Thoughts While Making Bread

What would (my ancestors) have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?


This is another rerun. I first published it in December of 2008. It seems even more relevant today.

I’d like to open this with the phrase, “I spent the morning making bread from scratch.” The truth of the matter, though, is that the bread making took me all of five minutes. My much-used copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, my Cuisinart® and a well stocked cupboard will yield enough dough for me to bake four one-pound loaves of brioche over the next week or so. This is an excellent cookbook and I use it often. But it’s not where my thoughts roam when my need to create takes me to my kitchen.
Rather, my fantasies wander to those people who came before me…not necessarily my ancestors (although their images are there at the periphery of my imagination), but rather to all the folks who baked bread “back in the day.”
Willa Cather wrote so profoundly of women who endured brutal Midwestern winters in sod huts. What would they have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?
Let’s take the image further. I’ll be baking Christmas cookies later today. Ground walnuts? I’ll whirl a handful in my electric grinder. Flour on the floor? I’ll suck it up with my vacuum cleaner. Sticky pans and bowls? My dishwasher will take care of that mess.
I didn’t grow my own wheat to be processed into flour. I didn’t spend hours hand-churning butter. The foods I get to make today are the miracles of technological innovation, each new idea the result of a creative problem solver. I think about them and I give a nod of thanks to all those farmers and cooks and bakers and engineers who came before me, all those women and men who over the centuries who turned the creation of a meal into a creative endeavor.
And as I take out another pound of butter for those Christmas cookies I’ll make this afternoon, I think, too, about the growing numbers of people who don’t have access to a brioche or homemade cookies…who don’t even have access to the basics. I’ll make those cookies today, but I’ll forego the other four recipes I was planning. Neither my family nor I need all those calories, and if I forego them, I can place just that much more in the food shelf collection box.
Have I inspired you to do the same? I sure hope so.

Searching for Certainty

While rummaging around in the depths of my computer files, I came across entries to my “old” blog. I published this almost seven years ago and thought it deserved revisiting. Enjoy!

I’ve always loved kits. I still have fond memories of walking the eight blocks to the local craft store with Karen, Mary Jane, Joanie. There was more than enough there for the boys: model cars, planes and boats in shiny boxes. I remember the grown-ups looking at brushes and paints. Kids younger than I begged parents for boxes of pristine Crayolas and untouched coloring books. My girlfriends and I spent a good proportion of our weekly allowances on embroidery floss, cotton dishtowels, and iron-on designs of chickens. But what I really lusted after was the paint-by-number kits.

Boxed sets of these promises of artistic perfection sang a siren’s song so strong that my birthday money didn’t stay long in my pocket. Armed with cash, I purchased a kit. The picture on the box was one I’d been lusting after for several months: a tropical ocean bay surrounded by palm trees, sand, and seabirds. A strange choice for an 11-year-old who’d lived her life in mid-America, nonetheless I knew that I was meant to paint this picture. It held so much more promise than cross-stitched chickens.

Finally at home and in my favorite work space (the kitchen of the unused second floor of my parents’ duplex), I peeled off the cellophane packaging and opened the box. Rows of tiny plastic containers held oil paints, each assigned a number that corresponded to the canvas’ black-and-white outlines. The hairs on the two small brushes reflected the overhead light. All those colors! All that potential! I dipped my brush into the azure blue of Color #3 and went at it.

And that, of course, is when reality hit. After 45 minutes of concentration (15 of which were spent trying to thin overly dried oil paints), I was invariably disappointed with my creation. Why, I’d seen better work in the coloring books of my neighbor’s first-grader!

And yet…and yet…every time I managed to acquire the proper sum of money, I’d buy another kit armed with the conviction that this time my painting would match the one on the box.

The allure of those kits is probably no mystery to anyone reading this, but it took me a long, long while to figure it out: I want certainty. Even when I know it’s not possible, I want, if not a guarantee of success, at least its likelihood.

I feel that way with my art, and I feel that way with this brain tumor. I want certainty. I want guarantees. I want to know that what I start will have a successful ending. But just like with my paintings (which often don’t come close to what I’d envisioned when I dip my brush into the colors), my brain tumor isn’t predictable, either. And while uncertainty — both in my painting and with my tumor — is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s taking me down some interesting paths.

Rosalia’s Story Part 22: Conclusion

After spending three years as a patient at the St. Peter Mental Hospital in St. Peter, Minnesota, Rose’s husband dies in a tragic accident. She sues for custody of her daughters and in 1928 she signs a Petition for Letters of Guardianship. Rose is granted U.S. citizenship in 1935 and dies in 1940 at the age of 48. Her daughters are 23 and 19. This is where her story continues…and where it ends.

“Ma! I’m home,” Helen called out. She pushed hard on the kitchen door; no matter how many times she tried to fix it, it always stuck in warm, humid weather. She was met again by the sweet odor of urine that surrounded her mother.

Helen’s days on a Durkee-Atwood assembly line were long and physically demanding.

“Oh Ma, I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t get over the tracks before the train came. It was a long wait.”

“Rozumiem,” Rose answered.

“I know you understand, Ma, but that doesn’t make it any better. Let’s tap your drain tube and get you cleaned up.”

Helen struggled yet again to help her steadily weakening mother to the bathroom. Remove wet underwear and nightgown. Go to the basement and retrieve the dry clothing from the clothesline. Carry them up the steep stone steps to the small room her mother used as a bedroom.

“Ready for your insulin injection?” she asked. Her mother’s thin, papery skin seemed so fragile in Helen’s hand.

“Dziękuję Ci.”

“There is no need to thank me, Ma. But we need to get the doctor over here. You are not looking very good. Let me help you sit up. Then I’ll run next door to use the phone.”

Despite the pasty, anemic look on her mother’s face, Rose was still plump. Water retention? Her heavy limp body gave her daughter a lot to contend with. After a shared struggle…and a few shared giggles…Rose was finally propped up in the feather bed she used to share with Stanley.“Ah, dziękuję. That feels better.”

Helen walked out into the warm September afternoon, glad to be out of the house if only for a few minutes. She looked forward to chatting with “Mrs. Next Door” and her daughters.

She called the doctor and stayed to chat for a few minutes minutes.

A shiver ran through her. “I’d better get back,” she said anxiously.

Helen returned to find that her mother had died.


It’s here that Rosalia’s story ends. I started it in the hope that I would get to know the grandmother who died five years before I was born, a grandmother whose story I knew only through the disjointed storyline my mother passed on to me. And while I’ve come to admire and respect Rose’s strength and persistence, I still do not feel I know her. 

Peace, Grandma. I tried.



A big cyber-hug and thank you to the folks below who graciously took time from their busy days to give me feedback.

Karen Kiefer, artist and writer:

Marty Levine, author and instructor

Andrea Moffatt

Judy Sherman

Rosemary Spielman
Dean Westergard


Island of Hope Island of Tears: The story of Ellis Island; film by Charles Guggenheim

Polish-American Folklore, Deborah Anders Silverman; University of Illinois Press

Minnesota History Center & Library, St. Paul, Minnesota

A Nation of Immigrants; John F. Kennedy

Interior of Crucifix
Crucifix from Rosalia’s casket

Part 21: Rose Struggles During the Great Depression

Was there anyone in the United States who was not affected by the Great Depression?

“Mama, I’m hungry!” were not unusual words in Rose’s neighborhood.

But little Helen and her younger sister Rosie were more fortunate than most of the kids in their small N.E. Minneapolis neighborhood, where families of 12, 14, and even 17 children were not unusual in the 1920s.

Nonetheless, Rose struggled to feed her two girls and herself. Even though she and Stanley had paimg_0228id off their mortgage, life was hard. She had the 50% settlement from the lawimg_0226suit against the the railroad (the attorney kept the other half). She
was a gifted seamstress, sewing for the wives of the Pillsbury and General Mills executives. (True? That’s what my mother always told me, and the story never changed.)  And, like so many others, Rose earned a small income from the sale of her bathtub gin.

(For years, I wondered about this. How could they have used the bathtub if it was used for gin? How did they wash themselves? But I was a little girl and if Santa Claus could come through the keyhole in the door, who was I to question something as odd as bathtub gin?)

“I don’t know,” my mother would say to my nagging questions. “Now go outside and play. Come in when it’s dark. ”img_0228

Who was I to question my mother’s stories?

But even I could tell that my mother’s stories had a bitter undertone to them. “Now don’t tell the kids next door that each of you got an orange for Christmas,” Rose admonished her daughters. “And whatever you do, hide that pan of oatmeal in the oven. I have clients coming for fittings this afternoon. They mustn’t see any signs that I am not a successful seamstress. We’ll eat supper after they’re gone.”

Rose also sewed for the local church, a job she wasn’t surprised at having been given, but it was expected that along with repairing priests’ vestments, she would sew all the costumes for the annual operetta…again, for free.

This, of course, meant that most of her available sewing time was spent sewing costumes late into the night instead of meeting her clients’ deadlines.

Then came the day that her firstborn came home from school, tears in her eyes and wicked red indentations on her knees. “Sister made me kneel on acorns because I stuck up for Tomasz.”

“And just what did Tomasz do that you had to stick up for him?” Rose demanded.

“He swiped some chalk from the chalkboard and drew pictures of Sister outside. Sister made him lick the drawings off the sidewalk. Mama, that just isn’t fair!”

That did it. Rose was still appalled over the never-ending gossip about Father Jajeski who was shot in his confessional a few years earlier by a distraught woman. But like so many others in the neighborhood, Rose figured it was none of her business.

But this? To make a child lick chalk off a sidewalk? And then to make her daughter kneel on acorns?

Rose grabbed her purse and stormed off to the church. She demanded to talk to the nun who acted as principal.

“My girls will be attending the public school from now on,” she said with barely hidden fury.

Rosalia’s Story Part 20: Baby Rosie is Born, Stanley is Killed

So…let’s recap the story thus far:

WWI has come and gone. If Rosalia had been able to write to the family she’d left in behind in Poland or they to her, there was no indication in my motreadle_catalogther’s “archives” (i.e., her memories of Rosalia).

Rosalia—now called Rose in her desire to be more American—has married. With her husband’s assistance she has purchased a Singer treadle sewing machine for $11, not inexpensive but certainly manageable with Stanley’s income as a carpenter for the railroad.  My mom often told me–with great pride–that among Rose’s clients were the wives of the men who ran General Mills and Pillsbury. (I’ve always questioimg_0473ned  how true that story was, but I treasure it nonetheless.) 

Rose doesn’t know it yet, but those sewing skills are what will allow her to support her two daughters after Stanley’s frightful death

She and Stanley bouht a red brick duplex on the corner of Lowry Avenue and Sixth Street in 1918, the same house I was raised in. It featured four rooms in the upper unit, four rooms below; a porch on each level; and a coal-burning heating system in a basement the floor of which was packed earth..not uncommon for houses of that time. The house was near the grain silos and railroad tracks that abounded in Northeast in a neighborhood that was (and still is) noted for industrial commerce.  

The house was about as far from downtown noise and traff
ic as one could get. “Your grandfather wanted me to grow up in fresh air,” my mother used to tell me. (A favored child? Indeed! It seems he bought the house for her.) 

Twenty four months later they satisfied the mortgage…an achievement of great pride for Stanley and Rose for whom debt, according to my mother, was a disgrace but for whom home ownership was something not to be dreamed of “in the old country.”

A second daughter, the woman whom years later I called Auntie Rosie, was born four years after my mother. The three babies who were born in the years between Helen (1917) and Rosie (1921) did not survive; stillborn infants were not unusual in those years.

Stanley was granted U.S. citizenship in 1921 at the age of 33. He worked as a carpenter for the Northern Pacific Railroad. One of the heavy wooden door
s of the railroad car he was repairing fell on him, resulting in what today we could call a traumatic brain injury. My mother would tell me how her father would “writhe on the kitchen floor, screaming in Polish, ‘Rose! Get the children outside!’” He knew he was about to become violent. Did he suspect that he might harm his girls? Or did he merely wish them not to see him this way? I’ve always suspected the former.

My mother also told me how close she and her father were (“I was his favorite” she’d say), and how, when he was transferred to the St. Peter Mental Hospital in St. Peter, Minnesota, she would become violently car sick on the way to visit him. So the neighbor who drove the small family to St. Peter suggested that they leave my mother—now 12 years old—at a local gas station until they returned. She never became car sick on the way back.

The next time my mother saw her father was at his funeral. He had wandered off the grounds at St. Peter’s and was struck by a delivery truck.

Move ahead to 1924 when Rosalia hired attorney Joseph Kozlak of 533 Metropolitan Bank Bldg., Mpls., to “diligently prosecute a claim for damages on account of the negligent injury of (Rose’s) husband…while in the service of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company.” She agreed to pay the attorney 50% of the damages awarded.

A few months later Rose signed a Petition for Letters of Guardianship of her two little girls.

She became a U.S. citizen on July of 1935. I never asked my mother if Rose spoke any English. Inasmuch as my own mother did not speak English until she completed kindergarten, I doubt it. I  wish I had asked. I wish I had asked so many other questions.

Rosalia’s Story Part 19: A Near Death and a New Baby

A year and a day after they married in an all-Polish mass at Holy Cross Church, Rosa gave birth to her first daughter—my mother. But the story I grew up with let me know that I should never have existed if it hadn’t been for Rosa’s stubborn strength…and the fact that Stanislas positioned the bureau’s mirror in such a way that allowed Rosa to see the wood burning stove in the kitchen–next to the sink. Let’s listen to my mom as she told the story to me more than 60 years ago, remembering that this account is a third-hand retelling:  

“Your grandmother’s labor didn’t move swiftly. It didn’t go quickly, either. Between the time the midwife finally showed up, a lot of time and a lot of blood had passed. Finally a small, skinny baby girl was born. 

“That was you, right, Mom?”

“Yup. But it wasn’t a happy time for your grandma.”fe8df8605e78897deac4c2263c9267da

I’d heard this story many times but I didn’t want her to stop. 

“Even after a long labor and a long delivery she was strong, stronger than she’d ever had to be before. Because when she looked at the reflection in the bureau’s mirror, what she saw next to the stove was the midwife and a very blue baby. She was pumping water into the sink and holding the infant’s head underneath it.”

“To wash the baby, right?” I said. I knew that wasn’t the answer but I wanted to prolong the story.

“Not to wash; to drown. An infant that was born with the cord wrapped around the neck was called a ‘blue baby’. They rarely lived at the hands of peasant midwives who lacked the education to perform CPR. So the general practice was to kill the infant and then tell the mother that the baby was stillborn.”

“Where was the doctor? Where was the ambulance?” I asked, again knowing the answer even before I asked my questions.

“Remember, this was in 1917,” my mom answered. “Fast medical help just didn’t exist yet, certainly not on the northern edge of Minneapolis. And even if it did, very few houses had telephones. So, your grandma somehow got out of bed, shouting all the while at the midwife. She grabbed a towel and she grabbed her slippery newborn and screamed with all the strength she had left, “Get out of here! Now! This baby will live!”

And that, except for questions that are no longer answerable, is all that I have. Was the midwife trained? I’d been led to believe that she was merely a neighbor lady who delivered babies for a fee. Her self-proclaimed expertise came from nothing more than practice. Plainly that infant—my mother—lived, or I wouldn’t be here now to replay that scene. And even if my story isn’t 100% accurate, after all this time I am still
awed by the inner strength of women whose children are in peril.

Rosalia’s Story Part 18: Labor Begins


“What will you and Stan do after the baby is born? I am afraid you will not be able to stay here next year.”

“I understand,” Rosa answered. “We are saving for a house. I know how to sew and I intend to sew dresses for the rich ladies.”

500-gh-1930-may-p-218-lane-bryant-maternity-catalog-ad“Hmmm,” Mrs. Petroski thought to herself. But she had no idea of the quality of Rosa’s work, nor of the speed at which Rosa could produce a garment.

“Mrs. Petroski,” Rosa said one morning while she and her landlady hung laundry on the sagging rope in the backyard of the house she and Stan were renting, “what is a gopher?”

“Ah, that is a small rodent.”

“And what is a foot ball?”

“A what?” Mrs. Petroski asked.

“A foot ball. I heard someone on the streetcar say he was excited because these gophers were to be in a conference with some other gophers in the fall.”

After a few moments, Mrs. Petroski started laughing. “Oh, my dear,” she said,  “I often forget that American ways are strange to people who have come only recently. Football is a game,” she said. She went on to explain who the Minnesota Gophers were and that they probably would win a conference..all of which confused Rosalia even more.

Rosalia shook her head and pushed wooden clothespins down even harder on the corners of the heavy cotton sheets she had just washed. A mild tremor crawled up her now huge belly.

“That baby of yours is about to be born, no?” Mrs. Petroski asked as she looked down at Rosa’s stomach. “About maybe two more weeks, perhaps.”

Rosa said nothing. In Poland her mother would have delivered her baby. But she had no close family in Minneapolis.

Shyly, Rosa asked Mrs. Petroski if she knew any midwives.

“Of course!”


Mrs. Petroski’s observation was remarkably accurate; sure enough, Rosa goes into labor on June 17. A pre-arranged knocking on the floor with a broom lets Mrs. Petroski know it is time to walk the few blocks for the midwife.

Rosa waves a shaking hand at Stan who, in accordance with church laws, goes to church. But when he comes home again and discovers that Rosa is still in the spasms of labor, he climbs down the duplex steps and sits on the  edge of the the wooden porch. He listens as Rosa’s moans becomes screams. And he is frightened.