Dropping a piece of bread on the floor raised my young mother’s eyebrows. “Kiss it! she’d say. No matter the kind of bread, no matter the dust on the floor, bread was holy! If we dropped it, we kissed it. We not only kissed it, we touched it to our forehead.
An Arabic custom, bread was not considered ordinary food. Bread was representative of a man’s labor and basic sustenance. Bread was divine a symbol for God, the real nutrient of life. “You must honor bread with complete respect,” Mom would direct.
Mom was the faithful bread baker back in the forties, the kind of bread that most of us now call “pita bread.” Although I was only seven, I still see it all: the mixing, the kneading, and the baking. Blend flour with water, create the right dough consistency, pull and separate the spongy stuff into small balls, roll each into tiny mounds on the dining room table. “Now, they have to sleep.”
In the Florida heat, the mounds swelled under the additional warmth of an old Army blanket. “It’s like pregnancy. We have to wait until it’s time.” Every few hours, mom escaped clerking in our Orlando 7-11 type grocery store on highway 17-92 to climb upstairs and peek under the blanket at her growing babies until she’d finally smile: “They’re ready.”
Now, she’d pull away the blanket; flatten each of them into circles, turning them like pizza dough. And yes again, a couple of rounds of sleep time until they finally made their way into a 500 degree oven. Sweat like a mini waterfall dripped from her face as she leaned down before the magic oven to pull out each browned loaf with her flat wooden shovel and toss it into a pile on the kitchen table. (I still have that dear flat wooden shovel.) We stood by wanting to grab that first warm loaf, to pour real butter all over it and go at savoring the joy.
“Let’s give thanks.” Mama never forgot. Like a yeasting, a waiting, a solemn gathering, we circled for a ritual of thanksgiving. Though panting and sweating, mom retained enough saintly strength to remind us of bread’s deeper force. “If you drop a piece, make sure you kiss it.”
There is a custom in the Catholic Ritual that echoes mom’s teaching. If when the priest is giving communion, the holy bread falls to the floor, the priest must pick it up and kiss the sacred bread as well. My mother knew well her ritual, and perhaps under the influence of memory, mom’s practice stemmed from her religion, a Greek Orthodox ritual.
Now, forty years later, I drop a piece of bread, I can’t help myself: I instinctively kiss it and touch it to my forehead and feel an automatic connection to my adored mother. But even more, I instinctively feel linked to something holy.