Savoring the Ritual of Daily Bread

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By Cecilia Farran

Special to Voice of the River Valley

The old man was a farmer. Quietly he went about his days and years, milking his cows, tending the land, planting fields of golden wheat. And every August, he would save back from the harvest a worn burlap sack full of grain secured in a wooden barrel beside the workbench in the shed.

And his wife on Tuesdays would pull an old sweater about her shoulders and make her crippled way to that shed. She would lift an old hand grinder from the bag where it rested and she would grind whole-wheat flour, fumble her footsteps back to the house and bake bread.

And oh, how he did love that bread. Each meal there’d be a slice or two cut into great crumbly slabs, slathered with butter and lifted to his mouth with his oversized hands as if it were an offering to the gods of life. Those hands were farmer hands, strong and calloused and forever smeared with butter. And he would manage to smear his mouth, lick his finger and forever mark his place at table with the grease of it. No meal was complete without the butter and the ritual of the bread. And she would say, “Oh, Dick.” It was a daily chore and a full-time job keeping that old man clean.

And so the years went on.

The earth tracing circles around the sun. Seeds put into the earth, sprouted and grew to the harvest. Grain was made into flour and baked into bread. Tuesdays yielded to Wednesdays. Summer yielded to fall. Winter to spring, and with it would come the warming of the earth and the planting of new seed.

Today is Tuesday with the grand spring smell of earth and the sun reaching for high noon. I’m in the farmhouse kitchen. His favorite foods: a beef roast, gravy and mashed potatoes are ready and warming in the oven while I am rummaging through the cupboards to complete this main meal of the day.

I find a can of peaches. That’s good. I put a golden half into each of two bowls and pour a bit of juice. I find a can of green beans. I know that green beans in a can aren’t really green and that in the basement there is a freezer with bags of real green garden beans she preserved last summer, but he likes these canned beans and this meal isn’t as much about nutrition as it is about his comfort.

It is then I find it and stare in stunned silence: a half loaf of her bread. I recover and cut two slices, putting them and the rest of the loaf on the table with the bread knife. He’ll cut more as he goes along. Oh yes, and the butter, too. Can’t forget the butter.

He comes in from the field and washes up and this old man and I sit down across the table from each other, in this old kitchen just like long ago. It seems only yesterday that this sunlit space echoed with the tumble of us all. Now only silence is left to hang on the back of empty chairs, her chair empty now but for one worn sweater.

But the warmth of the food is here and he leads grace. Elbows anchored on the table, gnarled fingers woven in front of his face, head bowed. “Bless us, Lord, and this food from thy bounty.”

The “amen” comes, but he doesn’t move except to press the backs of his thumbs against his forehead. I lift my eyes and sneak a peek. His praying hands with the cracked nails and the embedded grime of farming are working together to hold it all in.

Finally a deep sigh and he lowers his hands. Surveys the table with a nod. But he doesn’t reach for the food just yet. His elbows are on the table and he is hesitating. Waiting for the daily reminder: “Dick, elbows down.” Today it doesn’t come. Today he does not have to remove his elbows, but for a reason known only to him, today he does.

We talk, sharing the pleasantries of this and that. Once, looking up, our eyes meet, searching, but the pain is too great. We both retreat into more talk of the day.

We linger. He leans over and cuts another slice from the loaf. Cuts it in half. Takes one. So do I. We both dig into the butter. We’re after that bread, but not to fill a cavity in our bellies. We’re eating now to feed the hunger in our hearts.

Finally, the meal can be held no longer. He knows it. Takes a deep breath. Pushes his chair back. The scrape against the floor mocks us with its hollow grind as he puts his hands on his stiff knees and pushes himself up. I look at those hands again. He’s had a good meal. Now they’re full of resolve. Maybe he can hold off the sorrow forever. He stands for a moment and looks sidelong at me, breaking the silence with his old enough-of-this-nonsense voice. “I got work to do. I gotta get those flowers in the ground.” Then he finally looks right at me. “You mind cleaning up? I’ll be up at the cemetery.”

Numbly I nod. Flowers? Yes, they are withering in that flat. Again those brown strong hands. How many seasons have they served him in the planting? They know seeds and soil, but flowers? Has he ever planted a flower? Flowers require a delicacy. I wonder how those hands will deliver.

From where I sit at the table I watch him go out the screen door. It seems to close behind him more softly than usual. Then through the window I see him load his car. What’s left of a flat of petunias, a shovel, a hoe. Several gallon jugs of water. I smile. A farmer wouldn’t forget the water now, would he? He sets them all in and carefully closes the trunk. He turns the car in the driveway and slowly rolls it toward the road. To any passing motorist he’s just another maddeningly slow old man behind the wheel of an old man’s car: his years-old, impeccably kept, powder-blue Lincoln Town Car, with the power windows that delight him so much. But they wouldn’t see the truth of his resolution, his hands on the wheel as he’s off to plant flowers. Off to face sadness in his own way, with his hands in the earth.

I clear the table. Wipe the crumbs … and, smiling, the butter grease. Wash the plates. Wrap the bread. There is enough left for two slices and, oh, yes, the heel. I leave it out on the table with the knife and the butter. When he gets home his spirit will be hungry. He’ll help himself then. He’ll have a lot to chew on when he gets to that end piece.

And when it’s gone, he’ll have the long days of summer. And the harvest. Tallying bushels of wheat will take his attention for a time. However, this year, from the grand total, there will be no need to spare a bushel or two for a burlap bag in an old and dusty shed. He hasn’t said much but we know he’s counting days. The planted wheat is shooting up in long rows as he marks off the Tuesdays since she last baked bread. He’s often bowed his head, but none of us have seen a tear and we think we know why. We know he’s been working his tears into a whispered mantra, “So be it.”

So be it. He’s trained himself not only to say it, but to live it for these 80-some years. We children have always heard “So be it” as we watched him ride a circle of grace through ridiculously low milk prices, drought, sick cattle, taxes and urban sprawl that even now threatens his way of life and his beloved land.

We watched as he showed us how winter’s white death would always come round to the green of spring. We saw how he held it all together, not by an iron will, but by surrender.

And by faith. He would always say gently to us, “Don’t go gettin’ ahead of yourselves now. We’ll make it. We’ll be fine.”

I wonder, does one learn such wisdom from the seeds of wheat? Does one find substance for more than body in a butter-slathered slice of homemade bread? Perhaps.

And what of tomorrow’s bread? It will be pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic. He will look forward to the shopping and a chance to tease with the girls at the deli. But what nourishment will it hold, that store-bought bread? Will it stick to his ribs? Will it stick to his soul?

I need to go so we might each face this in our own way.

I swat a few flies, collect my things. As I leave, the screen door seems to close softer than it usually does.

This summer is not going to be easy. He’ll be working at not getting ahead of himself. “So be it,” he’ll be saying.

And perhaps I needn’t concern myself about that store-bought bread for I think he carries the Bread of Life in his heart.

I bend to pat the dog. Then crossing the yard to my car I suddenly discover that my eyes no longer have enough room for all the sadness and the beauty that I see in this old man. Tears begin to fall like grains of wheat spilling out of a bag at harvest.

Through them I can see that I have grown wiser in these last two weeks and I am glad for these tears. It is their salt, their moisture that will lend flavor and softness to my own life’s bread. I’m not ready yet, but perhaps someday I will be able to surrender and say with the same fullness of being, “So be it,” to whatever might come.


Rose’s Whole-Wheat Bread

Both my mother, Rose, and I used wheat we had grounded from the farm harvest, but prepackaged wheat will also make a lovely bread. This recipe makes two loaves. When making a larger batch some experimentation may be necessary in the proportion of whole-wheat flour. —Cecilia Farran

1 c. milk
2 T. sugar
1 T. salt
¼ c. butter
½ c. honey
1½ c. warm water (105-115º F)
2 pkg active dry yeast
2½ c. white flour
5 c. unsifted whole-wheat flour

METHOD: In small sauce pan, heat milk until bubbles form around the edge. Remove pan from heat. Add sugar, salt, butter, honey. Stir till butter melts. Cool to lukewarm. Sprinkle yeast over warm water in large bowl. Stir till dissolved. Stir in the milk mixture. Add white flour and half of wheat flour. Stir with wooden spoon till smooth — about 2 minutes. Gradually add remaining whole-wheat flour, mixing last of it with hand until dough leaves side of bowl.

Turn out on to lightly floured board (can use white or whole-wheat flour to flour board). Cover with bowl to rest 10 minutes. Knead until smooth and elastic 10 minutes. Place in lightly greased large bowl. Turn dough to bring up greased side. Cover with towel to rise in warm place (85F) free from drafts until double in size and thumb leaves indentation. Punch down with fist.

Turn onto lightly floured board. Divide in half. Shape each into smooth ball. Cover with towel to rise 10 minutes. Roll, fold and shape loaf and place in lightly greased 10x5x3-inch pan. Brush top of each loaf with 1 tablespoon melted butter and cover with towel. Let rise in warm place (85F), free from drafts, until double or until sides of dough reach top of pan. About 1¼ hours. Preheat oven to 400F. Experiment with temp as ovens vary. Bake loaves 40-50 minutes. Tops should be well-browned and sound hollow when rapped with knuckle. Remove from pans immediately. Cool on wire racks. Eating while still slightly warm as butter is spread and melts into the flavor is delicious. As bread cools, the rough texture becomes very pleasing to the palate.

Cecilia Farran is a Spring Green writer, spoken-word artist and owner of 43/90 North Earth Books and Gifts in Spring Green’s Albany Street Courtyard. She has performed “Daily Bread,” the true story of a noon meal she and her father shared within a week of her mother’s funeral, as a spoken-word piece. Her mother, Rose Marie Brandt Geason, suffered a stroke on Mother’s Day while planting flowers. She never regained consciousness and passed from this life shortly after her father whispered into her ear, “Rose, you may go. So be it.” The date was May 21, 1991. On Nov. 21, 1993, her father, Richard, silently slipped away in his sleep. They laid him in the good earth on Thanksgiving Day honoring both harvester and harvest. Members of her family still live on their century farm in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.