The warm smell of the bubbly yeast and sweet scent of wildflower honey filled my nose as I helped my grandmother slowly add flour, one cup at a time, to the whirring mixer. The individual ingredients of yeast, water, honey, flour, and salt slowly melded together to form a sticky dough. As we continued to add the freshly ground flour, the spongy blob became recognizable as bread dough. Grandma continued to mix it for a few more minutes, until the dough pulled easily away from the sides of the mixer bowl. She turned the mixer off, threw the dough onto the floured counter with a dull thunk, and proceeded to knead the dough into submission.
“But Grandma, I thought the mixer did all of the kneading for us,” I said, a little confused. After all, that’s how I’d seen my mom make bread.
“Hmmm,” Grandma made a humming noise between her lips, as she continued to work the dough with her palms methodically. Fold, press. Fold, press. “Yes, the dough hook cando the work for us, but God gave me two strong hands to make my bread. I like to use those hands as thanks to Him, whenever I make a loaf of bread.” Fold, press. Fold, press.
I watched, fascinated, as the dough began to spring back with each fold and press. “Can I try?” I asked. My grandma moved aside to let me stand in front of the dough. She guided my hands as I began to fold and press, as I’d seen her do. Only, my small, eight-year-old hands didn’t quite match her quiet strength and rhythm. The dough seemed to just roll around on the counter.
“I can’t do it!” I cried, huffing out a frustrated breath. Flour puffed up in a white dust cloud, and I giggled as I watched it settle back onto the counter. My grandma smiled and slid her hands in the flour, leaving snowy trails over the countertop. She wiggled her floury fingers at me, and I laughed as she swiped a streak across my nose.
“Bread making,” she explained, “is a process. We cannot step into the kitchen one day and expect to produce the flakiest croissants, shape the smoothest rolls, or cut the fluffiest biscuits.” As she spoke, she picked up my hands and covered them in her own flour dusted hands. “We must step into the kitchen each day, as if it is our first day of baking. Each step is a chance to master your craft. You select each ingredient with care and attention, because they are the elements to produce a desired result. You mix and add with attention; rushing these steps might affect the rising and baking process. You knead with patience, using your hands to create as God patiently created you. And you wait with anticipation for that final risen loaf, knowing that you have put your heart and soul into caring for yourself and your family.”
She lifted our joined hands and pressed them into the warm, soft dough. I marveled at my small hands, smooth and inexperienced, in her larger hands, wrinkled with age and practice. I watched as she curled my fingers into the ball, gently pressing down with my palm. I closed my eyes and felt the squish and sigh of the dough under my fingertips. Slowly, my hands seemed to find the rhythm, and as her hands expertly turned mine with the dough, folding and pressing, molding and shaping, the cracks started to smooth. After each press of my palm, the dough sprang back from my touch. The dough was taking the form it needed to make the perfect loaf of bread, under our careful, guiding attention.
Once we had finished kneading the soft dough, we gently coated it in oil and set it into a warm bowl. I covered it with my favorite blue and white towel and set it on the counter next to the stove to rise.
“How much longer?” I asked Grandma, bouncing eagerly on my toes. I was excited to keep working and more importantly, excited to dig into a steaming slice of bread, warm and fresh from the oven.
Grandma smiled as she wiped the sticky dough from the countertop. “You are like me, child, always anticipating the next step, the next loaf. You must learn to appreciate each creation as it comes. To savor the work even as much as you anticipate savoring that first bite. This is a lesson I’ve learned over many years and many loaves of bread.”
I flopped into a chair at the low bar on the other side of the counter and stuck out my tongue. “That doesn’t sound very fun.”
This time, Grandma laughed out loud, bright and cheerful. “Ha! Indeed, oftentimes it isn’t fun. Over the years, I’ve made hundreds of loaves of bread, thousands of rolls. They did not always turn out as I planned. Some felt flat from old yeast. Some were hard and dense, as if I’d placed rocks in the oven, rather than bread dough. Some lacked the delicate balance of sweetness from too much or not enough honey. I learned to love the process of creating, even when it didn’t perform as I would have wished. Each day of baking is a day to master my skill.”
“We always want to jump ahead,” she continued, placing her familiar red ceramic loaf pans onto the counter. As she spoke, she walked about the kitchen, turning and gathering her tools in practiced movements. I closed my eyes and leaned back in my chair as her comforting voice washed over me. “Even as I gather the cinnamon and raisins for my sweet rolls, I can already taste that caramelized brown sugar melting on my tongue, and I want to be finished. But it takes time and practice to spread that gooey filling you love so much into each nook and corner of my dough; it takes precision to roll the dough such that each bun will fill the recipient with love and nourishment.”
My eyes popped open and my brows wrinkled in confusion. “How can you fill the person eating the roll with love? I mean, you can hug them and tell them you love them, but it’s not like the bun has love in it,” I said, filled with the confidence of an eight-year-old.
“It doesn’t?” Grandma turned to look at me, her brown eyes twinkling with warmth and wisdom. I hesitated. I felt sure there was a lesson to be learned here, a Charlotte and Wilbur moment where I was supposed to understand something important. It was as if my eyes could see it, spun into the silvery web and tucked up into the rafters, but my brain couldn’t quite read it.
Ding!The timer by the oven chimed; the first rise was finished. Grandma dutifully turned her attention to the risen dough, sprinkling the counter with flour and thumping the ball of dough onto it. The rest of the afternoon passed in the simplicity of creating something with your own hands; of working quietly, side by side, with someone you love.
The lesson carried me far….
I hung up the phone, quietly setting it back onto the flour covered counter. My hands restlessly smoothed down the front of my apron, leaving floury streaks behind. The words my mother had just spoken echoed in my ear.
“Honey, Grandma passed in her sleep last night.”
My eyes itched with unshed tears. Grandma had been 97 years old; she lived a full, beautiful life, with a husband of 60 years, ten children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including 3 of my own. She lived each day with a fierce, quiet strength, guiding her family as she had gently guided my hands that day so long ago. I thought about that day often, remembering how she’d asked me, “It doesn’t?” when I’d inquired how bread could fill someone with love. As a child, I hadn’t understood. As an adult, and especially as a mother, I finally did. The care with which I selected my ingredients; the attention with which I added and mixed, kneaded and shaped; the patience that I practiced as I waited for the bread to rise. Each step, though seemingly small and insignificant, was a chance to express my love for those around me. Each press of my hand, each roll of my palm, each squeeze of my fingers, was an opportunity to praise God for the ability to create such nutrition and warmth for my family.
I looked down at the mass of dough on the counter in front of me, appropriately destined to become my grandmother’s famous sweet buns. My array of ingredients- brown sugar, cinnamon, softened butter, raisins- lined the counter behind the dough, like soldiers waiting to be called into battle. I breathed in the warm scent of bubbly yeast and wildflower honey, and I patiently began to knead, as my grandmother had once taught me. Fold and press. Fold and press.
Rebecca Slocum is a lifelong Catholic, a wife, and a mother of 3: one on earth, one on the way, and one saint in Heaven. She is a former teacher, turned stay at home mom, who happily spends most of her day playing cars and trucks, fetching snacks, and repeating herself. In her free time, Rebecca likes to read, write, run, and roam the world. While her roots are firmly planted in Texas, she takes every available opportunity to go on an adventure and explore historic cities, hike and run new trails, and, of course, try beers from every country.