I am not a baker.
My brain was not made for measurements or instructions or remembering the science behind baking soda and baking powder. I do not love the careful planning; having ingredients on hand. I do not like cleaning the specks of butter and sugar or flour off every surface in the kitchen. It is not a stretch to say I dread baking.
And yet I bake.
Specifically, I bake the sugar cookies that my mother and her mother and her mother made.
They are simple enough to make, but whose dough must be refrigerated overnight and then rolled very thin the next day before cutting into precise circles or shapes. Baked in small batches, the task can take the better part of an afternoon. With me at the helm, there’s usually a batch or two that end up in the oven too long or rolled too thin. It’s a long, slow, deliberate tradition. One that doesn’t feel comfortable to the ‘quick fix-figure it out as I go-toss it in and hope for the best’ cooking method I’m familiar with during busy weeknights.
The sugar cookies are sweet and buttery; thin and crunchy. They taste slightly like caramel and heady with vanilla. They are, in my opinion, the quintessential cookie.
The dough is the sweetest butter; fluffy with air. I always sneak a bite of it. Even as a 30-something mother of two, I still hear my salmonella-obsessed mother scolding me for sneaking a bite. I still look over my shoulder; far guiltier than research says I should be.
Out of the oven, the cookies turn the softest golden color, crisp and buttery; white sugar sparkling on top. This is a familiar sight, smell, taste. I have a faint recollection of rolling cookies while standing on a stool; asking my mom question upon question about what she’s adding and asking how I can help. I remember being 9 years old and wondering if the note Santa left us after eating his cookies looked too much like my dad’s handwriting. I remember my grandmother, her hair in a perfectly hairsprayed coif; a cigarette dangling in her fingers as she talked about her last European trip. She was always so glamorous.
The truth is I’m not sure any of these are real memories. I can’t imagine my asthmatic mother allowing my grandmother to smoke near us, and she had likely quit by the time we were born; she had given up smoking a few years prior to being diagnosed with the lung cancer that would quickly kill her.
As familiar as my childhood is, it is also a foreign, untrustworthy memory. Distant and vague; more of a feeling than a reality. They are most likely memories I’ve created; stitched together from photographs and stories I’ve heard over time. I do not remember as much as I feel.
Until I taste this cookie.
This cookie is something I’ve tasted my entire life. It’s a buttery, sugary tradition. Memories rush forward. I am 6 years old, wearing a giant red, plaid, scratchy sleep gown with a vast white collar. I am standing on mauve carpets and a fireplace covered with stockings is behind me. My mother, dressed in a beautiful black dress and pearl earrings, ready to go to a holiday party with my father, rushes past me in a hurry, trying to get everything ready for the sitter.
I remember things that exist somewhere between reality and imagination. This is the adult version of childhood; memories stitched together by our own remembrance, stories we’ve heard, photos we’ve pored over. It may not be accurate, but it is how we remember.
Many years later, I am now a mother. I am running around the house, tidying up before the sitter arrives so we can go to a holiday party. I’ve invited my toddler into the kitchen, to sit on the floor with me as we stir, stir, stir the muffins. I’ve requested the recipe from my mother (and her mother and her mother and her mother) so that my daughter and I can mix, blend, refrigerate, roll and decorate sugar cookies during excruciatingly long afternoons which will soon enough become the most excruciatingly shortest of moments.
When I am gone, and my children are old, I imagine a frosty December afternoon and them reaching for a stained recipe card. I imagine them rolling their eyes at the mess and perhaps burning a sheet or two. I imagine them sneaking a bite of dough, or nearly burning their tongue as they eat one fresh out of the oven. I imagine them remembering light pinewood floors and stockings hung on our wall. I imagine them remembering making mama & daddy kiss under mistletoe; laughing until we all cried. I imagine them remembering hugs so big that hearts exploded.
I imagine them smiling until their cheeks hurt; their hearts full with memories that seem so close and yet so far away.