Grandma Spamp (Spampinato) was known as “The Bread Lady.” This identity was imprinted during her childhood chores in a small mining town in Pennsylvania. It grew through her loving survival spirit during the Great Depressionm and defined her essence as a Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and beloved community member.
When I was a child, bread baking was a given. First, eating fresh baked bread, right out of the oven, smothered in butter in Grandma Spamp’s kitchen. She would mix the bread early in the morning and bake in between her beauty shop clients. The beauty shop was a renovated living room in front of her row house in Pittsburgh. Between the perms and the smell of fresh bread, Gram’s clients, friends, and family hung out together for hours, telling stories and sharing memories.
Munching on a roll, I would curl up in a chair and listen intently.
Even though Gram didn’t talk about herself much, she did talk about the birth in the hills of Pennsylvania to Sicilian immigrants. Her dad (and brothers) worked in the coal mines. Her mom ran a boarding house for miners. This is where Grandma Spamp (Sarah) learned to bake bread and care for a large family and a house full of boarders, everyday. She didn’t reminisce as if these chores were tedious. She seemed to only remember the joy with which everyone worked together and took care of each other.
Years late in Pittsburgh in an arranged marriage (with a boy from the town in Sicily where her family was born), she had born three children. The youngest child was born with a debilitating disease, muscular dystrophy. She gave him all the love she could, including writing to President Roosevelt (who was also in a wheel-chair), asking for help. She actually got a reply in the form of a train ticket to a specialist in Philadelphia, who informed her that her son, Ernie, shouldn’t have lived as long as he did, and that whatever she was doing, was the best medicine possible. He died at 13, and her husband went home that day, went to bed and died six months later. Gram had to find a way to take care of her remaining two children.
This is when she grew her bread-baking skills. She needed to provide for her surviving two children, during a time of great hardship and economic depression. I don’t know exactly how she did it, but in addition to cleaning (at local schools and the church), she did laundry for others and baked bread. She had 100 pound sacks of flour delivered to her house and became very good at making excellent bread. I remember her talking about giving the bread away to the “poor people.” Even when she and her children could barely feed themsleves, she always saw the need of others and did her best to alleviate their hunger. She even opened her house to young girls who were alone, and became a foster parent…giving other children love that she had inside her and no longer was able to offer a sick little boy.
Many years later, Grandma Spamp would come to my childhood house every other Monday. She would cook and clean clothes all day long. After school, I would read to her as she ironed clothes and I would hear more stories.
And holidays, they were the best! Christmas Eve, my mother would start baking bread very early in the morning. By noon, the first batch was cooked. The rolls would cool and then wrapped in cellophane with a ribbon tied around it. After dozens (my memory is 12-15 dozens of rolls at least!) were cooked, cooled and wrapped, the children would be sent off to deliver these presents to the neighbors. We would be greeted with hugs and, “I’ve been waiting for the bread! Our holiday dinner wouldn’t be the same without it!” And then back home, bathed and snugly in new pj’s, we would have a Christmas Eve “picnic” on the floor of the living room ~ home-made rolls and ham with holiday cookies! Santa never had it so good.
Jump another 20 years, and my first child was born. My husband and I were sure we were having a boy, and his name was chosen. And then, voila, our daughter was born. The nurse asked what her name was, and I announced, “Sarah Suzanne!” Her name honored three of her four grandmothers.
Grandma Spamp was thrilled to have this new little baby named after her. She had been birthed in the hills of Pennsylvania by an African-American mid-wife. This woman had also nursed my Great-Grandmother. Gram saw the birth and naming of this little girl as a continuation of a multi-generational story….where an African-American woman had brought her into this world and an inter-racial little girl would carry her name forward. PLUS, little Sarah loved bread as much as her Great-Grandmother (who was now known as Gee). Little Sarah learned to punch the bread with her tiny fists and consume hot rolls smothered in butter!
When Gee passed away in her 94th year, I was one of the lucky ones to inherit one of her enormous bread-baking pans….which can hold 25-30 pounds of flour at a time. I also incorporated the Christmas Eve “bread to the neighbors” tradition into my young family’s life. My children participated in the holiday baking and delivery ritual, hearing the same greeting at each door that I had heard as a young child, “We were waiting for you. Our holiday dinner wouldn’t be the same without it!”
“Little Sarah” who now lives on the west coast, periodically calls to tell me she is baking bread. On holidays, and sometimes just because it sounds good, she mixes and bakes Gee’s bread. When she tells me, I call my mom and let her know. I can hear the intense joy in both of their voices, my daughter because the bread makes her so happy and my mom because the bread baking makes her know that our tradition will live on.
For me, the symbol of bread-baking reminds that with love we live longer than any doctor would predict, that bread can knit a community together within a fragmented, struggling world, and that two Sarah’s, three generations apart, have found joy, love, and sustenance through the bread of life.
This is my story I chose to share, about a woman who shaped my life and reading her story aloud brought me to tears. This is my contribution to empowering women. As the Executive Director of Michigan Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS) I am energized and excited to be a part of Rachael’s 30 in 30 campaign. Make a $30 Empowerment Investment in honor or Grandma Smamp or any woman who has touched your life. As we say at MIFFS, Rise Up – Dig In!
Proceeds from the 30 in 30 campaign will benefit the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing and Michigan Food and Farming Systems. Both of these organizations work with women to remove barriers and help them overcome an obstacle just like Grandma Spamp did.
Executive Director of MIFFS