By Stephanie Friedman
The envelope poked out from where Beryl had slotted it among bills paid and unpaid, its top jagged where she had ripped it open. No one wrote letters anymore, especially someone her granddaughter’s age, so why choose this way to express herself? It was a cowardly thing for Louise to have done, and that riled Beryl as much as anything written there.
Beryl lifted the ball of dough from the bowl and kneaded it, folding, pushing, and turning until it was smooth and sprang back from her touch. At first she had tried to work in her studio, but she could not settle herself at the wheel and let the clay rise between her hands. Instead she kept pacing, until at last she picked up the breadmaking bowl, hefted its cool weight, and she knew what she could do. She told herself to ignore the envelope, to look instead at the elastic dough, how it stretched and shone, but all she saw were her hands as they pressed and lifted: spotted and shrunken, veins rising into ridges, just like Mama’s had been in the end.
Mama had always been crying about something. She would go around to all the neighbors hunting for misery, her nostrils quivering for the scent of it. She would come home, recite this one and that one’s tale of woe, and then, “Oy, this world,” she would conclude, with the satisfaction of an amen. Beryl, in her saddle shoes and bobby socks, would think, Well, what of it?
Beryl had no patience for tears. If you sat and thought about this world at all, you would never stop crying. So why start? She had told that to Louise many times, to make her strong from the beginning: more sharply focused than she herself had been raised to be.
But Mama had taught her to knead the challah, and that was worth all the bubbe meises. Mama could not have known what pleasure Beryl would find when she plunged her hands into the dough: the feeling of something coming into being, a living thing with animal warmth, at once resisting and yielding, with a smell that opened her up when she breathed it in deep. Mama could not have foreseen how that pleasure would lead Beryl out into a wider world of making, or she would have driven her daughter from the kitchen rather than confine her there.
Beryl should have known better. She should have remembered how it was, and all the things you can’t get right. She thought of that when she forced herself to pick up the phone after her daughter’s name and number popped up on the ID screen. Later she wouldn’t remember if either of them had said hello. All Beryl could say was that once the phone, rather than the dough, was in her hands, she was plunged into Joanie’s shrill anguish.
“So she sends this letter listing everything I’ve ever done wrong, going back years, things I couldn’t even be bothered to remember, if they ever happened. I made her wet the bed one night because I told her I didn’t want to see her up again until morning. I yelled at her when she threw up in the car that summer we were driving to the Cape. I didn’t realize that she was ditching school to get drunk at Cara’s house when she was in ninth grade. I put so much pressure on her to be perfect, to be what I wanted her to be, that I couldn’t see who she really was. Apparently.”
Joanie had never felt the need to grasp the matter of life in her hands. When Beryl had sat her daughter at the wheel, Joanie whined about dirty hands and wanted to go watch TV. By the time Joanie was a teenager, they had each drifted to their separate zones of the house, with their separate preoccupations: Beryl in her studio, new shapes rising between her hands, an earthy, cold, wetness drying to a white patina on her skin; Joanie in her bedroom, working her way through a stack of Harlequins she would bring home from the public library, while she licked the cream from a Suzy Q. When they did interact, and détente was broken, Joanie would unleash a torrent of emotion at an operatic pitch that Beryl’s mother would have appreciated, but Beryl herself could not respond to except by retreat.
“She said I committed emotional incest,” Joanie said. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Whatever Beryl could have said to that, she was not given a chance to express.
“Oh, and you came in for it too, you know. Apparently this is all your fault because you were so withholding.” Joanie laughed, an eerie mixture of pain and triumph. “If only you weren’t always so cold, so self-involved, we would all know how to give and receive love, how to sacrifice without edging over into sickness.” Joanie snorted. “I don’t know who is teaching her this crap, but if she were as smart as she thinks, she wouldn’t go around parroting it.”
“I got a letter in the mail too. It said all the same things.” Beryl grasped the air in front of her, but there was no phone cord that she could twist in her hand. How silly, to get rid of phone cords. Didn’t they know sometimes you needed something to grab onto? “She wrote it on the computer. All she had to do was cut-and-paste, edit a little. I guess we should be honored she sent printed copies rather than electronic ones.” Even as she criticized, Beryl had to admit she could see why Louise would have done it this way.. You rendered what you saw and felt, and then the work was done.
“But what am I supposed to do, Mom?” Joanie said the last word with the quick force of a poke in the eye, one that might or might not have been intentional.
“I don’t know.” Beryl knew the answer was “Nothing,” but she also knew Joanie well enough not to say it.
“I can’t accept this.” Joanie sounded on the edge of sobbing, but there was steel in that edge, a desire to vanquish, to defend what had been taken. “For God’s sake, she’s my daughter.”
“Joanie.” Beryl tried to keep the wince out of her voice, but it crept in there.
Now she had given Joanie something to seize and shake, like a dog with a rat in its jaws. “And what are you doing? Running off to your studio? You probably shrugged it off and went back to your precious work.”
Louise’s letter had said not to contact her, that she needed to sort things out without their influence, and that they would try to make her see things their way rather than try to see her side of things.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Joanie.” Beryl curved her hand around the blue bowl she had shaped herself, never intending to use it for dough, but for the display of fruit or garden tomatoes. Despite her intentions, dough became its purpose. With its heft, its depth and width, even its shade of blue, that was what it turned out to be best suited for.
“Of course you don’t. Maybe you don’t care enough to feel betrayed, but I do.” The phone beeped as Joanie hung up.
That’s another thing, Beryl thought. You don’t even get the satisfaction anymore of hanging up so hard the phone makes a ringing sound.
Louise had been drawn to Nana Beryl’s studio since the first day she could toddle toward it. Beryl had sat with Louise at the wheel, cheek against her ponytailed head, while the clay rose between their hands, coating them with that gray-brown slickness that dried to a second skin. What greater way was there to bind them to each other than that? If that didn’t reveal love, and more crucially, who she really was, then what could?
Using a knife, she cut the ball into thirds. Each third was rolled under the palms of her hands into a long rope laid side by side with the others and pinched together at one end to seal well. She crossed the ropes, one over the other, until their lengths had run out, and then she pinched the ends together to seal them. They were now inextricably wound over and around each other. It would damage the strands to try to separate them now. In the heat of the oven, these doughy strands would swell and fuse, separate strands in a braided pattern to external appearances, yet an indistinguishable whole once it was broken into or sliced.
She brushed the top of the loaf with beaten egg, and then, on an impulse, she pulled a bit of dough from it, just in case someone or something would receive it. This is Louise, she thought as she enclosed the lump of dough in her hand, I give you Louise. Only keep her from falling too far and too hard and too often, and let her come back to me sometime. She smoothed the loaf where the bit of dough had been removed as well as she could, and put it in the oven.