I’m getting ready to do some holiday baking tomorrow. My kids and I will make pies and cookies and wrestle with a turkey I hope I won’t have to lob in the bathtub to defrost. (It happens.)
In the spirit of the holidays, here’s an oldie. This essay first ran seven years ago in The Washington Post and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s a moment and a memory I revisit every year around this time.
I’ll never stop missing my mother.
My daughter still can’t be trusted with an open bag of flour.
Given the chance, my now-teenage son will fling dough.
My mother, I think, would like that. Payback, she’d call it, for the messes I’ve made in my life.
A small price, she’d say, for something so sweet and so good.
The Flour of Our Youth
I’m in the kitchen. Phelan, my 4-year-old daughter, is in the dining room. I’m mixing dough. Phelan has opened a bag of flour the size of a ham. I don’t know this. I should.
I hear her yell, “Snow, snow, snow!”
I hear, “It’s winter!”
I hear, “Snowball!”
I’ve been looking out the kitchen window as the mixer whirs away.
Whenever I bake, I think about my mother. The day is sunny, snowflake-free. There’s a space between the time I hear something and the moment I figure out what it means.
“Slippy,” my daughter, fluent in Pittsburghese, says. “Cold.”
Flour is everywhere — in her hair, in the stereo, in her shoes. Later I’ll find flour in her underwear and flour in her socks. But right now, she smiles up at me, flour stuck like snowflakes in her eyelashes, smudged on her pink cheeks, caught in the blonde pigtails that stick out like antennae.
“Look at me,” she says. “I’m baking.”
Every year around the holidays, my husband, who hates chaos, flees, and the kids and I make a lovely mess. For my daughter, it’s flour. My son, Locklin, 7, has moved on to dough. Dough makes great quicksand for his toy soldiers. Dough makes a good mustache. Dough sticks to his sister’s butt.
The kids have their own rolling pins. They help measure sugar and cinnamon. Phelan gets distracted and gets a bowl, pours herself a nice cinnamon-sugar mix and eats it with a spoon.
When I was growing up, I didn’t get to bake with my mother much. It made her nervous. “I don’t like people in my kitchen,” she’d say as she anchored a childproof gate between the kitchen and dining room. She said the gate was “to keep the dog out.”
The dog — a sensitive poodle named Tina II — and I would sit outside the gate and watch my mother break eggs with one hand and toss the shells into the trash in one fluid motion, like a magic trick. She’d turn on the easy-listening station and hum and glide from refrigerator to counter and back. My sad mother the magician. My lonely mother the dancer. How had this happened? The dog and I sulked and waited until my mother passed a peace offering — batter-covered beaters, one for me, one for the dog — over the gate.
I know now that my mother loved the solitary time baking gave her. It offered an excuse to detach from the `world, from the dog and my father and me, and make something her own. It’s what I do when I write, when I close my office door and leave my children and husband on the other side. “A room of one’s own,” Virginia Woolf called it. Space to make something beautiful.
When I did get to bake with my mother, we made handprint sugar cookies. My job was to put my hands onto the rolled-out dough and hold still. Real baking — the breads, nut rolls, all the family traditions — my mother did alone. It wasn’t until after my son was born, a few years before she died, that my mother finally gave in and decided to teach me.
I’d like to say I was a natural, that all those years of watching paid off, but it’s not true. Our first lesson, bread, was a disaster.
My mother told me to be at her house at 5 a.m. Mornings make me want to weep. I was late, 5:15, and I looked a mess. My mother wasn’t happy. Her gray hair was curled. She had on her favorite track suit, purple velour with gold piping at the cuffs, and was wearing tennis shoes. She looked like she’d been waiting for hours.
“What’s the matter with you?” she said. “You have to start bread early.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I also didn’t know what she meant when she said, “Bread is serious business. Bread is no joke.”
I laughed during my lesson, my forearms buried in a swamp of sticky dough. My mother whacked me on the arm with her wooden spoon.
“Look,” she said. “Do you want to learn or not?”
She picked up her bowl of dough and pulled it to her belly like a child. She dipped one arm in and lifted the dough up and over, whipping more than kneading, the muscles in her arm flexed and solid and nowhere near 70 years old.
“This is how you do it,” she said. “You have to work it. You have to mean it.”
My mother talked about yeast and bread as living things — things to conquer, things you could kill if you weren’t careful. She didn’t use measuring cups and spoons. “You just know,” she said, her hands measuring flour and sugar by weight, by how it moved through her fingers. “You can feel it.”
She’s been dead five years now. I still feel the weight of that.
“You need to learn how to do this,” she’d said. “Because when I die, then what?”
In the dining room, my daughter helps me spread more flour on the table. We laugh and smooth out the mounds until there’s just a dusting.
“Snow,” she says. “Snow snow snow snow snow.”
I separate the dough into bowls, one for each of us. My son rolls his into tiny balls. He launches them like cannonballs with his thumb.
“Pow,” he says. “Bang.”
“Snowball,” my daughter says.
My mother wouldn’t appreciate our approach, but within a few hours the house will fill with smells I remember from childhood, and I’ll lay the golden loaves onto racks to cool. When my husband comes home, we’ll have the flour under control. My daughter’s face will be scrubbed and I’ll have picked the dough out of my son’s hair.
“Look,” Phelan will say as she takes her father by the hand to show him what we’ve made. “Isn’t it beautiful?”