Mary Louise Seguel is a renaissance woman. She still grinds flour from wheat and makes 12 loaves at a time.
Mary Louise Seguel opens the door to her cottage. She stands slightly less than 5 feet tall, light gray hair pinned back. Her clothes are all home-sewn: pink, purple and black paisley blouse under a striped apron. Pale blue eyes reveal the feisty spirit within the 92-year-old body.
“Here,” she says, pointing to a mixing bowl swollen with warm bread dough. “Work it.” She tips the bowl so the yeasty mixture slowly slips onto a floured board. We knead the soft dough, divide it into three equal parts, and form them into loaves to rise again.
Mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of six more, Mary Louise Seguel is a renaissance woman. She lives near her son in West Seattle, a honey-colored Steinway piano in the corner that is as old as the adjacent Singer sewing machine. The vegetarian who cooks only from scratch is, according to her granddaughter, famous for her homemade bread and cherry pie. Mary Louise still grinds flour from wheat and makes 12 loaves at a time.
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“Here’s my mill,” she says, lifting the lid off an old wooden box she loads with organic wheat, then turns on to a furious grinding.
Born in Wisconsin in 1915, Mary Louise Libby moved to the Yakima Valley with her family when she was 10. Growing up on a fruit ranch, she learned how to pick, pack and can fruit, how to cook, sew and garden. What’s more surprising for early-20th-century country life is that she and her sisters also received first-rate musical instruction and were encouraged to pursue college.
As a girl in the valley in the 1920s, she enjoyed climbing trees and playing house but felt like “an intellectual stranded in a frontier community.” She speaks of her New England forebears who started the family tradition of going to college: “At the time, there weren’t that many choices for women. I could either be a nurse, a secretary or a teacher, so I decided to become a teacher.”
During the Depression, she attended Whitman College for a year, received a teaching certificate from Central Washington State College, then, after four summers at the University of Washington, earned a bachelor’s in English literature. From there she went to Columbia University in New York for a master’s degree in education, with “little money but a lot of enthusiasm.”
At Columbia, she fell in love with a smart Chilean exchange student named Leopoldo Fuentes Seguel. They married, and soon Mary Louise was pregnant. After their son’s birth in 1942, Leopoldo returned to Chile, Mary Louise later making the arduous wartime journey to join him. In Chile she gave birth to a daughter, and the young family came back to the States, planning to earn some money and return to Chilean life. Mary Louise soon realized, however, that life in Chile was not for her. “I wanted my kids to be American, and I never could have gotten a doctorate had I stayed.” She and Leopoldo divorced.
So back to Columbia the single mother went, teaching in Westchester County during the day and taking classes in the city at night. “We were poor,” she recalls, adding that she and her children used to collect old bottles for refunds. Eventually she received her doctorate in education. She knew she challenged the conventions of the time by marrying a foreigner, divorcing and pursuing a doctorate. She never remarried.
For decades she taught education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Two years ago, she moved to Seattle to be closer to family.
How did this fierce intellectual develop so many domestic skills? “In my field, the results of your work take years to see,” Mary Louise says. “So I gravitated toward things that could give me instant gratification, like cooking, sewing and gardening.”
Granddaughter Marin, sitting close on the sofa, asks, “Have you ever been poor at anything?”
Mary Louise: “Well, P.E. in school. And I do not have sophisticated swimming skills.”
Mary Louise mentions an essay she wrote, inspired by her mother, Delia, called “On Being a Lady.” It explains the codes of behavior her mother displayed, such as honoring elders, apologizing when necessary, using the correct fork. Mary Louise adheres to the same values.
As our visit comes to an end, Mary Louise notices the three swelling loaves. “Oh,” she exclaims, “we forgot to bake the bread!” She sends us off with two loaves she’d already made and a piece of cherry pie with a sugared lattice top. She also hands me a self history she wrote eight years ago. In it, she says, “Survivors have that eerie feeling, akin to what must be the experience of the battlefield, when people all around you are dying and you wonder why you are still here.”
She is here to share her story — and her bread.
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Grandma’s Whole-wheat Bread
Makes 3 loaves
2 ½ tablespoons yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
3 ¾ cups warm water
½ cup safflower or canola oil
1 2/3 tablespoons salt
½ cup gluten
2 pounds, 2 ounces whole-wheat flour, preferably freshly ground organic, weighed not measured
14 ounces unbleached white flour
1. In large bowl, sprinkle the yeast and sugar over water. Let bubble for a few minutes. Add oil, salt, gluten and the two flours. Mix well.
2. Turn dough onto floured board and knead 10 minutes until silky. (Or use a dough hook on an electric mixer.) Add more flour if necessary to avoid sticking. If too stiff, add water. Put dough into bowl dredged with flour, cover with damp dishcloth, and set in warm area to rise.
3. When doubled in bulk, punch dough down and knead for a couple of minutes. Divide dough into 3 equal parts using kitchen scale. Roll each piece into a loaf shape, tucking in ends. Put in buttered loaf pans. Cover the pans with cloth and let double again, about an hour.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Bake 35 minutes until golden brown. Cool on rack.