The phrase “a force of nature” barely begins to describe Maya Angelou. To be in a conversation with her was to be lifted, really lifted out of yourself, by the width and depth and breadth of her spirit. The line that is coming back to all of us is, of course, “I rise.”
A squirrel nearly fell on me in the park the other day. He zoomed right past my face and lit with a shocking plop on the sidewalk. It had that awful something-is-terribly-wrong feeling.
“The first lesson of history is modesty,” *I leaned over and said to him. “This is no way to show off.” I was trying to calm myself. It is nature’s first lesson too, I went on in my mind. A squirrel plopping from at least thirty feet makes quite a sound so you’ve got both sight and sound as well as history to deal with. He lit splayed out, belly down, eyes as wide as sunflower seeds. He was staring in fear.
“You’re alive,” I said to him. “Take some breaths.” He began to pant. “A few,” I cautioned. He twitched his head, then again. Then he couldn’t stop twitching. “You’ve got a concussion at the very least,” I said. “Stay quiet.” A tiny twig had dropped beside him. “Look at that. You went too high.” I looked up at the Scotch Pine. He’d probably dropped thirty feet.
“Velocity. I’ll call you that. I’ll take you home if you’re crippled and I’ll bury you if you die.” I hadn’t advanced into his space. The message from his was “Watch yourself. The second lesson is endurance.”
A beautiful morning in the park and there I stood. I wasn’t ready to make the sign of the cross over him. I didn’t know exactly how for one thing, but I was asking myself what his support network might be. You can see that I’m not a first-generation Facebooker (for want of the right phrase) or I’d have photographed him and saved myself the trouble of googling Fallen Squirrel.
It’s not that I don’t know a lot about squirrels or harbor a great fondness for them. I grew up in the forest. My grandfather had a pet squirrel he named Croppy and he baked that squirrel cakie-bread—that’s what he called it—and Croppy came to the kitchen window every morning at 10:00 for his cakie-bread.
Suddenly Velocity was up—a few more shakes of the head, a size-up of the tree and four feet on it. Slowly, with long stops, he made it up to the first branch and a place from which to properly contemplate the other lessons of history.
*Will and Ariel Durant
We had several rules in our family about pie. Never order it at a diner. Don’t worry about the run-down pie signs, a letter missing: Jesse’s Pies were the best in northeastern Utah. Be quite a few miles from a major highway.
In fact, better not to even eat pie it if it isn’t your mother’s. Or grandmother’s. They’re who taught me. “Put some flour in this bowl, about a cup and a half. Now you can get in the dough and pounce it up with your fingers or with this pastry deal—where is it? The trick is don’t handle it too much, although actually you’re all right until you add your moisture. That’s it. Just mix it up until you’ve got a whole bunch of little chips in there the size of hazel nuts.”
I made a pie for my mother this morning. I pounced up the dough and peeled the apples. I’d come home to be with her after she’d sustained a severe injury. We talked about pies as it baked. “We’ll be smelling it in fifteen minutes,” I say to her.
“That huckleberry pie we used to make when you kids would go out on the logging roads at the mill and pick berries.”
“Two million, eight hundred berries would make a pie. And that gooseberry pie when we had the house on Dunne Street.”
“We got good rhubarb there too.”
“And when we were in California, you crazy guys would bring dried apricots in off the trays and we’d make dried apricot pie that your Grandma Oldham liked. Except you’d bring the filthiest apricots in.”
“You told us not to bring anything unless it had fallen off the trays so if we were short, we’d kick them off and scrounge them around in the dirt.”
We laugh. Pies. They’ve marked our history. And this might be the last apple pie I’ll make with my mother, I know that. The mantle of ritual falls over the afternoon. It gives an elegance to what has always been rambunctious joy. Our own hearts are full of the history of apples, the fruit of the earth—Winesap, Cortland, Jonathan, Granny Smith—the orchards of the country tying labor and celebration together as it binds our generations. Grandmother teaching mother teaching granddaughter. Handle the dough very gently now.
I can see that pies are the framework through which I’ll remember. It is the custom of our family, and beyond us our neighborhood, our village, our country and countries before it back to meat pies and mead in some ancient castle.
And I have one of those transforming moments that lifts, that assures me how it will be. If this is our last piece of pie together, just the two of us saying, “Hell, this is good pie—let’s eat the whole thing—or hide it in the microwave if anybody comes,” the next one I make will be different. It will be homage, this long dialogue between us, and when I take it out of the oven, I’ll be the only daughter who could have made my mother’s pie.