“Leaven: A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, Amos 4:5,” Ensign, Mar. 1986, 68
She stood at the screen door, looking blindly over the tall, pale weeds that filled the vacant lot next door. Absently, almost by instinct, she arched her back, kneading it hard with her knuckles. The unborn child, heavy in these last weeks, pulled down, weighting her back and legs with weariness. She wanted to sink down out of the heat in blank sleep and not rise again until wakened by the pain of giving birth.
“Mommy!” Still kneading her back, she turned, listening to the small cry, holding her breath. They had gone down for naps so late she had hoped they would sleep at least until she could start dinner. Then Bill would be home and could help with baths and stories and minor squabbles. So much still to do—diapers to fold, dishes in the sink, the scattering of plastic toys, phone calls to a couple of friends, dinner, her lesson—all tugging at her, along with the questions and chatter and banging doors and untied shoes and tears and kisses and dirty shirts and endless small needs.
“Mommy.” Sighing, she moved down the hall, opening the door with a quiet “Hush, hush.” The sleepy, tousled head, pale blond as ripened wheat, cuddled into her neck, the sturdy little body fitting about her awkward bulk.
“Hush, Mommy’s here. Hush-a-bye.” She rocked gently on the edge of the old bed, feeling the curls sticky under her cheek. The child hiccuped.
She loved them each, dearly. It was just that these days she felt so pummeled by the day-to-day, pushed back again and again as she tried to rise inside. It had been easier at school and at work, where time periods and projects were more definite and limited, and the rewards were more tangible, with neater beginnings and endings to help define her inner growth.
Gently she eased the child off her lap and back onto the bed, brushing the hair off the small, damp forehead. As she gathered her breath in the effort of rising, the baby shifted within her, bunting hard at her left side. It was harder these days to feel any forward movement herself; it took longer to learn patience than to write a paper or reorganize a bookkeeping system. She slipped out the door, then waited a moment or two with her hand on the knob, alert to any further cries. The baby stirred and then settled again.
Casserole to make. Bread to bake. She had noticed at lunch that they had barely enough for sandwiches—only a couple of end slices. All the time she was growing up, her mother had baked six loaves at least once a week, to help stretch the budget. Every Sunday night they had had bread and milk suppers, the milk cool and sweet over the broken bread chunks, topped with raisins and a dribble of honey.
And after school, the smell of their mother’s fresh hot bread had often greeted them—thick slices cut and slathered with butter to take the edge off their childish hunger. Ever since she had married, she had baked bread, too. When she had been expecting their first baby, a neighbor had knocked at their tiny apartment one day to discuss the drainpipes. Halfway through he had stopped mid-sentence, sniffed appreciatively, and asked, “Are you baking bread again?”
Bread to bake—again. Maybe nowadays baking bread was not much more economical than buying it. It took time, but she liked making their bread—kneading it, setting it to rise, and turning out the golden loaves to cool. It would be faster with a mixer to do the stirring and kneading, but so far she had resisted Bill’s suggestion to get one. It hadn’t seemed as necessary as other things.
Still, she lingered by the back door. A breeze bent the tall weeds, rustling them in the afternoon sun—a rippling motion like wind through the wheat. When she was young, they had played for hours by the wheat fields at her grandparents’, grinding “pretend bread” from the kernels they rubbed out of the heavy grain heads. Up and down the field the combine moved in a cloud of chaff, the grain pouring a golden stream from its spout. In the house, her forehead gleaming with perspiration, Grandma baked bread in her wood stove. Sometimes she gave them bits of dough to roll out in miniature loaves or tiny pans of doll-sized rolls for their tea parties. Grandpa came in for lunch, taking off his straw hat, his gray hair dark with sweat, wiping his neck and face and hatband with a red bandanna.
The weeds rustled dryly, a murmur in the heat. She turned from the door to the kitchen, opening cupboards for pans and utensils, putting ground beef on to brown. She would get dinner ready, then maybe she would have time to mix bread before the children woke up calling for her, needing attention. Deftly she stirred the sizzling meat and greased the casserole dish, her attention half on that, half on the past. How had Grandma done it—seven children, all the farm chores, meals for the family as well as the farm hands, Church callings? How had her own mother managed the endless demands of four little ones under six?
Awkwardly she stooped for the big mixing bowl on the bottom shelf. Even after watching her mother bake all those loaves for all those years, helping punch down the dough or put it in the pans or finish timing the baking, she had had to practice over and over before she had learned to make consistently good bread. At first she had tried to skip part of the kneading—and the bread was dry and crumbly, or too dense, almost soggy. It was odd that not enough kneading should have such opposite effects. Or she had gotten the water for the yeast too hot, killing it, and the dough remained a stolid lump. Then, overly cautious, she had used liquid too cool, and again the bread rose slowly, never lightened enough to bake well.
She smiled to herself now, remembering, as she got out the salt, oil, and sugar, and lifted down the large flour canister, the measuring spoons and cups. When she was young, she had thought her mother had just invented bread. She hadn’t realized the sense and touch of her mother’s experienced fingers as she kneaded and pounded and shaped the loaves.
She stopped to mix the casserole, scraping the pan and setting it in the sink. Her own bread was still not as consistently fine as her mother’s, but more and more she could tell by the dough texture how the bread was shaping up—if she needed more flour or water or yeast. She pried the lid off the flour canister and lifted out a cup of flour, shaking it level and sifting it lightly before she upended it in the bowl. A fine cloud rose, tickling her nose. The sneeze caught her and the baby off guard, and he kicked heartily in protest.
She didn’t get back to mixing bread until after supper, and then, despite Bill’s help, the sifting and mixing and kneading were interspersed with calls for help and “Mommy, guess what?” and hugs and finding the toy boats and the bunny pajamas and getting drinks of water. She was back in the kitchen, checking on how far the bread had risen when he came up behind her.
“Honey,” he said, gently putting his arms around her and turning her to him, “it will be so late when you finish. I can just slip out to the store for a loaf.”
She touched his face, grateful for the quiet circle of his arms about her tiredness, grateful for his offer. But she shook her head. “Thank you, but I want to finish this up.”
His arms tightened.
“Really.” She smiled. “I’ll get it in the pans, then just get up to put it in the oven. If I set the timer, I can come back to bed while it finishes baking.”
“Then I’ll stay up and finish it.”
She shook her head. He brought his hand up, cradling her head for a long moment. “It’s just that you’re so tired.”
She rested against him, moving her head slightly back and forth in the cup of his palm. “But I need to. It helps me think,” she murmured, drifting.
The bread would soon be ready to punch down the first time.
Bill kissed her. “Sit down. I’ll get it.” She flipped on the oven for a moment, then put the bread inside for the warmth to hurry it along this last bit.
It is a slow process, the gathering of wheat. Once ripe, the wheat is separated from the weeds, the tares, and then the chaff is beaten out in clouds by the combine, or trodden by oxen and tossed to the wind. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Wheat stored in Egypt’s crypts after Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams brought his brothers asking for bread, and their children’s children’s children left, their stomachs full of the Passover’s unleavened bread. Manna fed the children in their wilderness wanderings, and a bowl of it was left in the ark of the covenant as a continual reminder that God gives not stones, but bread.
After the bread had mounded up again under the white dish towel, she sank a fist into the dough, watching it fold in and deflate around her wrist with a soft “phist.” That had been one of her delights as a child—punching down the high, smooth dough. Mixing and kneading the whole amount was work—turning it over and over on itself, palm and knuckle, to work out all the bubbles so there would be no gaps, no coarse texture, just fine, even lightness all the way through. Though as children they had played at breadmaking, usually they had wandered off before their mother was finished kneading.
Now that the baby was so large, it was too difficult for her to knead bread on the counter. Standing that far back didn’t give her enough leverage. So she spread a cloud of flour on the kitchen table and scraped the dough out of the bowl onto it. She took off her wedding band, setting it to the side, and got out the can of shortening and the bread pans to grease.
The pans ready, she turned to the table. Leaning up against it to ease her weight, she settled into the rhythm—lift and turn from one side, press and push from the other, working the bread from the inside out, always bringing up new bubbles in a cupping, circular motion. Occasionally she stopped to shake out another fine dusting of flour. The steady, familiar movements of her forearms settled her. Even the baby lulled. It would be good bread, she thought.
A puff of flour rose from the table, dusting her rounded abdomen. She raised the back of one hand to brush back the hair at the edge of her temples, then sank her fingers back into the dough and the rhythm. Lift, turn over, press; lift, turn over, press. A steady rocking motion—nothing wasted—repeated over and over, gently, continuously working the dough. She divided off a piece, kneading it further to force the bubbles out to the edges to burst, then shaped a loaf and laid it in the pan. Then another loaf, and another. Finally finished, she lined up pans and covered them with the bread cloth so that the tops would not dry out while the loaves were rising.
Scrubbing her hands together, she rolled off the bits of dough clinging to her fingers, then turned on the tap to rinse her hands and the bowl and to wet a cloth to clean the table. Turning off the light, she headed down the dim hall, pausing to listen at the children’s door. She slid gratefully into the cool sheets on her side. Her back ached. The baby kicked. She shifted again, uncomfortably, waiting for the baby to settle. Beside her, Bill turned and murmured in faint sleep. About half an hour. It would take that long for the bread to rise ready to bake. She closed her eyes.
Elijah, given bits of bread by ravens, asking the widow for her last loaf. She, giving it, never again hungered. The Savior, with a thousand hands and mouths and needs always pulling at him, asking of him, feeding the multitude with loaves and fishes again and again, breaking bread in sacrament, his flesh in sacrifice—living bread that fed souls and raised them to new life as he himself rose. “Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone … ” A long process that would not be hurried—the grain ground and sifted, the flour milled and leavened to rise and rise again, the texture of the final loaf progressively finer with each kneading, each rising.
In the dark kitchen the white bread cloth shone softly, regularly mounded up beneath. As she opened the oven door and the rush of heat hit her face, she had a momentary thought of women all over the world bending to brick ovens and open hearths and heated rocks to place long loaves or rounded bread on slabs or hand-patted cakes to rise and bake, to feed the children. The pans nearly filled the oven and had to be arranged to get them all in. She set the timer and crawled back into bed. But this time she lay, open-eyed, her thoughts sifting through her days, light and random as the touch of wind on a hot day.
Leaven in the bread, leaven in the world, leaven in the soul. Rising, lifting, the rising lighter each time as the continual kneading refined the flour. Chaff beaten out, grain sifted—poured out in golden streams, heaped up and running over. After countless hours of kneading, shaping, and molding, again and again, the deft touch of experienced fingers, inherently aware, responding to the texture. Hot fresh bread for the children, manna for the soul as light as heaven. Hungering, asking, filled.
In the kitchen the timer dinged faintly. Again the blast of heat in her face as she bent to take out each loaf, dump it out on the rack, and stack the bread pans crisscross to cool. Bending and rising, bending and rising, her face flushed by the oven’s heat and the effort. She left the oven open to cool and buttered the top of each loaf, then covered them lightly with the cloth. Debating, she stood quietly a moment, then opened the drawer beneath the breadboard and took out a serrated knife. She selected one of the fresh loaves, drawing the warm fragrance up into her nostrils in a long breath. Then carefully, slowly, so as not to crush the slice, she cut through the Crisp golden crust, the steam rising from its heart like smoke off an altar. In the oven’s half light, she could see that it was good bread, with an even, tiny-bubbled texture.
She laid her slice on the table, opened the cupboard for a clean glass, and poured out a full stream of cold milk. Sitting, she propped her feet up on a chair, pushing and rubbing her hands down each side of her full abdomen, lifting and pressing as she arched her back.
At home, each time they had cut new bread, her father had told them of the day he and the other prisoners of war had been set free. The army cooks had set up their ovens in a nearby field and had baked bread, loaf after loaf, as much as anyone wanted. “Nothing ever tastes so good as fresh bread,” he had always maintained, shaking his head, holding a steamy, new slice. “Nothing.”
Closing her eyes, she bit deep into the bread, then took a long drink of milk. The baby kicked suddenly, thrusting out at her on both sides, stretching both of them as far as they could go. One hand cupping and massaging the full curve of stomach and child, she bent her head. “Hush-a-bye, baby, hush, hush. Mother’s here.”