Friday, May 20, 2011

My Grandmother's Cookies

I wrote this a long while back and keep telling myself I ought to publish it somewhere. I guess here will do for now.  


          I never met my maternal grandmother. She passed on long before I was born, leaving in her wake a devastated child that spoke of her so rarely I did not even know she existed until my adolescence. That was when the depression that enveloped and eventually took my grandmother’s life reared its ugly head and threatened to take mine as well. It was a simple, shocking story in which Mom revealed that the woman I knew as Grandma was actually my grandfather’s second wife. Her eyes bloodshot with fear and sadness at the discovery that I wanted to die, my mother said simply, “The first time my mother tried to kill herself she took a bunch of pills. I was so scared seeing her wheeled out of our house on that stretcher. The second time she took my father’s gun from his nightstand and killed herself. My father was accused of her murder despite the coroner ruling it a suicide. I’ve not spoken to her side of the family since.”
            In the fifteen since that revelation, I’ve never had the nerve to ask my mother about my grandmother. Her entry on the family tree my father made for all of his children leaves her entry blank save for the name “Gladys Petitt.” I’ve pieced together bits and fragments of her over the years through simple statements. Her middle name was Marie and my mom regrets not giving me that middle name. She let her daughter play in a patch of lily of the valley that grew in their yard each spring— both her and my mother’s favorite flower. Her family was of farming stock from northern Ohio. She had a dachshund. Her favorite Christmas carol was “What Child is This” and the song makes my mother cry each time they sing it in church.
In the only picture I’ve ever see of her, she’s sitting on a spot of freshly shorn grass, dressed in a crisp skirt and matching cardigan with perfectly coiffed hair that frames her features in large dark curls. Her long legs are stretched out in front of her. In her arms she holds my mother. She wears the beautiful smile of a mother very much in love with her daughter. My mother keeps this picture hidden in a jewelry box in her bottom dresser drawer. She claims my grandmother would be “positively tickled” by me.
            There is one story about my grandmother I remember my mother telling me over and over. Every year as Mom mixed the flour, sugar, eggs, and other ingredients for Christmas cookies, her eyes would take on a glassy stare. Her voice became high, quick, and halted, fighting back tears. She would relay her favorite childhood memory.
            In the chilled weeks before Christmas, my mother walked home from school. I imagine the clip of her Mary Janes on cold cement and her breath hanging in the air as she saunters along a street lined with tall oaks and craftsman style homes. It’s only when she sees the steam in the kitchen windows— a sure sign her mother has been baking— that she picks up her pace. In a swift moment she scurries up the wooden steps and burst into the kitchen which smells of toasted nuts, butter, and sugar. Chaotic piles of cookies cover the kitchen counters. There are sugar cookies decorated with colorful sprinkles, pecan balls dusted in snowy white powdered sugar, almond cookies shaped like crescent moons, and my mother’s favorite cookie of all: black walnut slices. Her mother— forever frozen in my mind as the woman on the grass with her daughter— turns from removing the last of the cookies from a baking sheet and smiles at her daughter. Mom gives her the sort of heart warming hug that children specialize in, sits at the kitchen table, and eagerly awaits a tall glass of fresh milk dropped off that morning by the milkman. It’s placed in front of her along with two perfect black walnut cookies and my grandmother removes her apron before taking a spot across from her. With her chin resting between two fists, she listens to her daughter recount the stories of the day, be they good or bad, and eats her treat with gusto.
            The Christmas before my eighteenth birthday, my mom wrote down all of her favorite recipes for me and put then in a cherry wood box with a note that reads:

Dear Heather,

It is with love that I copy these recipes for you and add a bit of family history. May you always enjoy the kitchen. It is a great place to relax and just think. It’s also a good place to prepare a bit of ‘love’ for friends and family as you put together their favorite recipes.

All my love,
Christmas 1998

            That spring I moved out on my own and away from Mom’s Christmas cookie baking. My grandmother’s story, however, lives on at the beginning of the recipe for black walnut cookies. When I seek out the black walnuts, mix the sugar, eggs, nuts and other ingredients I think of my grandmother in the kitchen, telling her daughter with simple actions that she will always love her. I may never know as much as I’d like to about my grandmother but through these humble cookies, and my mother’s softly spoken words, she will always be one of the most loved people in my life.

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