A friend ordered an appetizer before dinner a few nights ago, Brussels sprouts. I asked what was on them, and she said, “Chopped pecans. Here,” pushing the plate toward me to confirm.
I hadn’t expected chopped pecans on Brussels sprouts, but since we are approaching Thanksgiving and the Christmas season, my mind took another unexpected turn: Suddenly I was struck by the realization that I would never again have a pecan pie made by my mother who died about eleven months ago from stage 4 lung cancer discovered a few months after suffering a stroke and witnessing my father’s death just a couple weeks after the stroke.
My mother was from North Carolina, mostly the central hills of the state from Lexington to Salisbury, Spencer, and Concord. My father grew up and always lived in my home town of Woodruff, South Carolina, in the upstate, the foothills.
I learned to distinguish between my parents’ Southern drawls once I lived away from home for a while. As my father did, I grew up pronouncing “pecan” with two hard syllables—PEE-CAN—the last rhyming with “man,” not “con.”
And once I was permanently on my own, my mother began focusing even more heavily on pleasing me with food if she could coax me to visit. My father, however, had come to recognize my favored status when I was a teen. Supper began to feature both what I preferred and when I would be home (after basketball practice, and such).
When I talked to my parents by phone, my father would usually joke that I needed to visit so he could have a good meal.
Children of the 1950s, my mother and father always spent way too much money showing everyone in the family their love. Holidays were manically overdone, especially Christmas, with gifts and food.
Fall and winter were a flurry for my parents who were overgrown children at Halloween; they carried that glee through the new year as well.
Thanksgiving in my home kicked off Christmas season with decorating the house and putting up the tree, all of which stayed up until New Year’s Day. I grew up thinking these traditions were universal because we had made it all so regimented and the holidays simply pervaded everything in our lives for well over a month, late November into January each year.
I also developed an affection for pies—sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan—as holiday food. My mom often made them from scratch.
Her pecan pie was wonderful even though it was always a challenge to make well. Some were a disaster, according to her, but I never noticed.
Crunchy on the outside then deliciously sweet at the center, her pecan pie was about the only thing that could compete fresh out of the oven with her just-made sweet tea that bordered on being syrup.
As my parents aged, and both struggled with heart issues for many years, they clung to the holidays, but Halloween soon became too much for them. For many years, they dressed up and dozens of children came by for my mom dressed as Mother Goose requiring a rhyme for candy.
Thanksgiving and Christmas also gradually dwindled—the meals no longer made by my mother, even the pies, and the gifts becoming fewer, the cash cards holding less and less.
My parents died with almost no money and mostly their house to represent their legacy, their shot at the American Dream.
Even during those last years, years I really didn’t see as last, when I visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mother always steered me to the vegetable tray—she made sure there were red, yellow, and green peppers, and carrots—and she always bought pies, pecan as well as potato or pumpkin, or some times all three.
I struggled for many years with the reality of my infirm parents against my stunted conception of them, the idealized mother and father who existed for much of my life.
But I also struggled against my parents clinging to a certain fixed image of me—especially my mom always trying to feed me those pies even as I nearly never ate pies in my adult life, except to please her at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
When I did my obligatory visits on those holidays, I had to try all the pies, and grazed throughout the visit from the vegetable tray. And then my mother would wrap up pie to take home—and I almost never ate them despite her frail gestures of “I love you.”
In those moments, I couldn’t rise out of the trap of my own life to see everything clearly, to appreciate that every single thing in life is fragile.
Even a pecan pie. Especially the last pecan pie.
There will always be a last time, and we almost never know that until afterward, until it is too late to appreciate the last time as we should.
I used to teach Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and watching it in front of students presented the same problem I had with other plays, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. These works always make me cry.
Emily dies young in Our Town, in childbirth, but realizes she can return to rewatch some of her life. The Stage Manager warns her against it, and she does find the experience painful, lamenting: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
Then she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
I love this scene in the play, and I hate it.
It breaks my heart.
I sat in the restaurant, the faint taste of pecan in my mouth, fighting the urge to cry because I had suddenly realized my mother would never again make a pecan pie for the holidays.
I talked about it briefly, withholding tears.
But I am not really sure what else to do with it. I am aware we all will likely be too busy with our lives to really look at our living, to fully see what matters in the moment.
And then the last time will be behind us.
We missed it. We will always miss it.