On parents and making rhubarb pies

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2003

Last weekend I was in my yard picking rhubarb to make a pie when I had this memory flash. I saw my parents in the days when Dad had wide sideburns and Mom wore turquoise rings and bell-bottom Levis. In the vision, which I must have remembered from a photo somewhere, they were my age and newly married, holding beers in a sunny back yard. It would be around four years before they had me, and 20 years before they became enemies.

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Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

I know it's retro, but rhubarb pie is a sort of tradition in my family, and I'm not shy about saying we generally make it well. My mother learned to make pie that summer in the 1970s when I think the bell-bottom photo was taken. My dad was working on the pipeline, and she was living and waitressing at a roadhouse in Talkeetna. Her boss and pie-making teacher was a sharp, white-haired woman everyone called Evil Alice Powell.

A few years back, I came across an old manila envelope of letters my parents sent to each other every day that summer, and to my disappointment, they weren't particularly interesting. My dad wrote about his job laying culvert pipe, the money he was saving (he kept a tally in the margins), what he ate at camp (steak, potatoes) and what he wanted my mother to send him (new work shirts, scotch). My mom wrote about Evil Alice waking her up early in the morning (she slept above the kitchen), picking blueberries and making pie. My mother began her letters with "Baby -" and in one note my dad told my mom, "I miss you more than music."

Anyway, I probably shouldn't tell you this, but when I make pie crust, I use a combination of butter and Crisco, and I keep it cold. I mix the fat with the flour until I have a grainy meal, then I slowly add tiny bits of ice-cold apple juice, just so the dough sticks together. I shape it into a ball, cover it in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for at least a half hour. That might not be the exact Evil Alice recipe, but if you do it right, you won't be disappointed.

After that summer, my parents decided to go back to school. Eventually, my dad became a surgeon and my mom got her Ph.D. They had me and my brothers, and we moved back to Anchorage, where rhubarb grows as big as elephant ears in the long, sunny summer days.

Other people's relationships, even your own parents', are things I don't think you can ever really get. And, as a kid, I certainly didn't think about it much. My parents seemed like everyone's parents: My dad went to work, my mother drove car pool. I rode my banana-seat bike around the cul-de-sac, built forts in cottonwood trees, and scribbled down secret thoughts in a hot-pink diary that locked with a tiny key. One day when I was 12, my mother told me my dad was moving to a house in a neighborhood down the hill. A year later they were communicating primarily through their lawyers.

When I need advice about pie, I always call my mother. With rhubarb, she always tells me that it's never sweet enough, and I should put in more sugar. Later, when I am worried it is still too tart, she always says it will be fine with a little ice cream. With nearly all pies, both she and I follow Evil Alice tradition and add a splash of whiskey to the filling, more for luck than flavor. Once in a very long while, even though I go through all of the pie-making steps perfectly, my rhubarb pie doesn't turn out quite right, and is too sour or too runny. When I call my mother, she always tells me that making a pie is hard, and sometimes it doesn't turn out quite right, and you really don't know why.

My mother lives with my youngest brother and a dog in an eclectic little house with pinkish walls in East Anchorage. She makes her own granola, is vegetarian and has fantasies about selling everything she owns and moving, with the dog, into a cabin. My dad lives in a large house downtown, is remarried, drives a sports car and likes to barbecue. The last time I saw them in the same room was at my college graduation dinner when they sat at opposite ends of a very long table.

My grandmother used to say that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. For a long time, like every child of divorce, I used to imagine my parents didn't speak because they secretly still loved each other. But, in reality, I know that like rhubarb pie, sometimes you can follow all the steps in life, and still things don't turn out how you hope they will, and you can't really go back and fix it.

Just for kicks, after my rhubarb vision, I dug out a picture of my parents at their wedding. My mother has a pudgy face, she wears an empire-waist dress, and her long blond hair falls in curling-iron curls. My dad is a skinny, bushy-haired version of his current self, wearing an Army uniform. For a minute I forgot my modern-day parents. I imagined, instead, twenty-somethings working summer jobs, saving money for college and sending letters across Alaska every day for a whole summer, letters about nothing, about what they ate and what they read, about missing each other, about laying culvert pipe, about making pie.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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