The Rye Bread Marriage

Illustration of loaves of brown bread stacked up like a wedding cake, with husband-and-wife figurines on top.
Alyssa Carvara

You wake up one morning married to a stranger who loves rye bread so dense you’d better duck if a loaf comes sailing toward you.

You thought you were marrying a European. But he is Latvian. Citizen of an overlooked country on the Baltic Sea. Latvian rye bread sustained your husband’s ancestors through icy winters and centuries of serfdom.

And you? You’re safely American. Born in a land of plenty. Yes, your Russian Jewish grandparents survived on rye bread in the old country. But in America, they ate mile-high hot pastrami sandwiches — the bread, a mere afterthought.

Your husband prefers open-faced sandwiches on Latvian rye bread with one slice of meat. He hates excess.

You think in time he will become like you. You are shocked to realize he wants you to become like him.

How did you marry a man so different from you? The answer never varies. You wanted to be near him. You felt compelled to be near him.

We met at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He was 28. A grown-up with a PhD and a career. I was 20, a rising college senior, working a nothing summer job.

The chemistry was immediate.

I was a student of history. He was history’s victim, born in Latvia in 1939. In 1944, to escape the Russians, his family fled westward. For five years, they lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany.

I thought our romance was just a prelude to the glamorous single life I would live after graduation. But John was thinking marriage.

We broke up. He married someone else and had two daughters. I moved to New York and wrote a book.

In my early 30s, out of the blue, John called me. He was getting divorced.

He showed up at my door with a bunch of yellow freesia. He was as handsome as ever.

This time, I said yes.

The day I met my mother-in-law, she served her rye bread. I understood it was a test of my suitability.

I lied and said I loved her bread. In truth, I didn’t get it.

John and I married and had a son. Marriage surprised me. The way anger escalated. The rage I felt about the things John could not throw out: used nuts and bolts, broken dishes. Most shocking: The hatred I saw in his eyes when I told him I had thrown away the clogs he bought in Helsinki — the ones that hurt his feet.

Marriage surprised me in the other way, too. The unexpected sweetness. John playing chess with our son and the neighborhood kids in front of our fireplace, then feeding them rye bread, sardines and hot chocolate.

Eventually, John found a Russian baker in Brooklyn and started selling a bread he called Black Rooster Baltic Rye.

John built a following for his bread by handing out free samples. Sometimes, I helped. One afternoon at Zabar’s, a nice-looking fellow swung by my display table.

He took a piece of rye bread smeared with sweet butter. “I know this bread. I grew up on this bread,” he said, a dreamy smile crossing his face. “Can I really buy it here?”

When I said yes, he leaned over and kissed the lapel of my corduroy blazer. “Thank you,” he said. “I love this bread.”

“I do, too,” I said, and as I spoke I realized something had changed: I wasn’t faking it. I loved Latvian rye bread.

If this were a film, you would see pages falling from a calendar, marking the passage of time. We come to a sunny Sunday morning. John’s older daughter and our grandson are visiting. John is making breakfast.

“Teti! Rye bread!” our grandson calls from his high chair.

I carry the smoked salmon and the fixings into the sunroom. Our grandson quickly sets to work on a plate of salmon and rye bread.

We all sit at the table. Light pours in through the windows. I gaze at the abundance. I look at John. So many years. So many meals. His never-ending need to share. My heart cracks open. I am Molly Bloom in “Ulysses,” saying, yes, I will marry you and be with you and care for you and be cared for by you. Yes. Yes, I will.

Michaele Weissman is a writer and writing teacher based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her fourth book, “The Rye Bread Marriage,” a memoir, will be published by Algonquin Books in 2023.