Read the first chapter of Belonging, my sixth novel.
At the beginning of the day, Sarah Mathews was confident in her identity as a wife, mother, daughter, and entrepreneur. Hours later, she was no longer certain who she was.
The morning began innocently, Sarah striking a casual but confident pose as she stared into a camera lens. She smiled, her mouth slightly open but not enough to reveal her dazzling white teeth. A rectangular soft light filled her field of view. Behind her, a scrim-mounted backlight illuminated the reddish highlights in her brown hair while three spots lit the background.
“You may have heard ‘experts’ say you can’t make a decent loaf of sourdough using a bread machine,” she said. “I’m Sourdough Sal, and today I’ll prove them wrong.” She ended with a broader smile.
“Perfect,” said a voice beyond the lights. “Do you need to stop for a moment?”
“Let’s go on.” Sarah paused before speaking. Cheryl Price, her creative director and the voice behind the camera, would replace the fifteen-second gap with the opening billboard and theme of her weekly program.
“I like to get my hands into the dough, even as I’m mixing it,” Sarah said. “But you may have so many things to do, you don’t have the time. Jeanine of Winnipeg, Manitoba, asked how she could use her bread machine to make sourdough white. I’m glad to share a technique I’ve developed.”
During the first episodes in the series, she’d invented the names of those requesting recipes to suggest the entire nation was watching. She no longer needed to fake it; with more than a dozen lessons online and a growing audience, new requests arrived daily, overwhelming her inbox.
Removing the bowl of her bread machine—careful to mention the brand name, BreadSense—Sarah placed it on the Elettrica Cuccina electronic scale and measured first water and then sourdough starter. Cheryl switched to a ceiling-mounted camera pointing downward at the work surface to capture the step.
Mentioning the brand name of the bread flour, Sarah said, “Always measure ingredients by weight, because the volume of flour varies with its moisture content.”
Sarah had been marketing director for a chain of health clubs and had been on pregnancy leave when the COVID pandemic hit. After her son Kellan was born, the company had closed its doors. Cheryl, an art director for their advertising agency, was collateral damage, let go when her agency lost three valuable contracts. While Sarah was financially secure, she needed a creative outlet, and Cheryl needed income. Thus was their Sourdough Sal partnership formed.
After placing the ingredients in the bread machine, Sarah turned it on. A series of loud thumps filled the studio Victor, her husband, had built at one end of their basement. As the machine’s paddle churned the flour and water, Penny, Cheryl’s teenage daughter, moved an iPhone closer to record the process. Cheryl would later edit this clip into the finished video and dissolve into the next scene.
“Mommy! Mommy!” Sarah looked down to see her twenty-one-month-old son had wandered onto the set, followed by Vivian, the college student who sometimes looked after him. Sarah picked the child up without missing a beat and sat him on the edge of the counter. “Mommy’s making bread, Kellan. Do you want to taste it after I’ve finished?”
The child laughed and nodded his head. “Let me put you down for your nap while I finish showing these nice people how to bake it.”
She picked him up, handing him to Vivian. “Sorry about that, Mrs. M,” the girl said. “He just scooted away and was down the stairs before I could stop him.”
Because you were listening to music on your phone, Sarah thought. Cheryl would edit the scene, “fix it in post,” to use her expression.
“Being a mom means learning to be flexible,” she said. “That’s what this lesson is about: learning how to do traditional things in new ways.”
Cheryl stopped recording, and Sarah replaced the bread machine with an identical model. After peering inside to make certain the dough had risen, she nodded to Cheryl to resume the recording.
“Four hours have passed,” she said, “and look at the beautiful dough we’ve produced.” She lifted the white blob out of the machine’s bowl without deflating it, pulled out the paddle, and began shaping it into a ball as she spoke. “Let’s spray our plastic rising container and lay the dough in it, seam side up,” she said, going through the motions as she spoke. “I’ll cover it with the lid and place it in the refrigerator to proof overnight.”
Production halted as Sarah changed her blouse and apron. She removed the container from the refrigerator and replaced it with an identical container from off camera. “The starter has had overnight to work its magic,” she said. “I removed it from the refrigerator two hours ago to let it come up to room temperature. I’ve preheated my oven to 475 degrees with my Ardmore Dutch oven inside it.”
Using two ovenproof gloves—OvenSafe by name—she took the pot out of the oven, removed the risen dough from the plastic container, and lowered it gingerly into the Dutch oven. She scored the top, brushed it with an egg mixture, and sprinkled sesame seeds over it. Finally, she returned the pot to the range and, with an exaggerated motion, lowered the temperature to 425 degrees. She did this for show, as this oven wasn’t hooked up.
“Twenty minutes have passed, and I’m going to lift the lid and finish our loaf uncovered.” She did so as she spoke, not allowing the camera to see the loaf, which was unchanged.
Another three minutes passed while Sarah prepared for the last scene. She swapped the cold pot with an identical one from a hot oven out of camera range.
“It’s been forty minutes since the loaf went in, and I think,” she said as she opened the door to the prop oven, “it’s ready.” Donning the other mitt, she removed the blazing hot container, tilted it toward the camera, and upended the bread onto a metal rack. She waited a moment while Penny moved her iPhone in on the steaming loaf.
When Cheryl gave the all-clear, Sarah moved the hot loaf out of sight and replaced it with another. “After an hour, our loaf has cooled enough to slice it.” She cut off the heel and two slices, holding one up to her head and burying her face in it. Emitting a long sigh, she said, “This beautiful, fragrant loaf of sourdough bread was made with the help of the BreadSense machine. And they said it can’t be done.”
Sarah slathered butter over the other slice and took a bite. “In our next episode, I’ll show you how to make whole wheat bread using the same technique. If you enjoyed this lesson, please subscribe, leave a comment below, and share the link with your friends. And if you’d like to purchase your own BreadSense machine at a substantial discount, click the link below this lesson. I’m Sourdough Sal. Here’s to more baking in the wild.”
She smiled at the camera and held the pose until Cheryl called, “Cut!” Another episode of Sourdough Sal was in the can.
As Cheryl packed away their gear, Sarah sat on a barstool at the counter of her kitchen studio, hunched over her notebook computer. She rested her left foot on the bottom rung of the chair while extending her right behind her. “Ouch,” she said as her son slammed his bumper car into her leg. “Mommy’s working, Kellan.”
“Toast, Mommy. Want toast.”
She rose, cut a slice of bread from the finished loaf, and shoved it into the toaster oven. “Do you want butter or peanut butter?”
Kellan pointed at the tray containing the yellow stick. “Can you say butter, honey?”
He let out an unintelligible burble. Sarah sighed, lathered the toast generously, and cut it into four sections before putting it on his tray. As she returned to work, Kellan careened to the opposite end of the basement, set up as his playroom.
She had already responded to the latest notes on her YouTube channel. She now turned to her email, beginning with the sourdoughsal account. “LUV your informative videos,” MollyS wrote from Peoria. “How did you get started?”
Sarah inserted a few lines of stock copy from a program Cheryl had written for her and dispatched her reply over an HTML signature containing links to her channel, Facebook page, Instagram feed, and Twitter handle. She dispatched the subsequent five messages just as quickly. Cheryl’s program had once allowed her to provide “personal” answers to seventeen emails in an hour, a record that still stood.
Kellan cried out, having wedged his bumper car between two overstuffed chairs. “Damn it, Victor,” she said to her absent husband, “I’ve asked you not to move them.”
“Dammit,” Kellan said.
“‘Darn it,’ Kellan. That’s what Mommy said. ‘Darn it.’”
“Dammit,” he repeated and erupted in a chortle that shook his entire body.
She laughed along with him. Few things gave her more joy than listening whenever he cracked himself up. “And time to change the royal diaper from the smell of things.” She performed his ablutions and placed him on the floor with an empty pot, wooden ladle, and ring of measuring spoons.
Her marketing duties completed for the day, she turned to her personal email. “How did I get on so many lists?” she said, as her stubby fingers highlighted a long row of messages and deleted them. She read one or two, answered none, and came to one from Ancestry. “Eleanor Frangos has sent you a message.”
She was tempted to ignore it. Mapping her family tree had been Victor’s idea, not hers, and she had found time to enter only the two generations she knew about. Her DNA test had been a fiasco, and she had never heard of Eleanor Frangos. Nevertheless, her curiosity got the better of her.
I am exploring my family history and have come across your name. Your DNA test shows we are cousins, and I am trying to determine how we are connected. My mother, Sophia, has a sister, Petra, who has a daughter and a son. Her brother, Theo, died in his late teens in an automobile accident. He never married. Still, I wonder if he might have fathered a child and never told us about it. Are you his daughter?
I’m sorry to bother you, but there must be a connection. Can you help me? You can respond here or write to me …
And here, she shared her email address and phone number. Sarah recognized the 304 area code as coming from West Virginia. She thought for a moment, her right heel beating a nervous rhythm on the floor, then wrote a response.
I regret to tell you we are not related. Unfortunately, Ancestry has made a mistake, perhaps mixing up my DNA test with someone else’s.
My parents are Steven and Lillian Lindstrom. They had me late in life. My mother called me her miracle baby until I asked her to stop. We live in Upper St. Clear, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and have since I was three …
Sarah paused and reread what she’d written. A chill came over her as she reviewed the line she had not finished. She deleted the second paragraph. Oversharing, she told herself. “I wish you good fortune in researching your heritage,” she wrote and hit the send button.
“Damned fools.” She closed her notebook computer. Behind her, Kellan echoed her words.
Victor was chasing Kellan around the family room on his hands and knees when Sarah called them to dinner. Through their dining room window, snowflakes chased each other in horizontal streaks. “Pork tenderloin in mustard sauce,” she announced as she brought their plates to the table.
“My favorite. I married well,” he said with a smile.
As she cut small pieces of pork for Kellan and ladled orecchiette onto his tray, her husband asked how her taping had gone, and she inquired into progress on his latest home design. With the preliminaries out of the way, she said, “Not everything went well today.”
Victor raised his eyebrows in a question, but before she could continue, Kellan shouted. “Abocabo.”
“Say please, Kellen.”
“Pweedze.” He pounded his little spoon on the tray of his high chair.
She selected a fresh avocado from a basket on the table, cut it open, and spooned the ripe fruit onto his tray. “Who’s child is this?” Victor said as Kellan painted his face in the green stuff en route to his mouth.
“Don’t worry,” she replied with a laugh, “he’ll graduate to burgers and franks soon enough.”
“You were saying?”
She laid her knife and fork on her plate and brushed aside a dark curl. “A woman sent me a note on Ancestry today claiming I’m her cousin.” She summarized the message and said, “It comes from that botched DNA test.”
Her father, Steven Lindstrom, came from a long line of Swedish immigrants; his father had dropped the ö in favor of the unadorned o before Steven entered grade school. Her mother, Lillian, was of Scots-Irish heritage with some German lineage thrown in. Sarah’s DNA results, however, placed her forebears around the Mediterranean, more than half from Greece. None of the suggested relationships made sense to her, unfamiliar names that lay nowhere on her nascent family tree. She’d taken one look and shelved the results as a mistake.
“Just ignore it,” Victor said.
“That’s what I’m doing, but this false report is out there for anyone in the world to see.”
“Not everyone can see it. Ancestry found a DNA match and notified this woman. They probably notified you as well.”
“I’ve ignored most of their messages,” she said, transferring her last bite from plate to mouth. “I don’t know what made me open this one.”
“If it bothers you that much, redo the test. I’ll look into it after Kellan goes night-night.”
“I have neither the time nor the interest,” she said. “I’m sorry you ever got me into this.”
Victor held his tongue, knowing it was perilous to pursue a point on which she’d decided. To change the subject, he said, “I’ll clean up.”
She was already on her feet, collecting dishes and utensils. “If you’ll bathe your son, I’ll bathe the dishes.”
He tucked his giggling toddler under one arm and trundled him to the guest bathroom, swinging him gently as he went. “Don’t make him throw up,” she called.
“Mommy says not to throw up,” he said as he ran water into the tub until the temperature was right, then slid Kellan’s yellow plastic tub beneath the faucet. “You’re outgrowing this, little man. Please stop.”
Holding the toddler’s shoulder with one arm, he reached above him for the bath toys. Kellan splashed water over his face, howling with glee. As his son wiggled and thrashed in the water, Victor thought about the dinnertime conversation. As an architect and contractor, he had to be precise, but Sarah went beyond that. She was meticulous. In four years of marriage, he’d learned his pajamas were not to touch the floor but to be placed on the outer hook on the back of their bathroom door. Everything had to be done just so and had to be done now. If something was awry—an item or a plan—she stopped whatever she was doing until she made it right.
He hoped the Ancestry mix-up wouldn’t become a big deal.
“You may have heard ‘experts’ say you can’t make a decent loaf of sourdough using a bread machine. I’m Sourdough Sal, and today I’ll prove them wrong.” Sarah’s face disappeared from Cheryl’s 43-inch computer monitor as the music swelled and a cartoon version of Sarah wielded a rolling pin to paint the words “Sourdough Sal” on the screen.
The pair sat side-by-side at Cheryl’s console as the edited version of the previous week’s lesson rolled by. Cheryl kept one eye on the screen and the other on her partner, waiting for her inevitable nit-picking. It was not long in coming. “Let me see that again.”
Cheryl inched the control bar back twenty seconds and hit play. “Right there,” Sarah said. “I wish you’d taken the overhead shot at this point.”
“That’s how we blocked it, but your hands were in the way. I cut to the shot the moment it was clear.”
“All right,” she said, but Cheryl could tell she was still dissatisfied.
“This would be easier if I could iso all four cameras and combine them in post, rather than switching the three fixed cameras live.”
“We can’t afford it right now. We haven’t even repaid the equipment loan.”
Cheryl sighed and nodded. She had been furloughed just before the Christmas holiday and was living on unemployment while she searched for a job. Sarah’s project had given her a shot at independence, but the venture needed to turn a profit soon so she could draw a salary.
“We don’t have a shot of the oven thermostat,” Sarah said. “I tell them to turn it down to 425, but we don’t see me doing it.”
“Is it necessary? I can place the instructions on a super at the bottom of the screen.”
“That would be great, but seeing it would be even better.”
Cheryl closed her eyes and rested her neck against the headrest of her office chair. Would Sarah never be satisfied? “It’s just a YouTube video. We’re not going after an Emmy here.”
“But don’t you want it to be right?”
Cheryl rolled her eyes in frustration, then had a thought. “We used that shot in the third episode. I’ll grab it and insert it.”
“May I see it?”
Cheryl suppressed another sigh and loaded the episode, scrubbing through the control bar until she reached the point where Sarah had turned down the oven’s temperature. “I’ll lift this clip and lay it into the scene.”
“Hmm.” Cheryl waited for what would come next. “I’m not wearing the same blouse I did at Thursday’s taping, and my wrist is in the frame,” Sarah said. “Someone is bound to notice.”
“Short of bringing in a camera and recording that one shot—”
“Use the iPhone.”
“You’ll have to go home and change blouses. What if I insert this shot and put a little box with the correct temperature over your sleeve?”
Cheryl counted the seconds. “I guess that will work.”
“I’ll make it work.”
Sarah didn’t respond, and Cheryl accepted her silence as agreement. Her partner was so picky it made editing a greater burden than it should have been. On the other hand, she told herself, her attention to detail makes the taping a breeze. Half a loaf …
Sarah’s bread machine ground to a halt as a burning smell filled the room. She pulled the plug to avoid damaging the motor. Do I have too much whole wheat flour, too little water, or should I reduce the size of the loaf? She was to tape this episode in three days and had yet to perfect the recipe. Why did I tease this lesson without testing it first?
She opened her computer to study some of her other whole wheat recipes, searching for inspiration. A notification popped up in the corner of her screen, telling her she had a message from Eleanor Frangos. She considered ignoring it, but figuring it was an apology, opened it.
Pardon me for writing again, but I want to give you a bit more family history. Our patriarch, the first to emigrate to the US, was Yiannis Panos in 1908. He came from the part of Greece occupied by the Ottoman Empire. When Turkey began drafting Greeks to fight their countrymen, Yiannis joined a group of fellow villagers and came to West Virginia, which was recruiting miners. A year after his arrival, he sent for his wife, Sofia, my great-grandmother, after whom my mother is named.
She rattled on, describing the ensuing generations up to the present moment. Then came the kicker. “I’m telling you this because you are linked to our family somehow. Ancestry says you’re a cousin, but perhaps you’re a second cousin. So please recheck your family history and determine where you fit in.”
What an obstinate, obtuse woman. Sarah began writing a reply, but signed out without posting it. Eleanor Frangos did not merit a response.
Her baby monitor showed Kellan had awakened from his nap. She left the studio kitchen, took the stairs to the main level, entered his bedroom, and scooped him up.
Another dirty diaper. And Victor wants another child? Not until this one is in his big boy pants. She brought him into the bathroom, cleaned him up as best she could, and finished by hosing off his bottom in the shower. As she dried him and put on a fresh diaper, she glimpsed herself in the mirror. Old fears and memories flooded back—strange looks from her friends’ parents and the inevitable, “Who do you take after?” She examined her brown, curly hair, studied her olive-colored skin, and stared into the reflection of her green eyes.
Could there be some family connection of which she was unaware? She would have to ask her mother. The question was how to pose the question without upsetting her.