My mother’s hands have shaped at least a thousand loaves of bread. She learned this from her mother, who learned it from her mother, long before.
In Germany during the war-torn years of World War II, my grandmother would send her 14-year-old daughter, with linen-bundled leavened dough in a bicycle basket, to pedal off to the nearest village. There, a baker offered up his oven to those who did not have one in their homes. While their loaves were being baked, the women gathered, sharing company, experiences, and advice. Another errand would be to run to the butcher and for dry-goods until the bread was done and ready to pick up. Then all would hurry home again, the heavenly aroma of steaming, fresh-baked loaves lingered in the air as the women left the village on separate paths.
In a different part of the world a very full 20 years later, my older sister was just a few months beyond her first year on this planet and I was imminently due. Charlotte Osterwald, our “Omi,” had traveled from Germany to help my mother. When the third baby girl arrived less than two years after I was born, she was followed some seven minutes later by an unexpected twin who made his surprise entry into the world, feet first. His appearance finally brought my proud Italian father a son and my mother a room full of 60 some-odd roses as well as, no doubt, sweet relief that her childbearing was now complete.
Somewhere amid the hubbub and excitement, my gentle grandmother made the quiet, self-effacing decision to stay right where she was needed most, for the next 18 years of her life. And so we became a solid, intense unit of seven, and the bubble of life as we would know it for the next 11 years, took form in a three-story brown and white Tudor on Oxford Street, in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Ours was a fairly quiet family neighborhood. Decent sidewalks, with cracks made just to skip over, ran across the bases of paved driveways, which every morning slowly would deposit humming, heavy-bodied Chevys and Fords into the street, and every evening welcomed them back again. Average-sized lawns in front of nicely kept houses were mowed religiously every weekend, sometimes all at once. A droning, industrious fugue of multiple small motors would ring through the neighborhood in a comforting and modestly proud, Saturday morning declaration of home ownership.
Mothers knew they’d be heard when they cupped their hands to the sides of their mouths and called their offspring home for supper. You could get a pretty good idea of what your friends were going to eat simply by inhaling deeply as you walked (or ran, if you had lost track of time!) down the street to get through your front door 5 o’clock, salivary glands prepped and a pretty good appetite established.
We were the odd family that had our main meal at noon. Back then, lunch break was long enough to allow a walk home from school, time to sit down, and actually ingest a full, hot, German-style meal, before desperately running to get back just in time for afternoon classes. Any food coma would be thoroughly burned off in the process with the remaining side ache working its way out, during art class.
Those were days when sit-down family meals were a religion unto themselves. I would not hesitate to substitute the word “eat” for “pray” in many cases when it came to what families did to“stay together” back then. Mealtimes were for eating, but they also were for conversation. Between “pass the potatoes” or “the butter, please,” arguments could be started or resolved, problems addressed and handled, and humor exchanged. In the space of one mealtime, all the separate doings of the day were pulled together like strings on a good knot, togetherness reestablished, and familial foundations laid in fresh concrete.
I may not need to mention here, but will, the fact that cell phones had not yet crept up the corners of all tablecloths and taken over the part of the family dining table, where the conversation used to reign.
We did not attend church regularly, but my parents must have figured that with grace before meals, bedtime prayers, our Omi’s occasional exclamation of “Ach du lieber Gott!” (“Oh my dear God!”), and my father’s prayers to St Jude, St. Anthony, and St. Christopher, the gray area between my father’s Catholicism and my mother’s Christianity was covered. If help was needed, something was lost, someone was going somewhere, or something had spilled on the freshly washed and ironed linen tablecloth, this combination held our blissful childhood’s sense of safety intact. With these punctuations and bookends to all of our daily activities, the acknowledgment was given that something larger than ourselves provided grace and order, from a world beyond our little corner.
This past year on Christmas Eve, my mother celebrated her 90th birthday. Lately, there has been much reminiscing. She sits at the peak of such a long, full, life, and is astounded herself.
The past two years since she moved from her home are the only, out of her entire lifetime, where she has lived without her own kitchen. It is the one thing she says she misses. And yet, she has moved into this chapter of her life with little, and passing, resistance. The time once filled with cooking has been replaced by poetry classes, singing, painting, and her lifelong love of dance.
We were fortunate, despite the inevitable bumps and curves of growing up, to have not only one, but two mothers at the helm of the ship we called Home. These women, with utter dedication tirelessly, prepared for us every day the things we needed, whether from the kitchen or by hand from other tables of loving intent.
And throughout, there was always freshly baked bread.
As I pick up my mother for her weekly visit, she skips over the cracks in the sidewalk on her way to the car. It is something, she says laughing, that she has done since she was a child. In the car, she pulls a loaf of locally baked, organic, sourdough raisin bread from her basket, and hands it to me. She hopes we will enjoy it. It is fresh and delicious, and she can’t possibly eat it all herself.
Cardinale Montano is a freelance writer living in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She shares her creativity with good friends, family, and eager learners, and celebrates daily the blessings of nature in the beautiful Berkshires. She is the founder and designer at LineflaxAndRoving.com