The winner of our 2021 competition is Emma Hartley! Read her entry, "The Baking Lesson", below.
View the previous year's winning entries here.
2021: The Baking Lesson, Emma Hartley
Thin wisps of flour rise into the air as Grandma kneads her dough. The hand-me-down breadboard creaks beneath her steady hands. Her skin is a cracked desert floor, an ancient, arid landscape. I have charted it since I could remember, from the peaks of her raised blue veins to the glowing-russet valleys between. As she works, flour settles everywhere—further fading the mustard-yellow flowers of Grandma’s polyester house dress, dulling the snowy luster of her hair, obscuring the hands on the teapot-shaped clock ticking away the moments, an external heartbeat in the room.
I sit hunch-shouldered on my stool watching Grandma’s practiced movements. They are the motions of the ancestors, the steady pulse of bread’s slow transformation from disparate parts to delicious whole.
Although it’s Saturday, school still spins noise in my mind. I fidget and shift and occasionally sigh. I’m frowning at nothing. At everything. Grandma isn’t frowning. Grandma’s expression is always serene, although her body never stops moving. Her face is a meditating monk I saw in a book. It is the ageless necessity of providing for others. It’s what love looks like, I think.
Listening to the sound of the dough as it is pulled and prodded into submission, I wonder what Grandma is thinking about. Is her mind like mine, where the thoughts-in-words never cease, where the chatter is a constant?
“Grandma, what do you think about when you knead the dough?” I ask, curious.
She glances up from the work surface to scan my face. They’re cloudy now, but once her eyes were the rarest sapphire, like that of the sea she crossed from Syria. Or so my aunts tell me. In the faintly accented English she’s struggled to tame, she says, “I am not thinking anything, habibi.”
“Everyone thinks about something,” I return, because I don’t understand. I’m always thinking about ten things. Twenty.
“I make the bread,” she says, tipping her head, her threadbare eyebrows raised above the rim of her glasses. Then, she looks back at the dough. It’s sticky so she dips her hand into a little mound of flour and continues kneading, never breaking the rhythm, like incessant waves upon her far-away sea.
Maybe she didn’t understand what I meant.
“Like when I’m drawing a picture, I’m thinking about what I’m drawing but I’m also thinking about softball practice, or what Lena said at school, or what I have to do for homework. You know what I mean?” I look at her tranquil face expectantly.
“No, habibi. I make bread and don’t think anything.” The wrinkles beside her eyes tighten and curve; her mouth turns up at the corners. Her smile is liquid honey warmth, the sun through clouds. For a fragment of time, she seems younger. A child in an old woman’s body.
How could she be so peaceful? She fought all the odds to escape a little slice of hell-on-earth in the home country. She never talks about it now, but the aunts tell stories around the table on Saturday nights, always past bedtime. I sit beside Aunt Sophie as they talk and talk, tiny cups of ‘ahweh steaming fragrant, bitter and sweet when I sneak a taste, the grounds clinging to my tongue like the stories of the past cleave to us no matter what.
“It’s why she hates dogs,” Aunt Alice says. “The starving children would have to fight them for scraps.”
“She worked as a maid from the time she was 9,” they remember aloud for her, keeping the history breathing.
“She was lucky the American family liked her,” Aunt Freda says. “They sponsored her to come here when she was sixteen.”
“Everyone likes her,” Sophie adds, laughing her husky smoker’s laugh.
Grandma shared these stories with her children long ago and now they trade them across the table, weaving their history into a tapestry of memories for those of us kids who are patient enough to listen. I promise myself I won’t forget, but sleep always tugs at my eyelids and the memories grow hazy even as I form them.
When the dough is ready, Grandma puts it into a bowl to rest and covers it with a towel. It already smells so good, earthy and soft and comforting. My stomach tightens in anticipation. Grandma wipes her hands on her apron and towels off the breadboard.
Dried apricots appear beside me in a tiny dish and I didn’t know I’d been hungry until I pop one in my mouth. String cheese appears alongside it on a saucer, like magic. Caraway seeds, to remind us about the bitterness of life, nestle into the cheese’s sweetness. Za’atar will season the bread later, but I can feel the tang of sumac on my tongue already.
I’m full now, feeling all loved and cozy. Grandma still didn’t answer my question, but I forget as I turn and spontaneously hug her, her warm bread-scent, her goodness like a flood in my heart.
Eventually, Grandma takes the dough from the bowl and works it again.
“Can I help, Grandma?” I ask.
“Yes, habibi,” she smiles.
I wash my hands and find an apron in the drawer. Beside her, feeling too tall, I try to work the dough as she does. Grandma lays her hands over mine and shows them how to be gentle yet firm. She teaches them the rise and fall, the push and pull, and I begin to feel it in my bones.
“Good, good,” she says softly as she lets go, leaving a dusting of flour invisible along the backs of my pale hands, but I feel it. It’s a ghost, a remainder, a softness and a lightness, and it is just enough to keep her presence upon me while I work, and time disappears in the rhythm of the dough.
“What are you thinking, habibi?” Grandma asks me suddenly, and I look up to meet the laughter in her eyes. I smile back, embarrassed, and she knows why.
“Nothing, Grandma,” I say. “I’m making the bread.”