Bread made by DC widow writer Marjorie Brimley

Shawn’s Birthday, Year 4

I bake at least four loaves of bread every week.

I know, it may seem excessive, but I’ve got three kids! Still, that’s not really the reason I bake so much bread. Mostly, I do it because I love it.

I haven’t always baked bread like I do now. I learned how to do it in my 20s, but it was a “special event” sort of thing, something I did maybe once or twice a year. I didn’t have any special equipment or techniques (I used Jim Lahey’s no-knead recipe) and mostly, I just bought our bread at the grocery store. Shawn used to love it when I made homemade bread, and so I’d do it for special occasions: Thanksgiving, for example, or his birthday. After he died, I didn’t make bread for a long time. There weren’t a lot of special occasions, or even if there were, I wasn’t up for celebrating.

But about two years ago, I started to really think about the future. And that meant I started to think about bread.

For a long time after Shawn died, I was so pulled down with grief that I couldn’t really access any other emotions. It took months before I felt anything else, even something as base-level as anger. I just felt sadness, a piercing kind of despair that pushed out all other feelings. The overwhelming grief eventually lessened, leaving a bit of space for more emotions. Eventually, after about a year and half, I started to feel like I was getting back to a place where sustained happiness might be possible.

I started to date in earnest, I reimagined my career, and I figured out how to find joy as a single mom. Also, I found myself back in the kitchen and, slowly, I started producing loaves of dark-crusted bread sprinkled with bits of flour.

I was back, but not in the same way as before.

Instead, I took to researching new kinds of bread, new techniques, new ways of shaping and molding the loaves. I tried out new recipes and I bought a ton of bread books. I even dreamed about bread.

I thought about this the other day, as I looked at the calendar and saw that Shawn’s birthday was approaching. Of course, I knew it was coming, because that’s not the sort of thing you forget. I happened to be making bread at that moment, and I paused to close my eyes and breathe in the smell of my kitchen.

Smell is a funny thing, and sometimes it can take me places I wouldn’t go otherwise. Back to my grandmother’s kitchen filled with sweets, or to my tiny apartment in Japan that smelled of tatami mats. At that moment in my own kitchen, I could transport myself back to when I’d bake that bread, years ago, for Shawn. “Oooh, bread!” he’d say, as he came down the stairs. He knew it was a special day if I was baking bread.

Now, it’s something I do multiple times a week. The bread itself is more elaborate and yet also much more of an everyday occurrence. It smells similar, of course, but it’s a different kind of bread than the type I made when he was alive.

It made me think about how much has changed in these past three and a half years, and how much I’ve changed. The bread is a small example, of course, but it is part of the whole picture. At my core, I’m the same person I’ve always been, and yet, I’m not the same at all.

Three and a half years doesn’t really seem that long ago. In fact, when I think back to Shawn’s birthday three years ago just after he died, I can remember everything we did with total clarity – the trip to the cemetery and the checkout line at Costco and the big celebration we had that night. In so many ways, it feels like something that didn’t happen that long ago. But if I imagine three and a half years in the future, that seems really far away. Claire will be – unbelievably – in tenth grade. Chris and I will be celebrating our three-year wedding anniversary. Who knows what else will be happening around the world, but this past year has taught me that anything can happen. When I look forward, three and a half years seems like so much time.

I guess it is a lot of time.

Today, Shawn would be 44. That seems really old, since he’s frozen in my mind at 40. I sometimes wonder what he’d think about this life I’m living now, and if he’d recognize the person I’ve become.

I think he would. I think that he’d be surprised that I now own things like proofing baskets and that I have a budding career as a writer. But I think he’d recognize me. I think he’d be happy that Chris and I found each other and I think he’d be proud of how the kids have grown. I also think he’d recognize those parts of me that have always been there, the ones that he saw and admired, pieces that were shattered when he died but that I put back together.

I am not the same, and yet, I am the same.

As I pulled the bread out of the oven that morning, I thought about how beautiful the loaves have become, now that I have better equipment and knowledge. It’s nothing like the way my bread used to look.

But it smells the same.


  • Julie G.

    I love how your writing (and life) is changing but I still do love these beautiful interjections of Shawn memories. Thank you for continuing to share them.

  • Dolores

    Such a beautiful loaf of bread…beautiful piece of writing…beautiful life quilted with various images and memories. My husband, too, loved when I baked bread and pizzas. I, too, couldn’t do it for so very long. Such olfactory memories of my grandmother’s bread, my father’s bread, my aunt’s bread….how I miss them all.