Bing Crosby tunes drifted from the cassette player, filling the kitchen with the sounds of Christmas. Smells of baked cookies filled the air. Mom had made so many Christmas sweets–icebox cookies, seven-layer bars, Mexican wedding cakes. So many cookies. And yet. Her baking was incomplete. She had yet to make Grandma’s famous iced sugar cookies.
It was the first Christmas without Rose. Mom’s first Christmas without her Mother. She had died ten months previously, but her death was fresher than ever. Rose had always been a baker.
Most memories of Rose revolved around the food. Rose in hot pink pants, heeled oxford shoes, a white shirt (with an apron covering it all, of course), standing in the kitchen kneading dough for her famous caramel rolls. Or Rose in the garden in summertime, picking a ripe tomato from the vine. Like other women in Rose’s generation, she knew the healing properties of food. Rose could cook on a budget and Rose could make even the biggest Grump smile after tasting one of her ginger snaps.
But not anymore. Mom missed her smell. Mom missed her hugs. But as the holiday neared, Mom missed Rose’s culinary prowess most of all.
The apron Rose had sewn for Mom was dirty–covered in miscellaneous bits of dough, butter, and sugar. Flour stained Mom’s chestnut brown hair. Her full red lips pursed to the side, as she unconsciously chewed on her lower-lip. She blinked back tears and surveyed the miserable baking scene in front of her.
“It just won’t work!” She exclaimed, slapping her hands against the counter. A misshapen ball of dough lay on the counter ahead of her, a rolling pin stuck on the top of it. “The dough is just… sticky!!”
Mom raised her hands to run her fingers through her hair, only to drop them at last minute. No need to dirty her hands or get batter in her hair. Then again, she was tempted just to wash her hands and call it quits.
The skinny Santa cookie cutter sat on its side–waiting for its use. “I can’t do it,” Mom whispered. She’d seen her mother bake sugar cookies hundreds of times. Mom had even made some on her own a time or too. Sure, the cookies had never turn out as impressively as her Mother’s, but the cookies had always turned out. With the way her baking experience today was going, she didn’t think there was any chance that she could even successfully roll the dough. Let alone cut out the Christmas shapes and then successfully transfer the cut dough to a cookie sheet, all while keeping the Christmas shape intact. So far, Mom had managed to roll and re-roll the dough about five times. She finally thought she had a good thing going, but then her first attempt to make skinny Santa Claus cookies (a family tradition) created fat looking dwarfs, headless men, and shapes that looked like slugs. Nothing Christmas-ey. Certainly nothing that her young children would want to frost, decorate, and leave for Santa. Her little girl still believed in Santa Claus–probably for the last year–Mom didn’t want to spoil that.
So she’d gathered the pathetic attempts back up into a ball and prepared to start again. That had been her last try. The dough seemed almost gluey now and Mom wasn’t even able to flatten out the dough without it sticking to her hands, sticking to the rolling pin, and sticking to the counter top. No amount of flour (the old trick) seemed to make the dough any more manageable. “It just…won’t…work!” Mom exclaimed again, frustrated.
All she wanted was to make Christmas perfect this year. To make it less difficult for everyone. The first year alone. Now all Mom wanted was to toss the dough out in the yard and give up.
Suddenly, the kitchen was quiet. The music stopped and the tape clicked. Time to turn it over. Mom sighed. She went and washed her hands after all, no use ruining the boom-box by getting flour all over it. As she turned the tape over, she heard a small voice.
Mom looked over to see her daughter sitting at the kitchen table. How long had she been there? She gave her a small smile, wondering how much of the cookie battle her little girl had watched.
“Mommy?” Elizabeth was walking towards her Mother, her short legs hurrying. Beth reached out and took Mom’s hand in her own small one. “I think I can do it.”
“I think I can do it!” Elizabeth repeated, smiling up at her Mother. “Let me help with the cookies!”
Mom blinked, tears forming in her eyes again. “Thank you hun,” she said, smiling. “But I’m not quite sure you can help until you’re older.”
The little girl frowned as Bing Crosby’s Jingle Bells began playing. “No but,” She said. “No but, but I really think I know how to do it. I watched Grandma lots of times!”
Mom surveyed her daughter, the little girl’s eyes so full of hope and love. Her daughter so clearly wanted to help. What harm could she do? The kitchen was already a mess. Why not let the girl try her hand at rolling and cutting? Certainly, the cookies couldn’t get any worse.
“Fine,” Mom said at last, fully smiling back at her daughter. “We’ll let you try for a little bit.”
“Oooh! Thank you,” Elizabeth responded, already zipping into the kitchen. “I know EXACTLY what to do!” Somehow Mom managed to get an over-sized apron on the girl and set her up at a small bread board with a little piece of dough and Rose’s old, slim rolling pin. Better that she start small. Like most other tasks, her daughter would probably get bored within five minutes and then move on to the next “fun” idea that popped into her head.
To her surprise, Elizabeth seemed to be doing well. The little girl was oh-so-carefully sprinkling flour on the board and delicately flattening the cookie dough. She rolled and rolled, stretching the dough across the board. The dough became thinner and thinner as the child patiently worked with the rolling pin. Elizabeth picked up the cookie cutter and slowly, thoughtfully cut-out the shapes. With gentle precision, she then used the spatula to lift the shaped dough onto the cookie sheet. Each one remained thin and perfectly shaped. Her skinny Santa Claus cookies looked just like, well, skinny Santa Claus cookies.
“I need another tray please!” Elizabeth ordered, a grin on her face. “That one,” she pointed at her full try of Santas, “can go in the oven!!”
Mom gave Elizabeth another cookie sheet, amazed by how well her daughter was doing–and how quiet her daughter was being. Her daughter could usually never stop talking. And here she was, focused intently on baking–and being completely silent. A Christmas miracle!
Elizabeth filled another tray with trees, another with stars, before moving on to angels, candles, boots, and reindeer. She couldn’t stop rolling and cutting. Sheet after sheet. Each cookie perfectly shaped and delicately thin. Just like Rose’s.
Mom took them all out of the oven, proud and relieved. They would have their Christmas cookies after all. Rose may not be around, but the young Elizabeth somehow inherited her culinary skills. Even though Rose couldn’t be there, Mom felt as though part of her was with them in the kitchen. And, part of Rose was there, living on through Elizabeth’s cookies.
The years went by. Every year, Elizabeth always baked the Christmas sugar cookies with her Mother. Some years, the cookies tasted better than others. In college, Elizabeth would always be sure to book her flights home to allow for plenty of cookie baking time. As a single woman, Elizabeth had less free time to bake, but would still turn out the best versions she could. If the Christmas was going to be a smaller affair, sometimes she would halve the recipe. But Elizabeth always cut the cookies–and Mom would always make sure they didn’t burn in the oven. Together, they would frost them. Sometimes, they would frost them spread out along the table, paying close attention to detail. Carefully placing the white, red, and green frosting on each cookie, mindful not to break any. Sometimes, the twosome huddled over the kitchen sink–each woman trying not to spill red food coloring all over the kitchen. Then, as the years went by, there were children who helped come frosting time. The appearance of children made the cookie toppings fancier as sprinkles and red hots made for eyes and noses–though the only tasty ones were still the ones made together and frosted by mom and daughter. Year after year after year.
Then one Christmas, Elizabeth found herself alone in the kitchen.
Mom was in the hospital–it was most likely her last December–and it was up to Elizabeth to make Christmas for everyone. She’d turned on the traditional Christmas music on iTunes, worn the faded apron made by Rose all those years ago, and set-out to make the Christmas sweets. Elizabeth had made the icebox cookies, seven-layer bars, Mexican wedding cakes, and more. Every family cookie imaginable. But she hadn’t made the sugar cookies. Not yet.
The time had come. Methodically, she took the dough out of the refrigerator. She spread flour on the counter and took out Grandma Rose’s aged rolling pin. She dusted that with flour, as well. Elizabeth reached for one of Rose’s old cookie cutters–a Christmas tree with a crooked top–the skinny Santa had broken decades previously–and prepared to roll the dough.
For the first time in her life, she couldn’t do it.
The dough was sticky. The rolling pin refused to cooperate. No matter how hard she wanted to, Elizabeth could not roll the cookie dough, nor could she cut the shapes. Not for lack of skill, but for lack of motivation. She’d never felt so lonely in the kitchen before. How on earth was she going to roll the cookies, get them on the tray, and make sure they baked in the oven for the precise amount of time without burning? She sighed. She needed Mom.
Elizabeth began to cry. Small tears at first, before she broke into full-fledged sobs. Suddenly, even the traditional music–her iTunes was playing Bing’s Hawaiian Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka”– was making her cry harder. She’d never realized it, but making Christmas cookies was one of the best parts of Christmas. The mother-daughter bonding. And now… that Christmas family moment was gone. Most likely forever. Elizabeth clung to the counter, unable to stop crying. Unable to pick-up the rolling pin and try again. Unable to move.
Then, suddenly, she heard a sound.
Elizabeth stopped and turned her head towards the voice. She saw her husband, her brother, her sister-in-law, and her niece all standing at the edge of the kitchen. How long had they been there?
“Aunt Elizabeth?” Her niece repeated.
Elizabeth blinked and dabbed at her cheeks with her hands, smearing flour and cookie dough on her face as she attempted to wipe away her tears. “Wh-what it is?” She asked, trying to keep her voice strong.
“We think you should let me help you,” her niece responded, firmly.
“In fact,” Elizabeth’s husband chimed in, “we think you should let all of us help you this year.”
Elizabeth smiled through her tears as members of her family joined her in the kitchen. Together, they began to bake the Christmas cookies. Elizabeth shared the task of rolling out the dough, using one of her Mom’s heavy old pins. They ALL struggled with the dough and laughed as flour dusted the counter, the floor, their faces. They ALL struggled with the cookie cutters, each using his or her favorite shapes. Together, they all kept an eye on cookies in the oven. They weren’t as good at the task as Mom. Some of the cookies burned. Some of them came off the tray fat, lumpy, and ugly. But some of the cookies, some of them were just right. Maybe even a little better than just right–because they were all baked with extra love. Love for Rose, even though some family members never met her, love for Mom in the hospital, love for Elizabeth for staying strong through it all. Love for one another–for creating something together, for creating something that fills both their mouths and their hearts with pleasure.
And, throughout the cooking process, Elizabeth could feel the presence her Mom and Rose. Almost as though their hands were the ones rolling the dough, their eyes were checking on the cookies in the oven.
Suddenly, Elizabeth knew. One could never bake Christmas cookies alone. The Christmas sugar cookies only turn out when they are made in the company of loved ones.
And, in the corner of the kitchen, Elizabeth watched with pride as her niece rolled and cut her first perfectly thin, perfectly shaped, Santa Claus cookie.