by Kathleen Murphy
I stand in the middle of a long line of women who bake acts of love.
A cherished memory of baked macaroni and cheese for a Friday evening dinner engages my thoughts and brings a smile. The meal was followed by homemade brownies, apple squares or cherry cake. Desserts were home-baked each day, stirred with love and handed out freely, little thought given to calories, carbohydrates or cholesterol. My mother and my grandmothers came from Polish and Irish and Jewish worlds where food was symbolic of life. As a child, I learned a tradition of preparing food for multitudes in a quest to nourish and make whole. To this day, creating a take-home care package is an act of joy.
My journey as an oven-cooker began at the apron strings of these remarkable women. They were teachers and guides whose training led me to mix the pasta and Velveeta, mash the bananas and let them sit to pungently ripen or add the secret dash of spirits. My own family shares my devotion to baking, having spent years eating breads, turkeys, roasts, cakes and pies as we experimented with recipes from cultures old and new.
Today as I bake, my mother looks down from her celestial kitchen, her presence so real as she peers over my shoulder, coaching and smiling. When I knead dough, a grandmothers hand is covering mine in spirit. I see nimble fingers quickly pushing and pulling in the movement necessary to liven the yeast and ferment the rising. During each holiday, as memories fill my eyes with tears I bake for them: My mothers outstanding sand trap Christmas cookies, the so-sweet cinnamon raisin bread and the devilish chocolate pudding pie of the grandmas.
From their rich lives came a love of nourishing others and a desire to feed. From their guidance came knowledge of how to and how much, how long. I now cherish the pleasure in the creating somehow magically folded in by their stirring.
At some point in my travels I became the coach. When my daughter calls and asks the steps to creating macaroni and cheese, I happily offer a silent thumb up and smile. My son wonders how long to bake potatoes. I marvel at the incredible meals he creates. It is with pure delight that I taste the soup lovingly offered by a granddaughter who uses faucet water at the kitchen sink. We taste it and simultaneously mmmm, as if food connoisseurs. In so many ways we are.
I am blessed to straddle five generations of women. The women of days past give shape and color to our family tapestry. Stories, laughter, songs, and baking are the pieces of familial culture that weave through our lives. When I close my eyes to the memories, I picture a line of women, arms extended across shoulders. From a spot in the middle I look left and see the gazes of Mom and grandmas. To the right smile my daughter and a granddaughter. I am looking back, looking forward knowing as with fresh-made bread, there will be kneading, there will be rising and there will be baking.
Each Mothers Day I pause to thank the oven-cookers of my life for gifts given to an eager young girl, and I give promise to share the treasures of their lives. Recently, my two-year-old grandson and I blended cookie batter. He insisted on holding the mixer alone and independently told me, I do by myself. I grinned and thought, why not. So I stepped aside to gaze upon his excitement. It was then that I was able to marvel at the endurance of tradition and behold the value that nourishment provides to the body and to the soul.