I’ve won a few
but then again,
too few to mention.
I once won an Award of Excellence in the annual anthology published by the Poetry Institute of Canada. The story was called, “Silver Bells and Puppy Dog Tails.” I’ve worked on it since and I have changed the title.
I’m often asked if it’s a true story – it’s not.
As far back as I can remember, my family and I have always treasured the Christmas season. I love all the lights, the jolly festivities and the caroling. I love seeing all the little dressed-up children waiting in line to sit on Santa’s lap. But most of all, I love my mother’s baking. It’s the only time of the year that she makes my favorite cookies in the whole world, Hazelnut Shortbreads. Their aroma is baked into my soul and they taste like the promise of heaven; eating them makes me feel young and innocent again.
I’m sitting in my office, staring at the mounting snow and remembering better days. Maybe I can bake the cookies this year. Maybe it’s time for me to step up. But that doesn’t seem right. Traditions are traditions because they re-live the sacred moments of our lives. We can’t muck with details that glue everything together. Mom bakes the best shortbreads, not me, not anyone else. But it’s not going to happen this year. No big deal. I continue to stare out the window, fully aware that I won’t be getting any work done today.
My phone rings and I instinctively pick it up before it can ring a second time. I brace myself for an unhappy customer or an irritated manager, but instead I hear my mother’s voice, “Guess what I just pulled out of the oven?” I don’t have to guess. I tell my boss that I’m feeling ill and race back home. Mom greets me at the door and I’m grinning from ear to ear. I can smell the odour of my precious cookies, but something is off, something is wrong.
My mother retreats back into our kitchen, which still looks like a snap shot from Modern Homes Magazine, the September 1979 issue. Before I can sit down, she returns holding a tray. It’s the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer plate that has been traditionally recycled from my early childhood. But the items upon it are foreign to me. Are these my shortbreads? They look more like sliced hockey pucks.
There was a time, not long ago, when Mom baked with pride. Our neighbors used to suspiciously visit us in early December, just to say “Hello, how’s it going? Is that baking I smell?” There’s no ringing of the doorbell this year. No one is emerging just in time to graciously save me from having to consume all these singed cookies by myself.
Still, this is an emotional victory for Mom. She has temporarily conquered her incapacitating depression by emerging from the cocoon of a bedroom and entering into the sacred grounds of our kitchen. She knows how much I adore her Christmas cookies and that love was enough to motivate her out of bed. She had endured the monotonous motion of stirring mounds of sugar into flour and non-salted butter. With pride she crushed dozens of fresh hazelnuts and almost mechanically inserted the tender dough into an oven that was set to broil instead of bake. It was an innocent mistake that seared the tops of my cherished, childhood memories.
She’s looking at me with those tender eyes. It’s the same gaze that once glowed upon me when I was eight and discovered a large present beside the Christmas tree that was addressed to me from Santa. I unwrapped it to reveal a blue BMX bicycle with orange rims. I knew that my parents were really Santa and I gave them both the cosiest family hug. That was so many years ago that I had almost forgotten it. It’s perhaps my fondest memory from my youth. It had been buried deep inside my psyche and left forgotten until now. From that day, Christmas has been my favorite time of year. It reminds me of everything that is important in life, namely friendship and family. Mother holds that same high regard to the holidays, and despite the dark clouds that have been occupying her thoughts, she is keeping alive the only tradition that we have left.
I cannot disappoint her. Not this year. It takes a great deal of my will power to extend my hand and grab my first cookie. My survival instincts are in hyper-drive. My stomach begs me not to go through with this, but my mouth obeys my devoted brain. I regret it instantly. My jaws force down and bite off an adequate sized morsel. I hear it snap and I feel like a soldier, using his teeth to pull the pin out of a grenade.
Instead of holiday joy, I taste campfire ashes. Every digestive organ in my body pleads with me to spit it out. Instead I rush through the masticating process as to spare my tongue prolonged exposure. But it’s a horrible mistake. Jagged chucks, each the size of blueberries, scratch every edge of my throat. Instinctively, I gulp down a glass of cold milk, but it offers little relief.
If only Dad was here, he could tell Mom the truth. “You’ve burnt the cookies, Lucy. Throw them away and go bake us a fresh batch.”
I could never say such a thing to my Mom. It has never been my responsibility to tell things the way they were. I am the diplomat, the keeper of the peace. I was supposed to keep things light and alleviate any stress between my parents. I grew weary of my role and last summer I moved into a tiny loft downtown. I often suspected that my parents stayed together solely to raise their only child. My suspicions were justified when Dad filed for divorce and recently got engaged to his dental hygienist.
I couldn’t bear the thought of Mom being left alone, so I moved back home and she moved into her bedroom. I only ever see her when she comes out to retrieve the meals that I’ve prepared and the cigarettes that I’ve bought her.
She’s still watching me, her puffed up eyes are judging my every facial expression. So I smile and take another bite. It tastes a tiny bit better. Maybe each mouthful will be slightly improved from the previous. Eventually, I’ll be able to convince myself that they’re as delicious as they’ve always been. My mind begins to erase the ingrained expectations and accepts the reality that Christmas will never be the same.