A Tale of Love and Raisin Bread

Scarcity, Abundance, and What My Parents’ Marriage Taught Me About My Own

My parents, 1971, playing instruments they built (and wearing clothes my mother made).

The week before my parents married, they ran out of food.

My father didn’t tell me this story until I was married, a middle-aged parent myself. We were driving together to pick up a car from a mechanic. My parents’ anniversary was coming up, and we were talking about their plans. And then Dad asked if he’d ever told me about the raisin bread.

I thought I already knew all the stories of their lean early days, living out of a shopfront and a windowless van in the Bay Area in the early 1970s. Their favorite meal was steamed cabbage, prepared on a hot plate, smothered with tomato sauce. They clothed themselves in thrift-store castoffs and garments my mother sewed and wove herself. They ran a business teaching woodworking to people who wanted to make their own musical instruments.

Free-spirited living can be difficult in a pay-as-you-live world. The classes were not free, the materials were not free, the rent was not free. But my parents were young and optimistic and didn’t always collect fees from people who wanted to craft instruments and fill the world with music. They were broke. So was everyone else. There was a pointedness to it: you couldn’t support capitalism without capital.

You couldn’t buy food without it, either.

My parents’ marriage started as an elopement that ended with a wedding. After some months in California, they agreed to a small celebration in a small town on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. My grandmother would make meatballs, my mother’s gown, and the bridesmaid dresses. Family and friends would gather on a December weekend in a mountain lodge that my father and grandfather had helped to build.

My parents planned a quick trip to participate in the wedding their families expected. My mother would take a bus nonstop from San Francisco to Phoenix, and my father would follow a few days later, after closing up the shop and completing other projects.

The morning of my mother’s departure, they realized that they had no food, and the bus tickets had wiped out all but a dollar or two of their funds. The wedding and its promised meatballs were several days away.

“There was a bakery on the way to the bus station,” my father told me, “and we got there just as it opened. All we could afford was a loaf of raisin bread, and that’s what your mother took with her on the bus, so she could eat.”

“What did you eat?” I asked.

“Nothing that day. That night, some people were coming to the shop, and I told them I needed them to pay their tabs. None of them had any money.”

“What did you do?”

“I told them I was out of food, that I had nothing to eat, and that I was getting married that weekend. So then they all gave me the cash they had on them — what they could spare — and that was enough to get me through until I got back to Arizona.”

He paused, and it was as if he’d left the room. When he came back from his mental visit to California in the early 1970s, he looked at me and said, “But you know. You’ve had experiences like that.”

He said this with such certainty, such matter-of-factness, that I didn’t think to contradict him. Sure, I thought. Who hasn’t? We arrived at the mechanic’s shop and got into our separate cars. I drove back to my home and, when we’d finally gotten our children to bed, told my husband the raisin bread story. Confusion had set in over my dad’s comment. You’ve had experiences like that.

“I can confidently say that we’ve never faced that issue,” said my husband.

“That’s true,” I said. And it was. By dint of privilege and good fortune and dumb luck, we had never faced an experience like the one my father described. I couldn’t understand why he would imagine that we had.

But the story lingered, wafting through my days like a scent. I pictured my mother, her long hair cascading down her back, reaching for that loaf of bread before stepping onto a bus. In my head, the loaf is warm and unwrapped. It smells like cinnamon, like abundance, the opposite of the empty cupboards that waited for my father at home. He places the loaf in her hand and holds her other hand over its domed top, a benediction.

I heard the certainty in my father’s voice. You’ve had experiences like that.

Have I? I wondered.

I picture my father’s hand on top of my mother’s, on top of that loaf of bread, and I think of my husband’s hand on top of mine in a hospital. Visiting hours were over in a room where family could not stay, and I was convinced, at a primal level, that I would not survive the night.

My husband refused to leave the room.

I think of the times that we were too tired to think straight, up for days at a time with an infant we couldn’t believe they’d let us take home from the hospital, given our clear lack of qualifications. We could hardly string sentences together and reverted to communication through glances and gestures, our hands brushing against each other as we moved through sleepless days. But he was the only person who could still make me laugh, and who realized when I stopped laughing that something was wrong. He kept me tethered to the cliff I felt myself falling from.

You’ve had experiences like that. I’ve been with my husband for almost twenty years; my parents have been married for nearly fifty. My father’s story about raisin bread may be a strange metaphor for the strength of a relationship, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more apt it becomes.

We all have moments when we feel we have almost nothing left. Love is the willingness to hand over what remains without knowing how we’ll replace it, and finding abundance in the loss.

As I write this, my parents are nearing another anniversary. I picture my father laughing when he reads this essay. “It was just a loaf of bread,” he’ll say.

“I think it was sourdough, actually,” my mother will say. “And the situation wasn’t that dire. You know how your father tells stories.”

And then they’ll go back to the days they spend together, co-writing novels and spoiling grandchildren and learning new ballroom dance steps. They will hold each other’s hands — hands that rubbed Vitamin E into my father’s surgical scars when we nearly lost him to a heart attack, hands that made suede cases for the guitars and dulcimers whose curves hugged the walls of my childhood, hands that brought three children into the world and raised them. Hands that, decades ago, held the last meal that either of them would see for a while, but that was still enough.

Yes. I’ve been lucky enough to have experiences like that.

Audrey’s work can be read in McSweeney’s, Human Parts, The Belladonna, Slackjaw, Points in Case, and other places. Twitter: @audrey_burges; audreyburges.com.

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