My Mother, Baking Bread
by William Michaelian

Something happens. I don’t know what, or why, or how. But it isn’t religion; and it isn’t science; and it isn’t politics; and it isn’t philosophy; nor is it anything else that can be used to fetch a nickel in the marketplace. Lately, I think it has something to do with my mother, and with the long hours she spends in the kitchen, pouring her life like honey into old dented bread pans. That I can believe in. I can believe in the rhythm of flour-white knuckles pounding out the dough, and in the shining eyes of a woman who has passed through life’s fire.

But let me go back a few years — back to the beginning of time, and then back further still, when a tall man with a dark mustache walked across the wooden porch of his house and went inside. This man was my father, and he found my mother waiting for him in the kitchen. She was standing by the stove. He studied her and from the doorway said, “Is it time?” My mother nodded and said, “Yes.”

My father went to my mother and kissed her. Then they talked quietly together for a few minutes while my mother stirred a pot of soup.

Inside my mother, I was roaming about in the gentle darkness. I said, “Yes, it’s time, yes, it’s time,” and as hard as I could I pushed my foot against her stomach. In the same instant, she gasped and put down the wooden spoon she had been using to stir her soup. She reached out and my father took her hand. He put his arm around what was left of her waist and helped her into the parlor, and then the three of us sat down on an old sofa.

There was more talk. Some of it was about Lucy, my mother’s older sister. Lucy had already been called and had said she would be there soon.

A few minutes or several hours later, I’m not sure which, we got up again and went into my father and mother’s bedroom. There was a sudden burst, I remember, followed by a convulsive force of irresistible magnitude, which was divided into pleasure and pain by my mother’s hard breathing and the sound of encouraging voices, my father’s and Lucy’s. Then I inhaled and for the first time knew the smell of blood, and the smell of flesh. But there was another smell, also, the intriguing smell of something burning. It was the soup.

*     *     *

Now, let me go forward again. I am walking through a level, grassy, treeless expanse. It is a hot day, very hot, and I am sweating profusely. I am sixteen years old. Every which way I turn, I see flat, gray stones. These are the stones of the dead, the stones of men and women and children who have all melted into the earth. After a long search, I find a stone bearing my father’s name. Kneeling, I read the name over and over. I place my hand on the stone, which has grown hot from the sun, and I say to myself: “I could fry an egg on it.” Then I start to cry.

I remember visiting my father’s grave on another occasion; this time, it was being covered with snowflakes. Kissed, I thought, but then I was twenty and in love. I was in love with Jean, a young woman the same age. Jean was learning to be a photographer, and had plans to take pictures in Africa, and in many other wild places, and also in some that weren’t so wild but used to be. Jean especially liked the idea of taking pictures early in the morning just before the sun was up, when the sky in the east looks painted, and when silent birds cleave the dawn with wings as sharp as blades.

One day, when I asked Jean if I could go with her and help her take her pictures, she smiled and kissed me but she didn’t say yes. She kissed me, and her kiss said so many things that I nearly forgot my question. But there was something in Jean’s kiss that I will never forget, and that was the solemn permission she gave me to love her, if loving her was a thing I cared to do, and to believe in the terrifying, lonely, proud, passionate, truthful part of her that could never be explained but that made her so real.

And she set forth, bringing back images: of blood on snow; a fallen tree; a butterfly the size of a child’s hand; and a tiny high-mountain lake that had absorbed the somber gray sky like a frozen mirror.

*     *     *

Back then, Jean’s hair was long and she parted it in the middle. Other than washing and combing, she gave it no special treatment. She wore no perfume, and always used plain soap on her skin. We made love often — eagerly, hungrily — on the floor, on the couch, in the shower. All the while, like a gathering of ancient, tribal eyes, her pictures watched from every wall. Looking at them afterward, standing before them hand in hand, we both were amazed to find how much they’d changed.

One afternoon, on her way home from school, Jean drove through a sudden downpour. She was in her faithful but topless old jeep, and when she finally made it home she was soaked to the skin.

I was sitting on the couch with a book when she flung the door open and staggered inside. She collapsed on the floor, laughing, then rolled onto her knees and shook herself. Water flew everywhere.

I got up to close the door. It was still raining, but in the west, miles beyond our apartment parking lot, a small patch of bright blue sky had punctured a hole in the clouds.

Jean was still laughing. I held out my hands and helped her to her feet. Her skin was like ice. I put my arms around her, and around the wet hair trailing down her back. She slid her hands up under my shirt and I yelled. She looked at me, her playful eyes afire. I kissed her as hard as I could. She returned my kiss with equal force.

*     *     *

Something happens. It happens completely, effortlessly, fully, each moment. It happens in every child born, in every leaf that grows, fades, and dies. And then it goes on happening, scattering our precious dreams along the way, and leaving them for others to find.

As I leave the neighborhood on my way to work, I sometimes think, “Maybe things aren’t so bad. Maybe things really are the way they should be.” It isn’t exactly poetic, but it is an interesting possibility. I know there are major problems, but maybe the problems are who we are right now. Maybe the problems are what we need in order to become whatever it is we need to become. I know this sounds vague; I also know that the people who call themselves experts don’t have a clue, even if they are being paid. At the same time, so they’re being paid — so what? I say, bully for them. I say, live and let live. I say, let it slide. Because, the truth is, we’ve all had a hand in making this world what it is. Therefore, in fighting against it, we are fighting against ourselves; and, during the course of battle, we wear ourselves out and become discouraged.

On my way to work, I see men and women on the sidewalk. They are spitting, smoking, scratching their heads, adjusting their clothing. But what are they really doing? As far as I can tell, they are striving for a little sanity and continuity, and for something that’s even more elusive and which probably doesn’t exist at all: security.

And here is where the poetry lies. For when all is said and done, what can be more poetic than so many people, simultaneously trying?

I used to think Jean’s images were images only a young woman could capture. Now I’m pretty sure it was the images that captured her.

I used to think that if a woman and a man were lucky and played their cards right, they would have plenty of time to live their dreams. Now I think they’re lucky if their dreams have time to live them.

I used to think that if a woman could truly give herself to a man, and that if a man could truly give himself to a woman . . . but then, what I think doesn’t really matter, does it?

*     *     *

A great deal of time has passed. Jean and I are sitting in a quiet room. The room is in our house, and it looks out on the street.

We’re talking. The autumn sun is going down. There is a slight chill in the room, and we’ve decided to build our first fire of the season. Jean and I both love having a fire. The wood has been waiting on the porch for over a month.

But let me tell you what we’re talking about. As it turns out, Jean didn’t go to Africa. She had babies instead. A girl and three boys. But she did take a lot of pictures closer to home, and several have won awards.

Since our kids have all flown, as the saying goes, we’ve been putting some money and elbow grease into an old house downtown near the city library.

The house is going to be Jean’s first real studio.

It will surely be different from the studio she might have had when she was twenty, but Jean says that’s okay, she will still recognize it when it’s done.

Right now, though, having a fire is just as important.

And each other.

Anyway, there you have it. That’s what we’re talking about.

It might sound old-fashioned, but neither of us have ever felt we’ve had to sacrifice. What we’ve done, we’ve done together. Very little ever went according to plan, so after a while we decided to stop planning and start living.

*     *     *

The white-haired woman in the kitchen is my mother.

“How’s it coming?” I say.

“Oh, as you see.”

“It smells good.”

“You always liked the smell of bread.”

“Who’s going to eat all this?”

“The kids.”

The grandchildren.

The great-grandchildren.

All the children of the world.

“Whatever you say, Ma.”

I kiss the pale, wrinkled skin that is now my mother’s face.

I think of many things and say nothing.

I think of my father.

I think of Jean, who is in taking a nap.

I think of her pictures.

I go to the window and look out.

Behind me, whispering to herself, my mother dips her old measuring cup into the sack of flour on the counter.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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