by Christian Chase Garner
“Don’t let these small moments go to waste, child.”
My grandmother began to knead the oblong ball of dough with her hands, stretching it and then rolling it back into itself. Her electric mixer—a gift from her only son—gathered dust nearby. Her countertops were slabs of deep mahogany butcher block, with scar-like indentations which pooled the sweat that would sprinkle from her tan forehead. The kitchen always seemed hellish to me, but to her it was like a sauna—a place of cleansing. While she was rolling her palms against the floured dough, she didn’t have to remember the husband who never made it back from Incheon, the son who hasn’t called for nine years, or the sad, dead ball of meat that she still had to carry and birth even knowing that her daughter had been punctured during amniocentesis. She couldn’t pronounce what the doctor had said, so she called it “God’s plan” instead.
“You see, this helps give your bread strength and structure, like the foundation of your home. Every house needs good bones, girl, and so does your dough.”
Her secret was cinnamon. She would break the sticky glob into two, stretching it slowly, until the tension finally released, then place each half into a greased, rectangular pan. Right before sticking them into the oven, she’d pat out a small dune of cinnamon into her left palm—a palm that looked as if it was just an extension of her weathered, butcher block counter—and gently sift it through her fingers, across the tops of the glistening loaves. She would haul over her single-stepped stool, climb atop it, and pull open the mouth of the furnace.
“Take your time with this part, child. Smell the yeast. Feel the warmth. Watch your bread grow—see how the powder begins to crack, like the earth it came from.”
As the yeast began to give life to the bread, she would just watch. She wouldn’t read the newspaper, never make herself a cup of black, bitter coffee. Sometimes she would weave a dreamcatcher—traditionally, with willow and sinew, something she learned from an old friend—but would never take her eyes off the blooming inside the oven.
Eventually, as the years went on, my own palms began to look like valleys of cracked cinnamon. My ten-year-old daughter now sits on a single-stepped stool and acts like she is not watching or listening as I begin the crust of her chocolate pie. Her birthday is today. I think about reaching for the pastry cutter—to save time, to stay clean—but instead choose to let it rest in the wicker basket, beginning to work the flour and butter with my fingers. The cubes begin to melt, turn to crumb, and the dough begins to take shape. I feel the caking underneath my fingernails, the sweat pushing against the dams of my brows. This time, for her, the bones will be good.