Tag Archives: Early Childhood

We Were Not Makers of Bread.

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We were not makers of bread in my family. Until I became an adult, I would not know the rich sensory pleasure that the simple mixing of flour, eggs, water, yeast, sugar, oil, and just a pinch of salt could provide. Bread came to us sterile and square, white and wrapped in plastic, sometimes with a jaunty middle split where, we were told, butter had been lovingly brushed. Where that butter, and its flavor, might have disappeared to in the meantime was never fully explained.

Instead, we made, and ate, tortillas. Flat and round, cream-colored with dark brown spots where they had been kissed by the griddle, each sculpted in turn by the strong brown hands of my mother. I wondered at the ease and speed with which she was able to measure and mix ingredients for the recipe which was not written down, which perhaps had never been written down. Flour, baking powder, water just this side of boiling, shortening, salt, measured not with spoons or cups but with hands and eyes. The perfect hollow formed by cupping the fingers of one of her hands told her how much salt to use; I never knew–still don’t know–if my hands were capable of forming a cup of the correct size.

My mother mixed tortilla dough using only her hands; only her hands could tell her if the dough was right, if it needed more flour, hotter water, more shortening. I feared my mother’s hands; they were equally likely, at any given time, to dole out a grudging caress or dart forward with a swift slap to punish some perceived slight or misdeed–or even, at times, a facial expression which lacked the proper respect. Those hands, as we children were reminded multiple times, held the terrible power of life and death over us. To watch them at work was terrifying and beautiful. Out of the chaos of wet flour and the cauldron of her anger, again and again she raised armies of perfectly identical, slightly flattened balls of dough that seemed to exhale slightly as they left the heat of her hands and waited atop a clean dishtowel for their fate.

I was never good enough at making tortillas for my mother’s liking. My hands were, quite simply, the wrong hands. My childish fingers didn’t mix or form dough correctly; my clumsiness with a rolling pin turned out lumpy, oblong tortillas, not the perfectly round and flat discs my mother’s labors invariably produced. I was relegated to turning the floury discs as they toasted atop the comal, the solid iron griddle made and sold expressly for this purpose.

The comal is unforgiving; her kiss is one you never forget. My mother met her head-on and unafraid, grabbing and flipping the tortillas with nimble fingertips as first one side, then the other, bubbled and blistered and toasted to perfection. Berated for using a fork to turn the thin discs because it might leave holes, I, too, had to learn to snatch up the tortillas with only my fingers. The resistance my fingertips show to heat to this day, and which my children always remark upon as I lift newly baked potatoes from a cookie sheet or tear apart hot pizza and freshly fried chicken so it won’t burn their tender mouths, dates from my time as a tortilla-maker’s apprentice.

Once, when I was a teenager, I felt inspired to bake bread, to bake challah bread, to express the Jewishness I had always felt inside of me. I had never seen bread being baked, did not understand the mechanics of rising and proofing. The loaf was tiny and dense. My mother said nothing other than that I should clean up all the mess I had made; she had, by that time, come to regard me almost as an alien presence in her home, a recipe gone bad, a dough imperfectly mixed.

No, we were not makers of bread. And my mother will never understand why I am not more like her, any more than I will ever understand why I will never be good enough, why I will always disappoint her. But every year at Passover when we lift the matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt,” I think of my mother and all the line of my ancestresses, their love and anger, their tears and bitterness.


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Remembering Mrs. S.

Me (at right) with Mrs. S. and my younger sister.

Me (at right) with Mrs. S. and my younger sister.

I received some very sad news last week: my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. S, has died. (Honestly, though, I’m amazed that I found out. Her daughter found me somehow even though I’ve since changed my surname through marriage, and had an exceedingly common last name before that.)

Of course, I’m a grown adult, so it’s not unexpected that my teachers are beginning to die; the history teacher who delighted in policing the length of our uniform skirts and the shininess of our saddle oxfords died last year. But I’m a little ashamed to say that I’d assumed Mrs. S had died years ago because she’d retired not long after I was in her class.

And I must say how very much Mrs. S meant to me. In my day (gathers shawl around withered shoulders), the neighborhood school didn’t offer preschool, so kindergarten was my first shot at being away from the house all day. In addition, I was raised in isolation and didn’t go outside much (that’s another story), so I wasn’t used to being around other children. My mother left me at the classroom door with a warning that I’d better not cry “or else,” and that was it. I freaked out a little, but fought back my tears even though my mother was gone because I was that scared of her. And Mrs. S was there, like a ministering angel.

Mrs. S taught me that there were adults I didn’t have to fear, that there was a place where I could feel safe and loved. I thrived under her loving attention, and she doted on me. I already knew how to read, so Mrs. S arranged for me to spend some time in a 3rd grade classroom reading at their level while my classmates learned their alphabet in wonderful big workbooks that had glittered letters on the covers (she even let me have a set of those workbooks, just because.) Mrs. S made me the narrator for our Christmas pageant. I have only a few memories of that year, but they are wonderful memories, suffused with tenderness and light.

Because of Mrs. S, I became a confident student who loved school. No matter how bad things got at home, I knew I was safe at school and that school was a place where I could shine, even if my parents didn’t appreciate me. Even in later years when I was bullied mercilessly, I never gave up my love of school and my faith that if I did my best, I would be rewarded. Born to two high school dropouts, I finished elementary school early and won a scholarship to a prep school where I was always on the honor roll and praised by my teachers. I won prize after academic prize, but never managed to win my parents’ love and approval. Still, part of me remembered and clung to that amazing lady (and her successors, who taught me so many wonderful things.)

I have two children now, wonderfully quirky and happy children to whom I do my very best to give the love and approval I never felt from my own parents. I don’t know if any of their teachers will shine for them as Mrs. S did for me–but then again, I don’t want them to ever feel they have to look to others for the parental love that is their right, that is owed to them.

I invited Mrs. S to my high school graduation, which she was unable to attend due to illness. (This is probably why I thought she had already died.) Years later, when I read the transcript of Mr. Rogers’ acceptance speech for his Lifetime Achievement Emmy, in which he asks the crowd to remember the adults who “loved [them] into being,” I thought of Mrs. S, and of the sad little girl she helped so long ago and had (I assumed) probably forgotten.

Mrs. S is gone now, but she will live on in my heart, and she will live forever wherever grown-ups who are good and kind and loving see the potential in children who have been told they are less than, that they are ugly, that they are worthless, by those who should have loved them best. Her daughter says that she remembered Mrs. S telling her about me (she was in college but still living at home at the time.) She said that that invitation to my graduation had been among Mrs. S’s personal effects, that she had “cherished it over the years.”

If you ever had a teacher who meant the world to you once upon a time, it might be good to reach out and let them know. You know, before it’s too late.

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