Grandma Mastropaolo was the eldest of five daughters—the only daughter who was born in a starving Sicilian village. In 1906, she and her mother traveled in steerage to meet her father on the other side of the world. Perhaps this gave her the authority to tell her mother’s tales and recount her stories as absolute. Losses, disappointments, and transgressions featured prominently. She wore the injustices as badges, justifying her long-suffering heart. But every now and then, she told a story that showed a soft soul.
Toward the end of her long life, she recalled this bread story several times with some variation. I attempted to capture her voice while crafting my favorite version.
The Bread Story
When I was a young girl, we lived in a cramped apartment on Mott Street. Papa worked the docks all day and sometimes all night. Mama ran the house. We were seven mouths to feed and sometimes there was another cousin or uncle or a whole family who would come and stay with us when they first came to America. Mama had to make room and stretch the food.
Goldman’s Bakery was on a corner between school and home. The big ovens were in the basement. That’s where all the baking happened, hours before dawn. The Goldmans, spoke Yiddish, Italian, and English. They did not have children, but they offered the neighborhood kids a chance to make their own bread for two cents—half the regular price. This was great for a big family who lived in an apartment with a very small oven. Maybe this was their way to find an apprentice.
There were conditions. You had to be a certain height so you could reach the table. Mr. Goldman had a mark on the wall. You had to be strong enough to pound and shape the dough by yourself. You had to be in the bakery basement early—before sunrise, before school, to mix and pound the dough. Then you had to come back during lunch to push the air out of the dough and shape it. Mr. Goldman baked it and Mrs. Goldman had it ready when you walked home from school. The best part was that Mrs. Goldman had a small roll for each kid every morning and another at lunchtime. Sometimes she slipped in cheese.
You would think the Goldmans would have to turn kids away. But there was never more than three or four kids each morning. Back then, I didn’t understand why Jews were called nasty names, like us Italians. It didn’t matter; bread was bread.
My bread was always good. Papa said it was the best bread he ever ate. It was one of the few compliments he gave me. I baked bread for my family from the time I was ten. I was just tall enough.
The winter I turned 13 was very sad. I was going to have to quit school and work in the factory. It didn’t matter that I liked school and was very good at arithmetic. Girls didn’t need school, and my family needed the money. We also needed half-priced bread. My sister, Bea, was two years younger than me, but she was always sick and not nearly strong enough. Jean was already taking in home work from the shirt factory. Lil, though, was almost as tall as me and she was only eight. She was strong, too, but she was just a little kid.
Lil came to the bakery with me a lot. Everyone liked her—even my friends. She was a chatterbox and cute. Mrs. Goldman liked her best. She always complemented Lil’s pretty red hair, which I braided, and bright blue eyes, like Papa’s. Every time Lil came to the bakery basement, she would measure herself on the wall. Then she was told to sit on the stool to watch. But she always got into mischief. She would make a mess scooping flour or get in Mr. Goldman’s way when he worked the ovens. One morning her hands were black with coal soot. But it didn’t matter how much trouble she got into, Mrs. Goldman or one of my friends set everything straight. She even got a roll.
I argued with Mama that Lil was too young to bake bread. I told the Goldmans that Lil didn’t pay attention. But when she grew to the measure line, Mama gave her two cents and a big bowl to carry to Goldman’s Bakery.
That first morning, Lil slipped on the icy sidewalk right in front of the stoop. I had to carry the bowl, and my books, and hold her hand all the way to the bakery. I told her she had to behave and do everything right. But Lil just skipped along and called me a pill. I had to help her measure everything. She wasn’t as good at arithmetic as me. By the time my friends and I were eating our morning rolls, Lil’s hands were still sticky with dough, and there was a cloud of flour all over the place. My friends didn’t want to be late for school. You got into big trouble if you were late. Lil was going to cry, so I stayed to help. Lil said she was sorry that she was a little kid. She wanted to be big, like me, and help the family, like me.
Well, we fixed the dough. Lil ate her roll while I held her hand walking to school. I told her teacher that it was my fault that we were late. We walked back at lunchtime. Her dough did not rise as much as the others, but Lil pushed the air out and shaped it. It looked more like a square sausage than round loaf.
Lil was so proud to pay Mrs. Goldman and bring Mama that second loaf of bread. Papa said it was the best he ever ate, but I knew it wasn’t true because he smiled at me.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year with cancer.