Baking Bread And Grieving
As you’ve seen in my #WhatsForDinner posts, I’ve been sharing many of my recent cooking escapades. While I typically don’t bake a whole lot (other than occasionally tossing in some cornbread muffins), it suddenly became important to me to bake whole wheat bread.
I don’t eat a lot of bread, though I do enjoy toast with hummus or avocado. To my memory, I’ve never baked a loaf of bread on my own (other than banana or zucchini bread). I found a simple vegan recipe online and made a tweak or two to it (the recipe called for maple syrup but I used blackstrap molasses because that’s what my grandpa used). The recipe didn’t suggest a whole lot of dough manipulation, so I mixed the ingredients and let it sit for a while before I heated the oven and put in the loaf pan.
After a few minutes in the oven, my apartment started smelling sweet and cozy. In that moment I was taken back to the hours spent in the kitchen with my grandpa while he baked bread (his specialty was sourdough).
That memory triggered another memory of a dream that I had earlier that morning, of mom’s house in Portland. The large front porch and picture window. The mailbox door cut into the wall next to the heavy front door. The bright entryway where the ficus tree lived during most of the year, sharing space with the Christmas tree in December. The upstairs bedrooms with walk-in closets so big that I annexed part of mine for a reading nook. The closets even had their own little windows that opened for fresh air. Then there was the downstairs basement that I later converted to a little studio apartment for myself (and that garish orange wallpaper with a bright daisy pattern straight out of 1968 that lined the basement stairway). The window boxes in the living and dining rooms that I always meant to convert to covered storage so dogs and humans could sit in the sunlight. The large kitchen that always filled the house with the smell of big breakfasts and chocolate chip cookies.
While I was taking it all in during the dream, I heard a voice. It might have been mine. It seemed like a voice I should recognize, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Do you realize you haven’t grieved over ANY of this?”
Before I could fully absorb the question, I was thrown out of the dream and woke with a jump.
It’s true. It’s been nearly 28 years, and have I never grieved the loss of the house. Somehow, it never seemed appropriate.
At first, there just wasn’t enough emotional energy left over for the house. I lived there for several months after mom’s death before I had to sell the house and move out. I was also overwhelmed with mom’s death and all of the things that were required of me so that OTHER PEOPLE (and other institutions) could deal with her death. And before I could sell the house there were weeks and weeks of clearing out a lifetime of papers and…stuff. Dumpster after dumpster after dumpster. Every day, I went to my job and then I came home and went through STUFF and sorted STUFF and decided what STUFF could go to consignment or charity shops and what STUFF got tossed in the dumpster. My own stuff? Well, that really wasn’t on the list of priorities. Any time feelings came up, I drank a bottle of wine and went back to sorting.
Eventually, the house was sold and the deal closed. By then I was busy trying to rebuild a life with my dogs in a dank apartment in Northeast Portland. I was still dealing with mom’s death, but this time I was dealing, not by grieving–or drinking–but by researching suicide. Over the next several weeks, I checked out books from the library and read every article I could get my hands on. I copied down statistics and nodded along to the stories of the families left behind.
One day, as I was taking notes from a book, I suddenly threw the book across the room. I didn’t realize I had thrown it until it hit the wall. Either I understood all that I needed to about why people kill themselves or, more likely, the statistics and anecdotes weren’t giving me what I needed.
By then I had mostly pushed the house out of my mind. I wouldn’t even drive through the old neighborhood. It churned up too many feelings that I was told were “unhealthy.”
I hated the people who bought the house. I know it wasn’t their fault, but I hated them anyway. I hated the appraisers. I hated the real estate agents. I hated everyone who told me I that had to sell the house. As with so much of the previous 26 years of my life, I couldn’t even allow myself to experience my anger and my pain. Because if I did give it a voice, it might hurt other people’s feelings. And I spent my entire life trying to manage other people’s feelings.
And now I know, it wasn’t the feelings that were unhealthy, except that they were a burden that I couldn’t put down. I tried to talk to people about it but, well, I guess they thought I was asking THEM to deal with it, but really I just wanted to be heard. I had listened to so many people tell me their feelings about my mom’s suicide, surely someone would give me a space to sort through everything I had just lost. When it even sounded like I might mention it, though, the subject was hastily changed. So I stuffed the thoughts in a compartment in a distant corner of my mind and got on with it.
Eventually, I moved to San Francisco and did my best to build a life of my own in the Bay Area. Once in a while, while moving boxes around, I’d run across an old photo of the house, mostly throwaway shots that I took when I started a new roll of film. I stuffed the photos–and my feelings–back in the box. A couple of times over the years, I’ve looked at the house on Google Street View, but closed the tab quickly before any feelings had a chance to bubble up.
So here I am, nearly three decades later and I’m not even sure at this point that I CAN grieve over losing the house.
And that, right there: “the house.” I keep referring to it as “the house” or “mom’s house.” After all this time I still can’t allow myself to refer to it as MY HOME. Even though it was.
I don’t even know what feelings I’m entitled to have when it comes to that house. Did I put enough of my own sweat equity into that house to feel any particular way about it? When I ask myself that question, what comes up is a sensation of mom getting angry with me for feeling sad or angry about losing the house. That, somehow, I’m being selfish. Again. And then I’m back to trying to manage her feelings, except now she’s a ghost.
Man, sometimes I hate that that stupid, fucking house.
But I miss it, too. I miss the spaciousness (especially after three decades in apartments). I miss the family gatherings and visitors from around the world who stayed with us. And I miss its lost potential. Or maybe it’s MY lost potential.
As I smash avocado onto my toast, I remember all of the things I wanted to do with the house (besides revamping the window boxes).
But it isn’t mine. And maybe it never was.
Thank you, Victoria. I’m happy you can bring your grief out and release it. It’s such a struggle to get free of the cobwebs from the past and the seemingly endless re-playing of events long gone but still binding us. Your courage to keep moving toward freedom is a help and a hope for me.