Rising Bread and Raising Memories

The aroma of freshly baked bread, crumbly crust breaking to reveal soft angel-puffs inside, turns me into a 5-year old in the blink of an eye.  My father was always a strict man, believing that children were essentially cabbages until they became old enough to hold an intelligent conversation.  Needless to say, my sisters and I don’t have a lot of the cozy memories others might have of childhood.  

When I was in Kindergarten, my father took a year of leave-without-pay from the Foreign Service, to earn his Masters Degree from Harvard.  All of a sudden, our young family of five had to rely on my mother’s painting lessons and small art gallery for our survival.  We lived in a big old wooden house with a haunted barn, in a neighborhood full of children, in a tiny town called Groveland.  My father took to baking from scratch.  It served two purposes: we saved money by only having to buy the flour, yeast, and sugar, instead of store-bought breads, and my father had an outlet for his frustrations when his studies were difficult.  As a middle child craving the attention of a distant father, these baking sessions were a chance for me to sneak into the kitchen to be close to the Dad I secretly adored.  Believing that he was instructing me in math, economics, and science, my father was happy to teach me his recipe inventions (dreamy breakfast breads with fresh apricots, heavenly cinnamon/brown sugar rolls, even light and fluffy bread made from potatoes).  He never noticed that my happiest times were when he broke off large lumps of whatever dough he was working on, and passed it to me, instructing me to invent a bread of my own.  I always ended up making a silly-faced head out of my ball of dough – googly-eyed with pokies sticking out of the top of its head, and he would bake it alongside his perfect loaves, giving it the same respect he gave to the food he made for our family.  My father only intended to be practical with his baking, but the lovely smells, the happy clatter, and the conversations that ended up coming out of that kitchen, stay in my heart to this day. 

Now that my sisters and I are adults with children of our own, and my mother has passed away, my father recalls those days of poverty with a note of regret in his voice, sometimes apologizing for putting the family through so much hardship.  But I remember that Christmas as the best Christmas I ever had.  We didn’t have a tree, just a very tall (taller than me!) bottle from Mexico that my mother managed to decorate so beautifully that we could not imagine a lovelier Christmas tree. My mother sewed enormous stockings for us to hang on the banisters of the stairs.  Only my parents knew, with dread, that there would be nothing for the three little girls under our “tree” in the morning.  The next morning the first things we saw were our stockings, filled with oranges and apples and nuts and candy canes.  As we were emptying them onto the floor, the doorbell rang.  We all ran to the door, and there was a cardboard box.  The kind of box a refrigerator is packed in.  We pulled it inside and found it filled to the top with toys.  All of our neighbors, whose children always played at our house and were fed by my father’s sweet baked goodies, knew that we weren’t going to have the same kind of Christmas they were going to have.  They all came together and shared with us these gifts from their homes.  My sisters and I didn’t understand why our parents silently hid their grateful tears in their coffee cups.  We were busy whooping and hollering with joy, opening boxes of baby dolls and cars, a slinky, a ball;  nothing labeled, just gifts from the heart that we would share together.  If I close my eyes, I am there again, the spicy smell of warm cinnamon bread, chewy and sweet, smothered in butter; the nutty smell of my parents’ coffee.  When I open my eyes, I see my Mom, eyes gazing at my father over her cup of coffee, lips murmuring, “I love you, Merry Christmas.” And my stern father, blinking quickly and hiding his gruffness in his moustache and beard, “try this funny little bread-head that your daughter made – not bad, not bad at all.” And I turn away with a huge smile, hiding my pride by burying my face in my new baby doll, the happiest 5-year old girl in the world.

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