The morning of my college graduation my mom called me over, and without explanation she swung, with the force of an amusement park pendulum, a suitcase onto the bed crumpling the white sheets beneath it. The suitcase was unmistakable. It was the type of suitcase no one at a luggage carousel would dare steal. Nothing escaped that embroidered floral prison. Like a weapon of mass destruction, it frightened the smaller and less powerful, but in the hands of an industrious visionary, those privy to its contents were made to feel safer and exuded an amused arrogance.
“I have something for you,” mom said, as she plumbed the depths of the carefully packed case with the aplomb of an Egyptian priestess. The utility of her luggage, with its depths neatly strategized by zippers and compartments, begged onlookers to forgive its lurid maroon and mauve tapestry. As she dug through the suitcase, layers of ephemera were unearthed. A canopy of colorful silk blouses suspended in mesh rose above cotton pajamas, trousers, boot-cut denim, and a menagerie of souvenir t-shirts emblazoned with cursive jewel-studded letters across the chest. Mom never travelled light.
When my mom immigrated to the United States in 1979, she arrived with only the clothes on her back and her most cherished possessions: my brother and the photos of family she left behind. It is my sense she has been compensating for the loss family and possessions ever since. Along with her loud, tropically accented apparel, she carried with her the Afro-Latina’s burden of thick, exquisite hair that defied gravity and Western concepts of beauty. So, unsurprisingly, ensconced under her ensembles was a stockpile of gravity defying aerosol sprays, hair oils, and ointments, a retroactive defense against humidity and third world photography. Anchoring the case were several how-to books on topics ranging from gardening to finance, evidence she was concocting a survival plan should she become stranded in New York after my graduation.
As I watched her brown sinuous arms submerge deeper and deeper through garments and hidden chambers, I began to realize how important my graduation was to her. My mom graduated high school and completed a degree in fashion design in Mexico; tragically, however, her ambition to pursue a degree in English as a Second Language was thwarted by my father when she came to the United States to marry him. I entered college at the City University of New York intent upon majoring in business, but in my sophomore year, I declared English as my major instead. My mom supported my decision and was proud of my affection for the English language, an admiration she too shared.
As my mother excavated waves of thrift store offerings, rivulets of rhinestone baubles lapped along the edges of the expanse of her bag. She was completely engulfed. I drew closer. My nerves surged. I threw my hands up in the air, preparing to dive in after her as she exclaimed “aha!” From the depths of the treasure chest, she procured a wooden roller. “You got me a rolling pin?!” I said, in bewildered appreciation. She laughed, pivoting her right shoulder forward, pushing her modest chest out, and angling her hips in an exaggerated pose so as to display the rolling pin in the fashion of a Sábado Gigante model. Her complete lack of self-consciousness was admirable, yet unnerving. In spite of myself, I smiled at her performance, though I was clearly puzzled. Before she handed me the rest of my gifts—a card and a check that thankfully required fewer deep sea maneuvers—she made a remark about the purpose of the implement, something to the effect of needing or kneading to work things out. Frankly, hours away from graduating college, explicating her message was the furthest thing from my mind.
I had spent the past five years struggling to complete my degree, staying up all night studying, waking up with the sunrise to write papers before work, commuting across three boroughs between home, the office, and campus, surrounded by roommates, colleagues, and eight million strangers yet, much of the time feeling very alone. Suddenly, there I was, a former community college drop-out, due to graduate from college and poised to enter graduate school in the fall. Ice water pooled in my veins as I thought about the future. I was so overwhelmed by my success, I actually remember very little from the commencement ceremony itself; it is a story I can no longer tell, yet, I doubt I will ever forget the emotions I experienced that day. Years later I’m able piece together the day from photographs. True to form, in one of the caverns of her suitcase or valise was a camera and a cache of batteries. Sparing neither her pride nor mine, my mother took an excessive number of photos, capturing images of my achievement to send back to Mexico for the entire family to share.
The photographs are not the only objects that have endured the passage of time and years of urban nomadism. The rolling pin has become a relic of that day. To the uninitiated, a gift like this may seem rather strange or even in poor taste. After all, just five years before, I had moved away from home to independently navigate the social and economic terrain of higher education in New York City. However, the rolling pin, albeit an unusual token, was not a crowning admonishment of my pursuit of a liberal arts degree in a distant, expensive city. My mom has always possessed an uncanny talent for gifting objects that initially may seem absurd, but once the antics and comedy subside, her message, so solemn that Aesop would give pause, reveals itself.
The next day, after the champagne corks ricocheted their last frenetic dance and the jubilation with my family came to a close, I went back to my apartment. From the two windows that eyed the post office several stories below, I watched a stream of neighbors whom I’d never met carry packages into the brick building. Entrusting freight destined for loved ones thousands of miles away, they emerged minutes later with looks of pained optimism stamped on their face. As their slumped shoulders disappeared down the avenue, I turned my attention toward the rolling pin unceremoniously discarded on my desk the day before. In my left hand I lifted the roller and traced its smooth edges with my right index finger until my wrist began to ache. I spun the wooden cylinder as my mind rummaged over the previous year. The last year had been nothing short of awful in terms of my personal life. However, during my year of discontent, I began cooking more. While I took comfort in the solitude of cooking, sharing my food at a table with friends is what delivered me. With each meal I gained confidence and my relationships fortified.
One afternoon, about a year before my college graduation, a year before my mother arrived with her garish suitcase, I decided to bake a good old American apple pie for my roommate as a token of appreciation. My roommate and I had not known each other well when we decided to move in together, but soon she became my closest ally and was instrumental in helping me keep it together that year. The intimacy of our relationship surpassed friendship. We became a sister family. I scoured the internet for recipes and rambled from one store to the next, dodging traffic and viejtas’ shopping carts, to purchase ingredients. My arms still leaden from the weight of the shopping bags, I meticulously measured each cup, tablespoon, and teaspoon of dry units before adding the wet ingredients. The mixture kneaded into a tight, unforgiving dough. Despite its texture, I remained calm, generously flouring the countertop in preparation to roll it. As the dough sat on top of the taupe formica and condensed, it hit me: I didn’t own a roller.
I tore apart my narrow kitchen in search of an instrument vaguely resembling a rolling pin. In vain, I tried to fashion a roller from an assortment of pint glasses and plastic cups, until finally it dawned on me. Yes! Vodka! In a moment of desperation, with bases loaded and two outs, I convinced myself the bottle of vodka in the freezer could pinch hit for the big bat. But with each pass of the frosted bottle over the mound, the dough grew more stubborn. Defeated, I reached for the lid of the bottle, carefully avoiding the glass body where the remains of this unholy union—coils of congealed dough—had affixed like a paste. I sat down and with one hand poured myself a glass of vodka and with the other dialed my mom. I cried to her about the miserable dough and the ruined pie for a long time. She listened to my disappointment, which turned out to be less about the pie and more about my life. Once I’d gained a scintilla of reason, mom explained the two reasons my pie had failed. I didn’t cut cold butter into the flour and, surprise, surprise, I shouldn’t have attempted to roll out the dough with a bottle of vodka from the freezer. She added, incidentally, that it would be wise if I stop drinking the vodka. Through sobs I agreed, and she told me a story.
When my mom first met my grandmother, her mother-in-law, they didn’t exactly hit it off. Ruth, my grandma, was a nice person by all accounts, even by my mother’s. However, when my father arrived to Iowa in the dead of winter with a wife and step-son from Mexico in tow, things became awkward. Slowly my mom and Ruth got to know one another. Despite their language differences, the two communicated and developed a rather congenial relationship, mediated, I presume, by a lot of pointing, smiles, and nods. That spring Ruth taught my mom how to make a pie, and this being the Midwest, each component of the rhubarb pie was made from scratch. My mom, unable to read the recipe in English but nonetheless touched by the gesture, memorized each of the intricate steps in her head. The next time Ruth returned, my mother made her the same rhubarb pie. Beaming with pride, she served Ruth a slice with a cup of coffee. Once Ruth finished, she complimented my mom on the pie’s crust, and declared it the flakiest she had ever eaten. After Ruth left the house, my mom cut a slice for herself. The crust glistened. The vermillion filling overflowed into two blossoms on the plate as she carved herself a bite. She raised the fork to her lips, and seconds later, pie catapulted from her mouth back on to the plate. My mom had remembered every step to prepare the exquisite crust, but she’d neglected to add sugar to the sour, earthy rhubarb filling.
My mom was obviously embarrassed, but she continued baking pies, and later that summer redeemed herself. The message of the rolling pin, I came to realize, was that mistakes, despite my preparation or best intensions, are bound to happen. Instead of taking these missteps as a reflection of an inherent flaw or character defect, she wanted me to learn from them. And so, on the day I graduated from college, my mom gave me the tool to do just that.
It has been seven years since my mom gave me the rolling pin, and I’m nearing the completion of my Ph.D. in English. While stress is ever-present, the support of my friends and family has remained steadfast, and cooking continues to be a method of catharsis and a symbol of gratitude I regularly employ. On a summer morning several years ago I decided it was finally time to use the rolling pin. Each summer break since I began graduate school I’ve tried to master a new skill—french braid, swimming, poached eggs… The memory of the years past failed pie still haunted me. So that summer, I taught myself how to bake a proper rhubarb pie, in honor of my mother’s compassion and tenacity. Improvising upon our failures, I began by measuring a generous cup of sugar for the filling, dusting the rolling pin with flour, and dicing small cubes of chilled butter for the crust. Although the bottle of vodka remained in the freezer, I didn’t completely do away with it. As fate would have it, that day, as morning ebbed into afternoon, I discovered vodka is the key to a foolproof pie dough.