In The Ghost Who Came for Christmas, Danielle bakes all her favorite cookies from her childhood. It’s her way of holding onto the memories of Christmases Past, especially now that her family is gone.
In the book, I mention Chocolate Drop Cookies—a cake-like cookie. Tomorrow, I’ll share its recipe. But for now, I wanted to share something I wrote years ago, about my Grandma Madeline—who used to bake amazing Chocolate Drop Cookies each year at Christmastime. Cookies, just like the ones Danielle baked up.
Christmas memories are a familiar medley of fragrances, flavors, music, traditions, and sentimentality. Sometimes the memories stir embers of other recollections. And so, at Christmastime, more than any other time of the year, thoughts of my paternal grandmother come to mind. Perhaps it is because for most of my early years, Christmas and Thanksgiving were the only times Grandma Madeline was a part of my childhood.
Until recently, memories of those Thanksgivings were not especially cherished in my heart’s diary; not until I realized their significance and connection to the other memories involving Grandma Madeline.
Thanksgiving celebrations of my childhood, from my earliest recollection until my early teens, was steadfastly a continual repetition of a single day spent, exactly the same, year after year. My parents, my older sister. and I would dress in what other families called their “Sunday best” (I say other families, because our family never attended church together). In the early afternoon we would drive to the apartment of my father’s mother and stepfather, where we would celebrate Thanksgiving.
I use the term “celebrating” loosely, for the somber, imperturbable gathering was not a robust or stimulating event from a child’s perspective, nor, I suppose from an adult’s. At my grandparents’ orderly apartment, we would find their dining room table trimmed with the finest linen, cut glass, silver, and china, which had once belonged to my great-grandmother.
My father had no siblings (his only brother had died in childhood), therefore there were no cousins to greet my sister and me. Those in attendance included our immediate family of four, Grandma Madeline, my Step-Grandpa Bud, and occasionally Bud’s sister Margaret.
Thanksgiving dinner was always solely prepared by Grandma Madeline. She never sought, nor I imagine would have appreciated, assistance in providing the seasonal repast. One might suppose this attitude was common with many grandmothers of her era; those homemakers who attended faithfully and selflessly in nurturing their families, which naturally included providing homemade goodness to fill hungry souls.
Yet, Madeline was not a kindred spirit to the motherly souls of her generation. She had left her sons to be raised by her parents, and in her entire 70 plus years, had never learned how to nurture nor to express love, at least not to the satisfaction of an abandoned son, my father.
She was a portly woman, whose weight had no doubt been an albatross to her spirit in early years. I’ve come to recognize, as I now analyze my collection of memories pertaining to Madeline, that throughout the years, she attempted, in her own awkward and inexperienced way, to express her love, when she felt compelled to do so, through food. Perhaps, as she found food to be her solace, she believed she would use it to give solace or love to others.
And so, each year at Thanksgiving she would spend hours alone in her kitchen, attempting to serve up her annual offering of love. At the time, I had no inclination that the meal was more than an obligatory trip to Grandma’s, where I was guaranteed to grow bored and restless, yet satisfactorily fed.
When Christmas rolled around, a time overflowing with eager anticipation for many fortunate children, Madeline’s love gift of food was welcomed at home – welcomed more fondly than the pilgrim’s feast had been just a month prior.
Each Christmas season, Grandma Madeline would bring her large, covered, turkey roasting pan to our home. It would be brimming with soft homemade chocolate drop cookies and plump chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate Drop Cookies are a wonderfully moist (if made correctly) chocolate cake-like cookie, topped with a chocolate butter cream frosting.
My father, who had an insatiable sweet tooth, would welcome the offering eagerly. Like a naughty child, he would continually lift the lid off the turkey pan to snatch another treat. I do believe that when he feasted on his mother’s homemade baked goods, it helped provide him with at least some traditional motherly memories of Madeline. Or perhaps, he simply loved sweets.
An overweight child, Madeline may have felt inferior to her older, slimmer sister, Eva. Seeking love and affection, Madeline became pregnant and was forced to marry a man she did not love, nor who loved her. Three years elapsed and they had another child, my father. Admittedly, Madeline did not want this second child and sought desperate measures to abort him. Madeline never attempted to keep the circumstances of my father’s unwanted birth, and her attempts to prevent it, a secret.
As her marriage floundered, Madeline’s parents began assuming increased responsibility for the two young boys. After the eldest was struck by an automobile and killed, Madeline obtained a divorce and struck out on her own, leaving behind her remaining son to be raised by her parents. When my father was 15 years old, he left his home in Michigan and went to California to live with his mother and step-father. He was not welcomed into their home eagerly, but rather pensively.
I recall my father treating Madeline with unsentimental respect. He called her Mother, never Mom. In spite of her abandonment of him, he never abandoned her. He never seemed to dwell on her lack of motherly attentiveness, yet he would grow annoyed when, in her later years, she recounted tales of his childhood which she somehow had created in her mind. Grandma allowed herself to forget, or so it seemed, that she had not been a doting or participating mother.
And so the few, admittedly scarce, shows of motherly love came in the guise of a roasting pan full of homemade cookies. Dad accepted them graciously, even appreciatively. Although he never discussed it, and I doubt he ever thought about it, those cookies were more than a familiar Christmas tradition. It was grandma’s way of saying I love you.
Christmas didn’t stop with cookies. Each year Madeline prepared elaborate fruit cakes, tangy cheese balls, and other favorites.
My sister Lynn and I were Grandma Madeline’s only grandchildren. For years, Lynn was by far the favorite. Lynn was not only adorable, she was accommodating, sweet tempered, and simply easier to love for someone who is not accustomed to small noisy children. I was not only a noisey child, I was unpredictable and never easy.
But children do grow up and become civilized adults. In my last year of college, it was necessary for me to live with my Grandma Madeline for several months. (Grandpa Bud was deceased by this time.) I was a busy, graduating college student, soon to be married. For the first time in her life, Madeline got to know her youngest granddaughter, and I do believe she liked me. In her attempts to express love, she kept her pantry filled with my favorite foods, and if I even casually mentioned a desired dish, she would promptly prepare it.
A year or so before she died, when the family was reminiscing over earlier culinary traditions, Dad mention how he missed a particular Christmas dish his grandmother had prepared. The following Christmas, Madeline attempted to duplicate her mother’s recipe, to recreate for my father a childhood memory. I never fully realized how Grandma Madeline attempted to show love through food until long after she was gone.
About five months before her death, my son, Scott (Madeline’s first great-grandchild), was born. He was still an infant when the family was forced to move grandma from her spacious two-bedroom apartment to a small one-bedroom apartment in a senior center. I recall taking Scott, with my mother, to see his great-grandmother. At the time, I was a fully absorbed new mother, unable to objectively consider that day’s events until many years had elapsed.
Grandma was ill. We didn’t know it at the time, but she had brain cancer and would only be with us for a few more months. Looking back, I feel a bit guilty because I was so wrapped up in my newborn son, in the new life, that I failed to see the lonely, frail, fading life of my grandmother, steadily slipping away.
Instead of embracing Scott or acknowledging the miracle of life as it is passed from one generation to another, Madeline seemed to view her great-grandson from a distance, with sad remoteness. She watched as I attentively and lovingly changed his diapers, nursed him from my breast, and hovered, as do many new mothers.
After watching the relationship and bond between mother and child, she began speaking to me, yet more to herself. She spoke of her childhood. She sadly recounted that she had not been loved, as Scott was loved. She said it with longing, with loneliness, with poignant desire.
Somehow she had forgotten her own son, whom had grown up without her love, and focused only on her memories of her loveless childhood. Never once that afternoon did she attempt to reach out and make a connection with Scott or to express love. She was lost in sad private memories.
I wonder about people and their memories. How accurate they are. How perceptions can differ. I wonder about my grandmother’s childhood, what had been lacking in her parent’s nurturing that had made this overweight child unable to grow beyond herself and openly express love. My father’s memories of his grandparents paint a picture of a loving, nurturing couple. What had made the two pictures so different?
And so, at Christmastime, I fill Grandma’s roasting pan with homemade cookies, as she did. My sister makes her fruit cake and cheese ball, and this next Christmas I suppose it’s time to teach my daughter how to make Chocolate Drop Cookies. And I am grateful that our family was able to break a cycle, able to freely show and give love, to nurture, to parent. But I will continue to be sentimental over a roasting pan full of cookies, because no matter how it is said, even the awkward, the silent, I love you, touches my heart.
(Photo: Madeline and her older sister, Eva)