Bud wasn't expecting presents for Christmas that year.
It was the height of the Great Depression, and he was living in a boarding house thousands of miles away from home. There wasn't money for gifts. Every dime was precious, and was needed for the family to survive.
But they WERE surviving — him in the East, and his parents and brothers out West — and that was gift enough during those trying times. He was just grateful for a day off from work, and he was looking forward to the sumptuous Christmas dinner Mrs. Rossi had promised to prepare.
Wonderfully savory smells drifted from Mrs. Rossi's kitchen as Bud showered and shaved and put on a clean white shirt and tie. Mrs. Rossi wasn't as good a cook as his mother was, but her culinary repertoire was significantly more exotic.
She had introduced him to pasta — something his mother had never prepared — and wondrous varieties of Italian cuisine. He had a special fondness for her spaghetti and meatballs, but that wasn't the smell coming from the kitchen. It was similar, but different — and it smelled similarly good, in a different sort of way.
One thing Bud knew for sure was that fresh homemade bread would be involved in the meal. He could pick out THAT smell from a thousand miles away. Bud was something of an expert on the smell of bread baking.
His father was a miller — his Star Mill was just a couple of hundred feet from the family's kitchen. And his mother took that good Star Mill flour and baked fresh bread for her six sons every day except Sunday. Just as his father could tell if something was amiss by the sound frequencies emanating from mill machinery, Bud had smelled enough baking bread that he could tell if a loaf was properly done by the aroma wafting from the oven.
And the bread Mrs. Rossi was baking was done. Perfectly.
As good as whatever it was that Mrs. Rossi was preparing as the main course of their boarding house Christmas dinner might be, Bud was most anxious to bite into a thick slice of that homemade bread, still hot out of the oven.
As soon as all six of his fellow residents were seated and a blessing on the food had been properly pronounced, Bud extended his long arms in a classic boarding house reach for the plate of bread.
"No, Bud," Mrs. Rossi said firmly. "That bread isn't for you."
Bud looked at her, puzzled. She smiled broadly and produced a plate bearing a small, brown, rounded mound of … well, he wasn't exactly sure what it was.
It appeared to be a bread-like substance. But it was too large to be a roll, and too small to be a loaf. And it was all crusty — not like a slice of any kind of bread he knew.
"This is your bread," Mrs. Rossi said, beaming.
Bud eyed it suspiciously. It didn't look dangerous or anything — not like that calamari-thing Mrs. Rossi served around Halloween. This looked almost edible. Maybe if he put lots of strawberry jam on it he could get it out of the way so she'd let him have some REAL bread.
He picked it up and looked at it carefully. He sniffed it — it smelled wonderful, and familiar. He pulled off an end piece and took a bite. The flavor was unmistakable. A wave of sensory fulfillment washed over him as the taste transported him to his mother's table 3,000 miles away, flooding his mind with happy memories and indescribable feelings.
"Where did you get this?" Bud asked, dumbfounded.
"From your mother," Mrs. Rossi confessed.
"She sent you this bread?" Bud asked again, confused. "It feels warm. It tastes fresh."
The old woman shook her head. "Your mother sent me the recipe and a small box of flour," she said. "It wasn't enough to make a full loaf, and I didn't have any pans small enough for the amount of dough it made. So I did the best I could to shape it in the bread pans I had."
"But when … how …" Bud was overwhelmed with feeling and emotion.
"Your mother wanted you to have a little taste of home for Christmas," Mrs. Rossi said as she gave Bud a quick hug around his shoulders. "Merry Christmas from her!"
Suddenly that unappealing little lump was the most beautiful loaf of bread he had ever seen. He couldn't bring himself to eat it. He carefully wrapped what was left in a napkin and tucked it into his pocket for safekeeping. As he reached for a helping of something Mrs. Rossi called "lasagna," he couldn't help feeling this had been an uncommonly bounteous Christmas.
Enriched, as it was, with the flour of love.
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