why I no longer bake apple pie

   

 Margaret Miller

          It was a retirement community, not a nursing home. That was important. My dad had given me a bullet point list of things like that to remember while I was visiting. Don’t talk about current events; don’t show him that you got your ears double pierced; do tell him he looks healthy. The most important thing went unspoken: Don’t mention Grandmarmy.

          I was just coming off of my first year at college, and I was high on independence. I wasn’t ready for the summer. For all their efforts preparing me to go to school, nobody mentioned how hard it would be to come home. The hole I left in my family had closed up while I was gone, and I felt like a misshapen puzzle piece, crammed into a notch where it should fit but didn’t quite look right. And all of that was compounded by the fact that I was walking back into a family in mid-crisis. 

          My Grandmarmy and Granddaddy had always had a strange dynamic. She was the drill-sergeant of the house, which I had considered ironic because of his time in the military. I once heard my mom talk about how my Grandmarmy must struggle with some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, but I brushed past it. I think that’s how our whole family responded, by brushing past it. More than fifty years of marriage was solid evidence against anything being “wrong.” 

          As I got older, I started to notice the imbalance more. My sister, Grandmarmy, and I would be having a smoothie party, and she would make her husband leave again and again, sending him to the store, claiming he kept forgetting the most crucial ingredients. Her tone was a constant back and forth—tender towards us and harsh towards him—which was easy to ignore when that was how it had always been. But, fifty years or not, ignoring the problem proved to be unsustainable. My family had found out a few months before I came home that summer that my Grandmarmy had been mentally, emotionally, and verbally abusing my Granddaddy. 

          I had been removed for the worst of it—the night Granddaddy called my mom saying he couldn’t take it anymore—the day she picked him up, alone in the dark house while Grandmarmy was at the store. I could picture my mom taking him to his doctor appointments, seeing her dad sit on the sterilized blue of the exam table with his toothpick legs dangling. They told her he was malnourished. Grandmarmy had been steadily decreasing his caloric intake for months.

          I was studying in the library when Grandmarmy called our house at 2 a.m., screaming that my mom was the devil. I was stressing about exams during the weeks they moved him from house to house so that she wouldn’t find him. My 15-year-old sister, Isabelle, was there to see my mom break down and my dad have to take over, but I was just a voice on the phone, trying to hear the full story between tears, trying to comfort my mom and sister before I even knew the whole extent of it.

          Today, though, I was here, home but not home, and welcomed by the elegant swirls of the “Preston Pointe Retirement Community” sign as we pulled in. The weather, hot and sticky again for the first time in months, strangely echoed my own move-in day. Granddaddy and my mom and dad had taken their car earlier that morning to check in and work through all the paperwork. Isabelle and I came afterwards as the designated furniture crew. Some of it was taken from our own house, some donated by people from church, cobbled together into complete sets so he didn’t have to furnish an entire, empty apartment. We pulled up to the front doors, pausing in the massive circular driveway built to accommodate two ambulances at a time if need be. She turned off the car, stopping our go-to playlist mid song, and squeezed my hand before climbing out and going straight for the trunk. I don’t know if she did it for her or for me. I followed.

          Soon, the furniture was splayed out on the sidewalk like a dysfunctional nervous system, lamps and chairs pulsing with move-in potential and my sister and I unloading and stacking in an unspoken system of anxious efficiency. The only thing left in the car when my mom came downstairs was our old “homework table,” where we used to trace letters or do algebra before dinner. She gave us big hugs and smiled, but her lips were chapped and her makeup didn’t quite hide the shadows under her eyes. Isabelle explained our unpacking system and my mom responded by calling us her “sweet girls” and charging into an explanation of how we would set up the rooms. 

          “How’s Granddaddy doing?” I was glad Isabelle asked. I wasn’t sure what was off limits and what wasn’t.

          “He’s doing well!” It was forced but not untrue. “I left him and your dad talking to another resident about football. Everyone’s been so friendly.”

          “Good,” was all Isabelle responded. 

          “I think he’s going to make a lot of friends here. And they’ve got Fox News playing 24-7 in the lobby so it’ll be just like home for him!” If there was irony in what she said, she didn’t acknowledge it. An older, but not elderly, woman in a pencil skirt approached her with a clipboard. “Oh! Girls, this is Brenda, she’s facilitating our move-in today.”

          The woman looked like Rita Skeeter from Harry Potter: old, but in denial about it. She bent slightly at the waist as if she was used to talking to grandkids much younger than my sister and I. “So nice to meet you both! Are you two ready to see your grandpa’s new apartment?”

          A “yes ma’am” came out automatically, but her kid-speak catalyzed a bitter train of thought in my head that culminated in a mental “Screw you, Brenda.” We left the furniture scattered across the front sidewalk in the hands of another Preston Pointe “host” and trekked through the fancy lobby in our ratty move-in clothes. The elevator had more emergency call buttons than I had ever seen: one for maintenance, one for Preston Pointe, and one for the hospital. There was a defibrillator on the wall in the hallway. Granddaddy’s room was wheelchair accessible. 

          Brenda knocked and walked in without waiting for a response. “Here they are!” she said with all the forced glee I had come to expect since I met her five minutes ago. Granddaddy was sitting on the couch, the one new piece of furniture we had ordered. He was wearing his red, plaid shirt—the one he always wore at Christmas dinners—but it hung from his shoulders like a pillowcase. Even a month later, he was still so thin; his wiry body was a constant reminder to everyone around him. Fresh anger at my Grandmarmy swelled up in my chest.

          Despite his strange situation, Granddaddy was the most at ease of all of us that afternoon. After Brenda finally clacked her heels away down the hall, he showed us around the apartment and joked with my mom about upsetting all her plans for how to arrange things. He had brought one small suitcase with him when she picked him up a month ago, and amidst his few shirt and pant sets was his 8’’ by 10’’ Naval Academy graduation picture. He had already hung it above the couch, a black and white postage stamp centered against the massive white expanse of the wall. The apartment was sterile and empty except for the couch, the picture, and my Granddaddy.
          In a moment of trying to make myself feel less sad, I pointed out the picture and tried to make a comment on how homey he was already making this place. His eyes got bigger behind his glasses, and he smiled like it was the greatest decoration in the world. Soon he had me captive on the couch, drawing me a diagram of the Academy grounds in the little notebook from his front shirt pocket. The cadet quarters, the mess hall, the boat shed—he quizzed me on their names and locations. My family left on several trips to the lobby to bring up the furniture while I stayed on the couch listening to him. I asked a dozen times if they needed help, but they always told me it was fine. So I sat and tried to keep him smiling while they slowly filed in and out, bringing up furniture and trying to fill the empty rooms around us.

 

 

 

          We visited him almost every other day for the first two weeks. He watched a lot of TV when we weren’t there, so we found ourselves alternating between telling him to go socialize more and bringing him 10-disc-set documentaries on World War II. 

          When we weren’t visiting, we didn’t talk about him. We never talked about Grandmarmy, although I was terrified I would see her in Whole Foods one day rummaging through the apples like a normal person. I needed her to be something less than human for it to make sense. I thought a lot about the ice cream parties she used to organize for my friends and me. I tried not to, but I did.

          My mom, thinking the work might be good for her nerves, started up her job at the tiny consignment shop again. My dad worked every day, maybe for the same reason. My sister also got a summer job at her volleyball club teaching kids how to set, which left me home alone. For a while, the solitude was refreshing; I was still recovering from the semester and relishing my new independence. I would wake up, bike a few miles around the neighborhood, shower, read my Bible, and then head to the Chick-fil-A drive through to re-consume all my burned calories. 

          After lunch, though, I still had five hours to kill before people came home, and it was during those times that I nearly lost my mind. I started gardening but killed everything. I crafted like a machine. I plowed through shows and shows on Netflix. I built a website for an organization I had joined before leaving campus. I started (and didn’t finish) dozens of short stories. I stopped seeing Granddaddy as often during that time. Maybe seeing him made me feel guilty that I wasn’t there when his world fell apart. Maybe I just didn’t want to go alone.

          I had a few coffees with friends from high school, but there were subtle barriers between us where there didn’t used to be. It felt forced to talk about high school things, our only common ground now. Some of them knew about Granddaddy—our moms were in the same prayer group—but none of them knew how to ask me about it, and I felt as distant and confused as they were. Despite half the summer under my belt, I still felt like an intruder in my own family tragedy. When my friends left our coffee dates, I would stay for a while staring at the dregs, feeling very alone.

 

 

 

          My dad was sitting at the table one night looking into how to revoke Grandmarmy’s control over the bank accounts. That was when we discovered that since Granddaddy left, she had been on a spending spree, responding to every plea from every conservative organization that had gotten her on their mailing list. She supported five Republican campaigns and three private Christian colleges (probably in the hopes that my sister might choose one). My dad was angry. “She’s spending their entire life savings on these shitty politicians while we’re paying out of our damn pockets for her husband’s nursing home.”

          “Scott!”

          He quickly regained his calm, but my mom was not as able. It was incredible to see how fast my dad could go into comfort-mode. In record time, he was across the room to where she had been watching TV and had his hand on her shoulder. She had cried herself out a long time ago, but her eyes shimmered with the beginnings of tears she would have cried if she could.

          My sister and I watched from the couch, as they stood there and forgave each other wordlessly, TV droning on in the background. Isabelle’s eyes were teary too but more from anger. She went to bed at the next commercial, but I doubt she slept. I had developed a fear of Grandmarmy while Isabelle had developed a hatred.

          My dad eventually moved back to the kitchen table to recommit to his surveying of the bank accounts, and my mom and I moved to the same couch so I could lean into her.

          “How was your day, sweetheart?”

          “Just more of the same, I guess.”

          “You keeping yourself busy here in the house all day?”

          “Absolutely,” I lied. “Just enjoying not having twenty things to do hanging over my head.”

          “You did have quite the semester. I’m proud of you.”

          “Thanks.” 

          She sensed my mood, but she probably worried it was because of my grandparents. For once, it wasn’t. I was just tired of my self-induced house arrest and solitary confinement. We had started a new episode of Law and Order when she whispered to me, “Will you go see your Granddaddy sometime this week? I think he’s been feeling a little lonely.”

          “Of course, my Momma,” I whispered back without hesitating, even though everything in me was cringing. Even solitary confinement was better than going to visit my Granddaddy, a victim of his own kind of house arrest. 

          “And could you to make sure they changed the name on his mailbox? I called and asked them to, but I never got a confirmation.”

          “Why did you ask them to change the name on his mailbox?”

          She paused for a minute. I could hear the drums of the Law and Order theme song in the background. “I’m just worried she’s been looking for him. I don’t want his name anywhere in the lobby where she could see it.”

          “Oh—okay. I’ll make sure I check.”

 

 

 

          I visited the next day. Granddaddy welcomed me in, offered me a diet coke, and we sat at the “homework table” and talked for an hour or so. We mostly talked about my life, although I tried to ask about his in as safe a way as I knew how. His apartment was still stiff and empty. I don’t know what I expected. He would never have bought any wall art or throw blankets for himself. But I couldn’t help feeling like he wasn’t there to stay, like he was still hoping things would turn around. Eventually he asked me to help him connect the iTouch my dad had given him to the Preston Pointe Wi-Fi. He’d just been playing solitaire on it until now. I rummaged through the sparse drawers of the kitchenette for the slip of paper with the password on it and then punched it into the device. At his request, I wrote down step-by step instructions for how to open safari and iTunes in his pocket notebook. Then I said my goodbyes and left him going back to the couch to watch more World War II DVDs. On my way out I checked with the front desk; they had changed the name on his mailbox to John Wilson. 

          It was a quick visit, but I spent plenty of time on the drive home overanalyzing its every detail. He wasn’t as happy as he seemed in those first few weeks. The monotony of the retirement community probably wore him down. He had told me a little about it: movies on Tuesdays—bridge on Thursdays—busses to Target and Harris Teeter on Fridays. Besides those trips to the store, he was stranded in old-folks-land, and he had to be bored. He was also one of the youngest and most able-bodied residents; his circumstances put him in the home years before he would have needed it otherwise. I don’t know if others resented it, but he didn’t seem to have more than a handful of friends. The few people he did become close with were Jean and Marge. From what he said it sounded like they had both just lost their husbands. Their loneliness compounded his own. His loneliness compounded mine. 

          I guess lonely people make good company, because I started to visit him more often, although still not as often as I should. The discomfort never faded, but just being alone and out of place together was therapeutic. I found that on the days I visited, I also felt more at peace around my family in the evening. I was being the dutiful child I couldn’t be while I was at school. I could look at my sister without thinking about how she was there for my mom and I wasn’t. Now was my time. I upped my visits to twice a week. I was encouraged when I finally met Granddaddy’s friends, and Marge promised me they got him out of the apartment sometimes.

          The day after my birthday, I brought over ingredients for an apple pie. I figured it could count for July 4th as well as my 19th birthday. Granddaddy was ecstatic. When I called to tell him my plan, he asked that I bring enough for two pies. He wanted to share one of them with some new residents he’d met. 

          I was happy to oblige. My apple pie used to be the thing he and Grandmarmy wouldn’t stop talking about every summer. They called it “All-American Pie” and raved about it when they couldn’t think of anything else to say. But this year, it would just be him I baked for. 

          “Hey! There she is!” He greeted me with a smile and a hug so tight that the spiral binding of his notebook dug into my cheek.

          “Hey, Granddaddy. Ready for pie?”

          “Never been more ready. Got the kitchen all cleaned up for you.”

           By “cleaned up” he meant he had recycled his diet coke cans and put the bag of decaf coffee grounds in the cabinet instead of letting it sit on the counter. I quickly cluttered the space with my own ingredients, apples and spices spilling out of my grocery bags like confetti and settling in an organized order around my mixing bowl. I spun the tiny blade of the apple peeler with my thumb. I hadn’t thought of what Granddaddy would do while I baked; we ran out of things to talk about much more quickly recently.

          He was unfazed, though. He asked what kinds of shows I liked, but when he didn’t recognize any that I said, he suggested Everybody Loves Raymond. He had picked up some DVDs on his last Target run. I jumped at the chance to keep him occupied while I was in the kitchen. He popped in a disc, and we let it run as I chopped and stirred. I would remember this image later: him sitting still and alone on the couch under his Naval Academy graduation photo, watching Everybody Loves Raymond in a retirement home. 

          After I put the pie in the oven, I went to sit with him, and we had some bits and pieces of conversation amid Raymond’s on-screen antics. The oven was equipped with a “Senior Safety Check,” which meant it turned off automatically if it didn’t sense movement in the kitchen every ten minutes. I was constantly getting up, walking a few feet, and waving my arms around. Granddaddy stayed still, laughing at my exaggerated movements a few times, but remaining on the safety of the couch and the light of the television. 

          When I started to regret choosing something that took so long to bake, the timer finally went off. I went to the oven and pulled out two beautiful apple pies. I had a tiny American flag toothpick I had found in one of our houses’ many “junk drawers,” and I stuck it in the nicer looking pie. I held it up so he could see from the couch.

          “Ta-da!”

          “Now that is one nice looking pastry, Maggie Miller.”

          I curtseyed. “Thank you, sir! They need to cool for ten minutes, but we can call your friends over to eat these things!” 

          “We might have to go find them,” he replied, and he actually stood up and turned off the TV. He seemed genuinely excited to introduce me to his new friends. We left the pies cooling on the counter as we wandered the halls looking for “Jack, Aniette, Marge, and Jean.” But after twenty minutes of knocking on their doors and exploring the common spaces, we were coming up empty.

          “I told them last night at bridge that you were coming.” We had scanned all three floors of their building, and his voice sounded heavy. “And I called them this morning to tell them what time. They said they would be happy to stop by.” 

          I didn’t know what to say, but I tried to be encouraging. Maybe they mixed up the days or had an emergency. Wasn’t it a shopping day? Maybe they forgot and went on the bus and got stranded at Target, unable to call.

          We went back to the room and dished ourselves self-pity-sized slices of pie. We ate in silence, but it wasn’t awkward, just sad. I was about to ask him what he thought of the dessert when he said, almost in spite of himself, “I miss her, you know.”

          He kept going, as if to explain, “She’s going through some things, but don’t let your mom think she’s a bad person. She’s the best woman I ever met.”

          I was quiet for a while, but finally managed to say, “I’m so sorry, Granddaddy.”

          “It’s okay, sweet girl.” Another pause. “Would you bring this other pie to her? She must be feeling lonely, too.”

 

 

 

          I never did bring her the pie, although I told him I would. I didn’t want to see her, but more than that I didn’t want him to want to see her. I couldn’t conceptualize that he missed her; that he wanted to know how she was doing. As I brought the extra pie back to my own family, I made the decision that however uncomfortable, however lonely someone is, they can’t go backwards, because they’re different people now than they were before. 

          I believed that for the rest of the summer as I figured out how to fit back into my family in new ways. But Granddaddy eventually proved me wrong. I think the day of the apple pies was one of the last days he made an effort to move forward. After that, it was all regret. In September, when I was entering my sophomore year, he went back to my Grandmarmy, betraying us all in the process by saying he “didn’t remember” why he had asked my mom to pick him up and take him away that first, horrible night.

          For my sister and my dad, the anger can still flare up. My dad mainly directs it at Granddaddy for throwing my mom under the bus after all he put her through. My sister still hasn’t forgiven my Grandmarmy. For my mom, it took her a while, but if you ask she’ll say she’s a lot stronger in her faith because of it all. I don’t know exactly how I feel. Sometimes I think about how the homework table was returned to our house, but I wasn’t there to see it put back in its regular place. Sometimes I think about how I should have visited more. Sometimes I forgive Granddaddy, because for me, moving forward is limitless, but for Granddaddy, moving forward is “Senior Safety Check” ovens and defibrillator wall art.
          This past summer, he gave me a check for my birthday and told me not to tell my Grandmarmy or she’d get mad, and I thought of apple pie and World War II DVDs and that one lone picture in the middle of the white wall.