As evening fell, I stood by the window with a glass of wine in my hand and saw her. Opening the back door – the one that led from the kitchen – she gathered her flowered housedress and white apron in one hand. Slowly she approached the five steps that led to the garden and very carefully, unsteady, she descended. I always watched her, never leaving that window for fear that if her knees buckled and she fell I would have to run out to help. But she never did fall, and once down in the garden she walked among the rows, chatting with someone unseen, perhaps a bird, perhaps a rabbit, or ghost, or maybe she talked only to herself. I never knew. Every so often, she stooped to pick something green. A handful of green beans or a zucchini or a radish or two. Still I watched, stepping back deeper into the shadows, as she placed the bounty in the skirt of her apron, the corners of which she held together tightly, like a sack. As the apron filled, I imagined what magic might fill her kitchen in the next days. I watched as she came to the corner of her garden, to the point where her garden met ours. This is where she grew strawberries in little patches among some decorative boulders. She kept this little area covered from the birds with a double layer of heavy netting which she secured under four stones. She lifted one corner and settled herself on a boulder, slowly sifting through the leaves searching for the ripest berries and adding them to the collection in her apron. When she finished one corner she moved on to the next, methodically, until she had found every last berry.
If the kids happened to be playing in the garden, she waved them over to the fence and pressed a big, ripe, warm strawberry into each of their palms. They would come in from playing with the corners of their mouths stained red.
Once in a while she came knocking on our front door with something delicious wrapped in a kitchen towel.
“The children love strawberries, so!” she might exclaim. “I made this for them.” And she would uncover a beautiful strawberry tart.
“Oh, Maryanne!” I’d say. “That’s too kind of you! Would you like some tea?”
And so we’d sit together, at the table in the shade in the East garden. And I would make a pot of tea and cut the tart and we would chat while the kids played.
“How is Tom?” I asked.
And she always replied with something along the lines of, “He’s been better.” But mostly she would talk about the war. They were stories she told time and time again. How when Tom was in Germany she worked in a factory in Marietta assembling aircraft engines. And how she started painting her fingernails red because it helped her see where her fingers were within the crushing gears of the machines. And how when Tom returned home and saw her red nails he blushed, saying it was very risqué for a woman to have painted nails, and she never painted them again.
Tom had Alzheimer’s. He had his good days and his bad, but these days the bad seemed to outnumber the good.
“Oh, your tarts are so delicious!” I exclaimed, trying to change the subject. “Please write down the recipe for me!”
“Oh dear!” She laughed, “You know I don’t follow a recipe!” And I didn’t press the matter because I did know that all cooks have their little secrets. She went on talking about airplanes and uniforms and the smell of engine oil that seeped into her skin and left her hands discolored even to this day. She held out her hands, and I nodded, not seeing any discoloration other than a few age spots from all her years in the garden, but agreeing nonetheless.
And so things continued. I hardly saw Maryanne or Tom in the winter, you wouldn’t know they were there but for the curl of smoke that rose steadily from the chimney. But each spring Maryanne would be out in the garden, her apron filled with envelopes of seeds and a small trowel. Every year the garden seemed to get a little smaller, though, and the weeds took over more and more space, but the strawberries thrived despite the neglect. Until one spring when I stood by the window, waiting. I kept expecting her to open the door, to wobble to the steps and make her way down to the garden, but she never did. And then the lights in the house no longer came on at night, and there was never any smoke from the chimney. And so I went to the door but there was no answer. I didn’t expect there to be. I knew what had happened.
Several months later the house went up for sale. Strangers paraded through the garden, stepping on the strawberries and examining the stones. And I didn’t even want to look out the window any more. It was mid-summer, now, and the heat had wilted everything but the hardiest of weeds.
One night, as I was washing dishes, a light came on in Maryanne’s kitchen, and then another in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and in the morning there were children playing in the yard. I happened to have a basket of fresh strawberries from the farmer’s market in the refrigerator, so I baked a few little strawberry hand pies – the ones my kids love most – and, in keeping with Maryanne’s tradition, wrapped them in a clean kitchen towel and walked over to the fence. A young man was moving benches into the yard and I waved and introduced myself and before long we were talking about the garden and the fruit trees and I showed him the strawberry patch.
“My mom made strawberry pies!” Eva told a little girl on the other side of the fence and I handed one to each child, offered one to their father, and took one for myself. As I took my first bite, out there by the garden, I felt goosebumps as the warm breeze brushed over my skin. Quickly peering into the shadows, I smiled because, though I couldn’t see her, I knew this time it was Maryanne who was watching me. And I think she was smiling, too.
Strawberry-Balsamic Hand Pies
These little hand pies are like grown-up PopTarts. Sweet and a little tangy from the balsamic, don’t let the black pepper in this recipe deter you. It’s the secret ingredient that adds an almost imperceptible spiciness to bring out the flavour of the strawberries.
for the pastry:
2 cups flour
12 TBSP cold butter, cut into cubes
1 TBSP sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 TBSP milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
for the filling:
2 cups roughly chopped fresh strawberries
3 TBSP brown sugar
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 grinds of black pepper
1 egg, beaten (for the egg wash)
white sugar (for sprinkling on top)
Start by making the pastry. Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Cut the butter into the flour mixture using a pastry blender. Whisk together the egg, milk and vanilla. Slowly add it to the flour using the pastry blender until the dough starts to come together. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a rough rectangle. Wrap each piece of dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and place in the freezer until firm but not frozen – approx. 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the filling by placing the chopped strawberries in a small sauce pan with the brown sugar, balsamic, cornstarch and black pepper. Bring the mixture to a simmer over med-low heat. Cook until thick and bubbly – approx. 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Pre-heat the oven to 350 F (180 C). On a floured surface roll out one piece of dough into a rectangle that is approximately 12 x 8 inches. Using a knife, cut the dough into an exact rectangle. The excess dough can be used to patch the main piece of dough in order to make a perfect rectangle. Cut the dough into 8 smaller rectangles by cutting down the center, lengthwise, and then cutting widthwise into 8 even pieces. These will be the bottoms of the pies. Transfer the rectangles to the parchment-lined pan. Do the exact same thing with the second piece of dough, but after cutting into 8 pieces, cut vent holes into each piece. These will be the tops.
Place one heaping tablespoon of strawberry filling in the center of each of the bottom pieces of dough. Using your finger, spread a bit of the beaten egg completely around the edges of the dough. Carefully place a top piece of dough over the filling and egg and use a fork to firmly crimp the edges shut. Place the pan with the pies in the freezer for about 15 minutes to allow the dough to firm up before baking.
Brush the tops of the pies with a bit of the beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 25 – 28 minutes, until the crust is golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.