by Melissa Meyers
It was the “50th Annual Pie Bake-Off” poster that made her think of her Great Aunt Bernice. When she saw the poster, Josephina stopped dead in her tracks for a solid minute. Her grocery cart loaded with a week’s worth of food blocking the exit. A line of people pressed her to move forward with their carts and crying children, but she held her ground smelling the aroma of cinnamon and caramelized sugar calling her back to her childhood.
All Josephina could think about on her drive home was locating the cookbook. She hadn’t baked in years. Her mother, who referred to herself as a New Berg, abhorred any food that contained refined processed materials. So, when Josephina expressed interest after high school in pursuing a career as a Pastry Chef, she kyboshed it. The cookbook Great Aunt Bernice had left her, she'd never opened. Instead, she’d become an accountant per mother's suggestion. Her words echoed in her ears from all those years ago, “Bookkeepers will always be needed Josie. No one is going to be eating sugar in twenty years.” Josephina still shuddered thinking about life without sugar.
That’s how Josephina came to find herself deep in the recesses of her cupboards and Great Aunt Bernice’s life on an evening in August. At last, Josephina pulled the sought-after cookbook out from among the appliances smashed into the cupboard.
“Found it!” Mixie, her calico cat, flicked her tail in response. She dusted off her derelict inheritance from Great Aunt Bernice. She had never understood why she’d left it to her. She looked at the red and white striped faded cover, frayed edges, and several of the pages that were glued together. She cringed realizing it was likely from food remnants from years earlier. She hoped the cookbook held the award-winning recipe. She read the inside inscription, To Mr. & Mrs. Donald Hanson, on their wedding day, June 12, 1946, From Mrs. Astrid Berg. Josephina let out a soft laugh. Older generations were so formal. Mrs. Astrid Berg had been Aunt Bernice’s mother.
Setting the cookbook on the cream laminate countertop, she flipped through pie recipes for sour cream and raisin, pumpkin chiffon, and triple berry razzle dazzle. There were newspaper recipes and articles that had been neatly clipped out and stuffed between the pages. Josephina began to read the scrawling cursive handwriting in the margins next to many of the recipes. Dates and descriptions were carefully penciled in on how to make the recipes better. She ran her garden-pink painted nails through several more pages until she came to the cake section and read, for Donald Jr.’s first birthday. Smudge marks covered the entire recipe for Vanilla and Strawberry Swirl Cake. Josephina read the date lightly etched in pencil, May 1, 1949.
She turned to another recipe, this one for a bread pudding with vanilla custard sauce. Next to it was written, for little Susan on a rainy day. Josephina pushed her shoulder length chestnut-colored hair back behind her ears and thought about her Great Aunt Bernice in her last days.
She pictured her scuffling around her apartment in a floral housecoat with pink curlers wound up in her wispy raven-black dyed hair, cigarette in one hand and a cup of black coffee in the other. She’d cough until she turned gray blue. When the coughing subsided, she’d light her next cigarette and start the cycle over again. Josephina remembered her mother pleading with her to give it up. What Josephina didn’t remember was Great Aunt Bernice having children.
She began flipping faster through the cookbook. She read under a recipe for stuffed Pork Chops, made for our 25th Wedding Anniversary. She turned another page in the cookbook and read Donald Jr. and Susan’s favorite Christmas cookies under the recipe for Gingerbread Cutout Cookies. Under the Fudge Chocolate Cake recipe, she had written made for Donald Jr.’s fifth birthday. The list went on for Susan’s tenth birthday…for summer holidays, for Donald Jr.’s high school graduation, 1960. For the graduation party, she had made a Triple Decker Strawberry cake. Donald Jr. must have loved that cake! It sounded amazing.
Josephina stood up and stretched. She absentmindedly put the red kettle on the stove for tea and turned on the burner. Questions were whirling in her mind. She’d have to call her mother. Calling her mom was always complicated. She sighed.
After making a cup of chai tea, she sat down to flip through more recipes. She came across one titled, Brown Paper Bag Apple Pie Crumble. Underneath it was written in shaky cursive, April 22, 1990, for Vivian and my new Grandniece, Josephina.
That was her! Here she was in Great Aunt Bernice’s cookbook. The page had years of remnants of spices, streaks of butter, and globs of brown sugar crumble on it. Next to it was a newspaper clipping. She scanned it and sure enough there was Great Aunt Bernice holding an apple pie, and a Grand Champion ribbon. Aunt Bernice had made her award-winning pie for her on the day she was born!
She had a vague remembrance of baking an apple pie with her once. Had this been it? Then Josephina was eight years old again, wearing an oversized yellow gingham apron with large pockets and frills. She stood next to a Formica kitchen table surrounded by painted-white wooden chairs. Aunt Bernice brought golden-green and crimson-cherry apples out of the refrigerator and set them on a cutting board in front of her.
She could hear her raspy voice, “Sweet and tart, little Josie. Sweet and tart, that’s the secret of life.” Josephina read through the entire recipe. She straightened her back and shoved the cookbook away from her. This was the pie she was going to enter. She got up, grabbed a pen, and wrote down on a grocery list shopping notepad, Granny Smith - TART, and Red Delicious - SWEET.
They hadn’t spent much time with Great Aunt Bernice in her later days. As Josephina got older, they had moved for her mom’s job several hours away. She did remember her mother begging her aunt to stop smoking. Aunt Bernice’s response floated into her memory, “We’ve all got to go someday,” she’d said, “I’ve had my share of troubles. Thank you, but I’ll go my way.”
She went back to the cookbook. She continued to read the rest of the ingredients listed, ginger, cinnamon, salt, and nutmeg. She swayed to Unforgettable by Natalie King Cole on Spotify. Then she pictured the round hard nutmeg stone and grater. “Yes. Great Aunt Bernice had her secrets. Fresh nutmeg. Nothing but the best,” she said to Mixie, who purred in response.
Maybe she’d call mom to run the recipe by her and ask who Donald Jr. and Susan were? Maybe not yet. As an only child to a single mother, Josephina had never felt free to really be herself. She had to be what her mother wanted her to be. It was a weight she still carried even into her early thirties, but she'd begun to question it recently.
Josephina hopped into her white Fiat and zipped to the nearby grocery store. She pulled into the parking lot and grabbed a cart and entered through the automatic glass doors to select the needed ingredients. On her drive home, she suddenly remembered what she had forgotten. She saw Great Aunt Bernice place her aging hands on her child-like fingers stopping her from peeling the apples.
“Slice them very thin. We leave the peel on. No waste all taste.”
She rolled out the crust, washed and then sliced the apples razor thin, mixed them with the white and brown sugar, the spices, and splashed them with the lemon juice. In a separate bowl she used a pastry mixer until the butter and flour crumbled together.
She clumsily slid the pie into the paper bag, turned over the top, secured it with two paper clips, and put it into the oven. Twenty minutes later, a burnt smell permeated the kitchen. She peeked into the oven. The paper bag didn’t look like it was on fire, but it did stink. She deep breathed trying to imitate her yoga instructor and hit call on her phone.
“Josephina? You called me. How nice. You usually just text.” Her mom said.
“Hi Mom. I’m making Great Aunt Bernice’s apple pie. You know the one that you make in a brown paper bag.”
Silence. “That’s random. What made you think of it?” she said.
“Oh nothing. I just stumbled on her old cookbook and got looking through the pie section. It sounded interesting,” Josephina said.
“You know pie has a lot of calories. I just eat apples plain,” her mom said.
Josephine turned the light on the oven and peeked in again at the paper bag. Still no flames.
“I know mom. The reason I am calling is that the pie has been baking for about twenty minutes and it sort of smells like the bag is burning. It that normal?”.
“Oh, it’s been years. You can’t possibly think I can remember that. It doesn’t sound normal,” she said.
Black smoke rolled out the back of the oven. “Got to go!” She shut the oven off. Opened the door, and smoke poured out filling the room. She coughed and hacked. The smoke alarm beeped. Mixie ran out of the kitchen at full speed. Josephina ran to the sink and filled up a large pitcher of water and threw the entire contents into the oven. The flames smoldered and resisted. She filled up another pitcher and doused it. A wet trail of discolored water pooled under the oven, but the fire was out. She opened her kitchen door wide. Then she looked back at the soggy disaster she had created. She ran to get a mop and some towels. Her phone rang.
“Are you okay? You hung up on me,” she said.
“It all went up in flames. The pie is ruined.” Josephina said.
“The bag. You can’t let the bag touch the sides of the oven. At all. It will smell a little, but it will be fine as long as you place it in the center.”
“Oh, got it. It must have been touching the back of the oven.” Josephina was glad the air was beginning to clear of smoke. She took another deep breath of clear air.
“Mom. Can I ask you about Great Aunt Bernice? Who were Donald Jr. and Susan? Did Great Aunt Bernice have children?” She said.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “How do you know about Donald and Susan?” She heard her mom clear her throat.
“The cookbook. Great Aunt Bernice wrote their names in the cookbook.” Josephina wanted to say, alongside hundreds of recipes throughout their childhood but something held her back from sharing that with her mother.
She heard her mom clear her throat again. “I guess you wouldn’t know, we never talked about it. They were born quite a few years before me. All I know is that Great Aunt Bernice had two babies that died. Donald was the first one, and then Susan. Your Grandpa always said that they were “born blue.” Donald Jr. was named after your Great Uncle Donald. He only lived a couple of days after being born. A year later, she had Susan, and the same thing happened. They died before ever coming home from the hospital. She never had any more children that I know of after that,” her mom paused.
Josephina thought of the recipe for vanilla cake with strawberry swirls for Donald Jr.’s first birthday, and if the dates were correct in the cookbook, she’d made Donald Jr. and Susan a birthday cake every year at least until they turned 18. She thought about the warm bread pudding for little Susan on rainy days, and the triple decker strawberry cake for the year that Donald Jr. graduated, and the roll out gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She sat down.
“That’s terrible, mom. I don’t know what to say.”
“It is terrible. So sad. Great Aunt Bernice liked you very much. She was so happy the day you were born. She came waltzing into the hospital room with a skip in her step and a full apple pie. The one you just tried to make. She won a Grand Champion Ribbon for it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her then I don’t eat sweets. The nurses sure enjoyed that pie though.” There was a lightness to her mom’s voice that Josephina wasn’t used to hearing as she relived the memory of her birth.
“I can’t imagine her loss,” Josephina said.
“Yes. I suppose that is why she chain-smoked and lived on sweets,” her mom said, she lost a lot in her life.
Josephina thought that Great Aunt Bernice had coped well in her own way. She somehow couldn’t share with her mother how Great Aunt Bernice had baked all those years for her children like they had just kept on living. She said goodbye and then ended the call and Mixie jumped in her lap. She rubbed her back. Mixie meowed loudly and she noted that she had rubbed her fur in the wrong direction. Just how her mother always seemed to rub her the wrong way. They were just so opposite.
She typed in “baby born blue” into her phone. The term “blue babies” popped up in her feed and she clicked on links about congenital heart conditions. She read about the first experimental surgery to correct the “blue baby” issue was in 1944 at John Hopkin’s. The baby had lived nine months after the surgery. Maybe if Donald and Susan had been born much later, they would have perfected the surgery by then. Maybe they would have gotten to eat that cake on their first birthdays.
She walked back into the kitchen that still smell like burnt sugar. She didn’t have the heart to try again. Several days later, she rallied to the task and baked the Apple Crumble Brown Bag Special. If it was any good, she’d enter it for Great Aunt Bernice.
This time she paced, fire extinguisher in hand, in front of the oven until the timer beeped. Then she lifted the crispy brown paper bag with the streaks of apple and sugar drippings seeping through the sides out of the oven. She wasn’t quite sure how to remove the pie. After a bit of hesitation, she took out a kitchen scissors and cut out a steaming perfection of an apple dessert. She cut a slice, placed a spoonful of vanilla ice cream on the top, and took a bite. A burst of soft apple carrying a hint of lemon mixed with the warm spices of her childhood melted in her mouth.
“Oh, that’s good! That’s really good,” She smiled softly.
She took another deep breath and called her mother again. “Mom, why don’t you come over and have some apple pie with me? I just made Great Aunt Bernice’s recipe again. This time there was no fire. It’s delicious. “
She could hear her mom breathing on the phone. She heard her take a deep breath. “Well, I could have a small piece. You did go to a lot of trouble. I’ll be right over.” As she was waiting for her to arrive, she decided to show the cookbook to her. She’d cared about Aunt Bernice, too. Her mother cried when she read all the inscriptions to Donald Jr. and Susan that had been written over the years, under all those recipes that she’d made for them. Afterwards, they had sat down and had coffee chatting late into the night.
The day Josephina won the pie contest sadness with a hint of sweetness sat on her shoulders and draped his arms around her. She smoothed down her hair and tucked her white-collared shirt into her turquoise apron. She clutched the Grand Champion ribbon and flashed a smile when the journalist snapped her photo. She turned and smiled at her mother standing in the front row. All she could think about was how much she wished Great Aunt Bernice was still alive to see that her pie recipe had done it again.
She left the stage and hugged her mom. The August summer day was warm and toasted. She got into her Fiat and turned to drive home. Instead, she turned north. Two hours later she reached Saint Mark’s Cemetery. Leaning into the back seat, she slowly lifted out the remains of the Apple Crumble Brown Bag Special.
Towering cedar trees guarded the edges of the perimeter. A cardinal whistled out an unanswered love song. She walked until she saw the headstone with the name Hanson engraved into the hard granite. She walked softly through the grass towards it and read Bernice Hanson 1928-2002. She was buried next to her husband Donald. She noted the two small headstones behind them, with the tiny angels etched into the face of the stone, one read Donald Jr. 1948 and the other Baby Susan 1949.
She stood for a moment, balancing the apple pie in one hand. She hadn’t thought this through. Hoping no one would see her, she uneasily sat on the ground near Aunt Bernice. She leaned against the large tombstone. It was cool to the touch. Josephina dug through her oversized purse and pulled out a plastic fork. She looked over her shoulder and took a bite. She sat there until the shadows grew long, the fireflies began to flicker, and she’d long finished every bite of pie.