(What I Got) Out of Africa

A Brief Peace Corps Experience Told in Short Breaths and Countless Letters

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Thanksgiving Yeast

I’m waiting for my rolls to rise for the second time. I love the smell of yeast; the doughy smell of unbaked bread, promising a moment of heaven when the oven opens for warm freshly cut bread. More specifically, the aroma of baking bread reminds me of home.

I can pinpoint the first conscious memory I have of my mother baking bread. The memory revolves around the kitchen in our second Virginia home. It must have been shortly after we moved, so I would have been around six or seven. I remember eating the mushy dough and my mother firmly admonishing me not to eat too much. She threatened that the dough would “expand in my stomach,” I’d fill up and not be able to eat my dinner—a mother’s worst nightmare, I’m sure. I can’t recall if I was able to finish my dinner that night, but the taste of yeast lingered in my memory.

My mother didn’t bake bread often. Usually Bread Nights combined with Soup Nights on cold winter evenings. My mother’s loaves always turned out perfect—they were golden brown, the crust crispy, and the white inners soft and squishy. Like a good mother, she would limit us to only a few slices, but I swear, even at the tender age of six, I could have easily devoured the entire loaf myself (and probably under ten minutes!). I would have been horribly ill, I’m sure, much like the time my brother ate an entire pan of brownies. But, six-year old desire knows no boundaries. I would have, if I could have.

There always seemed something magical about baking bread. Dissolving the granules of yeast in warm water. Having to knead the dough using just the balls of your hand, not the fingers. In my child’s mind, I imagined the yeast to be “activated” through the kneading motion. Letting the dough rise, not once but twice, in the warmth of the oven with a pan of water to create the necessary moist environment. There is something so fertile, so fecund about the bread-making process. So womanly.

And so here I am, thousands of miles from my home, my roots, my mother’s kitchen. Yet, even the simple act of closing my eyes and opening the yeast can’s lid to inhale its essence is powerful enough for me to believe I am home in my mother’s kitchen. I almost believe that if I breathe deeply enough, I’ll be transported in space and time, back to my six-year old self. The longing to be that little girl, or at least home again amidst the smells of cooking, is so intense I can actually taste the yearning in the back of my mouth; it has become palpable. As I knead the floury dough as my mother taught me, flipping it, turning it, pounding every inch, I often cry. The loneliness in my tiny out-kitchen, with no other woman to share my creations, is almost unbearable.

Kitchens, busy kitchens, are synonymous with women. My mother’s kitchen: she’d be cooking dinner while my brother and I plugged away at our mathematics, spelling and reading at the dinner table. My grandmother’s kitchen: always warm and filled with bustling women during holidays. After the holiday meal, whether it was Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, the family women would perform the cleaning-up rituals together, packing away leftovers in old Tupperware containers, wiping down counters, carefully washing the silverware and patterned china. During the holidays, I listened in on the family gossip, slowly comprehending that these women, my relatives, had lives beyond family. As I got older, I helped wash the china and scrape the pots, but the magic of my Grandmother’s kitchen remained with me.

Perhaps this view is sexist, but I think not. My brother, father and uncles (though probably not my grandfather) would contribute to the holiday kitchen cleanup if asked. And perhaps the burden of cleanup does fall on the matriarchs’ shoulders because of gender. But I imagine the cleanup is a chance to escape into the world of women. The pregnant aunt could complain to sympathetic ears of her symptoms. My mother could talk about my brother’s pacifier dependence at age four. My Grandmother could quietly mention my Grandfather’s slow slide into dementia. The kitchen became the women’s domain, it allowed them the time to escape their families, to be together, to share.

Reaching the age where I, too, could participate in the kitchen conversations seemed momentous to me. Menstruating is important, sure, but being let into the secrets of my female relatives far surpasses that simple bodily function in terms of coming of age. And to be honest, I feel, sometimes I still haven’t attained true participation in the endless conversation that swirls around me. My grandmother and her daughters have a history that stretches far beyond my twenty-two years. I am the eldest of the two female grandchildren and I’m the eldest grandchild by five years. I’m always the groundbreaker, the first at everything. Perhaps I’ve not ventured fully into the kitchen conversation because I’m slightly intimidated by these women, my blood. My short life experience pales in comparison to their years of wisdom. My aunt, only fifteen years older than me, is the closest I’ve ever had to a sister, has always been my role model. I’m sure she has no idea how much I looked up to her—and still do. I’m slightly in awe of her and always have been. In my eyes, she even managed to make the 80s look fashionable. I’m sure she’d laugh if I ever told her these sentiments, and protest that nothing she does is glamorous or graceful, but she still (with three children, a Navy husband and a dog) simply makes life look “cool.”

I want so desperately to gain these women’s approval. I want them to not just love me, as I know they do, but like me. I want them to know me. I want to prove that I can hold their confidences. I want to be part of their inner circle of femaleness. My full acceptance will happen, I have no doubt, and I suspect the “secret password” has something to do with motherhood. Having just outgrown childhood myself, I have yet to adopt the term “woman” as one that identifies me. And certainly, I am in no hurry for children, as I’ve discovered looking after myself and Neville the Wonder Dog quite difficult enough.

But part of me longs for the day when I can be one of the women, longs for the day when pregnancy ceases to be a thing of nightmares and magically morphs into something to be rejoiced. In the recesses of my mind, I look forward to the time when my body is allowed to grow to fruition, to be ripe, swell and change with incipient motherhood.

That time is years down the road, however, and the fact remains that I am the farthest away from all things familiar as the holidays approach. Thanksgiving, my favorite day of the year, is on this Thursday. Thanksgiving signals the anticipation of birthdays, of Christmas, of cookies, of stockings, of presents, of cold weather, snow and frost. But most importantly, Thanksgiving signals family. For better or worse, my family gathers every year; sometimes, it’s just my nuclear family and grandparents, other years, the extended family joins in the festivities. Regardless, it’s family in all its glorious messiness and confusion.

And instead of eating the rice and gravy, the yeasty rolls, the broccoli, the turkey, I will be celebrating a very different holiday with a spastic dog and a can of turkey (surprisingly better than it sounds). But such is the price of adventure and independence. Maybe on the last Thursday of November, I’ll bake some yeasty rolls of my own, shedding quiet tears into the dough as I knead away my homesickness. In my tiny out-kitchen so far away, I can scrub some pots, and smile knowing my aunts and grandmother are chattering away, thinking of me. Even better, as I shape my loaves, I know I can eat as much dough as I want. It no longer matters if I lose my appetite—all I had planned for supper was canned turkey, anyways.


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