I’ve been thinking about nostalgia, memory and traditions. It all started at the end of last month when my older son turned fourteen. Fourteen is not a particularly auspicious year in a person’s life, I guess. Last year, when he turned thirteen was big, of course. Sixteen is the obvious next milestone but fourteen is an in between year so I was unprepared to feel any strong feelings about my son turning fourteen.
As is the tradition in our family, I had baked his favorite carrot cake from scratch. As I finished the cake with cream cheese icing, I was pleased. A particularly good cake, it boasted plenty creamy icing and the cake hadn’t sunken in the middle, as they’ve sometimes done in the past. After dinner and the opening of gifts, I carried the cake to my son; my younger son led the way while Tom waited with the camera ready.
The candles cast a warm glow; the red script proclaimed Happy Birthday to Zach and I was struck by a wave of nostalgia. How many cakes had I made over the years, I wondered? How many times had I walked with a blazing cake in hand, singing off-key and arriving to a beaming child? Fourteen cakes for our older son. Next week will mark eleven for the younger one. And plenty more for Tom. So many cakes marking the progression of our lives together, of our sons’ lives continuing forward. So many memories.
Two weeks later as an early Christma gift, Tom’s sister and I took his mother to see Irving Berlin’s White Christmas at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. We knew she’d love it – the dancing, the singing, the costumes, the era – what’s not to love? But we also knew that it was not likely that she’d remember it come Christmas. As you probably know, my mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s Disease. She’s always cheerful and good-natured but Alzheimer’s has taken it’s ugly toll on her memory. As we predicted, she loved the show, singing along to the title song when the performer’s urged the audience to join in.
After that day, as I prepared for Christmas, I thought often about memory and traditions and how they are intertwined. How can you have traditions if you don’t have memory? Early last week, I embarked on one of my favorite and most time-consuming traditions. The making of our family Christmas cookie – the sand tart. Simple but elegant, these cookies are made with the most ordinary of ingredients: a couple cups of flour, a couple cups of sugar, a couple sticks of butter and some vanilla. That’s it. What makes the sand tart special is the rolling. These suckers get rolled so thin that when you hold them to the light, you can see through them. When I was young, my grandmother made dozens upon dozen of these fragile and sought-after cookies. Each Christmas she gave out countless tins, reminding each person that if the tins were not returned, there would be no cookies the next year. My grandmother was not stern but as a Depression Era child, she did not believe in waste or extravagance. Believe me, the tins came back.
My memories overflow with year after year of making sand tarts in my grandmother’s Baltimore kitchen. At first, my sister and I were only allowed to sprinkle the colored sugar on the cut cookies. When I was finally allowed to roll out the dough, it was an honor that made me feel older than my years. A kind and patient woman, my grandmother never chastised anyone but at the same time, she did not tolerate rollers who couldn’t achieve the expected thinness. My mother jokes that she was never elevated beyond sugar sprinkler. When my grandmother moved into a small apartment, we continued the tradition in my aunt’s kitchen – five women in a kitchen making cookies all afternoon.
My grandmother died over fifteen years ago and I’ve continued to make the cookies. It’s been many years since my mother, sister and I all lived in the same town so the days of congregating in one kitchen to make the sand tarts are long past. I make them by myself now. Truth be told, I dread it sometimes. It’s a lot of work – all that rolling – and the cookies bake in about six minutes so there’s not a moment to spare. But when I pull out the pastry cloth she bought for me and the cookie cutters I inherited – still in the same cardboard box from the 1960’s – I feel her presence with me. I feel her as I’m rolling and cutting the cookies, placing them on sheets with care and sprinkling the red and green sugars. All the memories of Christmas are there with me as I cook. If I lost those memories, I would feel lost as a person.
I suppose if you have a Buddhist philosophy, you can appreciate each moment as it comes, not measuring it against the ones that came before or the ones that will come after. I hope to do that with my mother-in-law: to be present in each moment and make each one good. After all, for her, the immediate moment is the only one that matters. At the same time, I cherish my own memories – the ones of my childhood and the ones I’m making with my own family. I hope not to take those memories for granted because at the end of day all of it is so fleeting. As I sit and watch snow pile up outside, another Christmas is behind us. More memories to add to the bank and a new year – full of fresh anticipation – awaits. I hope that you have a healthy and happy holiday season. While you’re here, tell me: What are your family traditions? How do you cherish the important markers of life?