Monday, September 3, 2012

Practical Life - Bread Baking with Seniors

I had this wonderful, planned activity for last Thursday afternoon. I could see in my mind's eye rabbit-shaped rolls and golden-crusted star fish. I could almost see the smiles on the faces of the seniors' as they held up their sculpted bread dough creations for a group photo that I would come home and post here.

I prepared the bread dough two hours before I had scheduled baking on the activities board so that it could rise and be ready for sculpting when the time was right. I printed out pictures of bread shaped as a snake, a starfish, an angel and more so that I could share them with the participants before they began designing their own.

When everyone was seated, I placed a mound of bread dough in front of each of the seniors. I walked around and showed the pictures I had selected and invited them to use the dough as a sculptor would use clay.

Right away, one of the seniors took a piece of dough and started to rub it between her hands making a long-snake-like shape. I asked if it was in fact a snake, still clinging to my earlier sculpting ideas about the baking project. She laughed and then answered, "Oh course not Susan. I don't like snakes. I am doing what my mother did with the dough she made. I am making pretzels." She then told me that the dough was too sticky and that she needed more flour to "do it my mother's way. The way I watched her do it my whole childhood." She placed the length of dough on the table top and began to roll it.

"Do you have a wooden board I can use like my mother used?" she asked. I went to the kitchen and got the white, cutting board stored there. "Oh, perfect. Now I can finish my work," she told me. "I can use all this, right?" was her next question. I assured her that that was fine.

While she rolled her dough into pretzel-like shapes, two other women seated across from her called me over to tell me about what they were making. "Your Susan, right?" one of them asked. "I read on the board over there that it says, 'Baking with Susan,' so I thought that must be your name." I agreed that it was. I never say to any of the seniors when they ask my name, even though I work with them everyday, "You know my name. Remember I told you this morning." My boss told me when I started, "Remove the word "remember" from your vocabulary."

"I think we should fry these circles of bread and make fried dough," stated the other of the two women. She is Tlingit, an Alaskan native. Fried dough is a very popular, staple of food in Alaska amongst most native people. "We aren't going to fry the bread today," I told her. "I can spread some melted butter on the top of your circles and bake them in the oven if you would like," I added. "Will they be done in time for me to take home to my granddaughters tonight? she asked. "Yes, I will have them ready," I answered with a smile. I was finally letting go of how I had intended the bread dough to be used and was accepting that it was their activity and that they determined the outcome of it.

I turned my attention to the woman sitting next to her, the other of the two who had asked if I could come and see what they were creating. "My mother loved to bake and she made 18 loaves of bread every two weeks for us and for everyone else she feed. You see my mother was a very devout Christian and she always had something for the needy to eat at our house. I think my shapes look a little bit like the biscuits she would make. Or maybe they look a little like donuts," she said with a little laugh. "I haven't baked in so long that I can't remember. I want to give these to my daughter so she can have them with her coffee in the morning. She does so much for me that I want to do something for her. She will laugh at these donuts-shaped biscuits. She really will."

At the end of the table another of the seniors caught my eye. She had patted her dough into a circle. Too, she had gotten a water glass from the counter and was now cutting smaller circles out of the larger one.

"Dear," she said as I got closer, "could you bring me a couple of pans for my cinnamon biscuits. Oh, and could you bring me some cinnamon and sugar. I need to get these in the oven before it's too late and dinner has started." I knew that I could see her standing next to me, but that her thoughts and where she believed herself to be was decades earlier. I smiled and simply answered, "I'll do that now."

I went to the kitchen and returned with the requested supplies. By the time I had returned, more pretzels had been made by the first woman, bread rolls were shaped to be baked not fried and two rows of donut-shaped biscuits were placed at the center of the table. Too, the senior baking cinnamon biscuits had filled two round tins and had a single question to ask me, "Did you turn on the oven as I asked you to earlier, Dear?" She then looked at me, smiled and said, "Times awaiting. The others will be hungry, so let's get these cooked."

Before the participating seniors left for the day, The Bridge is a day program, they each had a baggie filled with cooked bread tucked under the wing of their arm.

I had started this Practical Life activity with my ego spread across the "directions" like cream cheese spread on a Sunday morning bagel. However, as the bread was being twisted, shaped and cut, I let go of any set outcomes. Instead, I watched as hands moved with ease and agility. I listened as they spoke of  the bread baking days of their childhood. The muscular and emotional memory of those days returned to them for an hour or so.

They didn't pull from the bread dough starfish or angels. Instead, they pulled from the bread stories of years gone by. When I took the first tray of fresh baked rolls out of the oven, I slabbed on some butter and passed around samples to all. "Tastes just like my mother's recipe. She was so good at baking bread. My mother was, really."


Olives and Pickles said...

would you like to participate on my giveaway?

Annicles said...

The memory is an amazing thing - so strong and so weak all at once. I know that when a relative's memory went it started with the most recent events and left her with only her history. It was scary for her to have no context to live in in the present but when she had an opportunity to go back in time with an activity like this it was very calming for her and she was able to function better in the present for the next few hours. It would be interesting to know if it affected any of your seniors in the same way.

Susan Y. Dyer said...

Annicles, I wish I knew. They all went home right afterwards. I will let you know when I do an activity earlier in the day how it affects the participants afterwards. Thanks for the comment. Susan Dyer The Moveable Alphabet