Breaking–and Baking–Bread Together
by Letitia Sweitzer, worship associate NWUUC
Delivered at Northwest UUC on November 20, 2016
My fondest experience with bread took place in early childhood in my great aunts’ household near Boston.
I was said to be a poor eater, smaller and skinnier than seemed right, and so it was their job to fatten me up. I remember especially the home-baked bread. For breakfast, it was cut thick, toasted, then slathered with butter. Its porous texture, its caverns where bubbles had burst, were filled with melted butter. Its cratered surface was so oozing with butter that I called it “juicy toast.” What do you want for breakfast? They’d say. “Juicy toast.”
For supper, I remember being asked what I wanted, and I replied “Half and half,” which was two thick slices of fresh baked bread, one half a butter sandwich, and the other half a butter and jelly sandwich.
When I was little, I had been told I had three great aunts. There was my Aunt Frances, who was the oldest sister. She was the manager of the household. She coddled and cuddled me. I learned to read in her ample lap. She spent most of her time in the kitchen or sitting with her knitting needles clicking in the wingback chair beside the fireplace opposite my second great aunt, Aunt Letitia.
Aunt Letitia, known mostly as Dr. Adams, was the mistress of the house, family doctor, surgeon, and sometime chief of staff at the New England Hospital for Women and Children.
The third great aunt, it seemed, was Mary, who lived in the small downstairs room off the kitchen, and spent her time in the kitchen wearing a housedress. She was good-natured and indulgent; as my mother complained, she spoiled me.
It was many years later that I realized that Aunt Letitia and Aunt Frances had a sister, Sara, my third great aunt, who stayed in Nova Scotia when Letitia and Frances immigrated to Boston in the late 1800s.
And Mary? She was the housekeeper who had immigrated from Ireland, escaped an abusive husband, and raised their two boys while working in the households of Boston’s well-to-do. She was with Aunt Letitia for at least 30 years.
It was Aunt Frances and Mary who made the bread together. Mary and Frances chuckled together, gossiped, reminisced, and seemed the best of friends, equals in culinary skills and in my affection. And the camaraderie was never stronger than in the sharing of the steps of making bread. I shared in this scene, too, taking it all in. They gave me my own ball of dough to knead and shape . . . and reshape . . . and they baked it for me.
After the bread was baked, and turned out on a rack to cool, it was sliced and served in the dining room, where Aunt Letitia sat at the head of the table in her blue shantung silk suit and lace blouse. Aunt Frances sat at the other end of the table. Aunt Letitia rang a little bell when she was ready for Mary to serve the second course. Mary ate in the kitchen by herself at the same little table with its oilcloth cover where I was fed.
When I was about 8, Aunt Letitia and Aunt Frances had a falling out, and Aunt Frances left to live with other family members. I missed her and her lap terribly. Mary remained my ally as ever. She continued to serve Aunt Letitia, and now me, at the dining room table, while she ate alone in the kitchen. When I was no longer living there, I can picture the two women at dinner with the door between them and their means of communication . . . a bell.
Aunt Letitia had the persistence and prudence to pursue a profession that would make life secure for herself, and her household of a penniless widowed sister, a favorite niece, and others whom she quietly helped… She was rewarded with respect, but she missed the greatest joys bread can offer.
When people say “break bread together” as a symbol of being equals, of a step in intimacy, I remember it was not only breaking bread together but baking bread together, that erased class, status of employment, inhibition, loneliness, . . . for a child who didn’t know the difference.