e-mail us


The joy of apprenticeship


The other night I experienced a few moments of great existential angst: You see, my son’s class was having a “heritage lunch” the following day, and I’d promised to help him bake kolaches from my Bohemian grandmother’s recipe. Only it was 9 p.m., and that was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. My grandma made it look easy, but I am a reluctant baker. I felt inadequate, untalented and cranky.

Kolaches are little squares of dough filled with fruit and folded up diagonally corner-to-corner, kind of like a loose hobo’s sack, forming “eyes” where the filling is visible. My grandma’s version -- sprung hot from the oven, of course -- were the biggest treat for my cousins and my brothers and me. Everyone had a favorite -- prune, apricot or poppy seed. (Mine’s poppy seed; prune’s a close second.) Grandma, a farmwoman, baked them probably thousands of times on hot afternoons and cold winter days for farmhands at lunch, family gatherings, funerals and luncheons. She was very particular about how they looked, not only how they tasted. The eyes had to be “just so,” especially when they’d been commissioned by one of her neighbors or friends for a special occasion. We kids certainly didn’t mind the less-than-perfect specimens.

I would watch her in action. There was no recipe -- she was the recipe. First, the big empty bowl, then, one by one, the yeast, warm water, some flour, eggs, warm milk with the sugar and salt dissolved, more flour, more water. Last, melted butter. Let it rise. Roll and cut, fill and fold. Let it rise again. Bake. Brilliant. Sweet filling mediated by the salty tinge of more melted butter brushed on top as they emerged from the oven. You didn’t want to wait too long to take your first bite of heaven.

Being as good at something as my grandma was at kolache-making is my desire. I suppose the thing I want to be really good at is writing. And I write, edit. Cut and paste. Revise. Read. Write more. I eventually arrive at a point of satisfaction with what I’ve written. I occasionally get a real gut feeling about what I’ve written -- I just know I clinched it, I aced it, the yeast “took” and the thing’s gonna rise. I made some good metaphors, or used language cleverly, or took some leap that surprised even me as I wrote. More often, I feel a more subdued sense of content. If it isn’t right, an editor will point out the flaws and give me a chance to make it better.

There are lots of things wrapped up in my endeavor. There is vocation, income, skill and, most complicated, pride and its cousin, ambition. I am not sure if accountants, lawyers, electricians or bakers like my grandma feel the same way about their work, if ego and pride are wrapped up in those vocational packages. There is a voice inside me that buzzes, good is not good enough. C’mon, you know you want to be acclaimed, acknowledged, and, darn it, well paid. But when I pick up Annie Dillard or Emily Dickinson or just about any New York Times Magazine or Atlantic Monthly essay, my writer ego shrinks a bit and I am forced back into the kitchen of my ideas, to turn over the elements of my work again -- the images and ideas that are my flour and yeast and eggs -- until I can shape something new.

The other night I wrestled not with words, but with dough, as I followed the recipe, such as it is, handwritten by me on yellowed, folded and refolded paper whose creases are worn as thin as the skin on the back of my grandma’s strong working hands. Maybe it was the real threshold of my adulthood, the day I asked her for the recipe, the day I realized I couldn’t take her kolaches for granted forever.

If parenting has done nothing else for me, it’s given me a chance to deconstruct and reassemble my own life a bit through revisiting childhood experiences. I read Dr. Seuss and C.S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott out loud at bedtime; remember sweaty palms at piano recitals; recall the kind face of the priest who turned the double dutch jump rope at recess; fit once more into a playground swing (after I get over how much smaller they make swing seats these days) and pump myself higher and higher, striving to pass zero gravity. My adult work is to knead this raw material into metaphors, shape it into some kind of meaning.

I must face the fact: It is unlikely that I will succeed in passing on a love of kolaches, let alone the art of creating them, to my children or grandchildren. But what I can share is the knowledge that it’s OK to bake, to play piano, to jump rope, to write even if you feel like a lowly apprentice instead of a master. The grace is in the process, not the final product.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001