During my awkward adolescence, I tried to convince my classmates to call me by my middle name. Life as Alyson had taken a nasty turn into changing bodies and mean girls, maybe Patrice could provide a course correction.
Alyson wasn’t allowed to hang out at the mall. Perhaps Patrice was daring enough to defy her mother’s decrees? Alyson had the latest Little House on the Prairie book and thick coke bottle glasses. Perhaps Patrice knew how to be cool?
Some would say my desire to become Patrice was an attempt to gain control in the foreign land of pheromones and teen spirit. However, what I was really craving was connection. I needed something to hold onto. I chose my middle name because it was given in honor of my mom‘s sister. My Aunt Patrice was diagnosed with breast cancer during my mom‘s pregnancy. She held me once as an infant, passing on the baton of life as Patrice to me.
Alas, my grand name change experiment failed. I learned the hard way that a girl by any other name would still smell of geek.
Many years later, I truly was in a foreign land, adrift in an ocean of new: newly married, newly arrived in Tanzania, learning a new language, and doing new work. Once again, I craved connection. I also needed something good to eat. So, obviously, I decided to bake bread.
Since I was living in Tanzania, where living off the grid is just called living, baking bread was an all-day commitment. It involved a walk to school to use the internet to find a recipe, buying enough charcoal to keep a fire burning, and walking 30 minutes into town to buy yeast.
A few hours later, I had all the ingredients assembled and was ready to start baking. The first step involved combining yeast, sugar, and water. It mesmerized me as it bubbled and foamed. (Thankfully, I’d hauled extra water from the river the day before, boiled it, and let it cool overnight!) I added the flour and salt and kneaded until my arms ached. A cloth went over the bowl, and I vowed not to check it until the timer went off.
An hour later, I stared at my dough in utter amazement! It had doubled! I read the directions “punch it down” three times before I really believed that was the next step. I didn’t want to waste all the yeast’s important work, but it turns out it wasn’t quite finished yet. Another half-hour transformed one congealed blob of dough into two bulbous loaves.
Since I lived without electricity in rural Tanzania, I fashioned a dutch oven just as my neighbor taught me. Sand went in the bottom of a large pot to distribute the heat. Three small stones placed in the sand held up a smaller pot with the dough in it. Finally, burning coals were heaped on the lid of the large pot. The whole contraption went on top of a charcoal stove.
They say a watched pot never boils, but it will bake bread! I resisted the temptation to lift the lid every few minutes to check on its progress as the aroma of fresh-baked bread filled my concrete home. The odor was a comfort and embrace.
Finally, the timer went off and I got to see my new creation for the first time. I was bursting with pride when I served my husband a thick piece. I felt so womanly and wifely. Ours is a modern marriage and my husband does all of the cooking. I was shocked by how satisfying it felt to give my beloved the work of my hands. The way his eyes lit up as he took a bite and the low hum of approval he made in the back of his throat were all the encouragement I needed to promise to make another loaf soon.
When I shared my bread baking adventure with my mom, she told me how much Aunt Patrice loved baking bread. I always knew Aunt Patrice was a gardener who lived close to the earth, but I never knew about her passion for fresh-baked bread.
“I think I have some of her old recipe cards around here somewhere,” my mom commented. In a flash, I was back in the fourth grade signing Patrice at the top of my homework. Could it be true that I carried more than just her name? Could this be a real connection to my namesake?
Eventually, my mom found those recipe cards. I held them in my hands like sacred relics. Then, Alyson Patrice baked Aunt Patrice’s bread. It was a holy ceremony, uniting past and present, connecting two people across time and space. The steps were the same, the ingredients familiar, yet there was a depth of meaning to those loaves that made all my previous loaves pale in comparison.
Mary Oliver says we can “Eat bread and understand comfort.” That day, I ate bread and understood connection.
photo credit: Delfina Cocciardi, Unsplash