Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Bread of the Grandmothers Project

This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Find Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

My ancestors have a special place in my life. They provide a focal point for my shamanic practice and they give me a sense of purpose and direction. I know who I am because I understand who they are. The earliest religious traditions probably centered around the ancestors, those on whose shoulders we stand.

It is not necessary to have a good relationship with your living relatives or even to know who they are (adoptees, take note) in order to honor your ancestors. The people you come from live on within you, in your blood, in your bones. Your DNA is their DNA. In fact, your mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA for short) traces back through the female line in your family to the ultimate grandmother of all your grandmothers. If you are a man, your Y chromosome does likewise for the grandfather of all your grandfathers. They live in you.

There are many different ways of honoring the ancestors, many varied traditions from around the world and across time. One of my personal favorites is the Ancestor Tree we put up every year for the winter holidays. On it we display photos of family members who are no longer living, along with one empty frame to represent the ones whose faces we will never know.

Ancestor Tree

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about two particular ancestors of mine, two women who had a major positive impact on my life: my maternal grandmother and her mother-in-law. Both of them have passed on but their legacy lives in me. In order to honor them, I am undertaking a project to re-create the breads the two of them made on a daily basis all their lives. The baking of fresh bread with every meal was a tradition in their households, and the particular types of bread these two women made represent, to me, who they were and how they lived in the world.

My Maternal Grandmother

My Maternal Grandmother

Noreen Crews might as well have been my mother; I spent much of my early childhood with her. She is the person from whom I learned my life values and the only one from whom I received unconditional love. She never thought of herself as a hero, but she was mine, and she had more strength in her 4-foot-10-inch frame than anyone ever guessed.

Every day of her life, Grandmother made biscuits. She never used a recipe, but simply poured the liquid ingredients into a big bowl of flour and mixed the dough up with her bare hands until it felt right. Then she pinched off the dough into biscuit-sized pieces, rolled each one in her palms until it was rounded and smooth, and plopped it into the pan.

I can’t count the number of times I watched her make those biscuits, but I never learned her method. I used the ‘citified’ recipe on the back of the baking powder can, cutting the solid shortening into the flour with a fork then adding measured amounts of the remaining ingredients. It’s high time I learned to do it her way, not just to ensure that this particular tradition doesn’t die out, but as a very tangible way of honoring her in my daily life.

My Great-Grandmother

My Great-Grandmother

Grandmother’s mother-in-law was a feisty little woman, more than a little eccentric. Family tradition has it that her waist measured 17 inches on her wedding day and I don’t doubt it – she was tiny all over. Among other oddities, she was rarely willing to go out of the house with a bare head. If she needed to run outside to pull a shirt off the clothesline and couldn’t find a hat close at hand, she would toss a handkerchief over the top of her head. I used to giggle at her, trotting around the yard with a piece of cloth draped over her gray hair, and she would offer me a handkerchief of my own to cover my head as well. I can't tell whether or not she has something, such as a small crocheted doily, pinned to her head in the photo above; if she does not, it's a rarity.

Like all the other women of her region and era, Grandma Crews baked cornbread on a regular basis. But her recipe was unique, more a method than a formula, and it generated a beautiful, golden-brown round pone with the most delectable thick crust I’ve ever eaten. She died when I was six and I often wish I had more time to spend with her. I still remember looking at her in the pink-satin-lined coffin as it sat on display in the front room of their farmhouse the day of her funeral. They had put her best hat on her and I knew she would be happy, since I also knew they would be carrying that coffin out of the house in a little while and she would want her head covered.

Over the next week or two I will do my best to recreate the biscuits and cornbread these two remarkable women made and I will share my adventures with you. In the meantime, you might allow your mind to trace back through your memories, to the foods the people in your life made. Do you have the recipe? Would it be meaningful for you to cook those foods yourself as a way of honoring those individuals and the gifts they gave you by being a part of your life? I wish you wonderful adventures of your own, and your ancestors’ blessings upon you.