My brother and I were raised for the first eleven years of my life by our grandmother. Both our parents worked during the day and she proved less expensive and more nurturing than any possible daycare provider. She welcomed us off the bus from school each day, fed us, and chauffeured us to the parks and playgrounds that stand as the typical hallmarks of childhood. My grandmother was French in origin, having moved to America after marrying an American soldier. She spoke with a light accent, even after nearly twenty years in the United States.
This unconventional situation opened up a wide host of possibilities for my brother and I. One of these experiences was the weekly visit to my great-grandmother, who spoke no English.
There was very little variation in our weekly ritual. We would enter the house through the back door, carefully stepping over the violets that grew through the cracks in the patio and ducking beneath the creeping wisteria that swayed from the portico. My great grandmother would greet us in the veranda, a sunny yellow room encased on three sides with windows. We would each place a kiss on both of my great-grandmother's withered cheeks. Hugging was "trop americain" - too American.
After the obligatory conversation, my brother and I were dismissed to the living room, where French soap operas always monopolized the television. The constant soundtrack of betrayal, death, and hatred, masked by the soft eloquence of the unknown language, became white noise to us as we played with our "quiet toys". It was only after my brother and I were ensconced in this warm, noisy little room that the baking began.
The heart of any French home is the kitchen, and four thousand miles separation from her mother country had not changed this for my great-grandmother. It was shameful to purchase moins de pain, lesser bread, from a supermarket. The old traditions lived deep in her bones, and, despite the pain that an improperly healed childhood injury caused her when she stood for longer than ten minutes, she baked once a week with her daughter at her side.
Sometimes, when the thrall of the French soaps wore off, I would wander down the short hallway and peer into the kitchen. It was a miniscule room, made to look even smaller by the dark tile walls and matching floors. The actual kitchen took up most of the space, eventually ceding to a small table that was always papered with letters. The actual eating, as was custom, was done elsewhere.
When the baking was well underway, the house's essential nature began to change. It spun back into a simpler, happier time for my great-grandmother. A time before America, a time before children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The thumping of her knotted, arthritic fingers on the table as the kneaded the floured dough was the only sound in that small kitchen. They never talked while they stirred and kneaded and oiled. That faint, rhythmic beat, coupled with the dense, comforting smell of baking bread was enough.
Pictures covered almost every wall in her little home. Pictures of a beaming girl in gowns and swimsuits that I hardly recognized as my own grandmother. Pictures of friends with yellowing letters placed forefront in the frame that cherished the memories of those who were now beyond the reach of letters. Pictures of the mountains and hills and the ocean, as faded as the memories that existed in my great-grandmother's mind.
She had owned an inn, before she'd followed her daughter across the world. Only one photograph of the little red-roofed building had survived the journey to her new home, and it was fair to say it was her most treasured possession. Sometimes, when she told stories about her inn, her eyes would glass over behind the thick lenses. "Elle etait si belle," she would say as a tear made its way through the mountains and valleys of her face. It was so beautiful.
It would not occur to me for years how strong my great-grandmother was. It had taken tremendous courage to uproot fifty years of a life and resettle halfway across the world.
I didn't see that then. At that time, and for years, I saw her standing in her dark kitchen, up to her elbows in flour and dough, kneading bread, wrinkled and tired and old.