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Fiction: The Great Berry Pie Cook-Off

I’d never paid attention when my mother would talk about the anxiety she felt waiting for the tasting and the judges’ announcement. I’d blow it off if it were me, I though. It’s ultimately meaningless.

Now, as I waited for the final results, I was much less secure in my stance. “I get it now, Mom,” I said to myself. “I understand the knot-in-the-stomach feeling you described so many times.”

When Mrs. Bailey came back into the kitchen, smacking her lips and smiling, followed by the other judges and the camera crew, it was apparent the announcement was near. We took our positions in front of our stoves.

This was it.

“On behalf of the entire organization I thank you for what we all agree are the most varied and most enjoyable pies submitted to this event,” Mrs. Bailey boomed into the microphone. “Some years we award more than one ribbon. This is one of those years. All of you are superb pie-makers.”

I was surprised. I couldn’t believe I was being called a superb pie-maker by a woman whom Richard told me had gone on from this event years ago to claim the top award at the National Great Berry Pie Cook-Off. She was a champion, and she was calling me superb. I felt like a winner even before she awarded the blue ribbon to contestant 10’s organic blackberry pie. Richard’s strawberry pie won second place, and I was thrilled for him. He dedicated the red ribbon to his father and those early mornings in the bakery. The white ribbon went to the baker of a blueberry pie.

“That brings us to the yellow ribbon,” Claire said as she wrapped up the ceremony. “We were impressed not only by the taste of this pie, but also by its appearance. Congratulations, Mary Stevens! Your wild raspberry pie receives the yellow ribbon.”

I was elated. What started as a whim became a moment I could dedicate to a woman who baked pies despite a husband who told her not to waste her time. My yellow ribbon was now material proof that she hadn’t.

After the formalities had ceased, I wrapped my pie plate in aluminum foil, gathered my stuff, and said goodbye to Richard. I then hurried out the door only to tip-toe through another a half-hour later.

“Is she sleeping?” I asked.

“No,” the night nurse replied. “She’s in the lounge by the window.”

I couldn’t wait to tell my mother about my day. Her doctor had told my sister and me to talk to her like we would normally, as if she wasn’t lost within her own thoughts. So that’s what I’d planned on doing when I found her sitting in a chair by the window. After putting my backpack and pie down on a table, I went over and gave her a hug. I still found it hard to accept that my mother looked at me like I was a stranger, but today it didn’t stop me. It didn’t scare me.

I sat down next to her and thanked her for all the pies over the years. I mentioned certain pies that had been favorites, and how I loved watching her with her rolling pin. With her apron still tied around my waist, I grabbed the measuring cup and bowl and showed them to her.

“I brought your measuring cup and bowl with me, Mom,” I said as I held them out to her.

She didn’t say anything, just stared at me.

As I went on about Richard and his father’s bakery, the manicured women who I realized weren’t so bad after all, and the woman who’d won the national title in a Great Berry Pie Cook-off Competition, I saw a miracle taking place. Life seeped back into my mother’s eyes. She slowly lifted her hand to touch the measuring cup and bowl. Her fingers danced along the edges of the apron. She was in the moment.

“That apron looks good on you, Mary,” she finally said. “You have flour all over it. That’s a sign of a good pie.”

“You should know, Mom. Your pies were the best.”

“Good or bad, you and your sister had no choice but to eat them,” she chuffed.

“We loved eating your pies,” I reassured her.

“Well your father didn’t.”

“That was his loss, Mom.”

“True,” she nodded. “As long as my girls liked them, that’s all that mattered.”

Seizing on her sudden moment of clarity, I asked an attendant for two plates and two forks and I wheeled my mother over to the table where my award-winning pie sat next to my backpack. She watched as I sliced the pie and served her a piece.

“Did you pick your berries, Mary?”

“I did. I remembered you saying wild berries have a taste all their own.”

“It’s nature at its best,” she said.

We sat eating our pie and talking for over an hour. My mother laughed about the pies she never served because she wasn’t pleased with their taste. She seemed to remember every pie she’d ever baked. When she started yawning I knew I should get her back to her room. By the time I had helped my mother into her bed and covered her with a blanket, she was gone again. When I kissed her goodbye, I knew I was a stranger again.

On my way out, I tied the yellow ribbon around one of her metal bed rails. “This belongs to you, Mom,” I whispered. She didn’t hear me. She was sound asleep.

I took hold of her hands–hands that had kneaded, rolled, patted, crimped and fluted so many pie crusts– and I told the pie-maker that I finally understood her passion.

“It never was about winning for you. It was all about warming the heart.”

Later on, with the measuring cup and bowl back in my kitchen cupboard, I called my sister and sat down to enjoy another sliver of raspberry pie. It’d been a most glorious day for pies and pie conversations.

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  • Sue Fisher McAdams

    Well done, Barb. I truly enjoyed this story. Thank you for sharing it :)