It is the fall of 1985
and my mother is unwrapping
a soft yellow blanket from
jaundiced tinged skin –
exposing the stiff shoulders,
tongue pressed hard into the bottom of a bare red mouth…
She lays the baby on the carpet in front of the bay window
and lets sunlight splash –
a Vitamin D baptism.
She draws her dreams into the baby’s skin,
traces patterns of hopes for the future
with an intensity that leaves behind
history’s long scratch of tradition.
Thirty-four years later
and I realize I have leveraged her hopes
against my heart
and have failed again and again
to come to a compromise
between the tap, tap, tap
of my name behind my teeth
and the salt etching of her tears.
I lay in the window of my house
I pretend the narrow light
is a small cathedral arch
and I’m bathing in the closest I’ll ever come
Last Christmas, my pantry room floor was given extra texture and dyed bright green. That’s not where this story begins though. No, this story, like many other Christmas tales, begins with tradition. I come from a family with multiple traditions, though we never thought of them that way. These things seemed so natural, that come Christmas time it was second nature to go through with them.
The day after Thanksgiving the tree goes up. The men put on the lights, and then the women and children decorate it. The children get to open one gift on Christmas Eve, which is normally a new pair of pajamas to sleep in that night. Christmas morning starts early, and after the living room is transformed into an explosion of brightly colored paper, oodles of packaging, and zip ties that hurt about as much as Legos when stepped on, the family has a hectic Christmas breakfast. The rest of the day is spent, lounging in pajamas, learning how to work new toys and gadgets, and picking at the turkey that was cooked the day before.
Something happened in the last few years though, and these traditions were changed, altered, or all-together gotten rid of. The tree gets up, sometime after Thanksgiving, except my father cheated and bought one that was pre-lit. Now the men don’t have to do anything with the lights, and I consider them something close to traitors. My mother has implemented miniature trees for the children, filled with boxes numbered one through twenty-four, and every single evening, through December, the kids get to open one and get a small gift: a chocolate coin, a dollar, erasers, tiny Dollar Store toys, and the list goes on and on. And there’s no more lounging on Christmas day. Now my family gets to pack up and haul children all over the place to visit my husband’s family. It becomes some ruthless packing adventure, deciding what can stay and what has to come along, and “No, you can’t take that. You just got it. If you lose it, we won’t be able to get you another one.”
We kept Christmas breakfast though. I refuse to let that tradition go away. Just like I refuse to let the pre-Christmas baking disappear. I wish I could say that I did more baking through the year, but I don’t. However, come December my dining room table is in a constant state of floured and sugared disaster. Tins and jars line every counter full of more junk than one family should be able to eat. And sometime in those crazy weeks, my mother and I tackle AP cookies.
I doubt the name will sound familiar, as I’ve never actually seen a recipe for them online. I’m not even sure what the AP means, and I never got the chance to ask my grandmother before she passed. I do remember, when I was finally old enough to be considered a help and not a hindrance in the kitchen, my grandmother brought me out with my mother to work on the cookies. I hated that they took two days. These golden, crispy delights should have been done immediately. I attempted that one year, to make them and cook them right away. It was a miserable failure, and I had an entire batch of cookies that were edible, but not right. This recipe calls for patience, something I’ve never been good at.
My grandmother, though, was a fount of patience. She worked with my mother and I, mixing the heavy dough one night, and then spending the next evening rolling it out flat. When I say “flat”, I mean, flat. The act of making these things amounts to more exercise than I get in a year. Even now, ten years after my grandmother’s death, I can hear her in the background.
“They’ve got to be flatter than that. Keep rolling. Thin. Really thin.”
And my mother and I would keep rolling and rolling, until there’s a mass of thin dough covering our table. That’s when we call in the kids. They come running, their hands digging into the bin with the cookie cutters and suddenly random stars and trees and bells start popping into the dough. My children were six and four last year, so there was a lot of wasted dough, many cookies with multiple shapes cut in them, and hours of rerolling and re-cutting, until finally my mother and I started cutting out squares and tossing any idea of shapes out the window.
I don’t remember if my grandmother sugared the cookies. It seems like something I should remember, but I know we do, and I doubt my mother and I would have changed her cookies in any way. So last Christmas, when I asked the kids to go back in the pantry and get the sugar for the cookies, they come back with only a tin of red sugar.
“Where’s the green?” I asked.
My son ran back and grabbed the green and brought it to me. I had just bought the sugar, and I remember staring at the half empty container, wondering where on earth it had gone.
“I spilled it,” my son said. “But I cleaned it up.”
He stripped off his socks, right there at the table, and showed me feet that were dyed green. I kept thinking, It’s okay. He cleaned it up. Just missed his feet. It’s fine. And then I got to my pantry. There on the floor was a wet towel, and I lifted it to see a sticky, green mess of glittering sugar. The broom lay nearby, the ends of it glued together with more sugar. I could hear my son behind me, apologizing profusely, as I tried to clean up the mess with hot water and a rag. Let me just say, this did nothing more than stick the mess further into my floor. I gave up at some point and the green spot is still there.
“So, we’ll only have a few green ones. No big deal.”
My mother gave me the look. You know which one I mean. The eyebrow raised, absolute disbelief, possibly bubbling anger under the surface. We were getting one pan of green ones. One pan of really green ones. I looked at the table to see my daughter, empty tin in her hand, and a tray full of lumps completely covered in green sugar.
We sprinkle the sugar.
She drowned them in sugar.
I almost felt like we should be holding a funeral at this point, because it seemed my grandmother’s cookies just weren’t going to happen this year. But then, amidst the frustration and the mess, the best thing happened. Christmas happened. My son started giggling. He had one of those giggles that was contagious, a full on belly-laugh. Soon we were all cackling, tears running down our cheeks, and in the back on my head I could hear my grandmother.
“Laugh all you want, but they’ve got to be thinner than that.”
It only made me laugh harder. We finished the cookies and they were odd shaped. Some of them had no sugar, some only a few grains, some were so covered it was hard to tell when they’d gotten brown on top. There were a few burnt, when we didn’t get to the oven in time or my son turned the timer off without us noticing. There were some that never made it to the cooling rack, regardless of how many times I told my daughter that they needed to be eaten cold. And none of them were as flat as my grandmother would have made them.
In fair warning, I’m giving you this recipe. That being said, I cannot be held accountable for any grandmother mumblings you hear in your ear about rolling them thinner. That is simply a risk you are going to take when you make these.
Lillian’s AP Cookies
½ lb. butter
1 lb. 10x powdered sugar
½ pt. heavy cream
½ tsp. baking soda in little water
Flour to stiffen – about 4-5 cups
Green and red decorating sugars, if desired
A heaping helping of patience
Children – for laughter
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix all ingredients the night before and chill in covered container in the fridge overnight. The next evening, flour work surface, make sure it is a large one, and take sections of dough out to roll. Roll them as thin as possible! When you believe they are thin enough, roll them thinner. Just don’t tear them. Use cutters to cut out shapes, or cut into squares. Decorate with sugar. Place on ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 7-8 minutes. Watch closely for the first couple of trays to get the timing right. They should be just golden brown on the edges. Take out and cool on racks before boxing. Best eaten cold!