HARRISVILLE — The day before her bakery reopened, Cheryl Moschan held up a vaguely heart-shaped potato with excitement.
“This was my sign today,” she said, smiling as she explained that she had found it that morning.
Moschan, 61, said the sign was sent from her daughter, Melissa, who died in 2006.
Fifteen years ago, Moschan and her daughter opened Brown House Bakery, adjacent to Moschan’s home on Chesham Road in Harrisville. After Melissa’s death, Moschan threw herself into her business, working 18-hour shifts nearly every day.
In 2013, the physical and emotional exhaustion became too much to bear, and Moschan shut down the bakery, seemingly for good.
But after taking six years to heal, she found herself circling back to her dream — the kitchen that had helped bring her and Melissa so close.
“Now I just feel like I have that energy again, and it’s just great,” Moschan said. “It’s a great feeling to have it, but it took a while to feel that way.”
A culinary calling
Born in Framingham, Mass., Moschan moved to Jaffrey as a teenager when her father, Robert McLeod, transferred jobs.
She met her husband, Jerome “Jerry” Moschan, while they both worked at D.D. Bean & Sons in Jaffrey, and the couple married in 1976. They bought a house in Harrisville two years later, and she said now she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Her kitchen experiments began when she was 8.
“I can remember my really close friend in Massachusetts, Darlene, and I would get together and cook stuff, and it was the most disgusting stuff you ever wanna see,” Moschan said, laughing. “… And I think at that point, that’s when I knew I was gonna do something in the culinary field.”
Over the years, she worked at the Harrisville General Store and the Hannaford deli. When her children grew older and left the house, Jerry offered his wife a chance to pursue her passion full-time. He converted the Moschans’ four-car garage into a commercial kitchen, and Brown House Bakery opened in 2004.
Melissa worked with her mother from the beginning, Moschan said, laughing as she recalled all the inside jokes and that time Melissa gave Moschan’s grandson, Danny, his first cookie: a freshly baked peanut butter blossom, most of which ended up on the baby’s face.
“Memories are a wonderful thing to have,” Moschan said, “and if you bury those memories, then you’re just burying the person all over again.”
Melissa was diagnosed with epilepsy at 19, and on Jan. 21, 2006, she had a grand mal seizure and went into cardiac arrest in her Nelson apartment. She was 26.
Moschan said her daughter wasn’t typically aware during her seizures, and she takes comfort in that.
As an organ donor, her daughter’s eyes gave sight to two different people her age. Her skin continues to grow for burn victims, Moschan said, and her soft tissue helps babies with cleft palates and women with breast surgeries. Melissa’s heart valves, bones and other organs all went to help others, too.
“There wasn’t much of anything left for her. They took everything they could take, and that’s what she wanted,” she said.
Melissa’s remains were cremated and kept in an urn until Moschan’s mother, Dorothy, died in 2011. Their ashes were then combined and buried together in Willard Hill Cemetery, three minutes from the Moschans’ home.
Moschan struggled with the idea of burying her daughter, but said her husband needed somewhere to visit as part of his grieving process. Jerry goes to the cemetery nearly every day in the summer, she said, leaving flowers and tending to the other grave sites.
After Melissa’s death, Moschan donated all of her daughter’s clothes to Linda’s Closet, which helps women returning to the workforce. She kept Melissa’s denim jacket, which hangs in the back of the bakery.
While Moschan found it relatively easy to let go of the physical embodiments of her daughter, confronting the intangible and emotional pieces proved more challenging.
“It’s like a club that no one wants to belong to,” Moschan said. “... And you know, the parent could be 70 or 80, and they lose their adult child. It’s just not fair. You should never have to bury a child. That’s not the natural course. The natural course is that you die, and your children bury you.”
So she instead focused on the bakery, closing for just two weeks after Melissa died. She worked long hours, ignoring the pangs of grief that bubbled to the surface throughout the day and never letting herself cry.
Over and over again, Moschan explained what happened to customers curious about Melissa’s absence, some of whom felt too uncomfortable to return.
Meanwhile, Moschan expanded the business over the years to encompass a small café with additional seating, full catering services and online sales.
“I think I just kept it going because I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter. This was my dream, and I was letting my dream go,” she said.
She was slowly burning out, though, and eventually realized she needed to step away, as painful as it was. So in 2013, Moschan shut down her bakery — her dream — with no intentions of reopening it.
But it wasn’t the end. After all, she added: “I have butter in my veins.”
A bakery’s reborn
Danny, her 14-year-old grandson, had begged her to bring the business back, Moschan said, but it never seemed like a possibility in her mind.
Then she spent January with her son, Joshua Moschan, in Michigan and felt herself get a little stir-crazy.
“I am just not one that can keep still,” she said. “… I’m just too antsy. I mean, it’s daunting for me to sit in a movie theater without me having to get up and do something.”
She told her son that, upon her return to Harrisville, she planned to start job hunting. Joshua, however, pointed out a potential job just two steps from her house: He urged his mother to reopen her bakery.
And suddenly, the idea didn’t seem so outlandish to Moschan. Rather than a burden or an unhealthy coping mechanism, the bakery once again felt like a passion project.
“I needed to re-energize, I think, and it really did me some good to take some time off because I buried my head constantly in here,” she said, looking around. “… So it felt good to take the time off and ... clear the cobwebs out of my head.”
Moschan’s other daughter, Melody Moschan, said the bakery seemed to lose much of its meaning for her mother after Melissa died.
“She really just threw herself into the work, and we didn’t see a lot of her,” Melody Moschan, also of Harrisville, said. “… The last six years, I do feel like she’s been able to reflect and talk about my sister a lot more and find the joy in the things that she once loved to do and that had become just work.”
Her mother never lost her love for cooking, but sharing it with the community became much harder. The break gave her time to heal, Melody Moschan said.
Though Melody was initially wary of the idea of reopening the bakery, she said she’s confident her mother will take the business on with self-care in mind, too.
“I feel like her approach to it this time, it’s reflective of the time that she’s taken for herself,” she said.
In her second round with the business, Moschan plans to keep it simple and stick to the basics. The former café has been closed off and transformed into a sewing and hobby room, so the bakery is limited to a small high-top bar with four seats. She calls it a “grab ’n’ go format.”
Brown House Bakery will stay open only seasonally, through Columbus Day, targeting the summer crowds on Silver Lake. After that, Moschan said she’ll re-evaluate and determine if she wants to offer treats during the holidays.
The day before the bakery’s grand opening this past Thursday, she said it felt like Christmas Eve. She scurried over to pull a roast beef and turkey from the oven, and the fridges and freezers in the kitchen were full of prepped cookie dough, pastries and chicken salad.
Running the bakery feels like reconnecting with Melissa, she said. A practicing Christian, Moschan said she doesn’t believe in mediums, but spots signs of Melissa’s presence all the time.
“The signs are everywhere, and if you don’t see them, then you’re just not keying in (or) you’re not believing that the signs are there,” she said.
She recalled one Christmas when one of the lights in the bakery flashed, like Morse code — “and if I had known Morse code, it would’ve been great.” Other times, her husband will eat lunch at the bakery counter, and the door will slowly open and slam shut, Moschan said.
“And he says, ‘Oh, Missy’s leaving the house.’ ”
She picked up the heart-shaped potato on the counter and smiled.
“This I take as even a sign that she’s saying, ‘It’s OK.’ ”
This article has been amended to correct the age at which Melissa Moschan was diagnosed with epilepsy.