I recently received an email from a woman who I’ll call Joanne. During the pandemic, she’d read my book of interconnected short stories, The Doctor’s Wife, with “great pleasure,” and she was writing to let me know that she had a personal connection to the book.
Joanne had grown up in Lake Stevens, Washington, where the stories are set, and where—this is important—my grandfather was a doctor. Joanne wrote that my grandmother would occasionally stop by and drop off freshly baked bread, still warm and ready to be “slathered” with butter. Did I want the recipe?
Yes, I wrote back, curious. In my memory, my grandmother never made bread, though she baked pretty much everything else, cookies, pies, cakes, cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls.
The next message from Joanne included a recipe for “Dory’s Sweet Swedish Bread,” along with the startling news that after reading my book, Joanne had “forgiven” my grandfather. Joanne listed what she blamed my grandfather for: he’d performed a cesarean section “early” on Joanne’s mother, and the child died four days later. Years after this, Joanne’s mother had a heart attack and died at “a young age.”
On the day of the funeral, Joanne’s family read in the Everett Herald that the medication Joanne’s mother had been prescribed by my grandfather had just been withdrawn from the market because of links to fatal heart disease. According to Joanne, on that same day—that day of the funeral—my grandmother babysat Joanne’s kids, bringing over applesauce she’d canned, telling Joanne that if the kids didn’t like applesauce, she should flush it down the toilet.
“I don’t see how a doctor can learn to live with such sad results of his care but of course he must. He was a good man and I no longer blame him,” Joanne wrote, signing off, “Enjoy your bread!”
Almost every family has its secrets and sorrows, and over the years, readers have shared their stories with me.
How dare she, I thought, pissed. She’d tricked me. The bread recipe had been a Trojan Horse, used to smuggle in an accusation that my long dead grandfather had committed medical malpractice, twice. What was I supposed to do with this?
I know the writing is going well when I feel like I’m giving up family secrets. That’s the way I felt a lot of the time when I was writing The Doctor’s Wife. The stories center around the illness and death of my mother’s younger brother John, who had metachromatic leukodystrophy, a rare hereditary disease that leads to loss of motor skills and progressive neurologic decline. In the 1950s, the disease hadn’t yet been classified, and even now there are no approved treatments. All toddlers diagnosed with it die within a couple of years.
John’s illness and death were very rarely discussed in the family, and I grew up curious about what happened to him, what it felt like for him and the family. My mom, her siblings, and my grandmother tended toward a fatalistic view of the world, which, at its most useful, was funneled into a dark sense of humor, and it was with this humor that the family stories were told. When I started to rework these stories in my writing, I called what I was doing fiction, but I wasn’t actively trying to make anything up, I was trying to uncover what the humor had kept hidden.
Almost every family has its secrets and sorrows, and over the years, readers have shared their stories with me. You never know how someone is going to read something, what they’ll bring of themselves to a work, but Joanne’s letter was something new. It wasn’t just that she had her own way of reading the book, her own story intersected with mine, elbowing its way in.
My first impulse was to pick apart Joanne’s narrative. There were too many things that seemed off to me. First the bread. My grandmother’s given name was Doris, which she hated. Everyone called her Dorie, spelled with an “ie,” not a “y,” which probably isn’t significant, except that names always matter. It also seems wrong that the recipe is for Swedish bread.
There were many people of Swedish heritage in Lake Stevens, but my mother’s side of the family is of German and Danish stock, a significant difference in such a homogenous community. It also struck me as unlikely that my grandfather would have performed a C-section. Tom Critchfield was the obstetrician in town. What I knew of Grandpa Bob’s practice was that he was a general physician, a country doctor of the old school, who made house calls. Patients knew where Doctor Bob lived. One family story has it that a woman walked up the long driveway to the front door, a hand mixer’s beater attachment wrapped around her mangled fingers.
Unsettled by Joanne’s email, I called my mom. She remembered Joanne well, but she couldn’t recall my grandmother making bread of any sort, let alone the kind described in the recipe. She suggested I call my Aunt Petrea, who tends to have a more detailed memory.
I asked Petrea if obstetrics were a regular part of my grandfather’s job. No, she said, but she reminded me that medicine was very different in the 1950s, not as segmented as it is now. My grandfather was a board-certified surgeon, and every day he got up early before going into his office to do rounds at the hospital. Petrea and I settled on the hypothesis that it would have been possible for him to have performed a C-section, but only in an emergency situation.
I would have been more intimidated by the recipe if I hadn’t, like many others, started baking sourdough bread during the pandemic.
I asked about the bread recipe, and Petrea agreed with my mom that while my grandmother never made bread, her Grandma Petie often baked whole wheat bread. Petie’s house in Lawrence, Kansas always smelled of baking bread, and when Petie visited Lake Stevens, the house filled with the same scent.
“Oh, no,” my mom said, when we talked again. “Petie definitely made white bread, not whole wheat.”
If some of what Joanne remembered seemed off base, the detail about my grandmother telling Joanne it was OK to flush the apple sauce down the toilet rings true. It’s exactly the brisk and no-nonsense kind of thing my grandmother would have said, and it would have been in character for her to go where she was needed, bringing food. She was always boiling chickens to make soup for sick friends. Neighborhood kids knew they could come by for cookies and a visit whenever they wanted.
Whatever the precise truth was about anything else, I can well believe my grandmother was at Joanne’s house that day of the funeral, and this makes me unable to dismiss Joanne’s stories completely. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that my grandfather very likely did make at least a few slips over the decades he practiced medicine, even if it makes logical sense.
My dad, a lawyer, says that one time my grandfather and he had a conversation about professional responsibility, my grandfather giving advice along the lines of, “You know you’re going to commit errors, no matter what you do, and no matter how hard you try. The only thing you can do is to have a relationship with your clients and your patients.” This approach apparently had only limited success in the case of Joanne. It bothers me that she blamed my grandfather, and it bothers me that I don’t know if she had reason to. But there’s no way of knowing the truth of what happened, since everyone directly involved has died.
I decided to make Dory’s Sweet Swedish Bread. The recipe is of another time, the instructions alarmingly minimal, the ingredients and terms archaic, with the recipe calling for cakes of yeast, the scalding of milk. After mixing the ingredients as directed, I was left with a slurry the consistency of pancake batter, impossible to knead, let alone dump out on the counter, so I ended up adding about another two cups of flour, almost doubling what the recipe called for. This seemed very wrong, and I was sure I was headed toward disaster, but I kept at it, kneading the still extremely sticky dough.
I would have been more intimidated by the recipe if I hadn’t, like many others, started baking sourdough bread during the pandemic, and I kind of knew how dough should behave. After a lot of kneading, the Swedish bread dough eventually looked and felt OK. After it rose for the first time, I folded and shaped the dough, an important step to ensure that there are air pockets that can expand in the oven. Placing the dough in two loaf pans, I left them on the kitchen table for the final rise and once the dough had risen an inch over the rim of the loaf pans, I baked the bread. The loaves came out golden-brown on top. They released from the pans easily. I don’t mind saying they were beautiful.
Cutting into the bread once it had cooled a bit, I was afraid the inside would be glue, but no, the bread was soft, light. I spread—slathered?—softened butter on a slice, and I took a bite. The bread was good in a blandly sweet way, but that was all that could be said about it. It would have maybe been a better story if the baking had gone worse, if things hadn’t turned out alright in the end, pretty and forgettable, so unlike Joanne’s story or my own.
I called my mom again, describing the bread to her to see if the details jogged any memories.
“Maybe?” she said. We talked about Joanne, and my mom said something that seemed exactly right. “If she really forgave him, she never would have said anything to us.”
I think this is what initially bothered me most about Joanne’s note, that the blame was still very much alive. And why not? Bad things had happened to her family. Maybe it was unfair for her to unload it on me, but I’m the one who wrote the book.
I can only imagine that reading about my grandfather’s personal tragedies made her see him as a person, not just a doctor, and it must have come as a relief to be able to feel empathy for someone she had blamed for so many years, to see parts of the story she couldn’t have known at the time.
We’re always in possession of incomplete information, always trying to make up a story from the few facts we have. One way to think of a loaf of bread is that it is essentially a collection of bubbles surrounded by solid matter. It doesn’t work if most of what’s there isn’t space.
Dory’s Sweet Swedish Bread
1/4 cup warm water
1 cake yeast or equivalent
2 cups milk
1/2 or 3/4 cups sugar
2 beaten eggs
2 1/2 cups flour plus more
1 T salt
Scald milk, add butter and sugar, cool. Add yeast dissolved in water. Add eggs, flour, and salt and only enough more flour so dough can be handled. Knead until smooth. Let rise 11/2 hours to 2 hours. Knead down once. When light again, form into 2 loaves. Let rise, then bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.