My parents moved to Taiwan a year and a half ago. With my uncle and his family moving in to take care of our house, animals, and garden, and me moving to share a small apartment with my sister for a shorter trip to school, many of the things from my bookshelves were boxed up, then crated up, then stacked with other crates in a storage shed. There is a hat rack, a rug, a basket, on top of the crates, a bike in front of them, a peddle boat for summers on the lake beside them. And inside, somewhere, is a white 3-ring binder, the sheet protectors filled with wallet-sized photos.
When my father began building his oven, he dubbed me the 'photojournalist'. I took pictures of holes in the ground, of re-bar and cement, of the nearly weightless red rock that my siblings and I use to draw on the driveway with and call 'lava rock'. Inside that notebook are pictures of things I have forgotten, steps in the construction that I was not aware enough of to remember. There are pages of blue-lined paper sitting alongside the pictures. Once, I began to write the story of the oven, describing the process one picture at a time. Pencil graphite on a few of the pages shows exactly when I halted, stuffed the notebook into a box, let the box be stacked in a crate.
'Our oven', I call it, at times. Sometimes I am more accurate and call it 'my father's oven'. Because it is my father who read the books, who learned the history and the secrets of managing this edifice that has been erected in our backyard. But his books sit on the shelves, free for the reading, so I reach for one and open it. I read.
Horizontal ovens date to the Roman era, the wood burnt on the same bricks you bake on. The massive hump of oven I saw when visiting Valley Forge, extending from the kitchen in the house George Washington slept in, was also an oven of this type, though I should apparently be calling it a beehive oven. The ovens could be small, large, for a family, for a community, for a business. And I am not as enterprising I would like to think myself, for the ovens were not used solely for bread. That they would be used for meat and perhaps the occasional dessert had occurred to me, but I read that they were used for drying and preserving fruits, for sterilizing pillows. The image of thrusting one of my mother's feather pillows into the maw of the oven flashes through my head. To these people, for centuries, from the Romans to colonial Americans, in Italy and in France, a freestanding oven was day-to-day life, a tool to be used in any way that was useful.
For me, sitting here on the green leather couch, my pillows clean of ticks, needing no sterilization, the brick oven is an oddity. A 'pizza oven', used perhaps for bread, occasionally a roast. I had thought I was branching and I find that others have been here before me, heating the oven bricks, using every last drop of heat, pulling out the ashes to use as fertilizer, making sure no resource was wasted. And each time I slide something between the blackened bricks, onto the smooth surface of the interior, there is a line of people standing behind me, who have made the same motions throughout time.
Note: The Bread Builders by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott, (c) 1999, was used as a resource for this post.