Christmas Cookies This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

August 9, 2011
“Are we there yet?” asked a sleepy voice from the back of the dark car. It was the tenth time my little sister had asked. Sadly, I had been counting. Long and bumpy car rides from New York to Ohio aren’t exactly exciting. The only thought that kept us all from mutiny was knowing we were going to a place we dearly loved.

We have gone to Grandpa and Grandma’s for Christmas for as long as any of us can remember. Christmas at home barely feels like Christmas. My mom spent her childhood in Ohio, and remained there until the day she said “I do” to my dad. Reading was a small town, our Christmas location, our second home, and we loved its sleepy atmosphere.

As we pulled into the driveway, I could already feel the warm glow that enveloped the house at Christmas time. In the front yard was Grandpa’s annual light display, with a large wooden nativity painted in bright colors. There was no snow, which disappointed us, but what the house held was most important to us.

Grandpa came out first, as always. “How are my grandkids?” he asked loudly and happily.

“I can’t move my legs!” groaned my youngest sister.

Grandpa ceremoniously hugged us all, youngest to oldest, as he did every year. The air was filled with cries of “We’re so glad to be here,” and “My, my, look how much you’ve grown!”

Tiredness faded. It was official. It was finally Christmas.

“No one goes in empty-handed!” yelled Dad. We grabbed our bags and pillows from the car and went inside to the family room, always warm and inviting. Colored lights were strung, and, in the middle of the room, the Christmas tree glowed; every shadow was deepened, every detail softened. An old, fuzzy-sounding Christmas record played on the stereo, perhaps Bing Crosby. This room was magical.

In the dining room, another smell emerged. Grand ma had been baking again! But that was no surprise. We always found her there, always with something ready – maybe her Spanish chicken and rice. If we were really lucky, it would be spaghetti with meatballs.

Mom always got the first hug from Grandma. They had a special mother-daughter moment we never intruded on. Then it was our turn and we all got a loving hug. We talked about school and the trip. Then Mom joined her for a mother-daughter cooking session. We knew all too well where our mom’s cooking genes had come from, although the prestigious position of “best family cook” came with age and experience.

Grandma was of medium height, thin with deep chocolate-brown eyes. Her hair was short and curly; my mom called it “salt and pepper.” She wore grandmotherly clothes, pastel sweatshirts with flowers and matching pants. Grandma had a sweet voice and was always ready when you needed to have a good talk. She got up early every morning to go to church with Grandpa, and could often be seen praying the Rosary.

I always thought Grandma was quiet. She wasn’t shy but just waited until it was her turn, and thought about whatever came out of her mouth. I hardly remember her ever raising her voice, but boy, if she did, you knew you had really done it. Grandma, at rare and special moments, could be funny. Her jokes were few and far between, but whenever she told one, we laughed.

Grandma spent most of her time in the kitchen. She would stay home and cook for us while we went downtown to skate or see an elaborate holiday train display. It was hard to believe such heavenly food could from the humble, old kitchen. Grandma was a miracle worker.

Of all the food from that ancient oven, the best were Grandma’s Christmas cookies. After dinner, we could choose two from the vast selection. These choices were some of the hardest of my life. There were the green, buttery wreaths and Christmas trees that were oh-so-crumbly and melted in your mouth. And her large and chewy sugar cookies with the extra large Hershey’s kisses in the middle that I always saved for last. There were butterscotch cookies and perfect peanut-butter cookies with the traditional criss-cross. And, of course, my personal favorite, the soft, chewy candy canes with the minty icing and cute pink stripes. Grandma, always caring, would make plates we would deliver to her neighbors.

Christmas wasn’t Christmas without going to Reading, or without Grandma’s Christmas cookies. But I knew – everyone in my family knew – that Grandma had cancer. I tried not to believe. It was easy at Christmas to deny anything was wrong. As all of our aunts, uncles and cousins sat and opened presents like every year, it was blissful. When Grandma received a warm robe from Grandpa, she held it up for the whole family to admire, her smile shining brightly.

I dreamed of Christmases past – and Christmases to come.

That was her last Christmas. Grandma died only two months later. It was so sudden; I thought she would have more time, and so did she. She left many things unfinished, cookies unbaked.

It was a shock when I visited her just before her death. She had been so different at Christmas from the half-delirious woman suffering in bed. Near the end, I knew she was ready. I’m sure she went straight to heaven. I bet she bakes cookies for the angels now.

Last Christmas was our first without her. During the long car drive to Ohio, I wondered if Christmas would ever be Christmas again. As we entered the family room, everything seemed the same. Grandpa gave us warm, comforting hugs, youngest to oldest.

When we went into the dining room, however, it was evident something was missing. No one greeted us as when we entered the old kitchen. There were no smells of Christmas cookies in the air.

Grandpa pulled out a tin and offered us a cookie, but they were not the same. They were slice-and-bake cookies Grandpa had made – the kind with green trees and red snowmen in the middle. It was so sweet of him. He meant well. But it made me want to cry.

“Boy,” Grandpa joked between mouthfuls, “I’m sure glad I stayed home all day to make these.”

And we all laughed. But I couldn’t help thinking – Grandma would have done that. She would have faithfully labored over the ancient oven again this year. I knew Grandpa felt it, too. He loved her so much. And now, he missed her so much. If eating these cookies would give my grandpa comfort somehow, I was willing to eat a whole bathtub full. At least my mom had made some of our old favorites. At a too-young age, she assumed the title of “best family cook.”

There was a new display in the dining room, a picture of Grandma as a beautiful Navy nurse with white candles burning bright next to fragrant flowers. I gazed at it and thought of her and prayed for her and remembered … and the light aroma of freshly baked Christmas cookies gently surrounded me. Christmas had finally arrived.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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