It’s just past 3:00 p.m., and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I’ve brought a plate of baked goods—last week, Stuart told me that the reason he keeps coming to Helping Hands isn’t the grief counseling but my butterscotch pecan muffins—and just as I am
setting them down, Mrs. Dombrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. “This,” she tells me, “is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She’s the one I told you about, the baker.”
I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I’m sure there’s a protocol for meeting a spouse who’s been cremated, but I’m pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?
“Wow,” I finally say, because although there are few rules to this group, the ones we have are steadfast: be a good listener, don’t judge, and don’t put boundaries on someone else’s grief. I know this better than anyone. After all, I’ve been coming for nearly three years now.
“What did you bring?” Mrs. Dombrowksi asks, and I realize why she’s toting her husband’s urn. At our last meeting, our facilitator—Marge—had suggested that we share a memory of whatever it was we had lost. I see that Shayla is clutching a pair of knit pink booties so tightly her knuckles are white. Ethel is holding a television remote control. Stuart has—again—brought in the bronze death mask of his first wife’s face. It has made an appearance a few times at our group, and it was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen—until now, when Mrs. Dombrowski has brought along Herb.
Before I have to stammer my answer, Marge calls our little group to order. We each pull a folding chair into the circle, close enough to pat someone on the shoulder or reach out a hand in support. In the center sits the box of tissues Marge brings to every session, just in case.
Often Marge starts out with a global question—Where were you when 9/11 happened? It gets people talking about a communal tragedy, and that sometimes makes it easier to talk about a personal one. Even so, there are always people who don’t speak. Sometimes months go by before I even know what a new participant’s voice sounds like.
Today, though, Marge asks right away about the mementos we’ve brought. Ethel raises her hand. “This was Bernard’s,” she says, rubbing the television remote with her thumb. “I didn’t want it to be—God knows I tried to take it away from him a thousand times. I don’t even have the TV this works with, anymore. But I can’t seem to throw it out.”
Ethel’s husband is still alive, but he has Alzheimer’s and has no idea who she is anymore. There are all sorts of losses people suffer—from the small to the large. You can lose your keys, your glasses, your virginity. You can lose your head, you can lose your heart, you can lose your mind. You can relinquish your home to move into assisted living, or have a child move overseas, or see a spouse vanish into dementia. Loss is more than just death, and grief is the gray shape-shifter of emotion.
“My husband hogs the remote,” Shayla says. “He says it’s because women control everything else.”
“Actually, it’s instinct,” Stuart says. “The part of the brain that’s territorial is bigger in men than it is in women. I heard it on John Tesh.”
“So that makes it an inviolable truth?” Jocelyn rolls her eyes. Like me, she is in her twenties. Unlike me, she has no patience for anyone over the age of forty.
“Thanks for sharing your memento,” Marge says, quickly interceding. “Sage, what did you bring today?”
I feel my cheeks burn as all eyes turn to me. Even though I know everyone in the group, even though we have formed a circle of trust, it is still painful for me to open myself up to their scrutiny. The skin of my scar, a starfish puckered across my left eyelid and cheek, grows even tighter than usual.
I shake my long bangs over my eye and from beneath my tank top, pull out the chain I wear with my mother’s wedding ring.
Of course, I know why—three years after my mom’s death—it still feels like a sword has been run through my ribs every time I think of her. It’s the same reason I am the only person from my original grief group still here. While most people come for therapy, I came for punishment.
Jocelyn raises her hand. “I have a real problem with that.”
I blush even deeper, assuming she’s talking about me, but then I realize that she’s staring at the urn in Mrs. Dombrowski’s lap.
“It’s disgusting!” Jocelyn says. “We weren’t supposed to bring something dead. We were supposed to bring a memory.”
“He’s not a something, he’s a someone,” Mrs. Dombrowski says.
“I don’t want to be cremated,” Stuart muses. “I have nightmares about dying in a fire.”
“News flash: you’re already dead when you’re put into the fire,” Jocelyn says, and Mrs. Dombrowski bursts into tears.
I reach for the box of tissues, and pass it toward her. While Marge reminds Jocelyn about the rules of this group, kindly but firmly, I head for the bathroom down the hall.
I grew up thinking of loss as a positive outcome. My mother used to say it was the reason she met the love of her life. She’d left her purse at a restaurant and a sous-chef found it and tracked her down. When he called her, she wasn’t home and her roommate took the message. A woman answered when my mom called back, and put my father on the phone. When they met so that he could give my mother back her purse, she realized he was everything she’d ever wanted . . . but she also knew, from her initial phone call, that he lived with a woman.
Who just happened to be his sister.
My dad died of a heart attack when I was nineteen, and the only way I can even make sense of losing my mother three years later is by telling myself now she’s with him again.
In the bathroom, I pull my hair back from my face.
The scar is silver now, ruched, rippling my cheek and my brow like the neck of a silk purse. Except for the fact that my eyelid droops, skin pulled too tight, you might not realize at first glance that there’s something wrong with me—at least that’s what my friend Mary says. But people notice. They’re just too polite to say something, unless they are under the age of four and still brutally honest, pointing and asking their moms what’s wrong with that lady’s face.
Even though the injury has faded, I still see it the way it was right after the accident: raw and red, a jagged lightning bolt splitting the symmetry of my face. In this, I suppose I’m like a girl with an eating disorder, who weighs ninety-eight pounds but sees a fat person staring back at her from the mirror. It isn’t even a scar to me, really. It’s a map of where my life went wrong.
As I leave the bathroom, I nearly mow down an old man. I am tall enough to see the pink of his scalp through the hurricane whorl of his white hair. “I am late again,” he says, his English accented. “I was lost.”
We all are, I suppose. It’s why we come here: to stay tethered to what’s missing.
This man is a new member of the grief group; he’s only been coming for two weeks. He has yet to say a single word during a session. Yet the first time I saw him, I recognized him; I just couldn’t remember why.
Now, I do. The bakery. He comes in often with his dog, a little dachshund, and he orders a fresh roll with butter and a black coffee. He spends hours writing in a little black notebook, while his dog sleeps at his feet.
As we enter the room, Jocelyn is sharing her memento: something that looks like a mangled, twisted femur. “This was Lola’s,” she says, gently turning the rawhide bone over in her hands. “I found it under the couch after we put her down.”
“Why are you even here?” Stuart says. “It was just a damn dog!”
Jocelyn narrows her eyes. “At least I didn’t bronze her.”
They start arguing as the old man and I get settled in the circle. Marge uses this as a distraction. “Mr. Weber,” she says, “welcome. Jocelyn was just telling us how much her pet meant to her. Have you ever had a pet you loved?”
I think of the little dog he brings to the bakery. He shares the roll with her, fifty-fifty.
But the man is silent. He bows his head, as if he is being pressed down in his seat. I recognize that stance, that wish to disappear.
“You can love a pet more than you love some people,” I say suddenly, surprising even myself. Everyone turns, because unlike the others, I hardly ever draw attention to myself by volunteering information. “It doesn’t matter what it is that leaves a hole inside you. It just matters that it’s there.”
The old man slowly glances up. I can feel the heat of his gaze through the curtain of my hair.
“Mr. Weber,” Marge says, noticing. “Maybe you brought a memento to share with us today . . . ?”
He shakes his head, his blue eyes flat and without expression.
Marge lets his silence stand; an offering on a pedestal. I know this is because some people come here to talk, while others come to just listen. But the lack of sound pounds like a heartbeat. It’s deafening.
That’s the paradox of loss: How can something that’s gone weigh us down so much?
At the end of the hour, Marge thanks us for participating and we fold up the chairs and recycle our paper plates and napkins. I pack up the remaining muffins and give them to Stuart. Bringing them back to the bakery would be like carting a bucket of water to Niagara Falls. Then I walk outside to head back to work.
If you’ve lived in New Hampshire your whole life, like I have, you can smell the change in the weather. It’s oppressively hot, but there’s a thunderstorm written across the sky in invisible ink.
I turn at the sound of Mr. Weber’s voice. He stands with his back to the Episcopal church where we hold our meetings. Although it’s at least eighty-five degrees out, he is wearing a long-sleeved shirt that is buttoned to the throat, with a narrow tie.
“That was a nice thing you did, sticking up for that girl.”
The way he pronounces the word thing, it sounds like think.
I look away. “Thanks.”
“You are Sage?”
Well, isn’t that the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question? Yes, it’s my name, but the double entendre—that I’m full of wisdom—has never really applied. There have been too many moments in my life when I’ve nearly gone off the rails, more overwhelmed by emotion than tempered by reason.
“Yes,” I say.
The awkward silence grows between us like yeasted dough. “This group. You have been coming a long time.”
I don’t know whether I should be defensive. “Yes.”
“So you find it helpful?”
If it were helpful, I wouldn’t still be coming. “They’re all nice people, really. They each just sometimes think their grief is bigger than anyone else’s.”
“You don’t say much,” Mr. Weber muses. “But when you do . . . you are a poet.”
I shake my head. “I’m a baker.”
“Can a person not be two things at once?” he asks, and slowly, he walks away.
I run into the bakery, breathless and flushed, to find my boss hanging from the ceiling. “Sorry I’m late,” I say. “The shrine is packed and some moron in an Escalade took my spot.”
Mary’s rigged up a Michelangelo-style dolly so that she can lie on her back and paint the ceiling of the bakery. “That moron would be the bishop,” she replies. “He stopped in on his way up the hill. Said your olive loaf is heavenly, which is pretty high praise, coming from him.”
In her previous life, Mary DeAngelis was Sister Mary Robert. She had a green thumb and was well known for maintaining the gardens in her Maryland cloister. One Easter, when she heard the priest say He is risen, she found herself standing up from the pew and walking out the cathedral door. She left the order, dyed her hair pink, and hiked the Appalachian Trail. It was somewhere on the Presidential Range that Jesus appeared to her in a vision, and told her there were many souls to feed.
Six months later, Mary opened Our Daily Bread at the foothills of the Our Lady of Mercy Shrine in Westerbrook, New Hampshire. The shrine covers sixteen acres with a meditation grotto, a peace angel, Stations of the Cross, and holy stairs. There is also a store filled with crosses, crucifixes, books on Catholicism and theology, Christian music CDs, saints’ medals, and Fontanini creche sets. But visitors usually come to see the 750-foot rosary made of New Hampshire granite boulders, linked together with chains.
It was a fair-weather shrine; business dropped off dramatically during New England winters. Which was Mary’s selling point: What could be more secular than freshly baked bread? Why not boost the revenue of the shrine by adding a bakery that would attract believers and nonbelievers alike?
The only catch was that she had no idea how to bake.
That’s where I come in.
I started baking when I was nineteen years old and my father died unexpectedly. I was at college, and went home for the funeral, only to return and find nothing the same. I stared at the words in textbooks as if they had been written in a language I could not read. I couldn’t get myself out of bed to go to classes. I missed one exam, then another. I stopped turning in papers. Then one night I woke up in my dorm room and smelled flour—so much flour I felt as if I’d been rolling in it. I took a shower but couldn’t get rid of the smell. It reminded me of Sunday mornings as a kid, when I would awaken to the scent of fresh bagels and bialys, crafted by my father.
He’d always tried to teach my sisters and me, but mostly we were too busy with school and field hockey and boys to listen. Or so I thought, until I started to sneak into the residential college dining hall kitchen and bake bread every night.
I left the loaves like abandoned babies on the thresholds of the offices of professors I admired, of the dorm rooms of boys with smiles so beautiful that they stunned me into awkward silence. I left a finial row of sourdough rolls on a lectern podium and slipped a boule into the oversize purse of the cafeteria lady who pressed plates of pancakes and bacon at me, telling me I was too skinny. On the day my academic adviser told me that I was failing three of my four classes, I had nothing to say in my defense, but I gave her a honey baguette seeded with anise, the bitter and the sweet.
My mother arrived unexpectedly one day. She took up residence in my dorm room and micromanaged my life, from making sure I was fed to walking me to class and quizzing me on my homework readings. “If I don’t get to give up,” she told me, “then neither do you.”
I wound up being on the five-year plan, but I did graduate. My mother stood up and whistled through her teeth when I crossed the stage to get my diploma. And then everything went to hell.
I’ve thought a lot about it: how you can ricochet from a moment where you are on top of the world to one where you are crawling at rock bottom. I’ve thought about all the things I could have done differently, and if it would have led to another outcome. But thinking doesn’t change anything, does it? And so afterward, with my eye still bloodshot and the Frankenstein monster stitches curving around my temple and cheek like the seam of a baseball, I gave my mother the same advice she had given me. If I don’t get to give up, then neither do you.
She didn’t, at first. It took almost six months, one bodily system shutting down after another. I sat by her side in the hospital every day, and at night went home to rest. Except, I didn’t. Instead, I started once again to bake—my go-to therapy. I brought artisan loaves to her doctors. I made pretzels for the nurses. For my mother, I baked her favorite—cinnamon rolls, thick with icing. I made them daily, but she never managed a bite.
It was Marge, the facilitator of the grief group, who suggested I get a job to help me forge some kind of routine. Fake it until you make it, she said. But I couldn’t stand the thought of working in broad daylight, where everyone would be staring at my face. I had been shy before; now I was reclusive.
Mary says it’s divine intervention that she ran into me. (She calls herself a recovering nun, but in reality, she gave up her habit, not her faith.) Me, I don’t believe in God; I think it was pure luck that the first classifieds section I read after Marge made her suggestion included an ad for a master baker—one who would work nights, alone, and leave when customers began to trickle into the store. At the interview Mary didn’t comment on the fact that I had no experience, no significant summer jobs, no references. But most important, she took one look at my scar and said, “I’m guessing when you want to tell me about that, you will.” And that was that. Later, as I got to know her, I’d realize that when she gardens, she never sees the seed. She is already picturing the plant it will become. I imagine she thought the same, meeting me.
The only saving grace about working at Our Daily Bread (no pun intended) was that my mother was not alive to see it. She and my father had both been Jewish. My sisters, Pepper and Saffron, were both bat mitzvahed. Although we sold bagels and challah as well as hot cross buns; although the coffee bar attached to the bakery was called HeBrews—I knew my mother would have said: All the bakeries in the world, what made you decide to work for a shiksa?
But my mother also would have been the first to tell me that good people are good people; religion has nothing to do with it. I think my mom knows, wherever she is now, how many times Mary found me in the kitchen in tears, and delayed the opening of the bakery until she helped me pull myself together. I think she knows that on the anniversary of my mother’s death, Mary donates all the money raised at the bakery to Hadassah. And that Mary is the only person I don’t actively try to hide my scar from. She isn’t just my employer but also my best friend, and I like to believe that would matter more to my mother than where Mary chose to worship.
A splat of purple paint drops on the floor beside my foot, making me look up. Mary’s painting another one of her visions. She has them with staggering regularity—at least three a year—and they usually lead to some change in the composition of our shop or our menu. The coffee bar was one of Mary’s visions. So was the greenhouse window, with the rows of delicate orchids, their flowers draped like a string of pearls over the rich green foliage. One winter she introduced a knitting circle at Our Daily Bread; another year, it was a yoga class. Hunger, she often tells me, has nothing to do with the belly and everything to do with the mind. What Mary really runs isn’t a bakery, but a community.
Some of Mary’s aphorisms are painted on the walls: Seek and ye shall find. All who wander are not lost. It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years. I sometimes wonder if Mary really dreams up these platitudes or if she just memorizes the catchy phrases on Life Is Good T-shirts. I guess it doesn’t much matter, though, since our customers seem to enjoy reading them.
Today, Mary is painting her latest mantra. All you knead is love, I read.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“That Yoko Ono is going to sue you for copyright infringement,” I reply.
Rocco, our barista, is wiping down the counter. “Lennon was brilliant,” he says. “If he were alive today / Can you Imagine?”
Rocco is twenty-nine years old, has prematurely gray dreadlocks, and speaks only in Haiku. It’s his thing, he told Mary, when he applied for his job. She was willing to overlook that little verbal tic because of his prodigious talent creating foam art—the patterned swirls on top of lattes and mochaccinos. He can make ferns, hearts, unicorns, Lady Gaga, spiderwebs, and once, on Mary’s birthday, Pope Benedict XVI. Me, I like him because of one of Rocco’s other things: he doesn’t look people in the eye. He says that’s how someone can steal your soul.
Amen to that.
“Ran out of baguettes,” Rocco tells me. “Gave angry folks free coffee.” He pauses, counting syllables mentally. “Tonight make extra.”
Mary begins to lower herself from her rigging. “How was your meeting?”
“The usual. Has it been this quiet all day?”
She hits the ground with a soft thud. “No, we had the preschool drop-off rush and a good lunch.” Getting to her feet, she wipes her hands on her jeans and follows me into the kitchen. “By the way, Satan called,” she says.
“Let me guess. He wants a special-order birthday cake for Joseph Kony?”
“By Satan,” Mary says, as if I haven’t spoken, “I mean Adam.”
Adam is my boyfriend. Except not, because he’s already someone else’s husband. “Adam’s not that bad.”
“He’s hot, Sage, and he’s emotionally destructive. If the shoe fits . . .” Mary shrugs. “I’m leaving Rocco to man the cannons while I head up to the shrine to do a little weeding.” Although she’s not employed there, no one seems to mind if the former nun with the green thumb keeps the flowers and plants in good form. Gardening—sweaty, machetehacking, root-digging, bush-dragging gardening—is Mary’s relaxation. Sometimes I think she doesn’t sleep at all, she just photosynthesizes like her beloved plants. She seems to function with more energy and speed than the rest of us ordinary mortals; she makes Tinker Bell look like a sloth. “The hostas have been staging a coup.”
“Have fun,” I say, tying the strings of my apron, and focusing on the night’s work.
At the bakery, I have a gigantic spiral mixer, because I make multiple loaves at a time. I have pre-ferments in various temperatures stored in carefully marked canisters. I use an Excel spreadsheet to figure out the baker’s percentage, a crazy math that always adds up to more than 100 percent. But my favorite kind of baking is just a bowl, a wooden spoon, and four elements: flour, water, yeast, salt. Then, all you need is time.
Making bread is an athletic event. Not only does it require dashing around to several stations of the bakery as you check rising loaves or mix ingredients or haul the mixing bowl out of its cradle—but it also takes muscle power to activate the gluten in the dough. Even people who wouldn’t be able to tell a poolish from a biga know that to make bread, you have to knead it. Push and roll, push and fold, a rhythmic workout on your floured countertop. Do it right, and you’ll release a protein called gluten—strands that let uneven pockets of carbon dioxide form in the loaves. After seven or eight minutes—long enough for your mind to have made a to-do list of chores around the house, or for you to replay the last conversation you had with your significant other and what he really meant—the consistency of the dough will transform. Smooth, supple, cohesive.
That’s the point where you have to leave the dough alone. It’s silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch and noise and drama, in order to evolve.
I have to admit, I often feel that way myself.
Bakers’ hours can do strange things to a brain. When your workday begins at 5:00 p.m. and lasts through dawn, you hear each click of the minute hand on the clock over the stove, you see movements in the shadows. You do not recognize the echo of your own voi
Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t, and they become companions.
Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret—one that nobody else in town would ever suspect—and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With her own identity suddenly challenged, and the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?
In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths we will go in order to protect our families and to keep the past from dictating the future.
Author Jodi Picoult Reveals Her Favorite TV show
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
When Sage Singer learns that the elderly widower she befriends in her grief group is a regular customer at Our Daily Bread, where she is the baker extraordinaire, it is not all that remarkable. In their tight-knit community of Westerbrook, New Hampshire, Josef Weber is widely known and beloved as the retired German teacher and a little league coach. But when Josef unexpectedly implores Sage to kill him, she could not be more surprised. Josef confesses to Sage his darkest secret: that he deserves to die at her hands because he was a member of the SS guard in Nazi Germany a lifetime ago, and because she is a Jew. As Sage considers Josef’s request, she reflects on the sacrifices made by her grandmother, Minka, a Holocaust survivor, and on the millions of other victims of the Nazi genocide. Confused, Sage seeks help from Leo Stein, a Justice Department attorney tasked with bringing war criminals to international tribunals. When Leo encourages Sage to connect the dots between her grandmother’s experie see more