Susan drove into the lot at Regency Nursing Care and parked. She got out of the car and took several deep breaths of fresh air before going into the facility. She hated this place. It smelled bad.
The smell was not conspicuous. It was insidious. It smelled like disinfectant not quite covering an unpleasant odor, like a trick someone was trying to play on the visitors. The facility was trying to say, “This place is a clean and happy place for your older relatives to live out their last days.” But Susan’s nose wasn’t buying it.
It wasn’t just the smell, though. The sounds were distressing, too. Patients would occasionally cry out in pain or fear and those cries disturbed Susan much more than the smell. It was a necessary place for some of the patients and the only answer for Grandma Gertrude, or Gigi, as she preferred to be called.
Gigi used to prefer that name. Now she had dementia and none of us, thought Susan, really know anymore what she wants.
Susan’s family was large enough that Gigi had visitors every day. Susan’s sister Linda said that Gigi enjoyed having them visit, but Susan wasn’t sure that Gigi even knew they were there. Their mother ended that discussion by saying that it didn’t matter if Gigi knew. They knew and Gigi would continue to have daily visitors as long as she still breathed. Even if she fell into a coma, they’d continue to visit her, because Gigi spent her entire life caring for them all, and now it was their turn.
There was no counter-argument to that, so the aunts, uncles and cousins made up a schedule and today was Susan’s turn for Gigi’s Saturday afternoon visit.
Not that Susan begrudged visiting her grandmother, so much as her grandmother had gone away into her dementia and didn’t come out often. She wasn’t really Gigi anymore. Sometimes, she sat and stared at the wall during the entire visit. She allowed you to fluff her pillow or hold her hand. She allowed you to talk to her, but she didn’t always answer. And in her moments of, for lack of a better word, clarity, when she would perk up and talk to you, she wasn’t always a seventy-five-year-old grandmother. She wasn’t always Gigi.
Sometimes she was little Gertie, getting in trouble from her mother for doing cartwheels on the lawn in front of St. Matthew’s Church in her First Communion dress and receiving a wink and a smile from Father Murphy as she received the holy sacrament with grass stains on her knees and scuffs on her white patent leather shoes. At other times she was Gert, down at the diner, calling you sweetie and getting you a grilled cheese and a milkshake. Sometimes she would mistake you for her best friend from high school. Susan was most amused the day that Gigi mistook Susan for her mother and told her to stop being so hard on Susan herself.
“After all,” said Gigi, “You were a sassy little back-talker to me and you turned out fine.”
Sometimes, you could ask Gigi about the past and she’d perk up and tell you about the day that JFK died or the day of the moon landing. Other times, she’d relive her wedding day. She seemed almost to be herself when she spoke about her past, except that she rarely knew who she was telling it to.
Susan walked down the hall, hoping that Gigi was in a cooperative mood today. Susan had started a project with Gigi several months back and had even visited when it wasn’t her official day in order to get more time in with her grandmother. It was hit-or-miss whether her grandmother would cooperate, so the more Susan visited, the more likely that the project would be a success.
For decades, Gigi had spent the day before Thanksgiving baking pies. She baked apple pies, pumpkin pies, and pecan pies for the entire extended family and a few of her friends. She would rise early and make the dough, wrapping individual pie portions in plastic wrap and putting them in the refrigerator to cool. Then she would make the fillings, peeling, coring and slicing apples, chopping pecans, scraping out the shells and mashing the pulp of the pumpkins she had baked the day before, laying the pies to cool on the dining room table. In the evening, her family and friends would come get their pies.
When Gigi had moved into the nursing home, Susan had realized that no one had ever asked to be taught how to bake Gigi’s pies. After looking through all of Gigi’s cookbooks and finding no pie recipes, Susan asked her grandmother one day where the recipes were.
Gigi said, pointing to her temple, “They’re here. I don’t need recipes to make them.”
Susan knew they would lose a part of their family tradition unless someone got the recipes out of Gigi’s head and on paper.
At each visit, if Gigi was willing, Susan would get the basic recipes for each pie, the quantities and specifics of each ingredient. It surprised Susan to learn, for example, that the “pumpkin” in the pie wasn’t the big orange jack-o’-lantern kind that she had assumed, but actually butternut squash. Also, Gigi used only Granny Smith apples in her apple pie, although she admitted that some of the newer varieties in the grocery store might also work. But, for Pete’s sake, do NOT buy cheap apples for pie.
Susan also learned a few tricks from Gigi during their pie talks. One was that chopping pecans is a waste of time. If you want the pieces smaller, put them in a Ziplock bag with all the air squeezed out, lay the bag on a wooden cutting board and hit it repeatedly with a wooden rolling pin.
“It’s very important,” Gigi had said that day, laughing heartily, “To get all the air out of the plastic bag. I learned that the hard way when I popped the bag like a balloon and pecan pieces went flying all over the kitchen. I was finding pieces for weeks afterward in many unexpected places. You’d have thought it was Easter.”
It had taken months for Susan to ferret out all this information from Gigi. During some visits she didn’t talk at all and on other days she wouldn’t talk about pie baking. But, on the days when Gigi talked about baking pies, Susan took copious notes.
She learned not to play with the dough, to roll it out with a minimum of fuss. Gigi said not to mix the dough too much, to leave unincorporated pieces of butter in it, so it would be flaky. She learned to form the dough into a thick disk before putting it in the fridge and not to refrigerate it in a ball like most of the cookbook recipes said.
“The rolling out goes faster if you do that,” explained Gigi. “Everything needs to be cold when making a crust, not just the butter. Everything! Put the flour in the fridge overnight and stick the rolling pin in there, too, even if it’s a wooden one and not a marble one. You don’t need a marble rolling pin like the fancy bakers say. I do just fine without one.”
Susan walked down the hall to Gigi’s room, a plastic container in one hand, a plate, a fork, a napkin and a thermos of cold milk in a bag hanging from her wrist. Today was the ultimate test.
Susan had been making pies for months now. Using recipes from cookbooks and the internet and the notes she had taken while talking to Gigi. She turned into Gigi’s room and found her in a chair, just finishing her lunch. Perfect timing, she thought.
“Hi Gigi,” Susan called out, “I brought you some pie for dessert.”
“Pie?” asked Gigi. She looked confused and vague. Susan’s hope faded. Perhaps today was not the day for this. Well, she’d try.
Susan unpacked the items and placed the three slices of pie onto the plate. She put the fork and napkin down beside the plate and poured some milk into the thermos lid.
Gigi perked up at the sight of the pie.
“You know,” she said, in a clear voice, “My husband Max always put entirely too much whipped cream on my pies. It was insulting, really. My pie did not need drowning in whipped cream. A small dollop would do. I didn’t put any whipped cream on my pies at all. I’d just eat them with a glass of cold milk.”
“I remember,” said Susan.
Gigi picked up the fork and took a bite of each kind of pie. She chewed and savored every morsel. She picked up the cup of milk and took a large swallow.
“Ah, see,” said Gigi, putting down the cup. “Perfect! I make the best pies.”
Tears fell silently down Susan’s cheeks even as she grinned hugely.
“Yes, you do,” Susan said, and she sat down next to her grandmother.
“Can I have a bite?”
© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser