|Jasper Johns "Bread" 1969|
After school, week-ends, every spare minute I am at the pottery throwing pots, dreaming I’ll apprentice with a stern Japanese master and my life will be set. At home in my mother’s kitchen with floury hands, palms pushing, lifting, folding, turning, I practice Japanese spiral wedging technique on warm yeasty dough. The repetitive motion burns my burgeoning triceps. I see my arms as I imagine them seen, in doing I am also posing. With each thrust braless nipples graze the inside of my sleeveless tank top. My hips gently rock. Black curls sway.
Kneading develops wheat’s tightly curled proteins. The proteins lie dormant until hydrated and prodded by floured hands. There is no hurrying the process. Awakened proteins unfurl and tangle, weaving a lattice that traps the yeasts breath enabling the bread to rise.
In my kitchen now a mixer does this labor but when my hands gather the shaggy dough I feel that seventeen year old; not time’s passage but the actual girl, as if we are nesting dolls. My hands shape the dough into a crystal ball revealing widening, drooping, greying, also strength the girl didn’t yet know. And I am not sure, is that my own coming frailty or am I confusing myself with the image of mother’s deathbed repose seared on my mind’s eye.
The drying residue of dough makes my hands look like artifacts. I pick at the flour in the crevices of my nails and smile remembering that the most radical thing the girl-me’s hands ever held was my high school love. Such tender hands, tentatively probing and stroking until we’d swoon with desire.
My mother had recently remarried. They’d bought a weekend house in the countryside and drove off Friday afternoons leaving me behind. My life was in the city at the pottery and playing house, sleeping next to my lover in my parent’s double bed. The potters would come for supper on my parent’s new antique dining table. Thick soup in stoneware bowls, buttered bread, raucous chatter. We’d sip wine from hand thrown goblets that often tipped. Frantically I’d mop the spills least incriminating evidence greet my parents on their Sunday night return.
When the dough has doubled, punch down, pat flat, roll into a bundle to fit the lightly greased pan. It is like starting over. During the second rise the yeast ferments the dough. This contributes to the depth of flavor.
To pass time the years I sat with my mother when she could no longer speak I’d inspect our hands side by side; hers yellowed, gnarled, curling in upon themselves. Mine are marked by callouses and cooking burns. No longer tender the skin appears crackled like porcelain glaze; the lines tell a story. I’ve made pots, bread, love, lifted my babies, soothing or fussing. In a moment of drama I lifted a vase above my head, smashing it to bits at my husbands feet yelling “get out, get out” and he walked out the door. My hands held my sister when she took her last breath. They carried my mother’s ashes home.
In the oven crust forms. The wheat’s natural sugars caramelize and the scent fills you with promise, the loaf becomes domed and golden. What was once dense and sticky has filled with air and grown buoyant. Turn the loaf from the pan, let it cool, let it rest.
I’ve grasped my hurts, held them waiting and waiting and forgotten the joy. My mother did the same. Her hurts were our constant companion. She held them to her chest, stoic and silent. I do not know the half of her, yet she was my model. What now, shall I I opened my hands? This is mourning, sorrow instead of smoldering, and letting go. Maybe joy might rise, once, twice, and from there, the chance to break bread.