Here, in honor of Mother’s Day, is a piece I wrote about my mother-in-law. It appears in the new book, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery.
Twelve years ago, my mother-in-law, then age 78, went in for open-heart surgery. She suffered complications, and on a sweltering day in late June, she died.
My wife and I drove from the cemetery to her one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn and started to go through her belongings. We scoured her drawers, cabinets and shelves, poring over her clothes, photos and mementoes, deciding what to keep, give away or throw out, and were almost finished. Antoinette — or Nettie, as everyone called her — had lived on little her whole life, so we expected no hidden fortunes. But how mistaken we were. We opened the freezer and looked in, and there were her pies.
It was quite a find. In early spring every year, Nettie would make an announcement. “I’m making the Easter pies,” she would say. “Going to be busy, so nobody bother me.”
The pie was an Italian specialty called pizza rustica. Her mother had once made the same pies from a recipe her family brought to America from Naples. Little Antoinette watched her mother prepare the pies for Holy Saturday, slicing the smoked ham and hot sausage into bits, filling the dish with fresh ricotta and Romano cheeses, brushing the beaten egg wash onto the crust to give it a glaze.
Nettie made 15 or 20 pies every April for more than 40 years. Her mother had handed down her recipe, but Nettie never looked at the sheet of paper, every spring making up the proportions in her head all over again. I can imagine her standing in the kitchen pressing the dough with a rolling pin, her cheeks smudged with flour, her fine hair in disarray.
The pies came out looking like two-inch-thick omelettes — stuffed with cheese and flecked with meat, all topped by a heavy, flaky, dimpled crust baked golden brown. Nettie wrapped the pies in foil and labeled each for its intended recipient (the size of the pie you got was a measure of her affection for you). Her doorbell would start ringing at noon as relatives came from all over New York City and Long Island to collect this family dividend.
Now we had discovered that Nettie saved a few wedges of the pie, including one for herself, labeled “Nettie” (as if even in her own home, she had needed to earmark her handiwork for herself). My wife and I looked at each other in surprise, saying nothing. Then we reached into the icy mist and took out the pies one by one, putting each in a plastic bag.
In moments, we left her apartment for the last time and walked out into the hot, still afternoon for the drive home, holding the pies as tenderly as we might an urn.
That Sunday night, as we gathered at the dining room table with our 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter in our home in Forest Hills, my wife served us one of the pies, steaming hot and giving off a savory aroma. She sliced a wedge for each of us, and we ate silently, scraping our plates for crumbs.
I’d eaten my mother-in-law’s pies every spring for more than 20 years, and they always tasted good. But now the pie tasted better than it ever had, as if somehow flavored by the tears of our grief. With each bite I recalled with fresh clarity everything Nettie had meant to all of us over the years — how she had raised her daughter without a husband around, all while toiling as a seamstress in a factory, and especially how she had lavished love and attention on both her adoring grandchildren.
I’d never felt so grateful to anyone. Eating the pie that night felt almost sacramental, as if I could actually taste her kind and generous spirit.
Afterwards, my wife waved us all into the kitchen. She opened the door to our freezer and pointed toward the back. And there it was: one last slice of the pie, the one that was labeled
“This one I’m saving,” she said.
And so she has. And there Nettie’s pie remains, untouched, unseen, but never forgotten. Other families leave behind insurance policies or furniture or jewelry, but Nettie left us her pie. That single slice will serve as heirloom enough, and feed our hearts year-round, giving us all the Easter we’ll ever need.