Joe stepped in the other morning to hand us a loaf of very good bread, and he said ''the kids'' had given him one of these bread machines you button-push and then sit down and do a crossword. Lots of fun, he said, and I wondered how many times Joe and I had baked bread together in a reflector oven out the other side of some beaver pond. In such reflective moments I wonder if any invention was ever gained without losing something. When is something ''better'' quite as good as? This was my first brush with the bread-making machine and brought to mind Michael Skerry.
Before my father got his railway mail-service appointment, we lived a short time in what Dad always called ''a built-up section.'' Prosperity let him move back to his native Maine, and we had fresh eggs and milk. I ceased being a city boy, and my mother joined the Mizpah and began putting on chicken- pie suppers for the Congo Church necessities. My first and only playmate to that time was red-headed Michael Skerry, who lived across the suburban fence.
Michael was good fun, and the only time we were apart in those bright days was on Sunday when he went to mass. So I would wait around for Michael to come back from church, then I would go to Sunday School, and the day was half gone before Michael and I could hatch some plan.
Mrs. Skerry made the slickest white bread, excepting not even my own dear mother, but the difference was only that Mother used Washburn-Crosby Gold Medal, and Mrs. Skerry insisted on Pillsbury's Best. Otherwise, let's say, a dead heat. In the program of the Skerry household, her Saturday batch came from the oven just as Michael and I returned from catechism class, which I was permitted to attend only to wait for Michael. Father Moynahan always shook my hand as he welcomed us in, but never shook Michael's. Then he had a chair in the corner of his sacristy, and I would bide while Michael and Father Moynahan carried out the lesson's interrogations. Michael was not a swift study, so I knew my catechism before he did. Michael always had 5 cents, which Father Moynahan put in a bowl on his desk. Mrs. Skerry said Michael would be a priest, but she was wrong.
The loaves that Mrs. Skerry baked were twice the size of my mother's. I'd miss the regular Wednesday bake by being in school, but the Saturday batch would be just coming from the oven after the visit to Father Moynahan.
But my mother refused under any pressure to cut a loaf of hot bread, and Michael and I didn't linger for a loaf to cool. We'd lift the secret board in the fence and come into the Skerry kitchen where Mrs. Skerry had no scruples whatsoever about cutting hot bread and openly said my mother would never really understand little boys.
Hearing us on the way, Mrs. Skerry would have two thick heel pieces already sliced and buttered, reposing on a platter, and she would be covering them with golden-brown sugar, a great spatula leveling the sugar and helping it melt from the oven warmth of the bread. Michael would put his catechism pamphlet on a shelf, and we would scoop up our heel taps and go to the back porch to enjoy our treat. We were never offered seconds, but those heel taps were big enough so we never hankered for more.
One of my mother's stories of childhood was about a neighbor boy her age who had no manners and would bargain with his mother. If she asked him to do something, he'd say, ''What do you give me?'' With my mother, if we ever pulled anything like that, she'd give us a wallop on the side of the head that would make the fire-house bell ring two miles away.
One day this youngster was asked to do something, and his mother said she'd give him a slice of hot bread with molasses on it. Bargaining, he said, ''All right, but mind you put a good bit about the crusts!'' Mrs. Skerry never had Michael and me of a mind to say anything like that, as she was lovingly generous, but I think she would have slatted us for the same reason my mother would. Don't tarnish your gratitude! Growing up polite was easier then, mostly because good mothers didn't need to repeat things.
There was one exceedingly beautiful Saturday morning after we moved from the built-up section to Maine and the Skerry family had ceased to matter. My mother continued to bake her two batches of bread - four loaves Wednesday and four more Saturday. She still refused to slice a hot loaf, but after cooling we could have all we wanted. Then one Saturday I said Mrs. Skerry would now be putting on the brown sugar, and Michael and I would be just coming from the rectory. My mother softened a bit, and after a moment of judgment she said, ''All right, just this once I'll make an exception. Bring me the brown sugar package!''
I had a new playmate by now, and this was new to Hank. He watched as Mother cut the loaf. So did my father. So did I, and always after that Mother changed her rule about cutting hot bread. ''In memory of Mrs. Skerry!'' she'd say. And there was always somebody to say, ''And mind you put a good bit about the crusts.''
I never saw Michael Skerry after we moved to Maine. He did not become a priest. Years later, after we were both well grown, I saw his photograph in the Boston Globe. He had just achieved the honor of becoming speaker of the Massachusetts General Court. I wrote him a letter, and when no reply appeared I assumed he had forgotten hot baked bread and brown sugar on his mother's Saturday stoop. A great pity.