Sometime after I left for college, my mother planted holly bushes and pines along the front of our house. After twenty years of growth, she finally had her wish: the foliage was so tall and dense that passersby could not see the old rock house from the road. Years ago, before the city expanded its boundaries, our house was considered "in the country." My parents' little farm—with its cows and pigs and large vegetable garden—was typical for the rural area. Now a strip mall replaced the dense woods across the street.
My Mom with Jack (age 3-months) in 2002.
It was dark by the time Jack and I turned off the road onto the hidden driveway. The porch light cast a yellowish light on the nandina bushes in front of the house. Although their simple branches were tangled in sticker vines, they set out red berries doing their best to look festive. The stone house was unchanged, yet it seemed smaller, as if its structure was shrinking with the same aging process as my parents, who were now well into their 80s.
As your parents reach this age, you hope to appreciate all the nuances about them. You want to breath them in like air. You hope to remember all those tiny details later. The sound of voice and laughter. The smell of fried chicken. The warm embrace. The coolness of their hands in yours. I tried to cling to these sensory gifts, though almost immediately they began to fade, like perfect snowflakes melting on my outstretched palm. Yet, sometime during each visit, patient appreciation gave way to reality and reminders of why I was always leaving: My life was no longer contained here.
Brass bells tied with hay bailing twine cried out as Jack and I entered the too-warm house. The first thing I noticed was what was not there: No Christmas tree.
The tree was always placed in the same spot, to the left of my Dad's red chair. There were years when my father had to fasten fishing line between the tree and a nail in the wall to anchor it in place. We never bought a tree. Dad went out in the nearby woods and cut them down. Mostly cedars, they were, with imperfect, crooked trunks and sticky branches that made my arms itch. No matter their shape or size, these home-grown trees were always perfect by the time their branches were weighed down with lights and ornaments and shiny, glass balls, and strewn with silver tinsel that shimmered and spun when the air stirred. But not this year. A tree had been too much this year, and besides, Jack and I would be back home before Christmas Eve.
"Come in, come in," my Mother cooed, her soft voice broken by the remnants of a cold. I bent slightly to hug her. She was so thin. When had she become so thin? I prompted Jack to step closer. He hugged her around the legs and she bent to extend her arms around him.
"Oh, Jack, you've gotten so big!" Mom said. "What do you have there?"
She pointed to the black and white plush cat that he gripped by the tail. His right thumb returned to his mouth as he worked the thread-bare tail through his left thumb and fingers.
"Let Grandma see," I said.
"It's Gawky," Jack said, holding his beloved toy out to my Mom. Jack settled on this favored toy when he was two. Somehow "cat" came out "gawk" and then was turned to "Gawky." Jack could not sleep without Gawky.
Mom took the cat and held and stroked it, as if it were real. She knew children. She knew just what to do and say. In fact, she was almost silly when talking to a child. She slipped into this tender role so easily. I put Jack down.
"Oh, no!" she said in feigned distress, as she examine the ruined tail. "What's happened to his tail?"
"That's his scratchy spot!" said Jack, smiling.
"His what?" Mom asked.
"His scratchy spot," I said loud enough for her to hear.
"His scratchy spot?" Mom repeated. She positioned an oversized pair of reading glasses that must have been my Dad's on her nose and took a closer look. "Looks like his tail is coming apart."
I looked and sure enough, the end of the tail had split and the poor cat's stuffing was exposed.
"Jack, maybe Grandma could fix Gawky's tail for you while we're here," I offered. "She's a very good sewer!"
Mother handed Jack back his cat and he grabbed the scratchy spot and plucked his thumb in his mouth, rubbing the well-worn place where comfort was known.
Mother moved slowly, balancing herself on the doorframe as she walked from the living room to the kitchen. Among her known health concerns were osteoporosis and high blood pressure. After experiencing what she first called a "mild heart attack," and then insisted was nothing at all, her doctor placed her on a low-cholesteral, low-salt diet, which she mostly followed dutifully. Mom had been a nurse after all. She once worked in surgery. She knew how to follow the instructions of doctors.
"Are you hungry?" Mother asked.
"No Mom," I said, following her to the kitchen. "Jack was hungry, so we had to go ahead and eat. We stopped at Wendy's on the way."
"Oh? Well, you must still want something! I have some cookies out in the freezer. I bet Jack would like a sugar cookie! I've got some icing made up, too. Jack, do you want to icing some cookies with Grandma?"
Jack nodded, and I was sent to the old garage—which to my knowledge never housed an automobile— to forage through the large deep freeze and find frozen cookies.
Mother was a good southern cook. She taught me to make fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy from roux. She made German dishes too: Potato pancakes and bean soup and mashed kohlrabi. Her recipe box was jammed full of yellowed clippings from The Arkansas Gazette, Southern Living, Family Circle. There were recipes clipped from bags of flour and chocolate chips and from the labels of soup cans. She collected these scraps, sometimes pasting them onto index cards before filing them away, but some were left as provided, such as the recipe for tamale pie scrawled on a scrap of paper by a church friend at a potluck. She rarely made any of these new recipes, especially after my sisters and I moved away from home. Dad was a meat-and-potatoes man. No wonder Gazpacho—or "salad soup" as my mother wrote in her cramped cursive on the card—was never realized in her kitchen.
Mother also liked to bake. Her thin-crusted Apple Pizza was a favorite, but her signature sweets were her sugar cookies. They were buttery, sweet, crisp and thin. Slice-n-bake was anathema in our home. The process of making sugar cookies from scratch was time consuming, but Mother always made them before every major holiday. She had dozens of cookie cutters that she had collected over the years. My favorite—and the oldest—were made of a thick red plastic and had fancy indentations that would imprint details into the dough. There were Santas, reindeer, wreaths, angels, camels (for the Three Wise Men) and snowmen at Christmas. Rabbits, chicks and egg shapes at Easter. Shamrocks for Saint Patrick's Day. Hearts at Valentines, and stars and flags for the Fourth of July. She had a menagerie of circus animals, dinosaurs and barnyard critters, too. She often took cookies to church functions when children would be present, and always had some ready for her grandchildren.
Mother's deep freeze was an enormous white, metal beast that held everything from milk and cheese to steaks and potato chips. She hated to see food spoil, and since it was only Dad and her at home these days, she she found freezing the best solution for storing excess.
I lifted the door of the freezer, pulling against the its vacuum seal. A cloud of cold air issued forth and it took me a minute to orient myself to the items cast in frost. Mother labeled most items with a slip of paper attached by a rubber band. There were also plastic containers of chicken broth, egg yolks, bread crumbs, fresh parsley and lemon juice. No item was too minescule to save for future use. A child of the Depression, Mom's sense of practical frugality hadn't waned over the decades.
Just as promised, the jar of sugar cookies was in the back left corner of the freezer, behind the saltine crackers. A film of condensation covered the container as I carried it into the warm house. Jack was sitting on his knees on a chair at the kitchen table, a dish towel tied around his waste as an apron. Mom held a small bowl in which she was showing him how to mix red food coloring into white icing. She stirred with a toothpick until the sweet stuff was a bright pink. Then she picked up another bowl, dabbed a bit of white icing in it and added blue food color."To make Santa's eyes," she explained. "The eyes really make them come alive." And on she went, creating green and yellow and a dab of orange.
Meanwhile the fog on the jar of frozen cookies began to disperse and I could discern an unusual yellow cast to the contents. I opened the jar and removed a few cookies. Usually, crisp and clearly defined, this batch was thick, hard and misshaped. Had she added too much baking powder? Or used self-rising flour? Something was distinctly off. The cookies possessed a faint sulfur, eggy odor, perhaps the reason for their yellow hue. Mom didn't seem to notice, nor did Jack, who grabbed a cookie and began to nibble at its frozen edges.
In most aspects of life—with money, sex, religion, politics—Mother was very conservative, but when it came to decorating her sugar cookies, she was down-right decadent. She spent hours carefully glazing each cookie with buttery-sweet icing, adding red hots for Santa's nose and coconut beards. The reindeer got red-hot noses, too. Camels received special attention, often sporting silver dragees on their ornately iced backs. They were modeled after a picture Mom clipped from a magazine.
Mother picked up a cookie shaped somewhat like a Christmas stocking and began to apply a thick layer of green icing. Her icing was usually quite smooth, but tonight it clumped in places where the powder sugar was not well integrated into the butter and milk, creating an acne of sugar. She placed the stocking down on a tray on the table, and picked up a camel. I tried not to stare as she labored through the process of applying the thick icing. Mom was—her own term—"slowing down." By this time, Jack abandoned his cookie to play in the adjoining room with all the old familiar toys that Grandma kept for his visits.
"Oh fiddle!" Mom said. "I just can't get this eye right."
I looked at the camel. Instead of a delicate dot of icing for an eye, he had a swath of blue across his nose.
"Let me help," I said, taking the cookie from her. I did my best to transform the blue blotch into a bridle and reigns and then applied the slightest dab of icing to make an eye. It looked better, but not like Mom's famous designs.
Sitting down at the table across from Mom, I watched her cover an angel in white icing, her slender fingers grasping the knife. Then she handed the cookie to me to place the small details. Blue eyes, yellow halo, an oval mouth of pink. We worked together like this for a while. I didn't know that this odd batch of Christmas cookies would be her last. The slow unraveling of her mind was gradual and subtle, her thoughts catching on the sticky edges of the past. As dementia stole her, the careful tasks she perfected were among the first to be taken, and yet those Christmas cookies—and the memories they stir every year—remain a legacy of her love.