In Praise of Frozen Apple Pie
It’s Tuesday afternoon and that means it’s time for our weekly knitting club at my office. Once a week, for an hour or so, in lieu of lunch break, we sit in the conference room and knit together. Some people crochet, it’s true, and we’ve even had an embroiderer sneak in once or twice, but the fiber arts are alive and well at the Harris County Public Defender’s office, and it’s become more meaningful to me than I could have realized a few months ago when we started.
I’m not an artsy kind of person. Years ago, a friend of mine taught me a basic crochet stitch and we sat in all-night diners, smoking and drinking bottomless cups of coffee as we twisted through skeins of cheap yarn. My clumsy crochet hook squeaked through the too-tight stitches, and I somehow managed to produce a huge volume of poor-quality scarves without ever getting any better.
Fifteen years later, Jani is the reason I agreed to join this group here. Jani is the reason everyone joined. She is our dynamic mentor, in knitting and in law. Public defender’s offices are often full of cats-who-walk-by-themselves, but Jani has managed to wrangle us, attorneys, admins, investigators, and social workers, all together in this small room. Most of us didn’t know how to knit when we started, but Jani insisted, humbly over her needles, that it was easy, that if she could learn, anyone could learn. I disagree with this part. Jani is a brilliant legal writer, a well-respected and popular law school professor, and her enthusiasm for law and life is contagious in the best and most endearing way. There are many, many things she has learned that I doubt I could, like the intricate, multi-colored designs she weaves casually as we talk.
An administrative aide I haven’t ever had much opportunity to talk to tells us in passing that she’s the director of a small non-profit that provides necessities and support to homeless youth. She starts paralegal school this spring, in addition to her full-time work here and her part-time job on weekends. She talks about her grandmother, who couldn’t read, but could knit and crochet anything you could imagine. “I hated her, though,” she laughs, “She was a mean old woman. She always favored my boy cousins.”
One of the social workers tells us about how her grandmother was known as the best cook in the family, as many grandmothers are. During a brief, early marriage, the social worker asked her grandmother for an apple pie recipe. “My ex-husband loved apple pie,” she explains, “he wanted it for his birthday instead of cake.” So the grandmother faithfully narrated the recipe- peeling and coring the apples, chilling the pie dough, rolling it in floured circles- not too thick or too thin- the whole painstaking process. “But really,” the grandma concluded, “Those frozen ones by Mrs. Smith’s are just as good. Why would anyone go to the trouble?” We all laugh good-naturedly.
This feels good. It feels wholesome and real and easy. The rhythmic motions of the knitting, the cadence of this free conversation. I feel my shoulders start to relax a little after a terrible morning in court where the judge tried to browbeat my client into taking a plea. I tell the story and everyone shakes their heads and adds their own horror story about unfair judicial pressure on clients.
Jani has brought up cartons of extra yarn, boxes of spare needles, and she’s encouraging us to knit things to donate to the women who give birth in Texas prisons. I want to get better before I make anything to give away, but I love the idea, and I love her for thinking of it.
An aggressive trial attorney shows up one day and reveals, to some surprise, that she is a prolific crafter. “Oh yeah, when my friend had twins, I must have made 8 blankets for each one of the babies,” she says, her fingers repetitively popping through complex stitches. “Mostly, it’s because I have anger issues, and I find this soothing. I have a lot of anger,” she laughs. She recently made a hundred pillowcases for a children’s hospital.
The people who work with me, who have dedicated their lives to this fight, share values with me. Sometimes the petty dramas of office politics rear up, like they do in every office, and I forget that. But we are soldiers in the same war, and all of us signed up and are here because we choose to be.
I think about how lonely this career has been sometimes. Years ago, when I was single, I went out on dates with nice young men who couldn’t really mask their distaste at what I did, who didn’t like my gallows humor, weren’t fascinated by the gory horrors I’d seen, but instead found them, and me, horrifying. And the inevitable situation where you meet new people and they find out what you do and they ask, as if they’re the first person who thought of it, “How can you represent someone who is guilty?” with that tone of I-could-never. And the first few years you try to educate them, you launch into talk of the constitution and civil rights and institutional racism and they shake their heads and still think the same thing about you- that you’re probably a pervert of some kind because you represent perverts. And then the years go by and you just start to smile a weak smile and excuse yourself to go get another drink.
An in-law told me they “weren’t sure if (they) agree with what (I) do for a living.” I laughed, my constant defense-mechanism and stall for time. “Oh,” I said, wanting to say more but physically biting my tongue. Just reading that, you want to say more. You want to argue it for me, gentle reader, but you also know that you don’t have to, that your thoughts and mine on this are the same, and that’s what I mean, exactly.
Because it would require too much to start from the beginning- to justify and explain what we do and the basis for it to someone who is not involved in this fight- before I can tell any part of the story. Carl Sagan wrote, “To make an apple pie from scratch, one must first create the universe.” It’s exhausting. Maybe it’s true, Mrs. Smith’s is just as good, or close enough to it, and we could just start with the pre-assembled parts, the people who are already on the same page.
I know that’s simplifying it. I know that part of what I like to do is to talk to others and speak to others about what we do and how we do it. I like to educate and encourage and help improve our reputation in the community. But this year, I’m thankful for our knitting club, for this small bright spot in my week, this reliable community of kindred spirits and this continued discovery of how alike we are and the things we all share. Our needles click satisfyingly in a moment of rare and comfortable silence and I look around this room so full of people that I love and people that I am growing to love, and I hope we are all here together for a long, long time to come.