This week, I made tiny fried pies: little pillows of piecrust stuffed with strawberry preserves. I pressed the edges of the crusts together to seal the strawberries inside, plopped the pies into a cast iron pan sizzling with oil, and let them brown. I lifted the pies out one by one, setting them on a folded paper towel to catch the oil as the pies cooled.
A week ago, I was making regular pies with my mother, happy to share a task we each usually completed alone. A year ago, I was watching my mother-in-law make fried pies in her own mother’s kitchen. The two of us were exhausted from a week of puttering around her family home, from a week of cleaning and sorting and hauling and talking and deciding. I spent a lot of time that week considering the phrase “pre-emptive grief,” a phrase I later worked into my graduate presentation at Pacific University in order to describe my writing process. Clearing out a lifetime of stuff is a relatively universal experience (in the US, at least)—a fact I have come to realize over the last year, listening to other people of a certain age talk about clearing out their own parents’ homes—but the experience of the work is individual, personal. It doesn’t matter what the stuff is or the order in which you sort out your family home or whom you consult in order to finalize decisions. What does matter is the texture of those decisions—the stories behind the stuff.
This week has been a long week, in part because I returned to my novel for the first time in six months. In the last half-year my writing self has dragged the rest of my heart and soul toward the knowledge that my protagonist will have to bear much more sadness than I’d previously been willing to allow her—that she will endure such deep grief for what might have been, for what never will be, for what is no longer hers. This week, I have been holding a new kind of pre-emptive grief, the knowledge that my protagonist will suffer, that I will have to suffer along with her, to share her grief, if I’m going to write her story. I have been trying to sort through what I know about coping mechanisms to find what will help me endure her grief—even as I know that my protagonist will adopt, has adopted, different methods for dealing with her loss.
As I shaped the tiny pies with my fingers, the thin crust stretched over the red fruit filling, the strawberries pressing back against the crust like they were bursting to break free. Last week, when my mother and I were making lemon meringue pies, I broiled the finished pies too long and set the smoke alarms screeching. My mother plucked a paring knife from a drawer and carefully cut back the blackened skin of the meringue, revealing untouched egg whites—a chance to start over. Together we slid the pies back under the broiler, counted the seconds, kept a close eye on the browning pie and pulled them out when they were perfect. This week, I touched my finger to the tiny pie pillows, taking their pulse, assessing their capacity to convey some compassion away from me.