On April 23, patrons of Backstage Bakery who arrived to sip coffee over conversation, chat with the regulars who buoy between ambassadors and food critics, and stop by the neighboring book nook had a change of plans. A sign greeted anyone tugging on the normally wide-open screen door. “Backstage Bakery will be closed.” Alex and his younger brother couldn’t report to work to open the door by 6 a.m. per usual. They were saying goodbye to their mother.
“She ended up getting a blood infection and they wanted her to get this crazy heart surgery,” Alex said of his mother’s illness. “She ended up refusing the surgery and she came home.”
Alex and his siblings got three days with their mother that he describes as “amazing” and now, he’ll fill the rest of the days by honoring her memory.
Nancy Affinito-Semenov came to Cottage Grove in 2006. When she first started cooking, the smell of her cinnamon rolls would fill the PeaceHealth medical center in town. It was just a hole in the wall cafe but it had Grovers turning out in crowds.
“People were coming to the hospital for breakfast and lunch, it was crazy,” Alex said.
Nancy was making a profit at the hospital but when the opportunity to partner with another resident sprang up, she took it.
“Our family moved down here and she taught us how to cook,” Alex said. “And this space, we’re so lucky to have this space.”
The space sits just around the corner of Main St. and 7th. Nancy’s bakery made its home in the shadow of the Axe and Fiddle and to the side of Kalapuya Books. The breakfast crowd mingles with early book browsers and by lunch, streams of people flow between the shared hallway grabbing water, menus, books and conversation before settling at one of the booths or tables that are almost constantly full.
It’s been that way since Nancy first opened the doors. Partly, Alex says, because of who his mother was. She moved from state to state. After marrying her second husband, she one day just started speaking Russian as if fully taking on her new Semenov name. She cooked and taught and laughed and loved Cottage Grove.
And on April 25, Alex realized the culmination of all of those hours and years Nancy put into teaching him how to make the cinnamon rolls fill the bakery like they filled the hospital. The reason why he had moved, one more time, to Oregon. After refusing another surgery that would keep her in the hospital and on the mend for years, Nancy came home to her children and passed away.
“We buried her ourselves,” Alex said. “It was crazy, my sister had to become a funeral director and we had to learn how to do it but it was probably the most powerful experience of my life. No strangers, just us.”
With Nancy at rest, the family is headed on a trip to Alaska, one of her old haunts and for the first time, they’ll have a motherless Mother’s Day.
Now, Alex is back to work. He greets his patrons who once again find his screen door wide-open. They find their coffee and conversation, the ambassadors and food critics and, of course, Alex buzzing between tables, refilling water, conveying the soup of the day and asking what, if anything, he can get for them. This summer, he’ll pull out his grill again and join the farmer’s market crowd. He’ll focus on the recipes his mother left him and experiment with new ones. And the plan, for now is just that he says.
“We’re just going to continue on in honor of mom and just rock it.”