Baking bread for my mother


Tuesday night I walked among mermaids, lions, demons, and witches who flooded the  neighborhood. The streets were closed to traffic and a volunteer police force guarded us in the smoky suburban streets. Kids clumped together clutching bags of candy, then scattered as they ran and spun into the falling dusk, imp-giggles trailing like pine smoke in the butter-warm Indian summer night.

I set up an ofrenda, an altar, to my mom. On a bookshelf in the kitchen I spread a bright table cloth she gave me long ago, then set a photo of her taken on her birthday, a  2013 image of her smiling and pretty in a coral-colored suit jacket. Next to her photo I set a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream and a yellow Opal apple.


On Halloween I baked all day, making challah in the morning, and an apple pie in the evening. When I finally went to bed at midnight, my energy straddling the hour between Halloween and All-Saints day, the house smelled like her house—baking wheat, caramelized sugars, heat-softened fruit. Perhaps it would entice her to the ofrenda where she might drink the Baileys and taste the Opal apple. Perhaps she could reach through that veil and touch me.

Wednesday dawned warm and clear, fitting for All-Saints day, a day of remembrance for our loved ones who have gone to heaven. The time of year that the veil thins. A liminal time, a threshold, when one thing changes into another thing. In Mexico it’s the season of Dia de los Muertos, the time when the dead can come back to visit the living.

People tell tales of their loved ones visiting them. One friend told me she saw her mother standing in her bedroom, at the foot of the bed, the night after her mother died. Another saw her father in a cloud of cigarette smoke moving across her living room. Others see their loved ones in dreams, or hear their voices.

Today is November 2. I wept this morning because, despite the ofrenda (built, I admit, as bait to lure her into my home) I never felt my mom’s presence, save in the smells and tastes of the baking I began on Halloween. Perhaps that is all that’s left of her: The memories I can beg by dressing my life in activity; feelings I summon by making pie, bread, soups; remembrances of taste.

I don’t want a nebulous feeling, a drifting odor, a dream. I want to know that it’s her. I want a visitation.

And yet, I fear such a thing. Will she be angry that I didn’t do enough to save her? That we caused her pain as she died? That our efforts to keep her out of pain deprived her of consciousness?

That’s silly. My mother was not an angry woman. American culture’s fascination with horror has given ghosts a bad rap. Why would my mother be something in death that she did not embrace in life?

But she always kept her word. Long ago, she promised that if she could, she would come back to say goodbye. Which is more important to me now because death interrupted; we could not properly bid our adieus.

Fallow field 3.5″ x 2.5″ watercolor in Strathmore Mixed Media Journal

It’s November 2nd. The ofrenda remains in my kitchen. The day is gray and chilled, and my loved ones hear me crying (my fiddler can hear me crying no matter how quietly I try to sob) and hug me. Perhaps today, or some time during this liminal season, my mother will reach across that thin threshold into the graying winter light, and give me some sort of sign. Then perhaps this grief can change into something else.



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