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Rising

Olive Branch by Rebecca Koury

Olive Branch by Rebecca Koury

Before my Greek mother-in-law and I first baked bread together, I often felt trapped and insecure when I was around her.

11:03 a.m.: “About this much flour, a few cupfuls of warm water, and yeast, salt and oil. Put it in your biggest bowl. You need to let your hands get into the dough, Christinaki. Feel the dough.”

As my hands knead the dough, she adds a splash of water here, a dash of salt there. The counter top too high, I move the bowl of dough to the floor. Mom’s eyebrows rise. I continue to knead.

While I dated her youngest son, Pete, it didn’t matter that I was an A-student, studied Greek, or came from a good family. I was still the xeni, the foreigner. Maria and I shared sideways glances, grunts of greeting, and forced smiles over the years, the substance of our relationship remained hollow. All that existed between us was a tug of war between my dreams and hers for her son. This lasted nearly a decade.

11:35 a.m.: “It needs to be kept warm. Now we wait. It needs to rise, double.” She wraps the bowl with an American flag blanket from our sofa and places it inside the oven. My eyebrows rise.

In the winter of 1999, Pete and I became ringlessly engaged on a beautiful, snowy night in Baltimore. We were twenty-three and had been together for more than seven years. By this time, I had completed my imaginary premarital checklist: graduate from college, travel and work abroad, take Greek lessons, and prepare to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Getting married was all that remained. A ring could come later.

Meeting with the priest earlier that day, we’d set a date for one year later. We skipped through the snow to an upscale Baltimore bar down the street for a glass of champagne. Afterward, he drove us in my car through the wintry darkness, though it seemed his ebullient mood had changed. We held hands. He focused on the road, and I on what might come next.

“What do you think your mother will say?” I ventured.

12:35 p.m.: I walk into the kitchen and reach for the handle of the oven.

“Don’t open it yet, Christinaki. It needs more time.”

We gathered in the smoky, dimly lit kitchen of his mother’s condo: my soon-to-be husband, his two older brothers, his mother, and me. After small talk, he plunged in headfirst.

“So, Christina and I want to get married. We met with the priest and picked a date,” Pete said.

I tensed my shoulders and wrung my hands while everyone else in the room grew still.

“Yeah. Next December,” he continued. “What was it, Christina?” Pete turned to me.

I glanced at my feet. Drops of water dotted the black leather of my boots. “The ninth,” I said looking up.

Pete’s mother dropped her chin, and looked from under her eyebrows. “No, you cannot get married. Not to her. Not yet.” She swallowed.

Not to her?

Deep breath. Deep breath. My skin tingled, my throat constricted, and my lip quivered. I studied the white linoleum floor. Tears burned the back of my eyes. Through the veil of smoke, a cocktail of maternal support mixed together in chorus from his brothers. I fled and left Pete to absorb what I couldn’t.

I attempted to gather myself in the powder room, but instead became unstitched. As I bent over the sink, hard tears drew lines to the drain. My insides tried to climb out through my throat. Shaking my head, I mouthed the words “what” and “how” between swallows of air.

1:07 p.m.: Mom removes the risen dough from the oven and gently unwraps the sofa blanket. The smell takes me to a faraway place somewhere between satisfaction and honor. We are creating food. Sustenance. Comfort. We. Together.

We knead the dough again, but gently, lovingly then shape it into loaves, slice the tops, and let them rise again.

A string of years dotted with passing hellos, shared dinner tables, and posed photos held us together. She and I remained unmeasured, flavorless, cold to one another. In the bathroom, I swelled with rage and with fear. I looked up, wiped my face and washed my hands. I decided to be present. After seven years of conceding to his mother, I went back to Pete and my chair in the kitchen.

“…you have your whole life ahead of you. You are so successful. Why her? Why now?”
Tears pooled and fell in defeated drops as I shifted in my seat. The fluorescent bulbs buzzing overhead, I fixated on the dirty kitchen floor. My consciousness rose out of me, out into the night.

I moved out of the kitchen, blankly past one of Pete’s brothers who was perched on the countertop, past Pete’s mother sitting stiff in a swivel chair. A single lamp lit the living room. I fingered my purse for my keys and turned the handle of the front door. “I need to leave,” I mumbled to no one.

1:43 p.m.: The loaves are brown and swollen. Ready to bake.

“It takes about forty-five minutes. Christinaki, sprinkle water over the tops.”

As I turned to close the door, Pete stood by my side. My body softened. The clarity of his allegiance infused me with energy. A strong message in any family, but in a Greek one, it is like choosing to be disowned.

“350 degrees. Set the timer.”

As we climbed into the car, Pete’s mother shattered the night with a cascade of remarks in Greek. Eyes and hair blending with the night, she was a fierce face and a fighting spirit.

“Taki! Stamata! Sta-ma-ta!” Her arms flailed and her index finger pointed up into the cold night sky.

She followed us in her car. At Pete’s urging, I stopped at the end of the street. Both cars, now side by side, I leaned over and saw her anger written in tears on her face.

Eisai trellos!” She slammed her fist on the steering wheel.

“Mom, there is nothing else to say.” He motioned for me to drive forward. Away from her. Away from the fear and the chaos that slid between our hopes and us.

2:30 p.m.: The oven beeps. The delicious aroma of bread baking fills the house. Crusty, warm. We remove the loaves from the pan to cool. I search her face and hold my breath as she looks at our creations.

“Christinaki, they are perfect. Good job.”

These words tumble into me and curl into the coldest place in my heart. I wrap my arms around her. She is all warmth, soft and whole. I find her eyes: “Thank you.”

This moment had been rising for fourteen years.

I’ve been baking my own bread ever since that day.

Mom’s Bread

4C White Bread Flour
4C Wheat Bread Flour
3tsp fresh ground salt
2 1/4tsp active yeast
2C+/- warm water
1/2C good quality olive oil

Combine and knead in your largest bowl. Let rise in a warm place for a bit over an hour. Punch down. Shape into oblong loaves and place on sheet or baguette pan. Score. Let rise for an hour or so. Preheat oven to 350. Bake 30-50M. Cool on the counter. Enjoy with oil and salt.

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Christina Marie Speed

Christina Marie Speed


Author Bio: CHRISTINA MARIE SPEED taught overseas and in the US for several years before admitting to herself that she needed to give in and just write. She has written a short column for The Lahontan Valley News, and is currently a Literary Reflections Editorial Assistant at LiteraryMama.com. A full-time wife and stay-at-home mother, and part-time literacy coach for children, she writes creative non-fiction, poetry, and books for children. To learn more about Christina, visit her Web site at www.christinamariespeed.com.

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10 comments to Rising

  • Verlie Turla

    My brother suggested I would possibly like this blog. He was totally right. This post actually made my day. Thank you!

  • time traveler

    Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and all. Nevertheless just imagine if you added some great images or videos to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and clips, this blog could undeniably be one of the best in its niche. Great blog!

  • Nancy Immel

    I love the mixture of the two stories and how they came together. Very moving and meaningful.

  • Christina,
    This story touched me. I have dealt with similar problems. You did a fantastic job of weaving back and forth from past to present time. Thank you for sharig this.

    Jeanette Cheezum

  • deborah speed

    wonderful piece— always proud of you love m

  • Great weaving work, the two pieces of past and the present reflections on them. Additionally, I cannot wait to try the bread. Thank you.

  • Beth

    I love it! Congratulations – to BOTH of you! Beautiful!

  • Carol Juul

    Such an eloquent vignette; alienation and rejection transformed through the years into acceptance and respect. It is not only the bread that rises above its environment, and nurtures with the essence of life, in this winsome piece of writing.

  • Tony Smith

    I was very touched and captivated by your story. I love the metaphor of keading dough to create the bread that united you both, and how you kneaded the past with the present. Kudos on a poignant story, superlatively written!

  • Kathy

    This is a beautifully written, poignant piece! I LOVE it!

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