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Sourdough and Sewing Lessons

Sunday, May 28, 2023

By Julie Chavez

Writer Julie Chavez and her mother Barbara Dewire

Remind yourself daily that perfection strangles joy and learning new skills involves necessary mistakes.

My mom and I stood side by side as she gestured at the food scale on the kitchen counter in front of us.

“Mom, I don’t know if I need the added complication of sourdough in my life,” I said hesitantly.

My neighbor had gifted me with a sourdough starter a few months earlier. I’d taken one look at the exhaustive instructions on the website before I stood up from the computer, picked up the starter, and poured it carefully down the drain, saying a little prayer of forgiveness for the yeast I was murdering.

“Julie, I promise you: It’s not as difficult as everyone makes it seem.” She pointed to the ingredients that sat beside the glass jar of bubbly starter. “Bread flour, salt, and warm water. Serenade it with some classical music. That’s it!”

“I’m not playing music for it.”

“Okay, fine.” She lovingly rolled her eyes at me, the uptight child she had somehow produced.

It was my first visit to my parents’ new home in South Carolina, the one on the lake they had always dreamed about. I glanced at her, reveling in our physical proximity. Our last five years were spent an ocean apart while my father managed a hotel in Tokyo’s upscale Roppongi neighborhood.

Now, we were alone together in the kitchen. Morning sun streamed through the windows. I watched as her hands — the hands that are my hands, my sister’s hands — poured the right amount of starter into the clean bowl that sat atop the scale.

She used short, declarative, encouraging statements, knowing that learning new skills made me jittery and irritable, or likely to react like a frightened horse and bolt from the corral, never to return.

. . .

In addition to being a competent baker, my mom is also an accomplished, largely self-taught seamstress. In the summer after my freshman year of college, she gave me a sewing lesson. We sat together on a summer afternoon as she taught me the basics. I wound the bobbin and clicked it into the small silver case, then placed it into the bobbin compartment at the base of the machine. I lowered the spool of thread onto the pin and then wound the thread up and down through a short maze of tiny thread guides and levers before threading the eye of the needle; I learned how to raise and lower the presser foot and adjusted the foot pedal so it was the right distance for my long legs. My mom was patient and encouraging, applauding even the smallest victories.

Learning a new skill takes time. Mistakes are inevitable, a required part of the process of improvement. Beginners are clueless, fumbling dummies. Beginners are children learning to walk, tottering drunkenly like miniature zombies. But the victory lies just beyond those initial errors: the twenty-first attempt, after you’ve made the same mistake twenty damn times and you finally understand the why of your mistake. Aha! You earn the privilege of experiencing not beginner’s luck, but beginner’s magic.

But I was a stupid teenager with control issues.

“Mom!” I shouted from one room to the next after she left me alone with some scraps of fabric and a threaded machine. I had experimented with different types of stitches: zig-zag, running, buttonhole.

My mom appeared from the other room to check my progress. “This looks good, Julie,” she said encouragingly.

“But why are these crooked?”

She peered at the tiny deviations and shrugged. “Well, yeah,” she said. She laughed a little to indicate that she was about to state the obvious. “It’s not going to be perfect.”

“Okay.” I acquiesced. “Now what?”

“Well, now we cut the pattern. You decided you want to make that pair of pajama pants, right?”

She pulled out the tissue paper pieces of the pattern and laid them on top of the fabric, smoothing them down as she set a few weights near the edges to hold them in place.

“You know,” she said, “when I was growing up, my mom taught me how to sew, and she used to pin the patterns down so that they were perfectly cut. She would spend so much time on that part.”

You earn the privilege of experiencing not beginner’s luck, but beginner’s magic.

As she spoke, I listened to the shiny silver Singer scissors making sharp, slicing sounds, and the syncopated thunk as the metal made rhythmic contact with the table.

“Then, one day, I went to your Aunt Annie’s house.”

Aunt Annie was my mom’s most precious relative. Her gentle soul provided relief from the turmoil my mom experienced with my grandmother, whose volatile, mercurial moods had my mom walking through her childhood on eggshells. Aunt Annie lived in a green house at the edge of a Florida lake with Uncle E.C., who tended orange trees that produced Dream Navels.

“Aunt Annie laid out the pattern on top of the fabric and then—I will never forget this—she grabbed a handful of kitchen knives from the drawer and tossed them onto the pattern. And I was shocked,” my mom said emphatically, handing me the scissors, indicating that I should cut the rest. “I said to her, ‘Aren’t you going to pin them?’”

“It didn’t have to be perfect, Aunt Annie told me.”

Three hours later, my mom and I were forced conclude my sewing lessons for the summer. I was difficult and stressed and generally impossible. I walked away with one completed project: a pair of sinfully ugly pajama pants that would’ve fit a 400-pound man. They were so large we couldn’t possibly put elastic in the waist, so we attached a safety pin to a shoelace and scooted it through the narrow band I had crookedly sewn at the top of the pants.

We stuck to puzzles after that, and I managed to suck the joy out of those, too, attacking them like an unhinged participant in a time trial.

. . .

So, it’s no small triumph that I stand next to her now, listening, watching the hands that are my hands. I’m forty-one with two children of my own, but that incorrigible teenager still lives inside me. I remind myself daily that perfection strangles joy.

“Now, we put in the same amount of flour.” She starts to pour and then looks at me, confused. “500 grams or 50 grams?”

“Why are you asking me?” I’m laughing, and she laughs along with me, though her brow remains furrowed. “Mom, are we talking about kilograms or grams?”

She gazes into the starter as if it will speak the answer to us, but then she proceeds as she always does, eyeballing it. She shakes in the flour and then nods, satisfied with the look of things. “There,” she says. “That looks right.”

She pulls the kettle off the stove, explaining to me that her starter likes reverse-osmosis water with the chill boiled off. I tell her my starter will have to live with no music and crappy California tap water.

“Julie,” she chides. “It’s a living thing!”

“Well, mine’s going to have to get tough. Only the strong survive in our house,” I quip.

My husband sails into the kitchen. He senses that this could be the gateway to expensive specialized equipment that will be delivered to our porch before we even arrive home from this trip.

“I don’t think you need to make sourdough, Julie,” he says.

Because I’m my mother’s daughter, because her hands are my hands and I’ve inherited more of her than I ever knew—including her mulish, beautifully stubborn side—by uttering that statement, my dear husband has ensured that I will indeed bring home some of my mom’s sourdough starter.

Days later, when we leave, I carry a small Ziploc bag in my carry-on suitcase. The starter makes it to our home unscathed, and I begin the process of making necessary mistakes. I forget to feed my starter and have to revive it; I try to rush the first rise and I’m forced to throw away the batch and the linen napkin to which it has permanently melded itself. I experiment with temperature and, though it tastes good, my first loaf is too dense and has a tooth-dulling crust.

But what a gift: to learn something new, to experience moments of beginner’s magic, to stand in the kitchen and see my hands—my mom’s hands—kneading the dough on the counter before me, connecting us in an act of creation despite the miles between us. The loaf may come out misshapen, but it’s still delicious.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Julie Chavez is an elementary school librarian in Northern California who writes to explore the joys and impossibilities of modern motherhood. Her memoir, Everyone But Myself, will be published on January 2, 2024 by Zibby Books. Julie lives with her husband and two tall teenagers in a house where she arranges her books by color.