Peanut Butter & Jelly
There are two people I think of every time I make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. One is my first husband Sam. He always thought I was too heavy handed with both peanut butter and jelly, and I thought he didn’t lay it on thick enough. We each have our preferences.
The other is a woman named Mary, the only child of a single mom, Silvia. Mary was a few years older than I, and she never married or had children. Silvia and Mary were very close. I didn’t know either of them particularly well, I just saw them at church on Sundays, stopping to chat briefly in the portico before heading off to brunch. I remember Mary telling me, when my own sons were probably too young even to eat peanut butter, that her mother always spread the peanut butter and jam to the very edges of the bread so that each bite of the sandwich, even the crusts, had all the necessary elements of a PB&J. Mary had a great deal of appreciation for her own mother who prepared her sandwiches with this level of care. Those little details in her lunchbox epitomized the thoughtfulness in their relationship.
Mary and Sam once happened to be on the same flight to Dallas. It was exactly 17 years ago. I remember the timing because I was neurotically pregnant at the time. Sam hadn’t called me from the airport; he waited to call from the hotel. I would have been completely frantic by that time were it not for the fact that Mary had already called me from DFW airport to let me know that their plane landed safely. Right after she had called Silvia. Mary was a sales rep for an international company, and she travelled frequently. Every time she landed safely in a new airport, she called her mother.
Mary died in her 40’s. Cancer, I think, although I don’t know for sure. Silvia died not terribly long thereafter. A broken heart, I’m sure.
It may seem a small reverence, but when I prepare my boys’ sandwiches, I use a bit less PB&J than I otherwise would. I also spread the peanut butter and the jelly right to the edges of the bread. I smile, and I think of Sam and Mary every time.
When Tim and I first got married, our collective brood of boys were ages 9, 11, 14 and 17. Among the many changes in our transition from two families of three to one family of six was the simple matter of buying bread. I was accustomed to using three slices of bread for the daily lunches, because the youngest only ate half of a sandwich. With four sons, however, our daily consumption increased to eleven slices, because the oldest two ate two sandwiches each. This will happen with teenage boys who are growing like weeds, especially when they play freshman football and varsity basketball.
All four boys have gone through that stage where it feels like I can watch them growing in front of my very eyes. It’s breathtaking each time. I swear they are taller when they stand up after dinner than they were when they first sat down. And it only takes them 7 minutes to eat. They unfurl every morning, stretching into men that I reach up to hug as I hand them their lunches on the way out the door. One of them playfully lifts me off the floor and moves me out of his way, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
With two away now, our daily bread intake has decreased again. It rises and falls as each boy comes home to touch base and flies off again to create his own life. And make his own sandwiches. It is no small miracle, this feeding of children and watching them grow.
Bread of Life
In the flurry that comprises my life – kids and cats and dog, office work and volunteer work, church life and home life – I rarely prepare bread from scratch, although it is an activity that I thoroughly enjoy. It’s a busy weekend, and I intend to use the day to catch up on some work, tackle a few chores and bake, which honestly is a welcome reprieve from the weekly chaos that has been our standard fare. Baking bread from scratch is somewhat of a lost art in our culture of pre-made everything, but there is something deeply satisfying about the process. I have dedicated myself not to go anywhere today. I’ve been craving a day to make bread.
My favorite is challah, the Jewish Sabbath bread. It is a celebratory bread, fluffy and buttery, often prepared in a variety of shapes, but I favor the braided version. The strands look like arms intertwined. I bake dozens of loaves during the Christmas season to share with friends and family. I am abysmal at decorating ginger bread cookies, but I can turn out a golden brown, shiny loaf of challah. It also makes excellent French toast, if it’s around long enough to get slightly stale, which rarely ever happens.
The recipe book opens automatically to the page. The ingredients are simple – the basic stuff of life – eggs, milk, flour, butter, a pinch of salt, a little sugar, and of course the yeast. It’s not particularly difficult, but it does take time. And attention. And a little finesse. Too much heat or too little sugar will kill the yeast and ruin the bread. I suspect there is a parenting lesson for me in this. I am so annoyed with the inactivity of certain teenagers with exams on the horizon that I am ready to apply a swift kick with the pointy end of my boot. Instead, I think about the yeast and the sweetness, the heat and the time. I bite my tongue.
One of the things I love about baking is that it draws the boys to the kitchen. “Quick, Mom, quiz me! What’s a heliocentric system?” I know the answer immediately: “A system that revolves around the sons – like our family.” He’s not amused, but his brother in the next room laughs.
He looks over at the bowl sitting on the counter with a clean towel and asks his next question. “Why is the challah just sitting there? Did you give up?” Yes, I did. Sometimes that’s what quality parenting looks like. Giving up seems to be the only thing I do consistently as a mother. I give up over and over, right before I try again.
I set the whole sticky mess aside in a quiet spot, left alone to do its rising thing. It might look like it’s sitting there, doing nothing, but such things are not always as they seem. After some time, the needling, I mean kneading, begins, and the sticky lump begins to take shape. By this point both baker and kitchen counter are covered in a fine dusting of flour. The pounding down of the leavened dough is therapeutic for me as the baker. It is not nearly so pleasant when I feel like the dough that the Maker is beating down and molding. And yet, this part of the process is not the end of the story. The dough rises again.
Some days, I need this reminder. The process is not easy, it cannot necessarily be rushed, but the result is delicious.
These are the same basic elements worth using to create a life – a little sweetness, a warm quiet space to grow, periods of challenge and difficulty, often forcing us back to a warm, safe space, but which inspire us and form us anew. In this place, we find a community, within which we give our time, our unique talents, our own beautiful selves.
As the smell of freshly baked bread permeates the kitchen, the boys draw closer, wondering, “Is it ready yet, Mom? “
The first loaf invariably disappears in a flurry of hands and steam and melted butter. Then comes the boys’ least favorite part of the process: the recipe yields four loaves, and I always give one away, even when it’s not holiday time. “Can’t we just keep them all for ourselves?” We never do, because some things – and homemade challah is one of them – are simply better in the sharing.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And daily bread.