About the time that my marriage was beginning to die, but years before I knew that, I tried to make a sourdough starter with nothing but air, flour, and water.
I baked bread often, and my husband begged me to try to make sourdough even though I hated the acidic flavor. I would like to say that he saw my new interest as an overture, something to communicate that I still loved him and would prioritize him over myself, that all between us was not lost, but at the time neither of us were actually ready to admit that our marriage was dying.
When I began to make the sourdough starter, it seemed like just another adventure we were starting on together. One of his greatest gifts was his ability to spin stories about how our life was going to be. We were going to buy a vineyard and work the land. We were going to move to Italy where I could write. We were going to both be professors, and summer at the beach. He spun whatever stories I wanted to hear.
Once, just a few months into being together, we visited his family’s beach house. He took me out on a sailboat—a little sunfish—across the bay from the south fork of Long Island to the north. It was a voyage his family usually made by motorboat to a restaurant that served seafood for people who docked their boats on the pier. The wind died down partway through the channel and my boyfriend got out of the boat and kicked until we caught the wind again. We sailed all the way to the restaurant, almost three hours. As we banged the boat into the pier, we discovered that there were only slips for motor boats. We had come for nothing. We had to turn around and sail back, another three hours. About fifty feet from our home shore, huge storm clouds rolled up. His family had seen the storm coming for an hour, and rushed into the water and pulled the boat to the sand.
We careened inside just as the lightning hit.
The last part of the story scares our kids so I stopped telling them about the storm. I just say, Did I tell you about the time we tried to sail to Claudios and Dad had to get out and kick behind the boat like a motor?
Each morning when my children would come into the kitchen for breakfast, I made them wait while I fed the sourdough starter.
My oldest child, who was seven, cried one morning, apparently dying of hunger.
They said, dramatically, You love your starter more than you love me.
I didn’t. I had made something out of nothing with the sourdough and there was a magic in that, but the same was true of my children. They too had come almost from an invisible conjuring. Just the way, in the early days of our dating, around the days of the sailboat, I, a love-struck teenager, had said to my husband, My birthday is exactly nine months after yours, the universe created me for you.
In retrospect, all the bread baking was me trying to make the kids something so they could feel the love I wasn’t sure their home was providing anymore.
When you make a starter successfully and you are able to use it to bake hundreds of other bread babies, it is called the Mother.
In the beginning, before the mother is a mother, it needs to be fed every few hours, like a newborn baby. You discard most of the bubbly mess, and add fresh water and flour, trying to establish the right pH, the right flavor. The gluten, the protein strands inside it grow stronger, until it is strong enough to lift an entire loaf of bread.
Once a mother is established it can survive at room temperature, fed once a day, but if you are not a bakery, you can also slow down its metabolizing by placing it in the refrigerator and taking it out for feedings twice a week. At a feeding, most of the mother is discarded and fresh water and flour must be precisely measured and added so as not disturb the desired percent of hydration. The mother then must rest at room temperature for four to six hours, allowing the yeast time to grow and replicate.
The ten years of our marriage had been laced with so much trauma. There were my sudden memories of sexual abuse, only a few years later my cancer diagnosis. There were three pregnancies, but only two babies.
The time we lost the pregnancy my husband said, Let’s go to the house on the ocean.
We went to the house on the water where his family lived, where we’d sailed the sunfish years ago, but I wasn’t in the mood to see the water. I lay in a puddle of sun spilling down onto a faded pink carpet. I sobbed so hard I didn’t know if I was making noise or not. I just kept thinking to myself, I have failed at everything. I cannot even do with my body the thing it is built to do.
I lay on the floor sobbing while my husband ran around outside in lush green grass of a yard with our first born, a toddler at the time, playing bocce ball and watching the seagulls dive into the bay. My stomach hurt, not from the crying, but from the burning pain of loss.
For years when we fought I thought it was all the grief and sadness that had built up in my bones. Even though there was a secret part of me that recognized the misery and wanted to leave, my husband and I had been together since we were teenagers, and letting go of our relationship felt like admitting that love wasn’t enough. I thought of the happy little family we created, the way we cut down our own Christmas tree from the yard each winter, the way the four of us played in the gentle waves of the bay each summer. Every time I made the decision that I would leave, I was overtaken with intense nausea, and found myself on the floor of the bathroom. I did not want my children to lose this home we’d created for them. This soft nest of happiness and protection.
Even on the days when my husband felt far from me, I could picture the way he’d gotten out of the sailboat, the way he kicked us, ridiculously, through the windless channel, and towards the shore.
There had been so much brooding danger, but still, we’d escaped.
I told myself that same story over and over again. It had been four years since we’d lost the baby, six years since I’d beaten the cancer, ten years since I had discovered the man who had come into my room at night.
It’s all the grief that’s making us fight, I thought. We can make it through.
It was then I began the sourdough.
A year after beginning the sourdough it was strong. The bread ripe and acidic the way my husband liked it.
I siloed my bad feelings of the past and worked to look forward together.
We arranged date nights, and couple’s therapy sessions, and scheduled foot massages to reconnect.
We saw how our grief led to patterns that felt unbreakable.
He said, I wish we could just start over.
I kissed him and said, Me too, even though that wasn’t entirely true.
Although it was tempting to discard everything and start from scratch, I knew that wiping my memory clean would also mean losing my foundation. Old foundations, like old starter are stronger and more mellow. You can neglect to feed it longer and it will survive. I thought I could get rid of most of the bitterness and acidity, and mellow the flavor, nurture the sweetness.
The nuance wasn’t worth explaining to him.
I stopped making the traditional sourdough he loved and instead experimented with seeded breads and pain au levin. I made waffles from the discard. I failed at rosemary sourdough crackers.
The kids especially loved sourdough baguette, and I began to make it so often that we no longer bought bread.
My husband and I snapped at each other during the day, but we waited until the night when our children were in bed to yell. Hard, cracking, fault lines of emotion poured from our mouths.
It was a pattern we developed when we were ripped apart by all the grief, but it never went away.
I’m never going to make you happy, I said. Just let me go.
No, he said, you used to make me happy, you can make me happy again.
I raised my voice, trying to convince him I was trying, exhausted at his refusal to see me trying.
When a mother is left to fend for herself for too long a black, watery layer forms on top of her. She’s in there, surviving, but it takes a few feedings, a few discards, before she can actually support the weight of bread rising again. She gets pungent and powerful, acerbic. She’s in your face, but she’s not actually strong.
My oldest child told me about how they sat with their brother on the steps at night, watching us fight in the glass of the kitchen door. We thought they had been asleep, but instead they heard every angry word. They said there were so many words and they didn’t know what the yelling was about, but they were frozen there, waiting.
It crushed me to know that the whole time we thought we were experiencing the turmoil between ourselves, we were actually creating that home. It wasn’t what I wanted my kids to know about love or belonging.
I heard in my child’s words a new story about the life we’d lived.
When I told my husband our marriage was over, he told me he loved me and begged me to stay.
I wanted to say I loved him too, but instead I said, I can’t.
I didn’t have the bravery to engage in that kind of vulnerability yet again.
Even once lawyers were involved, we remained trapped in the same house.
I took my children away on vacation with my parents during the week my almost-no-longer-husband had surgery. He scheduled it that way, not me. He had arranged for his parents to be his caretakers, which was maybe his only option, but felt like a way for him to tell me he was leaving the family we built, and returning to the person he was before he knew me.
We were still trying to support each other then, because we’d known each other so long. When we spoke on the phone, I heard the play by play: My husband’s father was cleaning out the living room, Today he was in the kitchen. I heard about his father sifting through our possessions while I wasn’t there to protect them. He went through our cabinets, the refrigerator. The way he was extracting anything he considered disposable depending on his whims, felt like betrayal and judgment. He tried to erase the life we’d built together. He judged the home we had constructed. It was falling apart, no doubt, but we didn’t need him to prove it.
When we returned home from vacation I went inside to put away the scallops and halibut I’d packed tightly in a cooler and driven six hours from the beach. In the fridge I discovered that my sourdough mother had been thrown away along with the expired ketchup.
I cried to my husband, distraught that he had let his father throw out the mother that had been alive for years.
I made that, I said. I made it and worked so hard to keep it alive, and he just threw it away without asking.
Sourdough strains become reflections of their environments. When you give away part of your mother to someone else, and they feed and water it and let it grow in a kitchen different than your own, their mother becomes something other than your mother. It’s like an aunt or a cousin. It picks up the natural microbes floating inside the new kitchen and integrates those. It picks up the attributes of the water from their well and their brand of flour, and the inaccuracies of their scale shifting the precise water-flour percentages. Even if you make a new starter in the same kitchen, whatever is present in your kitchen affects it. The pH shifts in your water, the microbes on your hands, the relief that your body feels to be out of the place it was trapped for so long.
That starter contained our whole lives.
The next day, I called my friend, to whom I had given part of my mother a year before, to see if it was still alive, to see if I could have a spoonful, to see if I could get back what I’d lost. He brought me a lump in a jar.
Meet Vlad, he said.
I opened the jar to inhale my mother, but I did not find her there. He had fed Vlad with his flour and water from his tap, and collected wild yeasts and microbes floating in his kitchen, until my mother merged with his nurturance and shifted Vlad into a new being. Eventually, I guess, after years, there would be just a minuscule bit of the original left and Vlad would just be Vlad with my mother as his ancestor.
Thank you, I said. You’re a life saver.
But when he left I rinsed it down the sink.
The only thing I knew how to do was start again. I knew my mother would not be the same.
The new starter was tangier, younger, less mature.
You cannot kill me, I whispered as I stirred the flour into the water.
I told my friends it was a metaphor. I could die inside, my old life cast off, or I could regrow a new life. A brand new something that was totally my doing, and totally in my control.
I nurtured the starter, watched it begin to bubble with life.
A few days later when I was taking out the trash my husband’s father had left out of the garage, I heard jars clanging around inside the black bags.
Self-righteously, I muttered to myself about recycling, and I began to dig out the glass jars that my father-in-law had been carelessly sending to the trash heap.
There, I found my old starter, sealed in a jar.
When I opened the lid the waft of sweet, sour told me that maybe my starter was still alive. The starter by definition is already soured, it’s microbes creating acids and antibiotics that ferment the flour.
It turned out that it had been nurtured for years, and had grown strong, able to withstand periods of cold and starvation.
I hadn’t needed to be so gentle with it, so delicate. Or maybe, all the years of consistently caring for it, allowed it to be more resilient.
I brought it inside, and nursed it back to health, keeping both the new starter and the old one alive, side by side. I liked the new starter, created post-crumble of my marriage. I liked the symbol of the old me, unwilling to be offed by being tossed out like garbage.
My second starter was young, and eager and born of hurt and intentional rebellion. The old starter was muted and mellow, exhausted, but wise.
I kept them both alive.
My family said that they were happy to see me back after all these years, happy to see me return to the light, joyful person they remembered. They saw me laughing with my children, giggling, and they said I seemed so much gentler.
It was devastating to think I had disappeared, even as I relished my return.
That person who I was for all those years, I said, that wasn’t really me.
I pushed that person away. I blamed marriage for who I’d become.
When I finally moved into a new house and the kids began to move back and forth between us, I wanted to set a ritual for them, something that would help them transition, to understand subconsciously that they were loved and safe. When they would arrive back to me I had sourdough baguettes ready, just out of the oven. We would sit together at the counter, tearing off chunks of warm bread, made from the starter that I had created in order to save my family.
Of course, it did no good to disown the person I had been, to pretend I had no part in who I had become.
So sitting there, I found myself telling my kids the story about their father kicking behind the sailboat like a motor more often now that we were apart because I wanted them to know I remembered. I wanted them to know they had come from something other than pain.
Here was my new self, my children’s selves, made both of surviving the marriage and of our life beyond that.
Suddenly, it felt cumbersome and unnecessary to keep the two mothers separate. I blended them together, knowing that eventually the microbes from the new water, my new kitchen, my new joy would overtake the mother created in the house where we were no longer happy.