Years ago I had the privilege of eating lunch at Miss Belle’s tea room in Cameron, North Carolina. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting Cameron, picture a small blink of a Southern town in the image of To Kill A Mocking Bird. Sand sidewalks wrap around gingerbread houses turned into antique/treasure shops, and Miss Belles, a rambling Victorian, held court over them all. My lunch buddy and I looked over the daily specials — corn chowder, yes, please! Tomato pie, yes please! Curried Rice-A-Roni salad, sure why not! And homemade coconut cream pie, but of course! We were enthralled with every bite, and after a little coaxing, we left Miss Belle’s with the coveted recipes for all four items.
Flash forward to the present. For years now, I have paved my way toward good will and friendship with caregivers and administrative staff at my parent’s retirement community by regularly distributing pieces of Miss Belle’s coconut cream pie. I even go so far as giving whole pies away when extra gratitude is merited. Fellow residents of my mother’s skilled nursing floor also enjoy my pie.
About eight months ago, a new resident (a victim of Alzheimer’s) was having difficulty settling in to her new (unasked for) living accommodations. Her name is Isabelle, and although she may be confused about her surroundings, she is spot on with her piano playing. She fills the dining room daily with beautiful hymns and folk classics that brighten everyone’s day, and she has become instantly beloved. I always make it a point to compliment and thank her for the gift she shares with us. One afternoon, she was extremely agitated and begged for me to take her home. I considered giving her a piece of pie to soothe her, but not knowing her dietary restrictions, thought best not.
This past week I was standing near the nurse’s station on my mother’s floor and someone mentioned my pie. I explained the recipe came from Miss Belle’s Tea Room in Cameron (which closed several years ago), and an aide pointed out to me, “Well you know, Isabelle used to be the mayor of Cameron!” I looked at Isabelle. Isabelle? Miss Belle! I looked again and discovered that yes, she was the proprietor of the tea room, and it was her recipe I had been passing out all around her these past months. Needles to say, the next day I invited Isabelle to my mother’s room for pie.
I held my breath as she took her first bite. She looked at me very seriously, shook her head, and said, “Now that’s reeaaal good” in her low, Southern drawl. I was elated. As I walked her back to her room, we chatted about the tea room. I asked her if she remembered making corn chowder and she said, “Yes.” Tomato pie? Her response a little more pensive: “Maybe a long time ago.” Curried Rice-A-Roni Salad? She looked at me as if I was absolutely batty. Perhaps a fellow kitchen worker had snuck that in.
Little did I know how drastically my world would change after our visit to Miss Belles’. Shortly after our visit, my vibrant mother would become a prisoner in her body due to the cruel twists of Parkinson’s, and the tea room would close due to Miss Belle’s failing mind. And now we find ourselves literally and figuratively miles away from our former lives and brought together as strangers but leaving as friends through the simple pleasure of sharing a piece of pie.