I’ll never: Grow a baby inside my womb. Feel the primal humbleness of labor. Leak from my nipples at a cry on TV. Navigate my own need to sleep against the needy wakefulness of an infant. Witness that first moment when the eyes focus, the teeth break, the first laugh, word, crawl, walk. Or the second, or the third. By the time I got the children, they were already half-grown. In our first year of living together, I was often reminded of the many things I’ll never know.
I learned quickly that as stepmother, I would receive no promotion in my family hierarchy. The emergence of this new generation did not move me on the conveyor belt that promotes child to parent, parent to grandparent. When I became a stepmother to your girls, my rank remained indeterminate. I mention the girls in a phone conversation with my grandmother, and she sounds confused. Which is the eldest? she asks. Like there isn’t a need for her to remember their order. Like she wonders why I bother to mention them at all. They’re your great-grandchildren, I want to say.
Some days are like bruises, the kind you can’t stop pressing. Mother’s Day, for instance. And the girls’ birthdays. One mid-October morning, before coffee, I asked you to tell me about the day Rose was born. Press on the bruise. Press, press.
The labor went on so long. All night. Press, press. Eventually, you didn’t bother redressing between shower sessions with your laboring ex-wife, bathing her under the hot blast, trying to ease the pain. You didn’t even care if the nurses saw. Press, press.
I imagined you there in the steam. I have never been in the birthing center of a hospital, so could only picture my old college dormitory shower. Green tile walls. Fluorescent lights down the center of the bathroom ceiling. I thought of your bare body, the one I love so well. You, standing naked over your ex-wife, swollen and pale, her blonde hair hanging down, sweat and shower water beaded along her brow. Press, press. You sponged her back for hours, helpless and in love.
I love you, you love me: I know. But that mid-October morning, as you answered my questions about Rose’s birth, I felt sure that you could never love another as deeply as you had loved your ex. In those hours, pain gripped her body and she pushed and wrenched away from the child that you had made together. How could you love someone more than the woman who gave you your children? Press, press.
On Mothers’ Day and their birthdays, I lace my shoes and run as long as I can. Afterwards, I tie an apron around my waist and pull a stack of measuring cups from the drawer. That October, when I’d asked Rose what kind of birthday cake she wanted, she’d said her mom would have cake, and asked me instead for pie. I scooped out two cups of white flour, plus enough to dust the wooden counter. A bit of sea salt, pinched from the jar. Cold butter to cut in.
When I was young, my mother made pies from the blackberries that grew thick in the woods around our New Jersey home. The thorns from the bushes inflamed her skin with painful welts, but she was hell bent on taming the wild into a garden, and she reaped the berries for pie and jam. Gardening, like so many other things for my mother, was a battle to wage. She also picked raspberries from behind the house, near the apricot tree that never gave fruit. A grape vine, she told me, choked the apricot tree fruitless, though I never saw fruit from either, and we never cut them down.
What I learned from my mother was the desire, but not the skill, to make pie. Her crusts, I think, were bought frozen in cardboard boxes from ShopRite. She’d shoo me out of the kitchen, and slice the top crust into strings that she’d braid like a basket over the fruit. Years later, I learned how to make pie dough from scratch from a pastry chef at a retreat. The chef and I rolled out dough for twenty-five pies at a time, weekly, all summer long. Careful not to overmix, I still hear her say, as I pour six tablespoons of ice cold water all at once into the flour. She would’ve hated how I toss all the ingredients into the Kitchen Aid, instead of mixing the dough by hand.
That mid-October day, Rose’s birthday, southern California sizzled with the last of summer. The oven steamed the kitchen windows. I opened the back door, pushed the windows up as far as they would go. Four berry, Rose had said, so I’d bought blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries, and thought of my mother’s inflamed wrists. When the berries cooked down and then cooled, I flipped the dough over a cold marble pin, and pressed it into the ceramic dish for a bottom crust. With the back of a wooden spoon, I smoothed the sweet, dark filling, and then sliced dough ribbons for the top. I wove the lattice in my mother’s honor, over, under, over, under, and crimped the edges tight. With a scrap of the leftovers, I cut a dough heart for the center, sprinkled turbinado sugar on top, and squeaked the old Wedgewood oven door closed.