The day after my mom’s funeral, the afternoon after my first excursion to Sunday services since my mother was hospitalized, I took a drive to my food coop, in a community a fair jog down the freeway. It wasn’t because I was particularly hungry; but about every month I’ll go down there for provisions that I can’t find here in town, and perhaps a perishable treat like a bunch of lovely certified organic Swiss chard or kale. And I just felt like I needed to be away, somewhere, and I always feel better when I go to the coop – the smells of spices and coffee, the interesting mix of customers and friendly, laid-back staff and general crunchy-granola gemuetlichkeit.
On this day there was a new display of artisan breads from a chi-chi-foo-foo bakery on Michigan’s Gold Coast. The wheaty, yeasty aroma was wonderful; the loaves were beautiful and crusty; the price was…outrageous. A small bag of bread crumbs was $4.50.
“I need to get out my bread machine,” I found myself thinking. And then I felt guilty.
The bread machine was a source of major, inexplicable, mother-daughter contention at my house. I’d gotten it a couple of years ago on the advice of several of my coworkers who adore their bread machines and make their own bread and pizza dough all the time. And when I bought mine, that’s what I decided I’d do as well. I went to town with it: potato bread and whole-wheat bread and oatmeal bread and rye bread and wholegrain nuts-and-twigs breads from recipes off the Internet. Not that it was perfect bread, mind you – there were the little divots at the bottom of the loaf from pulling it up off the dough paddles, and having enjoyed making bread the old-fashioned way I missed the kneading, working for that moment when the elasticity was just right – but the bread-machine bread was still good, tasty, fresh bread. I had complete control over the ingredients; I wasn’t tied to the task all day; there was less kitchen mess; it made the house smell really good when the bread was baking; and it seemed more energy-efficient to use the bread machine than to heat up our oven. I’d take my bread to work, or to church functions, and people liked it.
My mother ate the bread without comment for several weeks. But then the complaints started: The bread didn’t have the “right” texture; it was, depending on the week, too spongy or too crumbly. The crust was too chewy. The shape of the loaf wasn't right. “I want white bread.” “I want sliced bread.” This conversation extended to our supermarket excursions, when we’d get to the bakery and Mom would start lighting into the bread machine, in tones loud enough to make other shoppers stare. “Your bread machine makes terrible bread!” she exclaimed one day as a hush fell upon the aisle. “I hate it!”
Well, long story short, you pick your battles, so the bread machine wound up in the basement.
And now I want to get it out again and bake some terrible, hateful bread, and I’m feeling bad. The way I felt bad when I threw out the tacky oilcloth on the dining room table and got some placemats I liked instead, and replaced the fake milk glass fruit bowl I never cared for with my little wooden fish-shaped bowl, and changed all the towels in the bathroom, and put a Boston fern on the end table. I feel so much repressed/suppressed me bursting out right now, like lava exploding from a volcano; and yet sometimes it's as if I’m engaging in some sort of strange passive aggression with my dead mother: Oh, yeah? Well, watch this!…
I remember feeling this same way when my dad died. My father was not an easy man to live with. He was, I think, chronically disappointed in the way life had treated him, and he had a volatile temper; he was not a hitter, but he was a histrionic yeller -- his voice was loud enough to make the walls vibrate -- and my mother took most of the brunt of his anger. Now, he could also be charming and funny; but you never knew when Mad Dad would emerge. So keeping my father from exploding into screaming fury was a full-time job at our house when I was growing up; more so as I got older because he and I disagreed about nearly everything. In adulthood I tended to keep him at arm's-length. I remember, after he died, when I was still living away but coming home on weekends to chauffeur my mother around (she didn't drive), feeling a certain sense of relief that I, that we, didn't have to self-censor anymore; that we could talk about things that we'd never dare talk about when he was there. I could also see my mother visibly more relaxed. Some spouses fall ill after their partners die; after Dad died, Mom's blood pressure and blood sugar readings kept improving.
This strange juxtaposition of feelings -- sorrow on one hand, a kind of liberation on the other -- is a difficult one to navigate through, I'm telling you. It's tough. And it speaks to the incredible complexity of human relationships. It's a wonder we want to have them at all. And yet we do.