What Did You Decide About the Pie Stand?

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of polls on my Facebook business page, The World Needs More Pie, about reprising my Pitchfork Pie Stand. Bring it back for the summer at the American Gothic House, or rent a retail space within walking distance of the house on Eldon, Iowa’s main street? I stirred up expectations along with an outpouring of support, and now some of you are asking what I decided to do. 

I wanted to give you an update about my decision, my activities, and my plans. 

I’ve decided not to rent the retail space. 95% of the responses were an enthusiastic “GO FOR IT!” including the one from my mom. But there was one friend, who knows me maybe even better than my mom, who said, “ARE YOU CRAZY? You don’t want to be tied down.” Her words snapped me out of my fantasy, though it was an exciting one while it lasted. I miss people. I miss the community that pie creates. So a newly renovated space where I could sell pies, teach pie classes, sell pie-baking supplies, and provide a space where people could gather seemed like a good solution. 
It sounded so good on paper…  
But the reality check was this: I’m a terrible businessperson; I suck at bookkeeping. I want (and need) to travel; a year-round retail space would require me to stay put. The rent was very high for a rural town; I’m not prepared to take out loans or drain my savings. While my shop would bring people to town, the tourist season is short; it would be hard to sustain business (and pay rent) in the winter. And then there’s winter itself. I suffer from S.A.D. and the ONLY solution that works for me (and I’ve tried them all) is go south like a snowbird. 

Which brings me back to my original idea: reprising the Pitchfork Pie Stand inside the American Gothic House for the summer months. 
Sadly, the pie stand will not be returning to the American Gothic House. The AGH is owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the state employee who manages it, along with six other historical sites, has a blanket policy for all: No Baking Inside. No matter that I baked THOUSANDS of pies in the house during the four years I lived there. No matter that bringing the pie stand back for the summer would draw more tourists, create community, and contribute to the local economy. Policy is policy. 
Not one to take no for an answer, I considered going above his pay grade and asking for permission from his boss, his boss’s boss, hell, I’d have gone all the way to the governor. Or I might have organized a public campaign with my supporters to lobby for the pie stand. But I have too many other things to do with my time than battle bureaucracy. (For the record, I did consider baking elsewhere and transporting the pies to the AGH, but there’s a long list of reasons why that’s not a viable solution.) 
I’m sorry that Eldon’s visitors will miss out on pie. I’m sorry that I won’t get to bake with you. But I’m especially sorry that the AGH is not getting utilized. (The historical society won’t even allow you to plug in a Crockpot!) The AGH has a soul—I felt it the first time I saw I stepped inside—and I know it’s happier when it’s filled with life. And I don’t mean snakes! The pie stand would have been a win-win for everyone. It’s a shame the rule-makers in Des Moines don’t see it that way.
So what’s next then?

I’ve been working on edits for the second edition of my cookbook, “MS. AMERICAN PIE.” My original publisher took it out of print—such are the disappointments an author faces. I was planning on self-publishing it just so I could get it back out there in the world, but at the last minute, I signed on with Interlink Books. They will release the book next March (2022), and possibly with a new cover. Ten months seems like a long time, but given the high quality of Interlink’s printing, along with its sales, marketing, and distribution abilities, it will be worth the wait. It’s—hashtag—somethingtolookforwardto. 

I’m also working on my next book, “WORLD PIECE: One Woman, One Rolling Pin, Nine Countries, and the Desire to Make a Difference.” I completed my three-month round-the-world pie-making journey in 2015 (watch the 23-min film here), and did not expect writing the memoir would take far more time and effort than the trip itself. But that’s partly because I’ve only been working on it intermittently since my return. I dedicate myself to it in spurts, but I keep getting sidetracked. I’m finally ready—I swear—to get it to the finish line by the end of the summer. Which is another reason for not doing the pie stand. 

One of the projects that sidetracked me from “World Piece” was television—not watching it; writing for it. After a friend encouraged me to enter, I won a contest for a TV Pitch Workshop with Marta Kauffman. You may not recognize her name but you know her TV shows, “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie.” I was always terrified of the script format, but after downloading the software and giving it a try, I discovered that I actually LIKE writing scripts! I wrote my first TV pilot, have a good start on the second episode, and have outlined five seasons of the story arc. I even made a video pitch:
What’s my scripted TV show about? What is anything in my life about? PIE, of course! I had tried—and failed—to sell my memoir about the four years I lived in the American Gothic House, but winning the TV Pitch contest prompted me to repurpose it as a TV series. It works MUCH better as a dramedy than a memoir, because by fictionalizing it I can tell the real story about what happened and no one will know the difference! Marta likes my idea, but said she’s got too much on her plate to take it on. But now that the “Friends Reunion” is finally done, maybe she’ll reconsider. 
That’s the long answer to “What did you decide about the pie stand or pie shop?” Yes, it’s disappointing—for me, too—but I’ve got plenty of other pie-related projects to keep me busy. And I have not discounted the possibility of doing a pop-up pie stand, maybe this summer, maybe at the American Gothic House Center (the museum and gift shop next door to the AGH), maybe somewhere else. Thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm. Life as a writer can get lonely; it helps to know you’re out there, just a Facebook comment or text message away. 
One last thing before you go…

If you’ve read my books would you mind writing a review on Amazon? It would help so much. It’s a sad new reality in publishing that agents and publishers look at the reviews on that giant (some would say evil) website when considering representing authors. This goes for all authors, not just me. Those book reviews matter. 

💟
Some previous blog posts you might like: 




Dark Pie and Other Adorable, Wacky Music Videos

Here’s something I stumbled upon one day while going down an internet rabbit hole. These whimsical songs/cartoons made me smile and laugh, and since we could all use a little — no, a LOT — more smiling and laughing these days, I wanted to share it. Enjoy!

Dark Pie

I Jump on Cake

To see more of these fun, wacky, adorable music videos and learn more about the artist, go to Gusterfeld Yellowgold’s website:  http://gustaferyellowgold.com/about/

Tom Howard’s Last Piece of Pie

My dad and me. Photo taken on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2017

Two months ago I lost the person I loved most in the world. I lost my dad. He died on March 9, 2017 at 6:30 AM, of metastasized melanoma.

The spot on his head first appeared in 2015, a raised and rough growth, a pebble of a thing that took up residence on the otherwise smooth and shiny surface of his skull. He had it removed in July of that year (while I was traveling around the world) and when they didn’t get clean margins they removed more from this delicate, non-elastic region, borrowing skin from his thigh to patch the missing piece of scalp. He had been so pleased with the plastic surgeon’s reconstruction that he called him “an artist” and wrote him a thank you note. The scar was barely visible.

Last family photo, taken February 25, 2017

Life went on. For the next year and a half he read books—spy thrillers mostly—washed his car, played Solitaire, went on daily lunch outings with my mom to El Pollo Loco where they shared their favorite taco salad, attended U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary meetings, and drank his daily martini at 5:00. But behind the scenes, lurking under the skin’s surface, the cancer was spreading. Like a nest of newborn snakes, it ventured forth, slithering into his lymph nodes, his prostate, throughout his entire skeletal system. It went into his lungs, creating such a deep and growing colony of tumors that he was coughing up globs of blood.

On a mid-January morning this year, when I was visiting for my mom’s 80th birthday, when I watched him cough into a tissue, leaving a dribble of bright red blood on his chin, I knew it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. We wouldn’t know the full diagnosis until after his PET scan a month later. But I knew, in the way a twin can sense their sibling a thousand miles away is in trouble, that his life as we knew it was over. That the cancer would take him. And, by the looks of the blood clots, soon.

No one coughs up that much blood and lives.

After my mom’s birthday, after the Women’s March in Washington, and after a few weeks back in Iowa where I was getting updates from my sister as the oncologist appointments got underway, I flew back to California. I could have saved $150 if I bought a ticket for three days later. My instinct told me every day counted—or maybe it was the news from the oncologist who said there was “no treatment for this” and “We will do everything we can to make you as comfortable as possible”—so I booked the earlier, more expensive flight. Paying that extra money was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I packed a mammoth suitcase thinking I might be there for more than a month. I was prepared to stay six, whatever it took, however long I was needed. I know now I could have just packed a carry-on.

And so, I was there.

I was there in Redondo Beach in my parents’ apartment, the sliding glass doors letting in the ocean breeze, the sun’s blinding late afternoon glare reflecting off the dark blue sea, the surfers catching the last waves before sunset.

I was there because my latest book proposal— about how to stay optimistic in this political era—was turned down. I was so damn lucky for the rejection. With a looming book deadline I would not have been able to spend those three and a half weeks of February into March with the father I loved. The last three and a half weeks of life of the man whose seed created me. The dimming, dwindling last days of the man who loved martinis, hot fudge sundaes and banana cream pie. The man who loved me. Who understood me like no one else. Who could solve every problem I ever had with his laughter. Even if I had gotten the book deal, I would have been there. I would have walked away from the offer. Family—my dad—came first.

I was there, sitting by his side every one of those remaining days, every morning stretched out on my mom’s side of the king size bed, careful not to get my dirty feet on the bedspread, playing Clair de Lune for him—his signature piece he played so well on the piano—on my iPhone from YouTube, drinking my café lattes and listening to him breathe—or struggle to breathe. I repositioned his oxygen nosepiece, making sure the prongs stayed in his nostrils, and watched his chest closely, making sure it was still moving up and down. Making sure he was still with us. I listened to the rhythm—four or five breaths, then a pause. The pauses were so long I found myself holding my breath along with him each time he stopped. When he coughed, as he inevitably did from the growing number of nodules that choked his lungs, he woke himself up and began breathing again. And I, too, would begin breathing again, not realizing I had stopped.

I was there to rub lotion on his bald head, now dotted with moles and rough spots and scars. I was there to massage his feet, to give him some semblance of comfort, the way the hospice pamphlet suggested. I was there to hold his hands, studying his age spots and fingernails, memorizing the heft of each digit, including the digitus medius manus, as he taught us the Latin term for “the middle finger”—as in giving it. They were strong yet gentle hands that had healed so many people. As a dentist, a holistic one who truly cared about his patients overall well being, he helped improve not only their smiles (and in turn their confidence) but also their health. He understood how every part of the body is connected to another, that through orthodontics (without pulling teeth unnecessarily, mind you) the curvature of the mouth’s palate would change and, thus, this would change—improve—the structure of the cervical column and that would affect the entire spine for the better. His hands had practiced therapeutic massage and cranial osteopathy. His hands had played Clair de Lune just a week earlier, shocking us all when we thought he lacked the strength to get out of bed, let alone sit at the piano to serenade us with classical music.

The dying process is like that. Death can come slowly, gradually, and just when you think the final hour has arrived life can burst forth again in unexpected, fleeting fragments. These energy bursts, confusing as they may be, give bystanding loved ones a tidal wave of hope that perhaps, hey, wait, he’s not as sick as we thought. Maybe he is not going to die after all. And then, no, the terminal, evil, motherfucker of an illness sends him back to bed, weaker than ever, and you call the hospice nurse to increase the morphine.

I was there to make him his favorite dessert, banana cream pie, the pie that prompted my dad to propose to my mom when she made one for him six months after they started dating. I made the pie just the way he liked it, with a graham cracker crust, made-from-scratch vanilla pudding, and meringue topping. I made three banana cream pies in three and a half weeks, wondering, worrying, if each pie would be his last.

I was there to spoon feed him bites of the pie when this once robust man no longer had the strength to lift even a small fork, cutting the sliced bananas into miniature sizes he could swallow. With his appetite diminishing by the day, we had to ask him what, if anything, he was hungry for. His big blue eyes would brighten and he would say with a smile, drawing out the syllables, “Piiiiiie.”

The day before he was moved to the hospice house—euphemistically and somewhat disturbingly called a “transition center”—he couldn’t finish the tiny sliver of banana cream pie I had served him on a cocktail plate. The plate was part of a collection of four, each decorated with a different martini-themed design. Martini glass-emblazoned items could be found in every corner of the apartment—a cutting board, cloth napkins, coasters, a decorative plaque that read “Martini Bar,” a flag that had hung on his old sailboat but now waved on the balcony to signal when it was Happy Hour. Anything with a martini glass on it was an obvious gift for the “man who had everything”—as long as said martini glass contained three olives.

I left the martini plate, with the remaining piece of pie and the teaspoon still on it, in the refrigerator, in case he would want to eat more later.

There was no later.

Tom Howard’s last banana cream
pie, his favorite.

When I came back to my parents’ apartment from the hospice house (er, transition fucking center) the morning of March 9—after he was gone, after our family had gathered around his hospital bed with his body still slightly warm, after saying our final goodbyes before he was placed in the lime green body bag (so thoughtlessly, so visibly the only item in the clear plastic bag marked “Patient’s Personal Items” even though he was wearing a grey Washington State University t-shirt when he arrived), before he was sent over to the crematorium—I went to get something out of the refrigerator. I was looking for milk or cheese or juice or something, who knows. I was so numb I can’t remember. When I opened the fridge door the remains of his last slice of pie stared back at me. The bananas had turned brown, the crust soggy, the meringue sagging and weeping. The martini design on the plate, which had previously looked so cute now seemed offensive as the day’s approaching Happy Hour would be anything but happy.

I was there, sleepless the entire week after he died, in my bed that looked out over the King Harbor marina. I stuck earbuds in my ears and listened to Clair de Lune, the extended play version, over and over. Gone was the humming, hissing and pumping sound of his oxygen machine. Gone was the moaning and crying sound of his pain from down the hall. Gone was the beloved man whose spirit had been so big and so vibrant. To fill all that empty space I played the music at full volume for hours while the moon rose—and then set—and the rest of Redondo Beach slumbered.

I was there to clean out his closet with my brother, even when it felt way too soon, helping to load the SUV with my dad’s sport coats, sweaters, t-shirts and trousers, ties and belts, and a surprisingly extensive collection of size 12 shoes, including several pair leather loafers tucked so far back in the closet they were covered in a layer of light green mold, such is the humidity living by the ocean.

I was there to write the obituary and place it in the Ottumwa Courier and the Quad City Times for $156 each, editing down the word count to save money from the original $300 quote each. I didn’t know obits were so expensive. And I didn’t know I would find myself arguing with the editor over AP Style Guidelines—over the correct placement of commas, semi-colons, and parentheses—after she changed my format, which I had spent hours so carefully crafting.

I was there to design the memorial card, collecting photos from my four other siblings, sorting through 81 years’ worth of memories and culling them into the mere four photos the online template would allow. I was there to buy stamps and place them on the pile of 150 cards so that when my mother felt well enough to create a mailing list and address the envelopes it would be one less thing for her to do.

I was there. And now I’m not. And he’s not. He has “transitioned.” To where—well, isn’t that is the ultimate nagging billion-dollar existential question? To a “better” place? God, I hate it when people say that. At least he’s in a place—or space—free from pain.

It was so good yet so hard to be there. It made my heart physically hurt listening to him cry out during the night, in distress from the cancer that terrorized his bones, cancer that caused unimaginable pain, cancer that according to the PET scan—which he never read because he was determined that he wasn’t that sick, that he was going to get better—had deteriorated his left ribs, clavicle, and humerus (the shoulder head, a term I had to look up among many other body parts listed in the report.) No one, especially not my dad, should suffer like that. Ever.

It was so fortunate to be there. I will forever be grateful for that time—those last three and a half weeks—I had with him. Even when it meant cleaning the commode, wiping the urine off his private parts, holding him up in the shower. Even when all that tore at my heart so badly and squeezed my chest so tight I laid on the guest bed thinking that I was the one who was going to die. (I found out later, after my doctor sent me to a cardiologist, that I was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome. It’s a real thing, caused by trauma and stress.)

I am thankful I could be there to give back to him, to have had even the smallest chance to repay him for all that he gave me, the many, many gifts that have made my life so rich—a healthy childhood, a college education, trips abroad to give me a bigger world view, a feisty and generous spirit, and above all, a mandate to be positive, to see the good in people, and to be of service to others.

He was there to bring me into this world. I was there to help him out of it.

He said just three days before he died, “Words matter.” I write these words for him. I write these words so I don’t lose him.

But I haven’t lost him. He is always with me. His spirit lives through me. I carry on his values. I carry his DNA. And for as long as I live I will continue to carry on his love of nature and cocktail hour and banana cream pie. He had a good, long life, sticking around longer than many humans do—longer than my husband who died at 43.

When Marcus died I was annoyed when my dad said, “We all have to die sometime, Boo.” But he is right—was right. We are all like a juicy novel with a beginning, middle and end. Our lives unfold like turning pages of a book, each varying in length. We are just passing through, each of us contributing our own chapter to the bigger story, and as such our purpose should be to live—and die—as gracefully (and painlessly) as possible, striving for a happy, morally sound ending.

My dad also said, in one of his ever-surprising nuggets of wisdom doled out over the years, “When I die don’t mourn for me. Just go out and have a hot fudge sundae.” Another thing he would say, especially during times I was down, was, “Onward and forward.” I have never been as down as I am now.

So in the spirit of my dad, the Great John Thomas Howard, I am going onward and forward—straight to Dairy Queen.

I love you, Dad. And I miss you.
(For more about my dad, read my Father’s Day post from last year.)

Taos: Making Friends with the Locals

During my recent weeklong Taos Writers Retreat I skipped the scheduled morning dance sessions. Free-form dancing in a group is waaaay too far out of my comfort zone, even though Jen insisted everyone keeps their eyes closed so no one is watching you. Instead, I walked a few blocks from the Mabel Dodge Luhan House to a local coffee house.

Possessing an instinctive homing device for caffeine, I found my way there by taking a trail that led off the property, slipped through an opening in the bushes that led to Kit Carson Park, and cut a diagonal line across the park toward the center of town. I passed the Taos Little League field, the graveyard where Mabel Dodge and Kit Carson rest in peace, and popped out the other side onto Paseo Del Pueblo Norte. I hung a left on the main drag, passed a restaurant and a few art galleries before finding my destination recommended by one of the staff at the inn: World Cup.

World Cup is a tiny espresso bar, one of the smallest spaces in which I’ve ever had a latte. About the size of a bedroom, it feels as cozy as one too. There’s a cash register, an industrial size espresso machine, and along two walls runs a counter with metal bar stools underneath. The place is so small, so intimate you automatically become part of any conversation.

Every day I saw the same people, the “regulars,” people who lived in Taos.

There was Jack, the barista. Reserved and intelligent looking, his clean cut-ness offset by his hint of a beard, he always dressed neatly in a collared shirt, vest, and bandana tied around his neck. I wondered if he was a folk musician by night.

There was Simon, the English mystery novelist who looked more like a rancher. He was tall with blazing blue eyes, and his booming voice with the British accent dominated the coffee house whenever he spoke.

There was Pat, the ex-hippie from Haight-Ashbury, a short, kind-eyed man who wore Hawaiian shirts and a baseball cap that hid his grey hair. When he smiled it showed the hint of gold rimming his teeth.

There was Marianna, another barista, with dark hair and bangs and an ever-present warm smile made brighter by her signature swath of power-red lipstick.

There was Lloyd, slightly soft and rumpled, always sitting at the bar, always ready to join in the conversation. He was a dead ringer for Norm from “Cheers.”

There was the man (whose name I never learned) who looked like an aging rock star turned mountain man, his hair long and shaggy, his jeans faded, his boots worn, his icy blue eyes weary.

And every single morning there was Joseph and Augustine, two men from the Red Willow tribe. Weathered and bronzed, with high cheek bones and black hair in long braids tied back into ponytails, they walked the three miles daily from the Taos Pueblo, where their tribe has dwelled for over 1000 years, to get coffee and wait for their ride from Joseph’s brother, Blue, to whatever work site they were headed to that day.

Joseph (left) and Augustine (right) making a point not to smile for the camera

It wasn’t just people who were regulars, but also their dogs. Pat with his ultra-shy black lab-mix puppy named Digger, whom he was attempting to socialize. Steve with a different dog each day (he had five), including a red chow, a black chow, and a brindled Mastiff-mix. A lab here, a scruffy white terrier there, a cattle dog, a Golden retriever, the dogs nearly outnumbered the customers. Because World Cup was so small, the combination of dogs and coffee patrons made for the Taos equivalent of an L.A. traffic jam. Without the road rage.

Often the conversations revolved around the dogs. Many of the dogs’ owners had made it their mission to rescue animals abandoned at the animal shelter, or capture feral dogs found on construction sites, and rehabilitate them until they could be adopted.

This was a reminder: There is still goodness in this world.

I heard one woman say she was on her way to a daylong chainsaw carving class. I heard a man say he was applying for a visa to move to Australia. I heard someone say he just signed a lease for the art gallery he had been working so hard to open. I heard another one say his New York agent had just given him feedback on his screenplay. I heard a four-year-old girl insist to her mother that she wanted the chocolate croissant not the plain one she was already eating.

This was a reminder too: There is still so much to strive for, so many dreams to pursue. (And a reminder that when in doubt, always go for the chocolate one.)

Given my affinity for café culture (especially the dog-friendly kind), my curiosity about people, and my chatty personality, I was more than happy to insert myself in these conversations. (And pet every dog that came through the door.) I was eager to be part of the group, not only because of my outgoing nature, but because I live a little too isolated for my disposition on a farm, 25 miles from the nearest espresso bar. I was starving for conversation, for community. Forget free-form dance; this was a week I could take advantage of being a 10-minute walk from the crossroads of an eclectic bunch of townspeople. And drink really good coffee.

On my second morning at World Cup, I was pulled into a dialog with Augustine and Joseph, the two Native Americans. Augustine asked me where I was from.

“Iowa,” I told him.

In reply he asked me, “Do you know Jim Leahy?”

Outwardly my face showed that I was trying to determine if, in fact, I did know a Jim Leahy. Inside, though, I was laughing at the notion that out of an entire state, nearly 500 miles wide, I would know this one person.

But then Augustine added, “He founded Overland Sheepskin Company.” He spoke so shyly, so quietly, I had to lean in to hear him. The background noise of the bean grinder and milk steamer and other customers ordering coffee made it even harder to hear. I got so close I could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. “I worked for him for 13 years,” he continued.

My eyes shot open at the recognition. “Oh my god, yes. I mean, I know his wife, Jennifer. She runs Blue Fish Clothing. They live in Fairfield. I spend a lot of time there.”

This is why I love life. These seemingly random connections are what I live for. Stumbling upon common links always tells me I am exactly where I need to be at exactly that moment. The world is a lot smaller and a lot more connected that we realize. With this realization comes a feeling of wellbeing. We are not as lost or as disconnected as we think.

As if reading my thoughts, Joseph chimed in. “Small world,” he said, flashing a grin at me, unselfconscious that his two front teeth were missing. Teeth or not, he was handsome, with his chiseled features, crisply dressed in his jeans and cowboy boots, and athletically fit. “We live up at the Pueblo. Have you been there?”

“No,” I said. “I just got here. I’m in Taos for a week, for a writers retreat. It’s a group of 23 women trying to get past their writers block. Coming here for coffee is my secret little morning ritual.”

“Come to the Pueblo. I’ll be your tour guide, “Joseph said. “There’s an adobe structure that’s an original five-story building. We grew up there.”

I looked into his eyes, brown and slightly slanted. What I saw in his eyes was a deep, bubbling hot spring of American history so dark and tragic I felt like I was going to drown. My heart splintered a little more at that moment, the broken pieces shattering into even smaller pieces—as if after all my recent grief I could afford any more cardiac damage. Talking with these Native American men stirred up something far down and unknowable inside me. I don’t believe in past lives, and I absolutely cannot comprehend the quantum physics of gravity, space and time, where life might exist simultaneously in different dimensions, but damn if I didn’t feel like there was something more going on between the three of us. Was this force of energy and this intensity of eye contact—also with Augustine, his brown irises surrounded by more red than white—because we were connected on a different plane? Or was it my nostalgia for simpler, more environmentally sensitive times? Times before smart phones and paved roads. Before combustion engines and Dakota Access Pipelines. Before the White Man obliterated the peoples who lived in harmony with nature, those who understood and respected the balance of ecology.

Who knew that a 7:30AM stop at the local coffee house would evoke such profound thoughts?

I had to remind myself to breathe. After a pause to shake off the mind-bending sensation, I answered him. “I would love a tour. How about Saturday afternoon, right after my workshop ends?”

For the rest of the week I continued my daily jaunts to the coffee house. One morning I met a woman while cutting across the park. She was older, with hair dyed scarlet red, taking her morning power walk. I walked next to her, asking her for directions which led to asking her about her life. In clipped British English she said she spends half the year in Taos and the other half—the winter—in San Miguel de Allende. Like Augustine asking me if I knew his friend in Iowa, I asked her if she knew my friend Angela in Mexico. “She’s a writer,” I said. “She’s also British.”

And then, in the way I answered Augustine, this woman stopped walking and turned to look at me. “Yes. I think I do know her. I’m sure I’ve heard her name. Yes, I’m certain I’ve met her.”

Once again, right place, right time. The world is so bloody small, people are so connected to each other—connected to me—it feels like I do belong in it after all.

On the last night of the writers’ workshop, our group of 23 formed a circle. Each woman took a turn professing what she got out of the week. In my allotted one minute, I said, “I got exactly what I needed: a sense of community, a sense of belonging. But not just from all of you.” Then I revealed where I had been disappearing to each morning. “I got a bonus community by going to the espresso bar, where I made friends with the locals.” The entire circle nodded in approval, and with, I dare say, a hint of admiration.

At the designated time on Saturday, I met Joseph at the Pueblo. As promised, he gave me a tour of his primary community. (World Cup, like it did for me, clearly served as his “bonus community.”) He explained how these earthy red adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years, making this place the longest continually inhabited community in the U.S. These mud and straw structures, still standing so solidly, were built between the years 1000 and 1050 AD. Its buildings are so impressive in how they’ve withstood the test of time (and weather and myriad attacks) that the Pueblo is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. “It’s not a reservation,” he said, “because we have never left. Reservations are places tribes were moved to.”

I nodded, acknowledging this important distinction.

He pointed out the kivas, underground caves marked by a bundle of tall poles protruding above, where the men (no women allowed!) partake in rituals, initiations, and learn the unwritten wisdom and teachings of the tribe shared orally. “I’ve spent 40 days and 40 nights inside the kiva,” he said. Joseph is 55 and is an elder serving on the Tribal Council. “I’m young for an elder. They are normally in their 80s. But as they die off I continue to move up, taking their place.”

His revelation that he was an elder didn’t surprise me, given how articulate and knowledgeable he was. Maybe there was something about his elder wisdom that had moved me so much the day I met him. Maybe he was channeling the Great Spirit.

We walked along the front side of the largest structure, passing vendors selling carvings, beads, drums and art, and I spotted—what the…?!—a pie shop. “We have to go in,” I insisted. “I have to try the pie.”

Joseph knew the baker, the grandson of Crucita, the woman who opened the bakery almost 100 years ago. The two immediately started chatting in their native Tiwa language.

The Pueblo is off the grid—there are no power lines, no running water. They collect their water by dipping buckets into the river that runs through the middle of the village. The lights are run by propane, and the ovens—adobe beehive-shaped things called “hornos”— are fueled by wood fire.

Try running a pie stand baking in this

For a moment I imagined what it would have been like to run the Pitchfork Pie Stand using only an horno. I bristled at the thought.

I bought a slice of blueberry pie, a flat triangle that resembled a quesadilla, and shared it with Joseph. It was too sweet, and the filling was probably canned, but who cares? I was eating pie at the Pueblo. Pie made in the oldest inhabited structure in the land. Pie made by a Red Willow man.

Pie notwithstanding, after such a long and sad period, life was looking up.

I stayed in Taos a few extra days, renting a ridiculously cute one-room log cabin I found on Airbnb. It was too far to walk to World Cup, but that didn’t stop me from driving the five miles there to get my latte. But two days in a row I arrived too late to see my regular crowd. Determined to see my “friends” one last time, I gave Augustine a call in advance (Joseph doesn’t have a phone) to make sure the guys would be there on my final morning. I set my alarm for 6:30AM to be there by 7.

When I arrived at World Cup, they were there, along with a few other regulars who trickled in and out. I said hi to my Red Willow friends but told them I wanted to get my coffee before chatting. I went up to the counter and the barista, Marianna, said, “Large latte, three shots?” I nodded and smiled. You know you’ve become a local when they know your drink order. I reached for my wallet and she added, “The guys already paid for it. It’s on them.”

My hands reached for my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes. “I wasn’t expecting that,” I said to Marianna, still holding my chest. I didn’t need to say anything as my reaction already told her. “It’s my last day here,” I said, wiping my wet cheeks. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Taos is a great place to live,” Marianna said. “There’s community here.”

Community. Yes. That is exactly what I kept experiencing during the 10 days I had been in town. I wanted more of this—needed more. I longed to stay. I had even looked on Craigslist for short-term sublets. But as the owner of my rented cabin said when I asked if I could book it for an entire month, maybe two, “You have people who love you waiting for you back home.” He couldn’t have known this, yet he was right. It wasn’t just people waiting (Doug) but dogs and cats and goats too.

I finally composed myself enough to return to Augustine and Joseph, and Blue. “Oh, you guys, thank you so much. I am so touched. But I’m the one who should be treating you to coffee.” They shrugged off my thanks, as if they were embarrassed by my gushing gratitude.

They couldn’t possibly have known—and I wasn’t about to tell them—just how down I had been before I came to Taos, how much I was grieving not just my dad and my goat, but the whole state of the world. Likewise, they couldn’t possibly know just how much their kindness had restored my faith in humanity. (Though I must add, taking a 10-day break from the news and social media also helped.)

Overcome by shyness all around, we sat on barstools, not really sure what to talk about, not sure how to say goodbye. Other regulars showed up, filling up the space between our awkward small talk. Pat with his dog Digger. Steve with yet another dog. And the guy opening the art gallery with his cattle dog. I bent down to pet each of the animals.

“We have to go to work,” Augustine finally said. “I have something for you.” He handed me a small bundle, a zip-lock bag wrapped in paper towel. “Don’t open it until you get home,” he said.

“You mean when I get back to Iowa, or do you just mean don’t open it until later?”

“You can open it after I leave,” he said.

Once I was in the car, I unwrapped his gift. I assumed it was one of his rock carvings he had shown me photos of—bears on all fours. “I like doing the detail,” he said as I studied his pictures, faded and dog-eared. But it was not a stone carving. It was a necklace made of chunky turquoise beads. I immediately fastened it around my neck and held the beads in my fist as I drove down highway 68.

As much as it made my heart ache to leave Taos, I reminded myself that life is about moving forward. Unless you know how to move in a space-time continuum, forward is the only direction we can go.

Eventually I pointed my car East, toward my life back in Iowa, toward my goal of finishing my next book, toward my pathetic little $39 Mr. Coffee Espresso Maker and my community of farm animals.

Back in Iowa, this is what community looks like.

I had a long talk with Doug on Saturday, while we were out canoeing on Big Cedar Creek. Immersed in nature is an ideal setting to discuss important issues. I told him about my desire to remain in Taos, to rent a place there, about my morning coffee house routine, and how I felt like I really belonged there.

“I need to live in a place that smells of sagebrush,” I said.

He understood. “You can go back, Bea. If that’s what it takes for you to write, you should go.”

His support came from a place of such unconditional love I realized the Taos cabin owner was right. This is home. The people here do love me—Doug loves me. And I can—and I will—readjust to a place that smells of fresh-cut hay instead of sage.

Instead of returning to Taos, I rearranged one of the rooms in our farmhouse and turned it into my own office. No more desk in the bedroom.

The first thing I did after setting up my desk was to create a shrine to my time in Taos—my journal filled with inspiration and motivation from the workshop, the “Write True” charm from Jen reminding me to write my heart out honestly, the postcard of Georgia O’Keeffe on the back of a motorcycle (she too was smitten with Taos, so much so she left NYC and moved there permanently), a sprig of New Mexico sage, and last but not least Augustine’s turquoise beads.

I have claimed a room of my own where I will write— with courage and confidence—my next book, my blog posts, magazine articles, and thank you letters to certain Red Willow Indians.

Thank god I skipped those dance sessions.

The (Snowy) Road to Taos

“Travel not to find yourself but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

                                                      — as seen on a plaque yesterday in a home decor store

In November, Hillary lost the election. In March, I lost my dad. A month later, in April, I lost my goat, Cinnamon. After all that I thought I was also going to lose my mind. Writing is my best form of therapy, and on his deathbed, my dad reminded me, “Words matter.” But my brain was such a muddled, grief-stricken mess I was stuck. I put my fingers to work typing “writers retreats” on Google and found one, one that I was sure could get me back on track. It was for smart, ambitious women suffering from writers block. It was in the spiritual Mecca of Taos, New Mexico. It was sold out.

I wrote to Jennifer Louden and pleaded my case. “I NEED THIS. DESPERATELY,” I implored, telling her how I had just lost my dad and my goat. “Please, please, PLEASE, can you get me in?”  I got a reply so quickly it was like a form letter. “We‘ve added you to the waiting list.” Period.

My friend Kee Kee assured me I would get in. Though she suggested I just go to Taos anyway, that a road trip might be as much as I need. But no. I wanted structure. I wanted community. I wanted someone to use their velvet whip on me to get me back in the chair.

I sent my plea on a Friday. On Monday afternoon I was told I had cleared the list but still needed to send in an application—which was a bunch of questions about why you want to write, what you’re working on, and what you hoped to get out of the weeklong workshop—a vetting process. Tuesday morning I was told I was in. Yes!

I packed my car (actually Doug’s car since his SUV was bigger and safer than my Mini Cooper) and left Iowa on Friday morning, April 28. The workshop started on Sunday, April 30. Google maps calculated the driving time at 16 hours. No problem.

When I left the farm it was raining. It kept raining all through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Doug, who as a farmer is obsessed with his weather app, stayed in close touch, giving me regular updates about the latest developments on the radar. He told me it didn’t look so good. I didn’t need him to tell me that because I could see for myself—the clouds hung so low they touched the ground, the rain was turning to snow. I called him to discuss the conditions.

“There’s a storm system that is coming up along the eastern edge of the Rockies,” he said. That’s exactly where I was headed.

“Okay, then I’m going to make a detour and head south,” I told him. “I’ll just drive around it. It will add a few extra hours but at least I will be safe.” He agreed with me that it was a good plan.

As I pointed south, weaving my way through the Panhandle’s sea of wheat fields and oil rigs, I came to the town of Canadian, Texas. I was going to keep pushing on, but when I saw the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon I took it as an omen. The goat I had just lost, Cinnamon, was one of my favorites. She was the most beautiful out of the four, with her fluffy tan coat, white underside and a black stripe down her back. More striking was her humility. She was shy and polite, and unlike the others never pushed and shoved to get more carrots. As a tribute to her, I would stop and eat lunch. Big mistake.

Inside above the bar was a big stuffed white goat, not just a head and horns, but the entire front half of the goat’s body. It didn’t look like Cinnamon; it looked exactly like one of our other goats, Mr. Friendly. I should have walked out then. Instead, I stupidly ordered a $10 burger that looked—and tasted—worse than day-old McDonald’s. As I was leaving, I passed the mayonnaise-heavy salad bar and—wait for it—there was another stuffed goat. This time it was the full body of a small goat and it was being used as a—I kid you fucking not—a bottle opener. A sign above it said, “PETA Warning: This Goat may have been harmed in the making of this bottle opener.” I have never regretted a meal more.

But I digress. I was dodging a snowstorm in order to get to a writers retreat on time.

After 16 hours of driving I got as far as Amarillo, still 6 hours from Taos, where I chatted up a couple pumping gas at the Flying J. They had come from the west, from Albuquerque—the direction I was going. They looked pale and shaken. “It’s bad,” the husband said. “We had to pull off for three hours because of the snow.” If the weather had been okay, I would have already checked into my historic inn in Taos. Instead, I sought refuge at a Motel 6 in Amarillo.

Now it was me who was obsessively studying the weather app. I hit the refresh button every five minutes to see if the Winter Weather Advisory had been updated, and ideally canceled. Instead, it was extended. It was supposed to end at 10AM. Then midnight. Then 10AM Sunday. Then 1PM, 2PM, and eventually 7PM Sunday. The workshop started Sunday at 6. I barely slept.

I woke up to see Doug’s car buried under a few inches of snow and the trees blowing sideways from hurricane force winds. The weather radar showed the storm, which was supposed to move to the north, had shifted (or a new one had developed) and it was centered right over Amarillo.

I tried to wait it out. I stayed in my room until 11 until I became too restless. I checked out and went to Starbucks, drinking a triple latte as I stared out the window at the toppled tables and chairs, the canvas of the umbrellas billowing like parachutes after a botched landing. I could see the interstate from where I sat and there were cars and semis moving down the road. Slowly. But still, they were heading west.

I examined the radar again. If I could just blast through the storm cell I would pop out the other side where sunny skies and climbing temperatures were reported.

I hate driving in rain. I hate even more driving in snow. Driving on mountain roads in bad weather is one of my biggest nightmares (after tornadoes and snakes.) In the past I thought nothing of driving in adverse conditions. But with age comes fear. My vivid—and morbid—imagination takes over and I picture myself perishing in a fiery crash, my car flipping over and pummeled, with me bloody, mangled, perhaps lifeless, in the wreckage. I never thought I would become one of those fearful people, the little old lady hunched forward in the drivers seat, gripping the wheel in terror and driving way too slow, with other drivers giving her the stink eye when they finally pass. But when the weather is bad, the rain blinding, or the mountain roads too windy and narrow, I am that old-lady driver.

I may have become more fearful but I still possess enough determination, enough grit, enough impatience to talk myself into action. It took some serious self-talk to convince myself, but I reasoned that I would take it slow. If other drivers didn’t like my cautious pace they were welcome to go around me. As Marcus taught me how to relax when faced with drivers on the German Autobahn tailgating me at 120 mph, “If they don’t like your speed, it’s their problem.”

Holding my breath, I merged with the traffic on the I-40. The pavement was covered in extensive patches of snow and ice. No one could go fast even if they wanted to. In fact, once I pulled onto the interstate, no one was going more than 5 mph, because a snowplow was up ahead blocking everyone. My GPS showed a one and a half hour delay due to this traffic, and after that Grande Latte I had to pee, so I pulled off at a random exit. Bad choice. The only restaurant at the exit was closed—due to bad weather. Wishing I was wearing Depends, I had to stay on the frontage road for a few miles before there was another onramp. The frontage road was surprisingly clear of snow and as I drove west on it, parallel to the interstate, I passed the long snail line of cars, cars and more cars. And then, I passed the snowplow, and right after the snowplow was my onramp. Ha! I wanted to be happy about getting ahead of the traffic, but the unplowed freeway could have been covered in even thicker snow and ice. Fear kicked in again. But since there was no one behind I just whispered to myself over and over, “Go gently,” and drove ever so slowly. At least 30 mph was faster than 5. The road ahead, oddly, was clearer than the road behind. And soon, in a matter of a few miles—que milagro!—the road was altogether dry. Above, I could even see a distinct line marking the edge of the storm system. I was still making my way out from under the dark grey muck, but there was a cloudless blue sky dead ahead.

I explain all this because it matters. It matters because had I not taken that exit to pee, I would not have gotten in front of the traffic, and if I had not gotten in front of the traffic I would not have arrived in Taos at exactly 6:00PM, the minute the writers workshop started. It matters because that while I weighed out the safety factors and erred on the side of caution, I was still able to push past my fear, trust my snow tires, trust myself. It matters because bad luck eventually exhausts itself.

My losing streak has been followed by nothing but good. I went on to have one of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had in years. The workshop exceeded my expectations on every level. I made new friends. I wrote like a madwoman. I explored the beauty of the town, its earthy adobe buildings, and its surrounding mountains. Everything about the week went so incredibly right, like magic. Like a well-deserved winning streak.

I look back and realize that storm cell hovering over Amarillo was like a metaphor for my life. Grief had been hovering over me, keeping me stuck in a metaphorical Motel 6. I know grief. I know you can’t go around it. I’ve muscled through it before and I found that in spite of the brokenness of my heart, I still had the courage and determination—and driving skills—to blast through again. It doesn’t change the fact I lost what I loved, what was so important to me (most of all, my dad—and I will most certainly be writing more about him later), but it did remind me to have faith, that even when you’re in the worst of storms, there are always, always, always sunnier days ahead.

This post would not have been written if not for Jen Louden and her coaching. I wanted to go to bed early instead of writing, but I heard Jen’s voice, I felt the encouragement of the group, and thus I sat my butt in the chair and kept it glued there until this was finished. Thanks to Jen and the group for an “amazing” week. I intend to hang onto that encouragement and stay in the chair as I go forward, using my words to promote kindness.

Why It Pays to Resist Your ‘Inner Pig Dog’

Redondo Beach, 23 April 2015, Me with local resident Nina and Aussie adventurer Rob

I had one of those days today, the kind where I had to fight off my resistance to getting out of the house. I had to take my Mini in for its third service in three weeks, but what I really wanted was to just stay home in my pajamas, drink my latte, and catch up on email. I’m driving from California to Iowa mid-May (to drop off Jack at my friend’s farm for the summer so I can go on my WORLD PIECE adventure) and the water pump and axle seal had to be replaced. If I didn’t do it I might later find myself somewhere in the Nevada desert of Colorado mountains waiting for a tow from AAA.

The resistance to leaving the house was not just that I would have to get dressed (I do my best work in my pajamas) but that I would have to ride my bike home from the mechanic. It’s only 6 miles, but the last half of it is uphill.

The Germans have an expression for this kind of resistance: they call it the Innerer Schweinehund. Inner Pig Dog. Which basically just describes your (er, my) lazy, unmotivated self. The hill isn’t really that bad. And I have a good bike with good gears. And usually I love riding my bike. Besides, with the clock ticking on my departure date, there was no avoiding — or even postponing — the auto shop.

This was how I felt, before I got on my bike.
Do a Google image search for Innerer Schweinehund.
It’s interesting (read: disturbing) what you will find.

Once I dropped off my car I realized it was a really nice day for a bike ride. So instead of riding straight home to the south, I headed north. I rode on the bike path up to Playa del Rey, following the ocean the entire time, taking in the sailboats, the seagulls, and was awed when a snowy egret land just inches from me.

Why had I been so resistant? This was a huge treat to be outside, surrounded by nature, feeling the wind in my face, the sun warming my bones.

I stopped to eat a granola bar and watched Massey Ferguson and John Deere tractors raking debris from the sand as if it was a meditation. What first caught my attention was the familiarity of these tractors, their red and green colors identifying their brands, and the contrast of seeing them on a beach instead of on the Iowa farms I was used to. As I sat on a beachside bench I became mesmerized by their slow and steady rhythm, soothed by their repetitive motion as they traveled back and forth in straight lines, smoothing out the beach. My farmer friend, Doug (Jack’s future dog sitter), had just sent me a photo taken from his tractor where he was at that very moment making his own back-and-forth lines in Iowa’s black soil, planting corn. Making the connection between these two worlds made me feel more connected to myself. This day was definitely going well.

Similar yet different. This is my friend Doug’s view from
his tractor while planting corn in Iowa.

I got back on my bike and it only got better.

I spotted a biker on the path with his bicycle loaded with gear — bulging panniers, a bag hanging over the front bars, and sleeping bag and tent rolled up over the rear wheel. I wondered where he was from and where he was headed. I had a magnetic eye for traveling bikers, drawn to them as I had been one myself, carrying that same kind of gear, when I was 17 and riding down the West coast of Canada and the Pacific Northwest. That was the same trip where I was caught stealing apples at the orchard of a retired pastry chef and learned how to make apple pie. To be on a bicycle is the ultimate way to be open to adventure. You are traveling under your own power. And you are very exposed. It’s you and your own strength — mental and physical — that moves you along. Through rain. Heat. Headwinds. Traffic. Hills. There is no place for an Innerer Schweinehund on a bike trip.

I was curious about this biker. I was also remembering how while on my own adventures — biking and otherwise — I appreciated people offering support. A meal, a shower, a bed, a phone number of someone in the next town, even just some friendly conversation. Reaching out can mean the world to someone who is alone and traveling by their own human-powered engine. So I pedaled to catch up to him and talk.

“Where are you headed? Where are you from? How long are you going to be biking? Where are you going to today?” Poor guy probably just wanted to ride his damn bike but here was this chirpy girl in a blinding orange bike jersey yacking in his ear. But he was willing to answer. From his first word I detected his Australian accent, that pleasant and friendly tone with the soft Rs and drawn out As. Of course this only made me want to hear more.

He was riding across the USA, including Alaska, and he was going to take 12 months to do it. The most amazing thing was that he had just started. He had just landed at LAX, assembled his bicycle, loaded the bags, and I had encountered him on the FIRST MILE of his 6,000-mile trip!

“Do you have a website? A Facebook page? Somewhere people can follow your progress?” I might have been a little overzealous, bordering on interrogating him. Maybe I just seemed, well, American to him.

His name was Rob and, no, he didn’t have a website or Facebook page. He had barely had time to get all his gear organized, and any energy that would have gone toward social media was spent trying to navigate the bureaucracy of getting a 12-month US visa. Besides, he said, this trip was for him, to find the “real” Rob.

Yes, I totally understood that.

I’ve had my own questions about that for my “World Piece” journey. I’ve had days where I was overwhelmed trying to turn this into a project, when really, my trip was intended to be something personal.  To feed my soul, to help me get “un-lost,” to reconnect with that fearless and adventurous girl I used to be, to make myself feel better by giving to others (through making and sharing pie.) Hearing about Rob’s lack of need or desire for public sharing of his travels and transformation affirmed my own thoughts: Personal journeys require some privacy. I had already come to the conclusion that not every big, life-altering trip has to be promoted — or turned into a book. The world is already so noisy. That Rob had opted to travel so humbly and quietly was, frankly, refreshing.  (Don’t worry, I’m still going to blog from my travels! I’m a writer; telling stories — hopefully inspirational ones — is what I do.)

Rob had just quit his job as a naval engineer, moved out of his apartment in Sydney, and tried to convince his mother that he could go on this bike trip without getting hurt. (To hear that his mom is so caring about her son made me smile.) He is in his early 40s and he had been hearing that compelling voice, perhaps a command from a higher power, telling him, “If not now, when?” Exactly. So here he was. Day One of his 365 day bicycle trip. He left his Innerer Schweinehund  behind in the Australian dust. And now he is living his dream.

We ended up stopping for coffee in Redondo Beach before saying goodbye. A woman we encountered at the cafe, Nina, started asking him about his bike trip. She was so interested and so friendly, we sat with her and talked for nearly an hour until Rob finally said he needed to get moving. He still had 50 miles to ride to his first overnight stop.

Rob and I rode together until my Palos Verdes turnoff, meaning the uphill climb I had been dreading before I left the house that morning took almost no effort at all. We chatted the whole way up. Rob was loaded down with all his gear and wasn’t standing up on his pedals, or even breathing hard like I usually am on that climb. This time, as I climbed the hill, I was feeling buoyed, my inner load lightened by the nice surprise of making two new friends. Especially, I was feeling happy that I could make a stranger feel welcome in a country that was new to him. It was a reminder that when I get off the plane in faraway lands this summer, the same can happen to me. There will be good people and new friends in each new place I go.

Because of this bike ride and chance encounter (was it chance?!), I ended up having such a good morning that I didn’t even mind when I went to pick up my car and got the bill for $750. Okay, well, maybe that part was a little painful.

The next time the resistance rears its fat and furry head, I will know to kick it to the curb without hesitation. Interesting and inspiring people and adventures are always awaiting. All I have to do is get out of my pajamas.

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American Gothic House: It Was a Magical Four Years

(Scroll down for pictures of the interior of the house.)

After four magical years, I have moved out of the American Gothic House. When asked why, the easiest answer to give is that one can only live in a tourist attraction for so long. My friends and Facebook fans (follow me here) have responded that they can’t believe I lasted as long as I did. Me either! When I rented the house I had asked for a three-month lease. The landlord said, no, one year or nothing. When I found out the rent was just $250 a month, the same amount I was paying for my storage unit in Portland, Oregon, I figured if I didn’t like living there I could just use it as a place to store my stuff. But I did like it.

At first I saw the house as a quiet place to write — and to continue my grieving process (over the loss of my husband, Marcus) in solitude. But I can only do quiet in small doses. No sooner did I move in I started making pies, and then opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand, which much to my surprise became wildly successful, and soon tourists were lining up in my living room to buy my butter-filled baked goods.

I did accomplish my original idea of using the house as a place to write. In fact, I wrote two books — MAKING PIECE, my memoir about how pie helped heal my grief, and MS. AMERICAN PIE, a pie cookbook with essays about the myriad ways pie can make the world a better place. Both reached bestseller status on various lists.

People ask me if the American Gothic House is haunted. I always say if there are ghosts, they are friendly ones, muses who encourage creativity.

Living in a tourist attraction, you would think dealing with all those tourists would be annoying. The tourists were never annoying. They arrived excited, curious, often giddy. I could hear them laugh as they tried to strike the Grant Wood masterpiece painting pose, depicting the dour father-daughter duo holding the pitchfork. The tourists provided entertainment for me when I needed, and a connection to the outside world when I was craving one.

It was snakes, and not overly curious visitors pressing their face up to the glass for a peek inside, that rattled me most. There was the six-foot bull snake in my bathroom (whose fate I know) and the other six-foot snake in my laundry room (who slithered up into the heating ducts and whose whereabouts remain a mystery), and a sundry of other, smaller ones. There were mice on occasion (you can read THIS story about my crisis dealing with them.) There were infestations of Japanese beetles, disguised as innocent lady bugs until you felt them bite. Later came the swarms of box elder bugs. Thunderstorms were always scary, especially when sleeping so close to the roof, and the tornado warnings were terrifying, but luckily the house has a finished concrete basement for shelter. It seems nature was always trying to move in!

Country living was challenging enough. But living in the limelight became especially wearing. I could feel myself getting tired, keeping my curtains closed more often, and getting irritated more easily than usual by things like the noise of lawn mowers, the peering eyes of my nosy neighbors, and the visits from the sheriff announcing yet another complaint about my two little terriers being “at large.” A friend told me a while ago, “Sometimes new stories require new houses.” I pondered that idea — and fought it — for the past year until I finally realized I am ready — moreover, I need — a new story.

My four years in the American Gothic House could read like a novel. But who needs to write fiction when real life is infinity more interesting?! Instead, I’m spending this fall writing another memoir about my zany misadventures there. I’m staying in Iowa for now, on a friend’s 1,200-acre farm — that’s 1,200 acres of pure privacy!

In the meantime, here is a look inside the house (pictures in no particular order). It’s empty now. But a place as special as this will find someone new to look after it, and in turn there will be more stories to tell.

This was probably the dining room of the house back in the day. But fast-forward to the
21st century, it’s wired for telephone, Internet and cable TV.  I used this room as my office,for pie classes, and as the pie stand grew I used it for pie production as well. 

These are the windows on the front side of the house, as seen from inside. It is outside
these windows where tourists pose day after day. Tourists of all ages, races, nationalities, etc. What fun to watch all the activity, the happiness, the smiling faces, the costumes, people posing with their cars, motorcycles, horses, sheep, goats, llamas, rock bands, you name it! It was never boring!

The living room sits empty now, but this was the site of the Pitchfork Pie Stand.
I made sure the pie crumbs were cleaned out from between the floorboards before I left.

This is the front door. I would let my dogs out every morning and  they would chase
the squirrels out of the yard. Over the past four years, a lot of good friends, family, pie customers and pie students came through that door. But think of all the people who have entered through this door since the house was built in 1882!

The view from the “other side” of the world famous Gothic window. Tourists never knew when I was behind it, hiding out, reading books in my bed. What a nice place to hide, it was!

The ceilings upstairs are so low I had to have my king-size mattress on the floor!
Friends called it “glorified camping.” I called it “just right.

Forget having a walk-in closet. Just be glad you have ONE closet at all! This is one of the
reasons I pared down my wardrobe to just overalls and jeans. I did keep my Armani suit and a few gowns though. Just in case.

The Gothic window on the back side of the house swings down and sideways.
It’s how the furniture is moved in and out of the upstairs
because the staircase is too narrow.

The upstairs is so sweet. Though as you can see, not for tall people.

Heading upstairs to bed, you’re greeted by a second Gothic window.  But watch your head! The stairway is steep and the ceilings are low.

Thank you to GE Appliances for donating the fancy fridge and stove. I put both to
very good (and hard) use! That oven baked all my pies for the pie stand.
I hope it will see more pies in its future.

It’s a small but mighty kitchen. I painted the cupboards red, which I LOVED.
And check out that gorgeous sink and faucet, donated by Kohler. What a
fantastic improvement this was to the house. Thank you again, Kohler!

Keep that kitchen curtain pulled or you will have curious tourists peering inside!

The world’s smallest bathtub. But by god, I used it! Better than nothing.
It required doing yoga poses to get your torso wet.

The view from the loo. Keep the curtain open at your own risk.
You never know when a tourist might walk by!

This doorway saw a LOT of traffic during my stay.
We shuttled hundreds of pies from the kitchen to the living room for the pie stand.
The wall on the right is where I had my kitchen table, where I made pies, drank
wine with friends (and martinis with my dad), and wrote BOTH of my books.

The American Gothic House from the back side. It’s just as cute.
And most people don’t know it has a matching Gothic window on the back.
I would leave the lights on when walking my dogs at night.
That way, I could look back and admire the beauty of my little cottage.

I heard so many people say, “These stairs remind me of my grandma’s house.”
Beware, they’re charming but dangerous to navigate when you’re sleepy.
And NEVER wear socks or you will slip!

A bittersweet sign. The pie stand was SO MUCH WORK, but I met
so many amazing and nice people because of it. I kept the sign as a souvenir.

Well, what it says is true! The neighbors — AKA: The Binoculars — keep a very close eye on the activities at the AG House. They are the quintessential Kravitz characters from the old TV show “Bewitched.” I didn’t actually leave the sign behind, but the picture of it alone makes the point.

This was a “gift” from my friend/coworker LeAnn. I never did use it but I made
sure to leave it for the house’s next occupant. It’s the least I could do! For more about my
snake adventures, read my blog post, “Wayward Reptiles in the American Gothic House.” It’s a good one. 

RV Book Tour: LA to Austin

Here’s one of those “It could only happen on an RV book tour” kind of stories. And even though I should be taking a nap right now (I need it!), I can’t sleep because I really want to – NEED to – tell this story.
I’ve been sick – as in two trips to the ER, it’s going to cost me over 10 grand sick – so I thought I better find someone to help me do the 1,400-mile-drive from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas. (Actually, I did have someone lined up but a broken front tooth took her out of the running.) The deal for the co-driver was I pay for all their meals and their one-way airline ticket. I emailed a few unemployed people I know in LA to see if they could spare a few days off. In LA, it’s not too hard to find film editors and actors and other creative types in between gigs. But as a back up, I also posted a want ad on my Facebook business page, TheWorld Needs More Pie. Within five minutes, Barbara Fascat Szendrey, a woman in Austin – my destination – volunteered her husband. She even suggested flight times. I didn’t think I could get an affordable one-way ticket from Austin to LA at the very last minute, and I wasn’t even sure her husband would say yes, but lo and behold, everything fell perfectly into place all within an hour of that Facebook post.
My parents drove me to LAX the next evening to pick up Paul Szendrey, Barbara’s husband, who had been a longtime follower of my blog, ever since I lived in Terlingua, Texas. Since before Marcus died. I had never met him in person. But I have learned the ways to build trust in strangers, especially when the relationship centers around pie. It worked so beautifully last summer when Facebook friend Sue from Allentown, Pennsylvania, flew to Iowa to spend a week working with me at my Pitchfork Pie Stand. We had never met in person, but after five days spent in the American Gothic House drinking coffee at the kitchen table by morning, making pie by afternoon and eating dinners outside on the back patio by night, we cried at the airport when we had to say goodbye.
My dad holds the sign like a glorified limo driver.
Except limo drivers don’t smile nearly as much.
At LAX, my mom dropped off my dad and me while she drove off to find parking. I had told Paul, “You’ll recognize me because I’ll bring the ‘FREE PIE’ sign.” My dad held the sign as I searched the throngs of passengers streaming into the baggage claim area. Many of them smiled when they saw the sign. Or gave us  the thumbs up. That alone made for a fun and interesting way to spend an evening at one of the world’s busiest airports. And then we saw Paul. Or he saw us. We exchanged warm welcoming hugs and soon we were giving him a tour of the beach communities, pouring him a martini, and putting him to bed in preparation for the next morning’s departure back East.
That’s Paul, left, and my dad, right. With waffles, far left!
Oh, and Paul’s tiny travel companion, Ribirto the Frog.
We had a nice send off of a hearty breakfast of waffles, bacon and eggs – Thank you, Mom! – and off we went in The Beast. Riverside, Palm Springs, Blythe, Phoenix, Tuscon…we checked off the cities as the miles clicked by and the gas gauge dipped lower. The following line became our constant refrain: “I wish we had more time to stop and check this place out,” as we passed wilderness areas and mountain ranges and rock formations and Joshua trees and Saguaro cactus fields.
Thumbs up to this Benson, Arizona KOA campground.
Especially the classical music playing in the clean showers.
We stopped overnight at a KOA Campground in Benson, Arizona, so we could “refresh” the RV (i.e.: empty the waste tanks and refill the water tanks). And since the water heater hasn’t been working this entire six-week book tour, we used the campground’s showers, which was an unusual treat because not only were they spotlessly clean, they had piped in classical music. While I think this is a very nice touch, I can’t say it helps in their desert water conservation. Because I was enjoying the music so much I took an extra long shower! Just saying.
When we passed through El Paso and then came to Van Horn, Texas, I managed to keep the grief pangs at bay. This was where one takes the turn off to Big Bend National Park. It’s my old travel turf from that summer, the summer of 2009. The summer I rented that miner’s cabin in the Chihuahua Desert. The summer I was working on my pie memoir, the first version. The summer Marcus died. I was in love with that part of Texas. I still am. I felt the longing to go back. To take the exit south. To breathe in the wide open space. To gaze at the black sky filled with a billion stars. But in this case our refrain was probably a blessing. “Too bad we don’t have time to stop.”
Soaking my feet in the Llano River, while Team Terrier swims.
In fact, we were pushing so hard to get to Austin with so little time, we didn’t even stop for a proper meal until the third day of the journey, when we reached Llano, Texas. “There’s a good barbeque place,” Paul insisted. But when we arrived it was only 10:30AM. The place, Cooper’s Texas BBQ, didn’t open until 11. We found an easy solution. We walked Team Terrier first, discovering by accident the Llano River and an ideal place for the dogs to swim – and for me to soak my feet. This was a luxury. Anytime I’ve had a chance to just sit still and take in a dose of nature has been a luxury on this 6-week trip.
Cooper’s BBQ. A must-stop on any RV tour!
And then, at last, a meal.  A big meaty, saucy, Texas-size meal. Oh. My. God. Yum!
Meanwhile, back in Austin, Barbara (Paul’s wife), had been texting and sending photos of what she had been doing to pass the time while her husband was driving me, my two terriers and my RV across the country. She had been baking pies! Barbara had just retired from her job as a sheriff’s department supervisor. She had also just read my book, “Making Piece.” She had never made a homemade pie crust before. Nor had she made any of the kinds of pies I write about in my story. My book is a memoir, not a cookbook, but I do include five recipes in the back, recipes that have direct relevance to the story. So while Paul and I were rattling down the highway at 60 miles per hour, Barbara was banging around in her kitchen making pie after pie after pie. She made the ones included in my book and several others, so by the time Paul and I pulled up in the driveway, we were greeted with EIGHT different pies to try!
Barbara saw us approaching – you can’t miss The Beast when it motors down a cul de sac – and rushed out to greet us. Another warm hug was exchanged with a woman who was previously a stranger, who is clearly now a friend.
Barbara Szendrey’s Pie Experiment Extravaganza!
A whopping success!
I sat in the Szendrey’s kitchen – perched on a bar stool at the island where all the pies were lined up as if it were the Iowa State Fair – and proceeded to sample slices of each of her creations. In this order I ate the following: coconut cream, French silk, peach, apple, Shaker lemon, peanut butter, Tollhouse Cookie, and something called Jeff Davis, which is a buttermilk custard pie. There was no banana cream, but I didn’t say anything, as I had enough to fill my belly as it was! And the verdict? Every single bite was amazing, stupendous, mind blowing! This was damn impressive pie!
“Barbara,” I insisted in between gobbling down bites and moaning with approval. “It’s clear you are too young and energetic to retire. I know what you are going to do.” I looked up from my pie plates and smiled at her. “You are going to open a pie shop.”
I don’t know if she will. But I hope she does. What I do know is that I’m so very grateful to this Texas couple I met on Facebook. I am grateful, once again, for the community building, connecting powers of pie. I’m also grateful my health is returning and that The Beast is still holding together for its final leg of the trip. (I’m on my third roll of duck tape. And Paul made some repairs, donating six screws and some caulking to keep one of the side walls from falling off.) This time next week I will be parked at the American Gothic House, where I will be making a few pies of my own. The Pitchfork Pie Stand opens May 26.

The Infinite Ways in Which Pie Connects Us

In honor of National Pi Day (March 14)–not to be mistaken with National Pie Day (January 23)–I thought I would post a sort of “guest blog” by fellow pie worshiper Carolynn Carreno. As you will read in her wonderful blog post below, we met through an article she wrote for the LA TIMES, a mere 11 years ago! I wrote her last week to thank her for her brilliant and timeless story about the spirit of giving away homemade pie to make others feel good. Our ensuing instant kinship and correspondence proves, once again, that it is never too late to say thank you. That and that pie continues to connect people in surprising and–speaking of pi–infinite ways.

In another amazing pie/pi connection, I just received this T-shirt in the mail from another friend in pie, Karla Theriac.
Like I said, pie connects people in infinite ways.

The Life of Pie

March 14th, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Last week a blogger, Beth Howard, contacted me via Facebook to say that she’d posted a story I wrote a decade ago on her Facebook page. A New York-based editor, she said, had read my story back then, hung onto it, and sent it to this blogger, because her thing is pie, and that was the subject of my story: pie, and making pie. It was a nice thrill, to think that this editor (who I know by name and respect) had hung onto it, and to have my story resurrected in that way.
But reading a story, particularly a personal essay, that you wrote long ago—in this case, long before I was required to take my shoes off at the airport!—is a bit like stumbling upon an old box of photos in terms of the mix of nostalgia and cringe that it induces. The most alarming thing about reading this particular story was seeing that I had made the pie crust with—yikes!—margarine. The reason I did this was very simple: this is how I was taught to make pies the summer before, when I worked as the pie baker at Loaves & Fishes, which is where I learned how to make pies in the first place. Loaves & Fishes is a famously expensive food store in the famously expensive Hamptons. The idea behind that store is, in a nutshell, to produce homemade food for people who do not cook at home, no matter how beautiful and well-equipped their kitchens. On my inaugural day at L&F, Anna, an older German woman who owns and runs the place along with her daughter, explained to me that margarine made for a tender crust, where an all-butter crust would turn out tough. If this was good enough for their moneyed (and I presumed discerning) clientele, I figured it was as good as it could be. But that’s where I was wrong…
I’ve learned a lot in the 12 or 15 years since the summer I wrote about in the pie story—about life, about what people are willing to pay for and why, and, of course, about pie. Today, with the same casual, knowing ease with which I might slip off my slip-on shoes as I approach the security check at the airport, I can confirm that this bit about the butter making for a tougher crust is true. But I’ve also learned that margarine and all its artificiality isn’t the only solution. The one thing that butter has that margarine doesn’t is flavor. The answer is to use a mix of butter and not butter. You can use butter plus margarine, which I did for several years. Butter and Crisco, which I believe is Julia Child’s formula, but don’t quote me on that. Butter plus lard, which let’s face it must be the best choice because anything with lard is better than anything with a substitute for lard. Or, like my friend Bob Blumer does, butter plus bacon fat (aka: lard).
Looking forward, I can only imagine what I will have learned ten years from now. One thing I do know is that a life where you are making pie (no matter what kind of fat you put in the crust!), that is, a life where you have the inclination and take the time to make pie, and wherein you have the friends and family with which to enjoy pie—this is a good life. As for the crust, I’ll probably go the lard route, followed by Crisco in a pinch. But I’ll definitely always make my own pie dough. The process of making it—taking it, that, for me, is the whole point of pie.

Here’s Carolynn’s LA TIMES article from 2001:

Los Angeles Times Articles 

Humble Pie

However You Slice It, There’s No Gift More Honest

August 05, 2001|CAROLYNN CARRENO | Carolynn Carreno last wrote for the magazine about Mexican breakfasts
I discovered the power of pie on an August night a few summers back as I walked across my small, quiet street barefoot, carrying a just-baked, still-bubbling pie with two hands, to introduce myself to my new neighbors.
I’d never felt quite so American, and I’d certainly never done anything so darn-right neighborly. But I’d just learned to make pie, and the nectarines at the farmers market were ripe for the occasion, and, well, something came over me. As luck would have it, he turned out to be a poet and she a gardener, and there we sat at an old bistro table, drinking chilled white wine and telling our stories and falling in love the way new friends sometimes do. When it comes to bearing gifts, there’s just nothing like a fruit pie.

Since then, fruit pie has become my currency of goodwill. Andy and Elyce have a baby and the first thing I think of, because they’re from New England, is blueberry pie. A friend gives me a tennis lesson and, since he’s from Georgia, I find myself slicing up a bowl full of peaches the very next morning. Two firemen rescue my cat from high up a pine tree and I have no choice: two pies to go.

It’s a special feeling, bringing someone a pie. Unlike with a batch of cookies, where you might keep a few for yourself, with pie you just give up the whole thing. If you’re lucky, as I was that first night, they might cut it right there and give you a slice. Most importantly, though, is that when you bring someone a fruit pie, they are nothing short of amazed. Amazed that fruit pies are actually made. Amazed that you made it. Amazed that you made it for just for them.

Before that summer, I, too, would have been in awe of any human being capable of bringing a pie into the world, because I was in total fear of making dough. The ice water thing threw me into a panic. And rolling out dough seemed like some kind of impossible art form, learned from Grandmother or not at all. But once I mastered the four essentials of making dough–chilled butter or margarine; not quite mixing it all the way with the flour; rolling the dough from the inside out and not any more than you need to; and the most satisfying thing of all, crimping the edge–I became a pie-making fool.
I made pies for all occasions and proudly took them all over town. And the pies changed me. That first night with my new friends, I went to bed thinking about how they’d been together 20 years and were still happy, still making their art. I dreamed that night of a simple life with a man for whom I could make pies and with whom I could sit in a garden and tell my stories. Fruit pie is humble. It has that effect.
(NOTE on 3/14: Since it’s not plum season, you have your choice: get your hands on some quality frozen plums–and they’ll be almost just as good. Or use the equivalent in apples. You can keep everything else the same. Fruit pie isn’t rocket science, especially not the fruit part.)
Plum Pie
Serves 6-8
CRUST
3 sticks margarine 2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold and cubed, plus 1 stick Crisco, or 4 ounces lard
4 cups flour
3 tablespoons ice water
FILLING
31/2-4 cups tart plums (or apples!), sliced
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch each of clove and nutmeg
2 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
GLAZE
1/4 cup milk
1 egg yolk
Sugar for dusting
In food processor fitted with a metal blade, pulse flour and butter and Crisco/lard together until integrated into a coarse crumb, but not totally combined. Drizzle in water and continue to pulse, until just combined. On work surface, form a ball with mixture. Chill at least 1/2 hour.
Cut ball of dough into quarters and roll one quarter about 1/4-inch thick and place into pie pan and cut off the excess dough to edge of pan. Roll out second ball. Using cookie cutter, cut hole directly in center of dough and set aside.
In a bowl, mix filling ingredients and pour into prepared pie pan. Place butter pieces evenly over plums. Drape top crust over filled pie pan. Cut excess top crust, leaving about 3/4 inch to hang over. Fold top crust, tucking it under bottom crust. Crimp edges with thumb and forefinger. Mix milk and egg yolk and brush lightly on pastry. Sprinkle handful of sugar liberally over pie. Bake at 425 degrees until golden brown and fruit inside has broken down and is giving off ample juices, usually about 50 minutes to 1 hour.
For more posts by Carolynn Carreno, go to: http://carolynncarreno.wordpress.com/

A Letter to my Friend Sue McGuiness Wall (1962 – 2012)

Sue and her daughters with their piping hot apple pies.
American Gothic House, August, 11, 2011

Dear Sue,

I just got back from your funeral. It was a full house at the Catholic church you attended. You were attending today alright. Just not in the way you would have liked. You would have approved of the service. Your students were there in matching T-shirts taking up several rows. Your whole family was there, your parents and siblings, and god knows how many other relatives and friends of all ages. Your girls sat in the front pew. They were very brave and they looked beautiful. You did a really good job raising them and though you left early you can be assured you gave them a strong and solid foundation on which to continue building. Everyone was so sad at your farewell, I think Kleenex stock went up today as a result.

I drove up from Eldon, which as you know since you had come down to see me last summer, is a two-hour drive. Six months ago when you came down with your two teen daughters to bake pie in the American Gothic House you were beaming and energetic. And though I knew you were still fighting back the cancer I thought nothing could keep you down. I remember you telling me how you had originally gone to the doctor about a sprained ankle or something and came out with a diagnosis for ovarian cancer. Oh man! But this cancer wasn’t going to get YOU, by god. Not you. Not fierce and fiery Sue. I was sure, with your determination, that remission was the only possible outcome. I was so impressed with your positive attitude, moved by it, inspired by it. If I were in your position I can only imagine how much I would be complaining and crying and carrying on. But not you. You made chemo look like a cakewalk. I used to get your emails with your doctor’s reports. You never wavered in your hope, your optimism, your humor. “More chemo?” you would say. “Bring it on!” Your display of strength and grace is something that will always stick with me. I wish you knew what an impact you’ve had on me, how deeply your warm, strong spirit has touched and influenced my life.

I thought about you as I made my way north for your service, about how of all the things, you probably won’t miss Iowa’s winter weather. It was 19 degrees today, bordering on bitter cold. But the roads were clear (thank goodness, because I wouldn’t have been able to make the drive otherwise — I never did get snow tires on my Mini Cooper). The sky was blue and the sun was shining brightly, which made me think you had a clear view from wherever you are now. Some call it heaven. Some say you are in a parallel universe. Some say you become energy that can move anywhere. I wish I knew. I wish we could still talk and email each other. If there really is some other world “up there” then I hope you’ll go find Marcus. Give him a hug from me and then ask him to take you on a motorcycle ride. There’s nothing nicer than feeling the wind in your face. (Well, to me there was nothing nicer than feeling the wind in my face while having my arms wrapped around my husband’s gorgeous body.)

Speaking of gorgeous husbands, I finally met yours. He was standing in the chapel, the small one off the main church, where you were –how do I say this respectfully – on display. I had just gotten done talking to you, saying goodbye, telling you how disappointed I was that you couldn’t stick around. I leaned over to sniff the roses that adorned you and when I turned around I spotted a very handsome, fit gentleman who stepped toward me. I figured it was Brad. It was. Before I could introduce myself he said, “You’re the pie lady.” I had to laugh. He started right in on how good those pies were you and your daughters made last August. I was nervous and didn’t quite know what to say, even though I know from losing Marcus that the only thing to say is “I’m sorry for your loss.” But we managed to talk about a few other things – besides pie, I mean – and he said running is helping him. I said I wished I could still exercise the way I used to but that instead of producing endorphins, running only dredges up suppressed grief. I told him he could send the girls down to my place this summer to help with my pie stand. He said thanks but he’s going to take some time off and focus on family, and stay busy.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that your husband possesses similar strength, grace and optimism to yours. You guys even look alike. I’m not sure how his clothes came up in the conversation, but he pointed out that you had picked out the suit he was wearing. That broke my heart to think of you having that conversation with him, that you knew you might not make it and how you might have prepared for it, and even picked out his clothes for the funeral. Two things of note here, Sue: one, you have excellent taste (in both clothes and men) and two, your husband actually did what you asked! I think you must have had a very good marriage. I also think he must be a very good dad and will love and protect your daughters with all his heart.

Oh, and speaking of funeral clothes, you looked very pretty in your grey sweater set and your sparkly hoop earrings. Your head was bald. I was glad they didn’t try to disguise you with a wig. Bald suits you. Not everyone can pull off the look but with your freckled complexion it worked. Last time I saw you your hair was just growing back for the second time, coming in soft and fuzzy and a little grey. Of course it was very disappointing – to say the least – to see you just lying there and unable to have a conversation. I really wanted to see you smile. Your smile was one of your greatest traits (of many.) The picture they used on the funeral program showed your impish grin. The shot really captured your essence and I kept staring at your picture throughout the service. Seeing your smiling face in that picture didn’t help stop the tears or make me forget you were in that casket just a few feet away—au contraire—but it did remind me of what a force of life you were. By the way, the priest got a few laughs when he described you as stubborn. That made me a little proud. If you ask me, stubbornness is an essential quality and I liked how yours was acknowledged in a loving way.

You and your crazy curly
red hair — and striped socks.
Ah, high school.
Those were the days.

I know we weren’t that close in high school. Friends, yes, but you know how in our small parochial school we all split off into our little cliches. But when I returned to Iowa in August of 2010, you came to see me judging pies at the Iowa State Fair. You charged through the crowd in your yellow slicker (it must have been raining that day) and I recognized you and your bright red hair immediately. You wrapped your arms around me in a powerful embrace and you flashed that signature smile of yours. You made me feel so welcome, so special, and in that instant we were connected in a way we hadn’t been in our teen years. We didn’t get to see each other that often in the past year and a half since I moved back to Iowa, but I liked how we kept in touch through emails and phone calls. And then, of course, through the pie lesson. That was such a great day, last August. I still have the adorable apron you brought me, the blue and white checkered one with the jewels sewn around the bib. It’s my favorite and I will always cherish it because it will always make me think of you rolling pie dough in my kitchen that day, laughing, talking, sharing stories, so full of life.

Ah life. Why do I still have one and you don’t? Well, maybe you do. Yes, definitely you do. Just in another form now. That energy of yours could never die. It continues. It permeates. It remains. It reminds us to stay strong. Like you.

When I got home from your funeral – when I got done bawling my eyes out – oh, and I’m very sorry I didn’t stay for the burial or the lunch afterward. I could feel the grief building and I didn’t know how long I could contain it. I wanted to talk to your parents and your girls. But I knew and respected my limits. The last funeral I went to was Marcus’s. I knew it was going to be tough to go to yours. It was. It seems very wrong that the last two funerals I attended were for people – good people – in their forties. I hope the next funeral I go to is for someone who lived to 105. That would be cause for celebration, not tears. Anyway, I was saying, when I got home from your funeral I read through our exchange of emails and came across this one from exactly one year ago to the day. Here’s what you wrote:

“Last weekend I participated in a retreat at church to tell my ‘story’ and the importance of having such an amazing community of people to rely on. While I was there, I purchased a daily devotional book entitled Heaven Calling. I had to laugh at the devotional for yesterday (chemo day). It was entitled ‘Mission Impossible?’ and I’d like to share an excerpt with you: ‘I know you child—your strengths and weaknesses. I also know your beliefs about what you can or cannot do. As a father has compassion for his children, I have compassion for you. Yet I wouldn’t be a good Father if I didn’t know when to stretch your limits. Precious one, trust me to know what you can and cannot do. Whatever task I call you to, I will give you exactly what you need to do it.’

Then you added:

“From one strong woman to another, sometimes it sucks being this strong, but at day’s end I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

No, Sue. As one strong (and stubborn) woman to another, I’m sure you wouldn’t. I am so grateful to have known you, to have learned from you, to have been infected by your contagious smile. Good luck on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to seeing you again. Until then, I send you all my love and gratitude.

Beth

PS: Brad said you were an avid reader of my blog, so I thought it only fitting to write this blog post for you. Miss you, girl!