by Tricia Stearns
Tricia’s essay, “Brownie Pie,” appears in Episode 16 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
Walking along the city sidewalk, I spot a woman from my past. Fancy Nancy, that’s what I used to call her. She approaches, a little older but visibly the same, wearing a smart Fedora and black capris pants, still projecting her bullet-proof demeanor.
I drive an hour away for yoga class for a reason: Anonymity. I’d rather be ignored in the big city by assholes I don’t know than run into suburban assholes I do know.
I look down at my phone to avoid eye contact. It’s been years since we have seen each other. Our girls were often in the same classes growing up. Although we were never friends, Fancy Nancy and her kids were always around, like flies you can’t seem to chase out of the kitchen.
I can still see Nancy’s silver minivan door glide open in the carpool line. Her perfectly coiffed daughters bounce out, their Keds clean like they’re right out of the box, their sensible bobs tucked neatly into headbands.
Take out a stick of unsalted butter and bring to room temperature. Measure a half-cup of flour, sliding a knife across the top to level it. Repeat with one cup of sugar. Blend together in a mixing bowl.
“Hey there! HOW are you?” she says brightly as we approach.
“Oh, hey, Nancy. Gosh. I haven’t seen you in years. How have you been? We should chat sometime…” I walk and wave, leaving no room for conversation.
I get in my car, toss aside my yoga mat and adjust my rearview mirror to watch her get in a shiny black sedan. And just like that I am transported to 1999. The scent of popcorn fills the middle school gym. The coach’s shrill whistle signals a pre-game warm-up, and multiple basketballs bounce on the squeaky floor as awkward boys scramble on the court. The foot–long video camera rests heavy on my shoulder as I prepare to record my middle daughter, Mallory, sing the national anthem before the game.
I hand Julia, my youngest, change to buy popcorn and zoom the camera lens on my oldest daughter, Meredith, waving green and silver pompoms on the sidelines with the seventh grade cheerleaders. Then I focus on Mallory, microphone in hand, waiting to perform. My chest pumps with pride. In this moment, I have nailed the single mom challenge. I even had the right change for popcorn. But as I scan the audience of perfect, intact families, my neck prickles with fear for all the things that could go wrong as my girls put themselves out there in the public arena and risk judgment.
Add one-fourth cup of cocoa, butter, eggs, and one teaspoon of vanilla. Beat at medium speed for three to four minutes. Spread evenly in a buttered 9-inch pie plate.
Nancy stands next to me, her jeans stiff, her white blouse starched, her brunette bob smooth. Her shoes match her purse — lava orange, with a brass designer insignia in the center.
“Oh, hey,” she says, patting me on the arm like we are friends.
“I know you must be so proud of Mallory,” she says, her voice dripping in saccharine. I smile in response, and she continues. “At least she won’t be known around school as one of the Saran Wrap girls.” Her eyes shift from Mallory waiting in the center of the court to Meredith on the sidelines.
I peer through the viewfinder while my mind flashes through a Rolodex of conversations, scenes and incidents from the past six months, trying to figure out what Nancy is talking about.
“O say can you see…” Mallory begins to sing and I hope my trembling doesn’t mar the recording of this moment because my mind is racing too fast to take it in.
My flipchart of memories lands on Meredith’s 13th birthday, her presents covered in plastic wrap, and the day I sorted laundry, pulling wads of plastic wrap and notes from the pockets of her jeans. I didn’t stop to read them; I had to get to work. I had deadlines. I had kids to cart around.
I don’t have to wonder long. Nancy is still at my side and fills in the details: A cheerleader slumber party. A forced initiation requiring Meredith and the other younger girls to French kiss each other. Meredith’s suggestion they place Saran Wrap between their mouths. Rumors that Meredith enjoyed it.
My stomach flips. Nancy feels too close. I angle the camera on Meredith, standing still, pom-pom over her heart.
I’m overcome with the desire to grab her hand and run. I want to take her some place safe where she can stay a little girl a while longer. I want to tell her she is enough just the way she is. I want to warn her not to get sucked into this world. It will eat you alive. I want her to stay young and naïve and live under my roof forever, and when forever is up, to be ready.
How did I not know about this? Was I too busy? Did she try to tell me and I cut her off, ordering her to clean her room? How could I be so obtuse? My face says it all.
“Oh. MY. You didn’t know,” Nancy says.
Bake at 325 for 35 to 40 minutes. Check for doneness by sticking the pie with the tip of a knife. If it comes out clean, it is ready. Cool ten minutes.
Back home, I tuck the girls in bed and head to the kitchen. There is only one thing to do: Bake a brownie pie. It is a tradition in my family in times of celebration or sorrow. I sip a glass of red and rush the process. The butter is not quite soft enough; the batter is hard to spread. The pie is forgiving. Thirty minutes pass like forever.
I walk upstairs to Meredith’s room, crawl onto her denim bedspread and offer her a fork, the warm pie between us. We talk about the obvious — the goodness of warm chocolate. Her childhood dolls stare at us from the window seat. Dirty clothes litter the floor. Halfway through the pie, I ask Meredith about the slumber party. She talks. We both cry.
When it happened, she didn’t tell me because she knew I would get angry. That I would I pound down parents’ doors. That my actions would contribute to her humiliation. And she was right. Sensing the tension that simmered beneath our daily existence and the ease with which it could explode any minute, Meredith hid her pain from me because she feared my reaction.
I thought I was a good mother. I fed my girls fresh vegetables. I sheltered them in a nice home. I told them to be strong, practice faith, study hard. But now it was clear. So many of my parenting moments had been fraught with mixed messages from lessons I was still learning myself.
Being a single mom in suburbia trying to scrape enough together to keep my family fed had fueled my own insecurities about fitting in. I had grown so focused on making money and projecting a pulled-together image that I did not pay attention to what was right under my nose.
I finish the pie myself that night.
I wish I could say the lessons I learned that day made middle school a breeze for my girls. All I can say is: we survived. And I did start paying attention, not just to my daily conversations with my family, but with myself.
Now that my girls are grown and on their own, I bake fewer Brownie Pies these days. But as I watch Nancy and her black sedan ease out into the busy noonday traffic, I think it might be a good afternoon to make one.
When I take the first gooey bite of chocolate, I taste the painful moments of my life, but also the pleasurable ones. I taste the touch of a tiny hand reaching for mine as we cross a street. I taste the struggles over prom dresses and the memories of curlers, crayons, and chores.
I call Meredith. She tells me that she heard Nancy was battling bone cancer.
I am shocked and feel guilty. I should have stopped to talk to her.
Because of Nancy, I learned to pay more attention to my life. She upped my parenting skills. I am reminded by her illness that trouble is a variable in everyone’s life. It finds us all at some point. Of course it would find Nancy, too. Once again she has taught me a life lesson.
I take out a stick of butter and set it on the counter. I measure out the flour. I look up Nancy’s address.
Original artwork by Corinne Pease.
About Tricia Stearns
Tricia Stearns is a writer, raconteur, and photographer. An empty nester of three daughters and two-step sons, she bikes through Europe when she is not pickling her home –grown cucumbers. A sustainable southerner, her essays have been in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Loose Change Literary Journal, Bloom and Gutwrench. Follow her on Instagram @triciastearns, Twitter @tstearns2014 and www.tstearnswriter.com