She stood beside the bed waiting for the next command, acting out her baker’s apprentice role. Her father sat in the bed, kneading the sheet on his lap into massive quantities of imaginary bread dough to be proofed in a big nonexistent wooden bowl, real sweat rolling down his face. When he indicated it was ready by pulling his hands away and speaking a few unintelligible words of Polish, she lifted the balled up sheet “bread dough” in both hands and took it away, turning to place it on the seat of the reclining chair in the cramped institutional room. He either approved or didn’t see what she’d done, she couldn’t tell, and he barely took a break before he began kneading another sheet into a ball.
She had taken a guess this was what he wanted the first time he’d done this; he was speaking Polish, which she knew in only simple conversational phrases. He waved his hand and in an irritated voice said something that included the word mąka which she knew meant flour. Did he need more flour? Again she took a guess and picked up a bed pillow and carried it over to him, setting it on the bed beside him. He picked it up and poured imaginary flour from it, so she guessed, then put it down and went back to kneading the bed sheet. He wasn’t strong enough to support himself walking, but his muscles were rippling as he vigorously kneaded the sheet.
What was he seeing? She was fairly certain he was not seeing this room with those glassy, feverish eyes. Her father’s eyes were hazel and soft, but these eyes were squinted with effort, then glaring sharp and black with his dilated pupils when he looked at her and gave his order. Probably a medication effect, but who knew? Dementia was a strange thing, the doctors and nurses had said. You never knew what you were going to get, or for how long. It was hard to tell if they were “in there”.
She had had her introduction to this mind play a couple of years ago, the day she had driven him to the hospital, on the last day he’d ever spent in the house she’d grown up in. As her mother sat before her vanity back in the bedroom putting on makeup and brushing her hair, getting ready to leave the house, she had been in the kitchen with her father. This was not at all unusual, but the conversation was. Her father had stopped conversing years ago, speaking one or two words in answer to questions but never sentences, and certainly not initiating talk. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson Syndrome a few years before that day, and the discussion of symptoms and effects had pretty much explained the silent, shuffling, stone-faced father she’d grown up with. Now, with medication for the condition, he talked all the time.
They had a nice, normal exchange, even a laugh or two. Then he walked down the hall to check on her mother and after a short exchange heard him say to her, “That’s a really nice girl out there. Who is she?”
He didn’t know who she was. And in the two years following that day he seemed to be moving steadily backward in his life, discarding memories as he went. She was the youngest child, and he was now back before the time she was born, some time in the late 1950s when her brother was a toddler and her sister in grade school, they had just moved into that house, her mother was still young. Since then her father had forgotten Allen too, and then her sister Ann, though he seemed to hold onto his memory of his wife. Eventually even she slipped away to reappear unexpectedly as he moved through the war years when he’d been a cook and baker in India, the years during the Great Depression when he’d worked in the family bakery, jobbed around as a musician and picked up any odd job he could find.
The bakery had been the family business. His father had brought it in his head from Poland and built a family bakery, not on Main Street, but in a poorer neighborhood where people really needed the bread and would buy from an immigrant. The bakery had done well and her father, first born, had nearly been born in the bakery in the years when his father and mother were just starting out. Then he had worked in the bakery from a young age before and after school.
After the banks had failed in 1929 and so many people were unemployed, hungry and losing their homes, they kept baking bread and just gave it away if people couldn’t pay for it. In 1931, at age 12, her father left sixth grade to make bread and pastries and drive the delivery cart, pulled by a pony that belonged to a neighbor. They lost the bakery in 1936, and her father along with his father and brothers looked for any work they could get until 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the World War broadcast on the radio, like a serialized daily drama, reality for Americans. The brothers enlisted, all were lucky to make it safely back. The family bakery was never resurrected.
When he had begun this wild bakery activity, giving orders in Polish and sweating real sweat, her sister had been in the room and called her to say she was probably the only one who knew what he was doing, and maybe even knew some Polish.
His family had spoken Polish at home, and though they also spoke English he didn’t speak it regularly until he went to school, and spoke both easily all through his life. But on the rare times he spoke now it was only Polish, his sunken soft hazel eyes wandering in confused silence otherwise. If her guess was correct about him marching steadily back in time he’d be a teenager now, or even younger. She’d tried to pull out a few Polish phrases but he didn’t even respond to that. He just kept kneading sheets and sweating, seeming angry.
Wow, she thought, he really hated baking, he wanted to be a musician, and here he’s stuck baking in his hospital bed…until he dies? She looked at his gnarled hands and veiny arms, thin from wasting with this disease, his back hunched from decades of bending over the bench, those dark, piercing eyes that were not his, and wondered what he did see. It wasn’t this room, it wasn’t her. What part of her father’s childhood was he inhabiting now?
The bakery just below street level was dim and hot with the fire to keep the ovens going, stuffy with the rain. The street was at eye level, the cobbles a glistening bumpy pattern. A waft of cool damp air drifting down the steps to the open door cooled his face momentarily, but the sweat still dripped from his nose and chin, ran down his arms from under his shirt. Maybe the heat and rain would make the bread proof faster and he could get out of this place before dawn and hide somewhere to sleep. They treated him like a servant and barely let him eat. He was supposed to be an apprentice, learning the trade, and he had learned it alright. He seemed to have a talent for it that even he had never known. But this couple had stopped baking since he had started, taking care of the shop and traveling around town to sell even more so he had to work even harder, never giving him credit for the increased quality of their breads and pastries, and or course he was unpaid.
He had been glad to get away from his drunken father who roared and swung a meaty punch toward anyone who came near him. His oldest brother wasn’t scared of their father and would take over the smithy. His other brothers had gone off to be soldiers and had no idea if they’d ever return. His sisters stayed with his mother and each vowed to take her with them when they married. His father had told him to go to the baker, who had no children, that would be his trade. That was it, just leave, walk across town and go to live with strangers. As the youngest son, he knew it was taking a trade elsewhere or being a soldier or sailor, and so he went.
He had been glad at first, until in a year they barely let him out of the bakery, no more fun, no more education, he couldn’t even finish schooling and would be trapped, working in their bakery until they gave it to him or died. He didn’t say much about it, didn’t talk to much of anyone, he just seethed and kept it all inside.
He had heard customers talking about people leaving Poland, leaving all the countries in Europe for a new country, full of other opportunities, sailing for months to get there. He hadn’t had much school, but he had seen maps, checked them when his brothers left for the war, checked them again when people mentioned this “America”. He couldn’t even comprehend the distance, a boat, total strangers, and didn’t even think about speaking a different language.
Yes, the heat and moist air would raise this bread to perfection. Yes, he knew his baking, good enough to have his own bakery, which would never happen here. He finished kneading the bread dough, rolled it into the proofing bowl, pulled together his shoes and his coat and cap, walked out the door and squinted his dark eyes into the drizzly night, and headed west, toward where the English coast was on the map, where a ship would take him to that new land, where he could claim the success and the life that would be his.
This story is mostly true. The father is my father, and I was the apprentice baker in his room in the nursing home. We had that conversation, he did seem to move backward in time over the years, and he did make bread of his bed sheets. And he did have those frightening eyes that, for all my father’s distance through Parkinson Syndrome, I never saw at any other time in his life. I also never forgot him sweating in his very real bakery.
I have been working on researching my family history. Years ago when I began I could not find my father’s father anywhere. I barely knew him because he died when I was quite young, but my fiction writer’s mind was putting this story together even then, thirty years ago. That part of the story is fictional.
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