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`You have to have the right kind of mud'

MY mother taught me how to make mud pies. Poor dear, she was a lot younger then than I am now. She was suffering from fond nostalgia for her own childhood instead of plotting carefully to frustrate mine as reliable mothers were supposed to do in those days. I was out behind the kitchen splashing barefoot in a pool of brown water caused by the overflow from a clogged roof drain that had set the parsley bed awash. I started pushing the mud into heaps with my hands. I really thought I was building a dam across the Mononga-hela River.

Mama said, ``I bet you're trying to make mud pies. I used to make mud pies when I was your age.''

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I said, ``The mud won't stick together.'' I said it that way to be on the safe side. I wasn't about to tell her what I was up to. She might make me stop. The expression ``mud pies'' seemed to fascinate her. She hadn't yelled at me yet for messing up my clothes, and she hadn't yanked me inside to wash me off. So I said hopefully, to keep her in a good humor, ``How do you make mud pies?''

``Well, first,'' she said, ``you have to have the right kind of mud. This is too oozy. There's too much water in it. See, you've got it dripping all over everything. This will never do.''

Usually when Mama said, ``This will never do,'' it meant something ominous. But this time her words had a different sound. I still suspected trouble so I waited.

Mama circled the pool of rainwater and walked toward the garden. ``What we need is clayey soil,'' she said dreamily. ``Here.'' She poked her fingers under the sod where the lawn ended and brought up a handful of yellowish goop. ``See?''

Suddenly our roles were reversed. There was my pretty mama, big blue eyes sparkling, mouth spread in an impish grin, holding out a handful of gummy mud for my inspection while I stuck out my lower lip and squinted with suspicion. Mud pies, indeed!

She rolled the firm mud in her hands and spanked it like bread dough. ``This will make two pies,'' she said. ``My cousin Molly and I used to do this all the time. It about drove our mothers crazy.''

Mama broke the mud in two sections and pressed them out round and flat. She crimped them at the edges like pies and drew a leaf pattern on the top with an old stick. She set them on the edge of the porch. ``Now you make one.''

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I was drawn into the game. I followed her instructions and turned out a passable pie, but not nearly as perfect as hers. I couldn't make mine stick together like she could. ``We need pie pans,'' I said.

Mama giggled. ``I know just the thing,'' she said. With that she bounced away to the toolshed and emerged with some old zinc Mason jar lids that had lost their porcelain liners. ``I was wondering what to do with these.''

A couple of pies later Mama went back to the kitchen. ``I have work to do,'' she explained. ``You go ahead and have fun.'' She hesitated. The other-little-girl Mama vanished and grown-up Mama came back. ``Just see that you don't mess up the porch or drop mud on the walk,'' she ordered. ``And don't come in the house until I get you washed off under the pump.''

That summer I made enough mud pies to build the pyramids. After every rain my mud pies adorned the edge of the porch, the top rail of our picket fence, and a row of old boards I propped across stray bricks to make shelves.

When Grandma came to visit, she had to step over a display of mud pies to inspect the nasturtium bed. ``What's this?'' she asked knowingly. ``Mud pies?'' ``Yes,'' I told her proudly. ``Mama taught me how to make them.''

Tall, skinny Grandma's hands flew to her throat. She seemed to be choking. ``Dessie -- taught -- you -- to -- what?''

``Make mud pies,'' I answered. ``She said it was fun.''

Grandma hurried back to the house in long, loping strides. I could hear her talking to Mama. It sounded like Grandma was barking.

Then Mama came out to where I was bending over the mud-pie project. ``Get rid of these,'' she ordered. ``They're a mess.'' Her round cheeks had turned a bright pink. ``Oh, why did you have to tell Mother I taught you how to make mud pies!''

Years later when my daughter was small, Mama came to visit. She snooped into everything with pertinent suggestions as usual. Finally she said with a twinkle in her eye, ``Isn't it about time somebody taught my granddaughter how to make mud pies?''

``Sorry,'' I told her loftily. ``We don't do that anymore. This is modern times. Today we have modeling clay and Play Doh. No muss, no fuss, no bother.''

She gave me what on a meaner person could be described as a dirty look but said no more.

It rained on the morning of the day she left. I don't know how she managed it, but when I came home from taking her to the bus station I found a huge mud pie right in the middle of the kitchen table. The top of it looked like a grinning face, and underneath the face was the word ``Ruth'' -- carved there with an old stick, no doubt.

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