Friday, December 11, 2009

Practical traditions

Baking is taking up a good portion of my time these days as I enjoy a self-imposed sabbatical from academia before diving into my thesis in January. Bread baking is a regular event, but as the winter holidays approach, I dig out the recipes for sweets. We’ve jettisoned a good number of mindless (and in my opinion, pointless) traditions over the years, but the baked goods give rise to meaning of their own.

Topping that list is my great-aunt Zella’s Friendship Cookies, which are always greeted with raves when they appear on the buffet table. I don’t remember Aunt Zella much, really, but she – and her recipe – is a tangible connection to my grandfather, Chick Little. He was the primary male role model in my early childhood (Sorry, Dad, but it’s ok. We’re good now, and you know I love you!).

Grandma and Grandpa Little offered stability, grounding, and a sense of home that was difficult to grasp as my mother struggled to find her place in the world as a single mom. I don’t remember Grandma baking Aunt Zella’s cookies very often, but she had so many wonderful recipes (Banana Nut Bread – another holiday favorite!) of her own I’m sure she never felt the need to borrow from a sister-in-law. Their home was the center of my existence, even after Mom remarried and we moved twenty-five miles away. Grandma and Grandpa were always there for me.

The Friendship Cookie is a basic sugar cookie, but with a unique twist that makes them extra-special – kind of like Grandma and Grandpa. They were simple, down-to-earth people, not concerned with material goods or social status. Family was the reason for their hard work, from Grandpa’s forty-odd years at the gravel pit followed by another dozen at the township landfill, to Grandma’s gardening, canning, sewing, baking and general mothering of all the grandkids and our assorted friends. But by simple I do not mean unintelligent. While I’m pretty sure neither of them graduated high school (mid-1920s), they were wise in the ways that matter. They knew money was a tool, not an end; they taught us kids to treat others with respect, no matter their social standing or skin color; and they loved each other throughout nearly 53 years of marriage, right up until Grandpa died just five days shy of 85 years.

Baking several batches of Aunt Zella’s cookies every holiday season is a long process, but it gives me time to reflect on those years with Grandma and Grandpa, to converse with them mentally, and to remember the love they shared so willingly.

As traditions go, it’s one I plan to keep.

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