Once upon a time, my grandmother baked the most delicious apple pies. The secret was her crust recipe, kept strictly for family, which she scribbled down for me to file in my recipe box the summer I was married. Soon, I will be rolling out this very dough for Thanksgiving, the weight of the rolling pin steady beneath floured hands.
She was a superb cook; a meat-and-potatoes type of woman, with little fondness for casseroles. Seasoned simply, her cooking was fashioned with real food and few ingredients. The steamed carrots, bright, cut long and even, were neatly positioned aside the peas, slightly salted and peppered. A fluff of buttered mashed potatoes gave way to tender roast beef, never dry and only slightly pink, shaved thin. I loved it.
Despite these fine culinary skills, she was not one to teach cooking or baking or anything else, really. She possessed a superb memory, retaining cooking measurements and numbers with ease. Grandma did not suffer fools in the kitchen, which left little time and less patience for most. Even the recipes she offered me before marriage have important information missing, such as oven temperatures and cooking times. I have just had to figure it out. She did not require recipe cards.
My grandparents eventually lived with us, and there were inevitable childhood days when my brother and I fell ill, tucked in bed; home from school. My parents left early for work, and my grandmother tended to us.
Something overtook her when we were sick; she abruptly shed her cloak of disinterest, growing warm and attentive with a flourish, checking our fevered foreheads and bringing us tiny glasses of ginger ale, just the right temperature for our upset stomachs. She whipped up strawberry and lime jello, cut into wiggly cubes, coaxing us to eat slowly and assuring that we would feel better.
Just a little something in your stomach will help.
She was right.
I always knew how sick I was based on her culinary behaviors. When especially ill, I would hear the fork whisking eggs against the metal bowl. The oven would beep, signaling that it was preheated. After a time, dozing in and out of fever-induced sleep, I would inhale the scent of custard.
She called the custard grape-nut pudding, baked in white ramekins. While it cooled on the counter, Grandma helped me to the sofa, where I lay under a thin blanket while she stripped the fevered sheets off of my bed, quickly replacing them with a set of fresh ones, folding hospital corners to utter perfection. It felt divine slipping back between those cool cotton sheets before drifting off again.
The same care in cooking, however, used to show affection, was also withheld to show displeasure. If a mood struck, or she was crossed, then dinner might be cheese and crackers, or perhaps a bowl of cereal. A little sulking, a closed door, rather than dealing squarely.
The other morning, I held my breath as a doe pranced across the road. She paused, her wide eyes surveying. It was early and chilly, and the glow of the sun shimmered through the maples. Bearing witness to this creation, and acknowledging who painted the sky, I worshiped. Scenes of nature, created by the hand of God, feed my soul. I felt spoiled, to have such beauty gifted to me.
Psalm 84:11: For the Lord God is a sun and shield. The Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
I was meeting with my spiritual mentor recently, doing some heart work, casting off cobwebs of sin as I long to walk uprightly. We discussed why many people willfully withhold good things from others: Kind words, favor, praise, money, gifts, encouragement.
It is a sinful, passive-aggressive way to control and manipulate she offered simply.
Human beings are complex layers: body, mind, soul; yet often we fancy ourselves more complicated than we truthfully are. Aren’t we all children of Eden, lured by the serpent and star-struck by our own desires, our own glory and power? We want what we want, and we oftentimes push God aside to get it. God and others.
But God is never lured. He is perfect, steadfast, and shows passionate restraint. Every time he withholds something that I have desperately craved, it is his faultless hand, full of holy favor and honor. This is not the selfish withholding practiced cruelly by we as people. He is our sun, casting pure, warm light, and our shield, protecting us from ourselves.
I was a junior in high school when God withheld what I thought I needed. It was years before I understood why.
My best friend, who attended a different high school, but the same church, decided that we must attend the same college. I absolutely agreed. We had schemed for years about this. So we flew to several Christian colleges, spending a weekend in the dorms, testing the waters.
She was pretty sold on one of them, and started making plans.
I told her I would think about it, but I knew I could never go. The campus buildings, in a deeply wooded area, were dark and poorly lit. The cafeteria, also dim, had an odd smell, and simply felt unclean.
I never voiced aloud, to anyone, why I declined to attend a reputable college with my dear friend. Something I very much wanted. I muttered something about it not being the right fit, which was true enough, but it was actually because I preferred bright lights, clean and tidy spaces, and pleasing aromas.
Soon thereafter, I flew to one more Christian university, one that my parents and many other relatives had attended. A place I did not wish to attend. Fifteen minutes on campus and I just knew. This was where I would spend four years of my life. The buildings were bright and clean, with natural lighting. And the dining hall, freshly vacuumed, smelled like good food.
What I did not know was that my future husband was also making the rounds in search of the right college. A football athlete, he was narrowing down his list, but had his eye on one. When he did not hear back, he continued his search, ultimately deciding on the university that I had chosen. Only after committing, did he hear back from his first choice. I have the typed letter still. Your football information was lost in the mail, apologized the coach. By the time the school had finally received it, Jon had already promised to play elsewhere.
I would love to report that I made my college decision after praying long and hard. The hard truth is that because of my minor obsession with clean and tidy spaces, I chose school number two.
But God uses all of the things, doesn’t he? He designs us, and uses our quirks and preferences, and seemingly insignificant details, such as lost mail, to divinely orchestrate our days.
The summer of my wedding, I asked Grandma to teach me how to make pies. I was beginning to panic, suddenly realizing that I was going to be cooking for my soon-to-be-husband every single night for the rest of my life. I had about three proficient recipes in my arsenal, with a few weeks to build up my repertoire. This was not good.
Rather than accepting whom I already knew her to be, I built up this grandmother of mine in my mind, envisioning a homespun afternoon of bonding as she shared her plethora of baking secrets with me.
Instead, she began dumping ingredients for the crust into a bowl, quickly, blending with a fork, and not speaking measurements.
How many cups of flour was that? I asked.
You peel the apples while I make the crust was her reply.
So I peeled apples and she made the pies. I offered to use the rolling pin but when I did not press down firmly enough, which kept the dough too thick, she laughed, annoyed, and took the reigns.
Then laying the top of her rolled crust effortlessly on the pie, running a fork around the edges to seal, she reminded me to always dab cream on top before sprinkling with sugar. It makes it brown just right.
With the remaining dough, she fashioned her famous little cinnamon roll using butter, cinnamon, sugar and cream.
And then she was done, tired and spent. Handing the timer abruptly to me, she turned on her heel, retreating into her dark bedroom.
Sullen moping and moodiness are as strong a repellent to my spirit as are unclean places. Oddly enough, so is hyper-cheerfulness, which usually comes crashing down, given time. One is pure negativity and the other is a strong lie. Both are a withholding of goodness.
I am anchored to the middle ground: honest, sincere, and striving for contentment in the ways of the Lord. Steady. A nod to the reality of a situation, yet firmly tethered to the hope found in Christ. Come, let us reason together, and with a grateful heart. God knows what he is doing.
It has taken me years to accept that I cannot snap my fingers and change anyone for the better. I cannot even bring lasting change to myself: that is a work of the Holy Spirit. I keep my eyes wide open, and acknowledge the complicated table my grandmother set. And what a table she created: preparing and fussing and then withdrawing and withholding. An impoverished way for a child to experience love, confusing under those long and conditional shadows.
I forgive her for those behaviors that have settled deep, fueling my ardent desire to serve and love my growing family with honest and unconditional devotion. A no-matter-what-kind of love.
So this Thanksgiving, during our cooking and baking frenzy, so loud and fun, I will treasure the precious faces in our kitchen. Faces that were birthed from the Lord’s passionate restraint: a no to our teenage wishes that ultimately yielded our greatest earthly gifts.
Then I will dab cream on the top of those apple pies before sprinkling the sugar and baking hot. They will brown nicely, I am quite sure.