My mom was born on Christmas Eve, so her parents named her Carol. While I was growing up, she was, appropriately, synonymous with Christmas. I always loved baking Christmas cookies with her—especially the cut-out cookies, shaped like Santas, reindeer, and candy canes. I remember the way the dough felt pressed against the grain of our old wooden pastry board. How many cinnamon imperials were appropriate to put on one snowman cookie? My brother and I may have pushed the limits. Christmas music floated through the house from the kitchen radio. I would stand on a chair next to her to carefully observe what was happening on the stovetop, or clamor to pitch in stirring a bowl of dough, only to complain when my arm started to get tired a minute later. Licking the batter from the wire beaters was a highly anticipated peak of the baking day, and soon after, covered in flour, I’d be lost to whatever holiday specials were on TV in the living room. We’d enjoy a bounty of these homemade cookies well into the New Year, while just as many were delivered, along with her walnut fudge, in festive tins, to neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and friends.
My mom died when I was 12. Ringing in her birthday, Christmas, and a new year without her felt furiously impossible that first year. There was a cold spike of grief running through me, an icicle rooted deep in the ground; I was desperate to keep my footing in the past, to not let time pass. But it did, and Christmas after her death looked startlingly similar to Christmases before she died, only she wasn’t there. My father valiantly committed to keeping things consistent for us. We carried a hollowness while acting out scenes from a previous life: presents under the tree, yule log on Channel 11, and a big syrupy breakfast. Only a new tradition was added—stopping at the cemetery, where we would tend to the small fake tree, wreath, or blanket of evergreen boughs placed on her grave. We’d get back into the car and drive to my grandparents’ house for dinner, Christmas songs playing dully on the radio.
For the next few years after she died, one other thing was different about the holiday season. Women in our neighborhood and in my extended family started inviting me over to their houses to bake Christmas cookies with them. I was embarrassed to feel like a pity case, anxious, and shy, but I craved connection. Despite my reticence, I loved entering into these other women’s worlds, with their unique recipes and kitchen smells, so different from my own. I was a guest but felt more like a nervous, spying squatter: passing from the front door through the living room and into the kitchen, taking in every detail around me, collecting and sorting information on women, mother, holiday, home.
I’m certain that these women felt uncomfortable and awkward entertaining a sad, quiet kid whom they didn’t know very well. I know that I didn’t seem to be enjoying myself. Talking to a preteen is hard enough on its own, but nobody knows what to say to a grieving child. I didn’t have much to say myself, so I listened. I rolled dough. I followed directions, heard anecdotes about their holiday plans, their kids, their daily lives, to which I was just a brief visitor. I thought about who they might be talking to when the landline phone occasionally rang. I wondered if the interruption provided them a relief from the tension (it did for me, too). I glanced at the pictures on the fridge, notes and numbers in unfamiliar handwriting. I watched the clock for when my dad was supposed to come get me.
Talking about my mom was not an option, even though these women loved her, and that’s why I was there. But some things are too hard to talk about. I didn’t understand until later that there are other ways of communicating. We made cookies and brittle, peppermint and chocolate bark. I studied what these women did differently from my mom. Mom always pressed chocolate kisses into the center of peanut butter cookies; this method that neighbor Sue showed me, gently pressing the tines of a fork into the cookie to make a cross-hatched pattern, was new and fascinating. I didn’t know that a fork could be used like that.
The hours passed quietly. Batches went into the oven and to kill the time in between, these women offered TV and movies as respite. I remember Barbara, my dad’s cousin, who eagerly put on a DVD of Black Beauty, and I didn’t have the courage to tell her I didn’t like horses. Was I doing them a favor by being there? Were they loving their friend, my mom, through me? They put themselves out there, and that grace has always stuck with me.
Trauma can have an erasure effect on memory. What I remember from my childhood is, more often than not, a memory of a memory. The picture in my mind can often be found in an actual photo album on the shelf. The real thing is lost in a cloud of flour. I’m baking Christmas cookies of my own this week, using my mom’s recipes, some enhanced by what I learned over the years from other women, like my stepmom. Time slips briefly into certain smells and textures. The emblem of a small Old World woman pressed into the bars of Baker’s German chocolate: I stare at her and I have the sensation of remembering. Is she trying to tell me something? Is my mom speaking through her? I try to stay there, in desperation, and everything becomes a metaphor. I assign meaning and messages to it all. You have to keep stirring, constantly stirring, or the batter will harden.
The cookies that break or burn a little aren’t ideal. They’re not what the recipe promised. But they get to go out in the world early and be shared.
While I always think about my mom this time of year, this year while baking I’m remembering those women who invited me over. Who did a thing they didn’t have to do, a thing that was uncomfortable and that they couldn’t have known would matter. A devastating number of people are going to be alone this holiday season, many of them grieving, too. So many people are hurting and disconnected, and so many traditions have crumbled. What loving acts of tenderness can we offer when we can’t be together? Packages left on doorsteps, a call, a text, a letter. Comfort from a comfortable distance may not be optimal; small talk when the big stuff hurts too much may not feel sufficient. But a gesture of love doesn’t follow a recipe. The measurements don’t have to be exact.