Cooking Up Tradition, And Keeping A Departed Loved One Close
When I was a child, a typical conversation between my mom and dad in the month of December went like this:
Dad: "Need anything while I am out?"
Mom: "Could you pick up five pounds of butter?"
She would issue this request while she was in the kitchen, covered in flour, often without looking up from whatever it was she was working on. My dad would sigh but never argue. He knew the deal: It was baking season.
Every year, it seemed to me that my mother spent the entire month of December in the kitchen.
Every year, it seemed to me that my mother spent the entire month of December in the kitchen. There was rum cake and crème de menthe squares, chocolate chip cookie dough pie and almond cups, and sugar cookies in a variety of seasonal shapes, from Santa Claus to holly leaves with berries to my favorite, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I still remember how Rudolph’s delicate hind legs always stuck in the cookie cutter.
My mom would set me up at our kitchen counter with a bunch of teacups, each containing an egg yolk mixture. She let me put a few drops of food coloring into each one: red, green and yellow. And then I got to go to town “painting” all of the cookies myself. The end result looked like you might expect with a small child at the helm: strange color choices, egg yolk paint oozing off of the edges and smeared here and there. But my mom didn’t interfere or criticize, she just let me have fun.
All her life, my mother loved Christmas. She loved bringing down the boxes of decorations from the attic and going through them one-by-one, exclaiming over each treasure: the Santa Claus I made in nursery school from a light bulb and Styrofoam cup; the pine tree ornament my brother made out of Popsicle sticks and green yarn; a construction paper Santa suit mobile, hung every year, even as Santa’s trademark red faded to a light pink.
Mom loved combing through her recipe box each year, finding the Christmas staples. There were her homemade dinner rolls, creamy spinach and bacon soup, a vegetable soufflé, and her legendary punch, comprised of large quantities of brandy, Champagne, Courvoisier and a special homemade ice cube with fresh strawberries frozen inside.
“What do you want for Christmas this year?!” mom, excited, would ask us in September, pencil in hand.
She loved thinking of gift ideas for people, wrapping the presents, hiding them around the house. All of the things that most of us rush through or complain about, my mother took genuine pleasure in.
One Christmas Eve when I was a teenager, as guests left our annual party around midnight, my dad, my brother and I began to clean up. My mom stopped us.
After [mom] died, I found the Christmas season unbearably sad. So much of what had made it special was her...And then all that changed when, at 6:42 a.m. one Christmas morning, I gave birth to my first child...
“Let’s leave the dishes for the morning and just sit and look at the tree for a while,” she said. She didn’t want it to end – she never did.
After she died, I found the Christmas season unbearably sad. So much of what had made it special was her: the foods she made, the gifts she bought, the atmosphere of joy and love that she created. Without her, the whole season seemed long and grey.
And then all that changed when, at 6:42 a.m. one Christmas morning, I gave birth to my first child, a beautiful and healthy baby girl whose very existence seemed to bring all of the color and joy back into the season.
She’ll turn six this year, and it has become our tradition to make Christmas cookies together, along with her little sister, who is now four. We use the same red plastic cookie cutters that I used as a child, and Rudolph’s legs are as sticky as they ever were. The resulting cookies always look more tie-dyed preschool art project than Pinterest-worthy. But we don’t care. While the cookies bake in the oven, we leave the dishes in the sink and sit for a few minutes, together, looking at our tree.