That's been part of my stress recently, thinking about my aunt. I have my mom's home and cell numbers at the top of my Skype phone list, so I rarely need to search through the list to find anyone else. With Eric back in the States for a month, I added another number to my Skype list, and then when I went to find it the first time, the number right below it was "Gail home." It was a hard blow, and I stared at it in shock for a few seconds before I could do anything else. I can't delete it - it's also my uncle's home, after all, and for the first time in my life I've called that line to talk to him. Before I've always talked to him in the process of calling my aunt. Still, I can't bring myself to change the name under which the number is saved. The same goes for her numbers saved in my Turkish and US cell phones - I'm not to the point where I can remove them.
Last week I baked cupcakes for my coworkers, a first for me. (Both baking cupcakes and making something for my office - I'm more the type to buy something pre-made rather than risk a mass poisoning incident.) I ran out of cupcake tins, so I decided to put the rest of the batter into one of the pans I use to bake bread. I haven't used the pans since 2008, when I moved to Riyadh and had to leave my sourdough bread colony behind, although I've dutifully packed and unpacked them in every place I've lived since. When I pulled out the pan to use it, I stared at it for a few moments before collapsing, boo-hooing in the floor.
I had gotten my bread colony from my aunt, who baked two loaves every week for as long as I can remember. When I was in high school and college, living away from my family during my parents' divorce, she would mail me freshly baked loaves so I would have something comforting to munch on while I was crashing on whatever assignment was keeping me up late. Towards the end of college, as things got better, she'd call my roommates and give them a head's up the day that bread was going to arrive, so they could open the box and eat half of it before I got home, knowing that I would never share. (Actually, my mother always did the same thing with her famous oatmeal raisin cookies. I need to reexamine their loyalties.) When I graduated and moved to Washington, my mother spent about $100 to send me a starter jar of my aunt's sourdough bread colony, overnighting it so that it would stay cold and wouldn't go dead in the time it took to arrive. That entire year I was there, I baked my aunt's bread - not every week, but often enough that I had more than enough to share with coworkers, friends, and neighbors. Favorite moment - sharing with Mohammad, the man who takes parking fees at FSI, on a cold December morning.
It never really occurred to me, reaching past my bread pans in my cabinet every day to get a soup pot or my food processor or a skillet, that the pans mean only one thing to me, my aunt Gail. Sitting there in the floor, holding them, brought back all of the memories of opening up a box and finding two oversized loaves of bread and a dirty card - my aunt always had an appropriate (rather, inappropriate) card for every situation. I am so glad I saved all those cards, going back years, through nearly a dozen moves.
We've never been a particularly domestic family - my mother hates cooking, and my aunt wasn't a fan of it either, although both are quite good cooks. We don't have any "family" dishes that we always eat at holidays together, largely because we hate family get togethers. (If it could just be the three of us, it'd be perfect - but there's those pesky others to consider!) My aunt's bread is the only taste I can think of that reminds me of my family. I fixate on the tupperware container in the back of her refrigerator - has anyone thought to feed it since she fell ill? Did it get thrown away? I have her instructions, carefully tucked into my cookbook between my mother's beef stew and mushroom soup recipes, on how to maintain the colony once you have it. I don't know how to start the colony, though. What if I can't find those instructions in her cookbooks when I go home in six weeks? Worse, what if they never existed, if she got a colony from a friend years ago, and I can't recreate it?
Over the past few years I've become a bit more inventive in the kitchen, willing to try new things without a recipe, or to alter a recipe radically to match what I have in the pantry or what strange foreign substitutes I'm able to find. Until now, I've stuck to soups and rice dishes, things that are forgiving with changes in ingredients, spices, ratios. I think that I'm going to start baking, which seems to require a higher level of precision than I'm accustomed to maintaining. It will be hard - both leveling off the measuring cup each time and keeping my tears in check while I think about all the love my aunt sent me with every loaf of bread. In time, though, I hope I'll be able to pull it off with minimal emotional turmoil. Gail would be amused at grief driving me to cook, and tonight, when I was cooking homemade pancakes, I could hear her laughing - good grief, pancakes for dinner? Still, I think she'd approve.