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The First Lesson

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But if in your thoughts you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.                                                                                   Kahlil Gibran 


I can see my grandmother’s hands.  Strong and wrinkled and tanned.  Her entire life could be read across those hands.  All of the hardship, the physical work, the sea of tears shed behind closed doors, secretly.  She could set aside her pain though, like a book on a bedside table, from day to day, and continue with her chores, her duties, and the routine that had become her life. 


Part of her escape came from baking.  Grandma’s apple strudel.  Somehow, from the mountains of flour, the peeled and chopped apples, the sprinkles of cinnamon and sugar, she could forget.

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So many times, I watched her hands forming the dough.  Kneading and kneading, her knuckles coarse and red.  It was like watching an artist create; a potter working his clay, the pursuit of perfection.  Damp flour would crust around the simple gold wedding band she had worn for some sixty years.  Placed on a finger thinner then, less wrinkled, in a room on Ellis Island.  She would work the dough for many minutes, across her dated yellow formica table, while I sat quietly across from her, studying her face, her hands. 


She knew I loved to watch her form the dough and she would smile to see my amazed admiration.  Never had I seen a dough so thin.  After decades of strudel making, hers was perfection.  A masterpiece every time.  

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She wanted me to know.  To know the secret of the strudel.  The secret she had learned as a young girl on a farm in Germany.  The apples had to be sliced just so thin, not a heavy hand with the spices.  Count the raisins; spread the sour cream with the lightness of a wand.  But the true artistry came in the pastry making, and I would later find out, it was not a lesson to be learned overnight. “Now I will show you how the dough should look when it is done,” she would smile, her German accent still thick after half a century in the States.  A strong voice, a voice resonant of life.    

With her sturdy hands, she would gingerly lift the flat of rolled pastry, draped across her fingers and held it to the light.  “It should be so thin,” she would say, “that you could read a newspaper through it.”  I laughed.  But there is was, in all its glory, a pastry to thin, so glorious, and so ethereal that it seemed to command a moment of silent praise. Indeed, I could see the soft yellow light glowing from behind her prized dough, and behind that still, her beaming face that only seemed to radiate to such an extent when her hands were buried in flour and sugar. Her final words on pastry making were thus:

“It should be so fine and thin that it looks fragile to the point of tearing, but it is not.  It may look delicate, Jan, but it is very strong.  You must be patient."  

That was the secret.  And so I would find out, not just in pastry making.  Many things in life appear fragile, delicate, and yet, there is strength beneath the surface, unseen. 

Today, I wear her gold band.  A bit worn and rough around the edges, but for me, a symbol of strength.  It never leaves my finger and when I’m feeling particularly vulnerable, when I need guidance, a moment of remembrance to carry me through, I look at the ring.  It represents the strength and fortitude and love that was my grandmother.  The circle of life.  

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I learned many things from her.  Just one being the perfection and life lesson of apple strudel. 


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Jan Baumgartner is the author of the memoir, Moonlight in the Desert of Left Behind. She was born near San Francisco, California, and for years lived on the coast of Maine. She is a writer and creative content book editor. She's worked as a (more...)

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