Wednesday, December 4, 2013

on Christmas cookies

I just read this article about two sisters having cookie decorating parties for their kids every year, and it made me so sad.

My grandmother wasn't an amazing cook, but the woman could sure bake. Her pineapple cookies, dusted with nutmeg and sugar, were a thing of legend; even with her recipe, written out in her shaky, spindly cursive, my sister and I can't seem to get them just right. She was always baking cookies: to mail to family in Minnesota, for church bake sales, or just because I begged her to fill up Mowgedy.

Mowgedy is my cookie jar now.
But every Christmas, Grandma pulled out special recipes, the ones we'd almost forgotten about from the previous year. There were Chinese almond cookies, flavored with almond extract and sesame, with a whole blanched almond shoved right in the center. The spritz cookies had a strange peppery taste, and they crumbled a little as you picked them up, but they were fun to pipe out onto a cookie sheet in wobbly shapes and letters. Date cookies were bizarre, rolled-up chewy concoctions that looked like a mix between a jelly roll and fruit cake. And then there were my favorite: sandies. Hers were dense two-bite globes, chock full of pecans, rolled around in sugar while still warm, and actually felt sandy when they dissolved in your mouth.

We'd start the cookies just after Thanksgiving, a new batch each day, a new recipe each weekend. I loved the way the house smelled, like floor wax and half-cooked dough and stiff dish towels that had been dried on the clothes line. She always let me help. I chose the cookie cutters, and decorated snowmen tummies with silver beads. I sifted the flour and ground the pecans in her hand grinder until she couldn't wait any longer and had to finish the job herself. I carefully counted the cookies into dozens and placed them in freezer bags, where they would wait until mailing, or church, or the Christmas Eve service she held in our living room each year for family friends. 

A painting my grandmother made of my mom as a kid. It moved from her dining room to my living room. Note the Christmas tree in the background.
She told me stories about her family and her childhood. So many stories, and so many characters: one uncle with a hook who lost his hand in a farming accident, her favorite childhood doll Mary Fairy, Aunt Julia who took her to pick berries and mint every summer, her grandmother who survived a winter pregnancy alone with typhoid only to find her husband dead in a ditch at the spring thaw. They were better than any books, and the people were ours. I'd beg her to tell me again and again about her first blind date with my grandfather, who died before I was born, or about the time her nervous newlywed mother forgot to remove "the asshole" from the chicken she'd cooked to impress her mother-in-law.

My great-great grandparents, who emigrated from Sweden.
Now I sit in the living room of my own house, just a mile away from hers, surrounded by her lamps, and Mowgedy, and photographs of those relatives she made so real for me. I have so many memories and pieces of our life together that I shouldn't be crying over some silly internet article. But I don't have any cookies. I don't have any children to decorate them with. And I don't have her.

Christmas 1983

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