Mother’s yeast rolls. Once again I gather what I need to make them. Now that she is gone, I worry over the enigma of her recipes— for rolls, for child-rearing, for patience and kindness. The ingredients for rolls are simple enough. Warm water, flour, yeast, oil, an egg, a bit of salt and a touch of sugar for the rising. That’s what it says in my handwriting on my recipe card. She dictated the recipe to me while she was stirring something else, her then-steady voice hinting at the first grade teacher she had been.
Even though the handwriting is mine, it baffles me now. I can barely recall what my life was like when it looked as my handwriting does on the card. Neat, confident, legible and suggesting the hope of a new wife, eager to learn and please, to master old, hard things like marriage and yeast rolls. But now the recipe card is stained from my many efforts, partial successes, utter failures.
Like the ingredients, some measurements are straightforward:
Two packages of dry yeast.
And then the clarity disappears.
“How much flour?” I’m sure I asked. And the answer on the card reads as it always has,
“Enough so that the spoon doesn’t stick.”
As a young woman writing on the card, I didn’t understand how narrow the path is between the soft dough of the right consistency and the dough of too dry, too much.
What does that mean, “doesn’t stick?” Doesn’t stick at all? What kind of spoon? A wooden spoon seems a good guess but there is a big difference between a wooden spoon and a silver one.
“Don’t worry about those small things,” she would say, a lesson in her tone. “Just add it till it seems right.”
When I could still call her and ask these questions, I did. But she often offered more ambiguity: “Well, when it’s wet, you need more flour, and when it’s not, you need less.”
Once, covered in flour and flushed with frustration, I called in a panic. She could not look through the phone line and figure out what I had done or failed to do. But I knew she understood my predicament.
Then she told me that as a young wife who could not even boil an egg, she tried to make Daddy a batch of biscuits for his birthday.
“I don’t know what got into me, thinking I could go from nothing to biscuits, but I was young and dumb,” she laughed.
She told me she had used her own mother-in-law’s recipe, but put in a quarter cup of soda in instead of a quarter teaspoon. After tasting the dough, she rushed to bury it in the back yard before he came home. By late afternoon, the biscuits had risen so much Daddy found them peeping out of their shallow grave when he went out to feed the dog.
We both laughed at that baking story, and now I think she was trying to tell me: Sometimes there is too little. Sometimes there is too much. Sometimes when we try to bury our mistakes they rise up from the grave. And sometimes we can laugh at that.
A mother to five, she had the same gentle ease raising children. “Let them play,” she would say when I tried to enforce strict schedules with my own children. I despaired at mothering when my own 13-year old daughter did what she was supposed to do and suddenly became my most devastating critic. Mother listened and offered advice for bakers and mothers alike: “Honey,” she said, “It’s not personal and it’s not permanent. “
Other times, she tried to soften that most difficult answer—that there is not one.
But how do I go forward when the yeast is stale, the water won’t warm?
Must I stay in this dry job?
Do I leave this sometimes kind man?
Most essentially, how will I know?
I remember her frail, thin hand tightly clasping my own, her nails polished a rosy pink even to the end of her days. Her answer: “I don’t know. But you do.”
And yet I don’t, and the boxes I brought back when we cleared out her house are still stacked in my own attic. I held out hope that in those boxes, filled with paper and drying relics of her full life, there would be further guidance, her own handwritten recipe. Instead I find clippings of us all, Daddy’s successes, our school plays, printed programs from decades of garden club and Circle meetings, letters from her sisters.
So many things I failed to ask. How to forgive, to dissolve years-old lumps of betrayal and arrogance I’ve held onto, mine and others? How to move beyond big and little failures and exhaustion and keep rising as she did? “This is the day the Lord hath made, rejoice and be glad in it” she would say as we groaned awake on Saturday mornings
I weep to remember the times I made her cry—I was sassy, selfish, and now, it seems to me, young and cold. Perhaps she knew it wasn’t personal, wasn’t permanent.
And so today, I pour in the flour—a lot because it’s damp—and stir, enough so that on the third or fourth try, the spoon, wooden this time, mostly doesn’t stick. The result is yeasty and warm and the smell calls up memories of her and all that she did to try to explain the unexplainable.
I set the bowl on the back of the stove and watch it rise.