to explore the yet-to-be developed fields behind their home, in the hopes of discovering lost treasure. Unlike their friends, they rarely went home for lunch, preferring instead to stay out for as long as it was light.
When the sun finally dipped below the horizon, they returned home, reluctantly, sweaty and exhausted. They made a beeline for the kitchen where they often found their mother, her hands dusted in flour, taking a freshly baked tarte tatin out of the oven. The upside-down apple tart, with its caramelized sugar and butter, was their mother’s nod to her French childhood. Sometimes Moira and Max’s friends tagged along with them on the walk home, hoping to be rewarded with a slice. With a weary smile, their mother always obliged.
Moira lightly flours the counter and the top of the dough. Using her mother’s rolling pin, she rolls the disk out, giving it an occasional quarter turn to keep it even. Moira carefully transfers the dough to the pie plate. She trims off the excess pastry and sprinkles the scraps of dough with cinnamon and sugar.
Lifting the rim of the crust and folding it back slightly, Moira pinches the dough to sculpt a ridge. She pokes the bottom of the dough with a fork to keep it from bubbling and puts the pie plate in the oven.
Is this how she used to do it? Is this how she spun that dough into gold?
As Moira stands there, tears begin to sting her eyes. The memories of all those summers her mother spent in the kitchen baking pies for others to enjoy suddenly flood her. Her mother’s life, whose every moment had been spoken for, was a patchwork sewn from the needs and wants of others. Those hours she spent baking in the kitchen were the only moments she could call her own.
The timer rings, startling Moira from her reverie. Slowly, she removes the pastry crust from the oven, appraising it with a critical eye. Not as flaky and light as mom’s and the edges are slightly burned. Still …
Just then, Moira sees Willa peering at her from the corner of the kitchen.
“Will you teach me how to make that?” Willa asks, shyly.
Smiling, Moira offers Willa one of the pieces dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Willa quickly pops it in her mouth.
“Yes. I’d like that.”