Brand building through storytelling

A rhubarb pie between friends

It was my husband who spotted the sign as we strolled through the Riverdale Farmers’ Market yesterday evening. We hadn’t even known of the market’s existence until we stumbled on it: wild leeks, elk sausages, nutty whole-grain loaves of every size and shape, plus the one food I crave because to me it’s the sweet-and-tart essence of spring. You could easily miss the sign, which was really just a piece of white bond on a table that looked like a cast-off from a grade five classreoom, but I married an observant guy. “Homemade rhubarb pie,” he read aloud. “Let’s get you one.”

Minutes earlier, we’d both been nursing the sour, self-pitying silence that tends to follow our brand of fighting. I figured the pie was his way of saying, “I love you anyway.” Which more than makes up for the absence of rhubarb pies among the gummy-looking butter tarts. “All sold out,” we were told. “Come back next week.” Better make a note in my calendar. With rhubarb, you have to seize the moment. As my mother always said, “Only the tender new stalks will do. Late rhubarb is strictly for compost.”

Every year at this time, my mother used to harvest the rhubarb that grew wild in our so-called garden, and bake me a pie like none I’ve tasted since. This ritual went on until her death. No matter what either of us said or could not say, no matter what was clenched in the tight fist of memory or allowed to slip between careless fingers. I’ve never seen a bakery pie that looked as tempting as hers, and the very sight of rhubarb gets me talking about those pies to anyone who’ll listen.

For instance, my friend and mentor Chris, who used to live some distance away. She’d been ill, off and on, for about 20 years when I heard that the cancer was everywhere and gaining. I took the train to her house on a river one weekend at rhubarb time.

Chris’s front door was framed with slender pink stalks at the perfect point of readiness for pie. True to form, I blurted out my rhubarb story. Chris said, “Well, darling, I make a pretty good rhubarb pie myself, Why don’t you take a nap in my swing while I get out the mixing bowl? That swing’s the most relaxing place in the world. Go on, give it a try.”

Napping wasn’t what I came to do. I was going to make tea and fluff pillows, as if I could save my friend with the purposefulness of my hovering. But Chris was right: her swing really was the best place in the world to lie back and do nothing. She intended to remain her familiar energetic self, and the best thing I could do was let her get on with it. Besides, I never thought I’d see another personal, just-for-me rhubarb pie again, and being proven wrong was a marvel. I drifted on the edges of sleep while Chris got to work with the rolling pin. Through the open kitchen window, I could hear her singing, “Climb every mountain” in a jubliantly amateur soprano.

There are moments of such unruffled serenity, the seem to be the only moment that ever was or will be. My reverie in the swing was one of them, enveloping me like a down quilt on a cool night. As I sank into sleep, I let myself believe that Chris would always be welcoming guests to this house, where weathered Muskoka chairs clustered by the water like old friends waiting for the next revelatory anecdote.

We ate a pretty decent rhubarb pie on the screen porch after dark. We’d been sitting there for hours, through stiff gin and tonics, a platter of spareribs and any number of stories. Close to midnight, I remembered my gift for Chris. I had unearthed this treasure in a shop full of demure, predictable stuff: beeswax candles, lavender body lotion. Sickroom stuff, unworthy of my wisecracking, large-hearted friend.

Chris ripped off the paper, and there it was: a battery-operated yellow warbler that looked for all the world like the genuine article, with an ornithologically correct birdsong provided by Cornell University. Real warblers alighted on Chris’s bird feeder, but the Breezy Singer had something that cracked her up. It hopped across the debris of our dinner, bobbing its painted head and singing its imaginary heart out, as if it were about to take flight.

P.S. to poetry lovers: Remembering the Breezy Singer, I always think of “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats’ meditation on mortality and art, which I read at my father’s funeral, and which becomes more meaningful to me every year. The poem closes with the image of an artificial bird, resplendent in gold, singing “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” This line must have been at the back of my mind when I chose Chris’s gift, which goes to show that sometimes real life is an allusion.


Posted by Rona

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