Now I Make My Own Bread
My mother named me Beautiful. She was young, only eighteen, and Catholic but not strictly enough. I used to watch her in the mornings before school, curling her hair around a rusting iron and drawing on new lips and brows. If I sat in the bathroom, I risked her turning to me with cuticle clippers or peroxide and I tried not to cry when she poured it into my ears: synthetic bubbles eating at my brain like rice cereal. Mama, the Q-tip box says nothing bigger than an elbow.
If you’re going to cry, cry pretty. My mother never said it, but she may as well have.
She used to tell me I was named after Elle “The Body” MacPherson, which I translated to mean I was born to be a model. A perfect edition on the first try. I was a very early try (not really a try at all), in fact, so early that the better story of my name surfaced years and years later in a shoddy Brooklyn apartment. My father whom I’d met three months prior sat in an armchair and I on the couch. He said: I wrote a story in high school whose main character was named Elle. Your mom loved the story; I don’t know why. It was shit. But she named you for her.
Passing car horns blared in what I like to think was approval. The dim overhead light flickered. When I asked Mama about it, she said not to be ridiculous. It makes much more sense to be named for a model, after all.
When I was seven my mother tilted my chin up with her thumb and pressed a dull eyeliner pencil to my lid. If I flinched or whimpered, she’d say, “Elle: pain is beauty,” and press harder. She combed my hair tight to my scalp for the dance recitals where I would learn to move in my name-blessed beauty.
What my mother didn’t tell me, what my mother didn’t know, was that she set me up to fail.
When we were little we ate Wonder Bread and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and frozen chicken breasts and Schwann’s French vanilla ice cream cones with chocolate in the bottom and Taquitos and Pizza Rolls and Cosmic Brownies and noodles with butter and Homestyle Bakes. If the ice cream cones were running low, I hid one in the back of the freezer under a bag of frozen vegetables. My little sisters waged war on each other with empty two liters. There were always ten bottles, at least.
One time I asked my mother if I could use the blender for a food experiment. I was nine and it was the first time I ever made anything of my own. Pepper, water, Cheetos, garlic, shredded bar of soap. Of course I tasted it. Of course it was unpleasant. But it was mine. My mother didn’t like to cook.
“Your mom is hot,” Erik Lawson told me on the risers before the fourth grade choir concert.
“Yeah, Elle’s mom is so hot,” Travis Guy added. I was mortified but proud. My mother, my mother with the very blonde hair and the purse full of lip-gloss and the butterfly tattoo on her ankle, my mother was hot. Hot meant that boys wanted to look at her more than they wanted to look at other girls, which I learned was very important. My mother didn’t have any female friends.
But she did have male friends. Once in fourth grade she told me we were going to visit her friend from work at his apartment. I watched Survivor on his couch and he gave me a Snickers bar. I can’t remember what they talked about. In fifth grade my boyfriend Eric ended things during science class. He watched as his friend told me the news. I said Okay and when I got home, I locked the bathroom door and cried. I wanted to tell my mother what happened, but she was out of town, in Florida with her boss. She said it was for business.
When she left us, I was seventeen, I think. It had to do with alcohol and Vicodin and a more promising relationship with a man who wasn’t my daddy. I feared it had to do with me. She exchanged college parties and blind dates for bottles of milk in the microwave and a husband who would love me more than anything.
She wasn’t there, so I couldn’t tell her how my boyfriend chose my best friend instead. I couldn’t tell her how he’d called me big boned. I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t feel beautiful anymore or that I spent feverish hours flipping through fashion magazines comparing calves calves calves calves then shoulders shoulders shoulders then distance between eyes. Eyes. Eyes. Where was the formula for something beautiful? Why did you burden me, Mama?
We, Dad and the girls and I, moved into a tiny duplex that I found. I had to learn how to make egg sandwiches for the nights when Dad couldn’t or the nights when I found myself alone in this place too small for our furniture. I toasted Wonder Bread and pushed two eggs around a pan. I cooked without clothes on when I was alone. I pinched the skin above my hips. I ate my sandwich then some ice cream then some Oreos then one forgotten beer at the back of the fridge.
I couldn’t see this getting better.
Now I make my own bread. I knead and knead until the dough pushes back at me, until it makes a whisper of a popping sound. Then I knead another minute longer. I remember once Mama coming home from work in her lion mane coat. I remember her bending down to scoop me into a hug. I remember burrowing my face into the fur, the sweet smell of vanilla.
Elle Wignall is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. She is all the time thinking about family and memory and food. When not working or baking, Elle enjoys tucking into her reading chair—surrounded by an army of houseplants—with her elderly dog at her toes and a book in hand.