THE STARTER JAR

THE STARTER JAR

From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

The Starter Jar

The language of friendship is not in words, but meanings.

Henry David Thoreau

Our family get-togethers meant abundant food spread out on the dining room table and kitchen counters. Aunts, uncles and cousins balanced plates on laps and tried to catch up on news since the last time. As always, the meal lasted until no one could take another bite.

Today was no exception, making it hard to leave.

“We’ve got to go,” my husband, Allen, said to me and our five-year-old daughter, Meredith. We climbed in the Jeep as the sun that had peeked out of the clouds began to slide behind the tall Georgia pines. Allen started backing out of the drive.

“Wait!” my thirty-eight-year-old cousin, Doug, yelled.

I rolled the window down as he sauntered to the car, never one to be in a hurry.

“You forgot your sourdough bread,” he said in his slow Southern drawl. “And here is your starter jar so you can make it.” He pushed through the window a glass jar containing what looked like a white, gooey blob.

I stared at the jar tucked into a large Baggie filled with ice and wondered how I would get the strange substance home without creating a mess. Somehow, I balanced the jar between Meredith’s toys and a suitcase, and hoped for the best during the upcoming four-hour drive.

“Here’s the recipe to make it,” Doug added. “It will last indefinitely if you keep feeding it with equal amounts of flour and water, and a tiny bit of sugar.” He smiled. “Put it in the refrigerator when you get home, but don’t forget it. Like friendships, you have to tend it.”

After one more hug, Doug said, “Bake some and invite your friends over.”

“Me?” I asked. “You know I’m too busy to bake.”

“Make time,” he shot back. “It’s important to spend time with your friends, to have fun. I take loaves to the ladies who live at the lake all the time. They love it.” He grinned.

As we drove home, I remembered how Mom had said that Doug made it a point to get to know his neighbors, mostly retirees. “They’re always having dinner parties,” she had said.

Now, six months later, I peered into the refrigerator and moved food around to look for the ketchup for Meredith’s hamburger. I stopped cold. My knees buckled, and I could only stare at the jar in the back next to the light. The ache behind my eyes spread down to my throat. Tears began to flow as I wrapped my fingers around the jar and pulled it out. I held it close to my chest for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally, I put Doug’s starter jar on the counter and rummaged through the drawer by the refrigerator, determined to find the recipe he had given me.

Once I found it, I sat on the floor and stared at his handwriting. I ran my fingers over the words and read the steps that Doug had taken to make the starter mixture. Wow. He went to a lot of trouble, I thought.

I held the mixture Doug had prepared, thinking of how he had let it stand in a warm place for seventy-two hours. How he had stirred it two or three times, daily. Even after he placed the fermented mixture in the refrigerator, he had had to stir it once a day. And he had done this again and again for others?

At his funeral, it was evident that he had done just that. Even on the Fourth of July, people from all walks of life came to mourn his tragic death. All were shocked over the early morning head-on collision and fiery crash of the young D.O.T. captain returning home from his shift, a mere week before the start of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, where his department was assigned to security. To the bereaved who stared at the closed casket, it was bread bitter to the taste unless your faith rested firmly in the Lord.

But now as I sat on the floor, emotionally spent, I couldn’t dwell on the grief. For the first time since his death, I wanted to remember the Doug who put so much effort into making time for fellowship and hospitality, for friends getting together.

He had been right. You can’t let a hectic life keep you from enjoying life—and your friends. Fortunately, he hadn’t.

Suddenly, it was important that I make Doug’s bread. I gathered the dry active yeast, all-purpose flour, sugar, salt and warm water—all readily available ingredients to make bread. Essential food for the body and good to the taste just like friendship, I could almost hear Doug saying.

Several days later, the delicious scent of baking bread wafted through the house. I picked up the phone and called my neighbor.

“Becky,” I said, “don’t faint, but I’ve been baking.” I paused and looked over at the starter jar I had made for her. “I know that I’ve been neglecting my friends,” I confessed, “so how about coming over for some sourdough bread? We need to catch up.”

Debra Ayers Brown

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