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Baking With Love In Times Of Grief

Kacie Smagacz.jpg
Sarah Delia
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Baker Kacie Smagacz outside of her home base kitchen at the Oakwold Common Market.

Kacie Smagacz sat outside the Common Market on Monroe Road on a recent day. She had about an hour before she started her shift inside, where she bakes and dreams up new creations for her company Move That Dough.

"I think since I was raised by a grandma who lived through the Great Depression, it's very classic, American-style baking," Smagacz said. "Cake donuts and yeast donuts and cinnamon rolls and cookies and stuff that is comfort food to me."

Comfort food with a twist, that is. All of her creations are vegan and more than half of the menu is gluten-free.

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Courtesy of Kacie Smagacz
Kacie Smagacz credits her grandma for teaching her to bake.

Smagacz bounced between different households while growing up in Nebraska. Her grandma’s was where she felt the most safe and loved — and a big part of that was learning to bake alongside her.

A tattoo on the 33-year-old's arm of a mason jar surrounded by flowers reminds her of her grandmother.

"Since I have an ADHD brain, I experienced a lot of adults who would avoid me or talk to me like I was an idiot," Smagacz said. "And my grandma holding that space for me was huge. My grandma kept her sewing notions and all of her things in these mason jars in the basement. And I'd go downstairs and just spin them and look at them, you know? So I got that for her. She was a gardener (too), so that’s why there are flowers all around it."

Kacie Smagacz_masonjar.jpg
Sarah Delia
Kacie's grandmother who introduced her to baking kept all of her sewing materials in mason jars.

Smagacz sells her baked goods through pop-up shops and in local eateries around Charlotte. Her home base is the kitchen in Common Market, but she doesn’t have a storefront.

And that helped when the pandemic hit.

Business-wise, things were going pretty good in the early days of the shutdown. There was a surge of support for local businesses. She worked by herself at night in the kitchen so she didn’t have to worry about social distancing with a co-worker. Her partner would care for their 3-year-old; when she got home, he would head to work and she would take care of their daughter.

A big challenge came when she had to deal with opinionated customers.

"I had never before faced certain customers who are very anti-mask trying to put pressure on small businesses to stand up to the government and, you know, this kind of narrative," she said.

And then there were the customers who still wanted to place orders but wanted absolutely no contact.

"And so I felt very kind of like I was being demanded upon by both ends of a spectrum of people who wouldn't meet in the middle at all," she said.

Move that dough.jpg
Courtesy of Kacie Smagacz
All of Move That Dough's products are vegan and over half of the menu is gluten-free.

But she kept pushing forward and baking continued to be the same outlet it was for her when she was a little girl.

She's used baking to work through tough times before. She remembers going through a period of depression after she gave birth where she felt isolated and alone. Similar feelings bubbled back to the surface during the pandemic.

"When you combine art with business, I can't go through a season of being like I'm not inspired. I can feel uninspired, but I still have to show up," she said. "And the pandemic was no exception. And it's become therapeutic, in that way, where it can be my hardest teacher, but also like my greatest lessons learned have been through this business."

There was another lesson Smagacz would learn during the pandemic, one about family.

Smagacz says she experienced emotional and physical abuse from both her mother and father growing up. She says that abuse was tied, in part, to her very religious upbringing.

"I would say it's cult-level fundamentalist Christianity," she said. "I wasn't allowed to do anything outside of that circle. And it was the kind that reinforced like I was the chaplain of my senior class and I wasn't allowed to pray at graduation because I was a female."

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Courtesy of Kacie Smagacz
You can find Move That Dough treats at local eateries like Common Market or at pop-up shops.

On top of that, her mother suffered from bipolar disorder, Smagacz says, and her mother also struggled with prescription drug abuse according to Smagacz.

Smagacz often helped take care of her mother when she got sick. To comfort her, there was a song she would sing to her by the Christian artist Phil Wickham, "I Will Wait For You There."

"There were several times in her life where she got very sick and I was the youngest, so I was with her through those years the most," Smagacz said. "So I'd be holding her on the bathroom floor, like, calling an ambulance and singing her that song or in the hospital with her, singing that song."

During the pandemic, Smagacz and her mother weren’t on speaking terms. But she would hear updates from her brother on how she was doing. In April, he contacted her again. Their mother had COVID-19 and was in the hospital.

Smagacz tried to reach out to her mom — she texted her the lyrics to that song "I Will Wait For You There," the one her mother loved, but no reply. Then, later that day, as she was getting set up to serve customers, she got another call from her brother. Nurses were setting up a FaceTime call for the family. Their mother was dying.

"And we basically just had to watch our mom die on FaceTime. And it was disturbing for me on a lot of levels," she said. "So, to know that she was scared, alone and to know that she ultimately died alone — which was all she felt her whole life like she forced herself into solitude and loneliness — and that was her final experience. And that is heartbreaking because I only ever wish that I could have convinced her that she was as loved and talented as she was."

As they watched their mother die, the only thing they could do miles apart, was play a recording of her favorite song, the same song Smagacz had sung to her mom so many times before.

"I think I was in denial when it was happening because she had been so sick my whole life that I just thought this was going to be another one of those times where she almost died and didn't," Smagacz said. "And so I thought I was going to have time to repair with her."

And then, the FaceTime ended. And she had to turn around and serve customers.

She had help in the kitchen that day and everyone surrounded her, trying to support her through what just happened. If a wave of grief hit her, she would go to the bathroom and take a moment.

"But the grind didn't stop," she said. "Then, that night, I had to come in and bake. The next morning I had to serve customers. And so it took a couple of days till I could actually sit with myself and process the shock because it happened very quickly."

Part of processing her grief was realizing she wanted to help others avoid the position she was in when her mother died. In a way, she was already on that path. In the year before her mother's death, Smagacz got certified to become an end-of-life doula — someone who advocates on behalf of the dying person, helps them navigate the funeral industry, and cares for them in whatever way makes sense. She also sees that role as helping repair relationships before that person passes away.

"If we know someone is about to die, is there not like a mediator or a grief counselor who can come in and try to facilitate families talking to each other so that that person can for one final time hear that either they were loved or hear 'This caused me pain, but I forgive you and I've wanted to forgive you,'" she said.

She plans to go back to school to become a grief counselor. She wants to works with people and families at the end of life. In her words, she realizes that her actual heartbeat is not in the sugar and the flour she sifts — it’s in the work she feels called to do with end-of-life care. She wants to help others avoid the trauma and regret that came with her mother’s passing.

Much like how she found her way to baking in her grandma’s house as a little girl, she wants this new path to have love and understanding as key ingredients.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.