By MIKE DONOHUE
I spend a lot of time grousing like the elderly Irish curmudgeon I am, but the truth is I’m a pretty happy guy. There are really only a few things in life I hate — discrimination, injustice, and baking Christmas cookies.
The first are givens, but the cookies need a bit of explanation. I think I got it from my mother. She made them for us every year, and if there was one thing we looked forward to besides the arrival of Santa, it was Mom’s cherry-in-the-middle cookies. It was hard work. A professional baker I shared the recipe with once told me that it was the heaviest dough in the world to work with.
Mom had an old-fashioned eggbeater, but it was no match for that dough that had the consistency of hard clay. She had to use all her weight to mash it up with a heavy wooden mallet, stuff it into a cookie press, twist out the dough just right to form the cookies and fill the tray, then sprinkle them with green sugar, place a piece of cherry in the center and bake.
She tried to keep a smile on her face for us, but it got harder and harder as the batches went on. The family got bigger. We grew, and so did our appetites. We married, and had children. Every year there were more to be made, and the job got harder. Every year she swore that it was too much, that this just had to be the last time.
And then one year it was.
At her funeral, amidst his remarks about all the things we would miss, the priest mentioned Mom’s cookies, and how Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them … or without her.
A few months later, my siblings all got packages in the mail. Collectively, they all cried when they opened them and saw her cookies. I secretly had gotten her recipe and her cookie press from my Dad, and let her use my hands to continue that special token of love from her to us.
It’s been 28 years now since I took over her holiday bake, and subsequently faced the reality of my own mortality, hunting down duplicate presses for each of my siblings, so that they can continue the tradition with their families should I go first. For many years I went to her grave the next day and laid a single cookie there as a token of thanks for the Mom she was.
Twenty years later I began leaving two cookies, one for her, and one for my Dad, once he was finally with her again.
The project became a family event. Deaths of people and of dreams have changed the lineup of my family, but my house was alive yesterday — alive with the smell of baking, the cussing of an old curmudgeon, the hard work of my sister, my son, and my granddaughter, and the joy of three generations singing along to the carols as we busied ourselves in the work of love for the family we are all blessed to have.
I realized something in the midst of one of those yearly bakes. I don’t hate baking Christmas cookies any more. I hate how hard it is, but I love doing it, because as the day goes on, and the harder it gets, the more I realize how much my mom must have loved us, and I feel blessed to have a family to work equally as hard for.
My Dad loved those cookies the most of any of us. He always wanted more of them than anyone else in the family. I think he was proud of me for making them, and I’m glad he was the type of Dad who taught me the importance of taking care of the ones you love. He didn’t have much of a family life growing up, and wanted more than anything to give Mom and us kids the life he never had.
Without having to make so many for him, the bakes are a little shorter now … but it is somehow a lot harder to have to make less. I miss you Mom and Dad, and thanks. I’ll try to make you both proud.
Mike Donohue is a father, grandfather and friend who hopes for a better world for his family and loved ones to live in. He is a licensed chemical dependency counselor, former professional musician, longtime cookie baker and political moderate, and has published articles related to local music, addiction recovery, and human rights.