Written by Emily
Yesterday I made bread with my mom. She sprinkled the counter with flour and dropped a wad of yeasty dough at my fingertips.
“Knead it for at least 7 minutes,” she instructed. “Do you know how to knead?”
I did. I’ve seen my fair share of Food Network shows.
I pushed the dough forward with the base of my palms and pulled it back with my fingertips. Push. Pull. Push. Pull. I fell into a rhythm.
As I watched the dough move and change, my arms worked. I could feel them tense and tighten as the dough loosened. Those arms. My arms.
I always hated them.
I coveted lean, toned arms in a way that should have made me run for the nearest confessional. I was convinced there was something in my genetic make-up that made it impossible for me to achieve a sculpted shoulder–short of buying shoulder implants on the black market and having risky surgery in a van. A girl can dream.
I probably spent hours of my young life making muscles in the mirror and pinching the skin beneath my deltoid to give the illusion of the definition I dreamed of. I straightened my arms until they were nearly hyperextended to catch a glimpse of the tricep muscle I knew was buried beneath the flesh. It was an exercise in futility, really. I’d let go and my arm would return to its log shape now sore and speckled pink from my manhandling.
I hated my arms.
One summer, my perspective changed.
We were vacationing at the beach. I had just brought Noah up to the house for his nap. At the kitchen table, my grandmother, who doesn’t spend time in the sun, was slicing the 15-pound, bone-in ham she brought on our beach vacation. I sat down with her, and while she force-fed me pieces of pork, we talked.
“What was your mother like?” I asked between chewing.
She started modestly at first, intent on slicing.
I stared at the enormous ham and hoped I wouldn’t have to eat the entire thing.
Then, maybe because I stayed, she opened up like a geyser, and the story of my great grandmother poured out of her: a farm in Poland, a young girl, a desperate vision, a long trip to America.
Life in Poland wasn’t easy. Life in America wasn’t forgiving.
She tended a farm in Poland. She tended a family in America. Both excruciating work sometimes.
As my grandmother arranged the ham on a plate, she recalled her mother making bread. Every morning, she’d rise before the sun. The sound of their mother punching the dough after its yeasty rising awakened the seven girls still warm in their beds. Day after day, morning after morning–pushing and pulling the dough. Preparing the bread, preparing the day, for its rising.
With the bread in the oven, the rest of the day was only beginning. Her sleepy heads would find their mother outside, digging in the earth, pruning trees, hauling, moving, pushing and pulling.
My grandmother and I talked until I was summoned from the table by Noah’s little voice. I left the kitchen full of ham and an admiration for the women who contributed to my story–the strong, resilient ones who prepared the way for our rising.
I could feel blood moving through my arms while the dough became elastic and soft to my touch.
“That looks good,” my mom announced. She scooped up the dough, shaped it into a ball and covered it with a kitchen towel.
“Now we wait.”
I’ll never love my arms. I won’t. I still stare at them in the mirror when my children aren’t looking, but I don’t hate them. I can’t hate them. These arms, my arms, though not sculptural or chiseled, they’re capable. They lift, they haul, they raise.
And I believe that deep inside them, coursing through them is a touch of my great grandmother’s fortitude, her resilience, certainly her story.
This is by no means an excuse to let my arms grow soft or slack. I’m not blaming genetics. I’m celebrating it. She’ll keep me moving, the image of her and the women who came after–strong in mind and body and spirit. And this is much healthier motivation for me.