Bread Dough and Boots
By Nancy B. Kennedy
“Don’t do it, Grandpa!”
“Grandma, make him stop!”
The three of us sisters, little girls then, huddled around a mixing bowl on the floor of our grandparents’ kitchen, protecting it with our small bodies. Whenever we visited our grandparents in western Pennsylvania, Grandma Boyd would move her bread-making operation to the floor, so we could safely help without teetering on chairs at the counter.
Invariably, when it came time to punch down the dough, Grandpa would appear at the kitchen door in his steel-toed work boots. Grandpa was a quiet man, a farmer much of his life and later the owner of a hardware store. He didn’t say much, but at moments like this his eyes would shine with a glint of sly humor. Taking deliberate steps, he would advance slowly toward us, and at last raise his foot over the bowl. Slowly, he’d lower his foot, his massive boot coming ever closer to the yeasty bubble.
The three of us would shriek, and we made quite a racket. Girls are good at that. Grandma would tut-tut crossly at Grandpa, frowning at her beloved husband. “Now, Basil, don’t you dare!” she’d scold. Finally, at the last moment, Grandpa would relent, set his foot back on the floor and go silently on his way. Our shrieks would turn to giggles then, and we’d return to our bread-making.
I’m grateful for this memory of my grandfather, because when I was young I was mostly afraid of him. Basil Wayne Boyd was tall and austere, the kind of stern forebear you see in old family photographs. By the time we grandchildren knew him, he was diabetic and had to eat sparingly from my grandmother’s bountiful table. His skin was pale and thinly stretched over his gaunt frame. But most fearful for me — for almost any child, I would think — was that his right hand was locked into an immobile, cupped claw. I could barely bring myself to look at his hand, it scared me so, and I shrank from its touch.
My grandfather grew up on a farm, my great-grandfather Nathan Boyd’s farm in Stoneboro, Pennsylvania. Even as a young child, he helped with the farm work. One day in 1914, when he was fourteen years old, he was out driving the farm’s horse-drawn hay mower. The hay was heavy and had mounted up on the cutting blades of the long bar that extended out beside the mower. He stopped to clear them by hand, just as we might clear a rake clogged with leaves today. At that moment, something startled the horses — whether a sight or a sound, no one in the family can say. They jumped, pulling the mower with them, and the blades sliced through my grandfather’s hand, almost entirely severing it.
Surgery saved my grandfather’s hand, but the tendons couldn’t be reattached. As his hand healed, his fingers closed irreversibly inward. But he was determined not to let his handicap hinder him. He taught himself to write again, and he even went back to driving the horses, wrapping the reins around his disabled hand. He took over his father’s farm, running it until 1938 when his health forced him to abandon it in favor of the hardware business.
Even today, so many years later, I can picture my grandparents’ house clearly; the small white house at the top of a rise just beyond the Wesleyan Methodist camp meeting ground. I can so effortlessly put myself in those rooms again, into that cozy kitchen where we made bread. I remember once hiding in a hallway closet, weeping in sorrow because our parents were leaving us for a week. I remember as a 10-year-old playing with the snap dragons by the back door on the day of my grandfather’s funeral, pinching the folds of the flowers into tiny mouths. I remember even later visiting my grandmother in another house in town, the one she shared with her sister until her death eight years later.
Oh, how I would love to spend a week with my grandparents now! My heart aches with a deep longing for that reunion. One day, it will happen. And when in heaven it does, I will finally let myself be enfolded in my grandfather’s embrace, undeterred at last by his earthly hand. But even so, in that very moment, I think I might still keep an eye out for his foot.
Nancy B. Kennedy is a lifelong writer and editor of books, essays, articles and stories. Visit her website at www.nancybkennedy.com. "Bread Dough and Boots" was published in All My Bad Habits I Learned from Grandpa, edited by Laurel Seiler Brunvoll (Thomas Nelson, 2007).