You leave cookies on a plate for Santa to find when he leaves your presents. Websites leave cookies on your computer so it can leave a virus. Either way cookies are the bits of memory that can warm your heart or crash your internal hard drive. Someone in my life has been leaving me cookies. Especially Christmas Cookies.
Holidays, especially Christmas, have always been difficult for me. I can never live up to the Hallmark Card moments. I’m always a day late and a dollar short. The turkey is still frozen, the Christmas lights don’t work and I’ve run out of scotch tape. No matter how much time and money I invest in these “festive events” they are anything but festive. Not to be a Grinch or anything but I’m not sure why on some particular day, at some designated hour, you MUST be happy. You MUST celebrate. It’s like the New Year’s Eve scam. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been scoring a ten on the happiness scale all year long, if at midnight on New Year’s Eve – you’re caught in a traffic jam, fighting with your lover or in the Emergency Room with a ruptured appendix – the next year is doomed to failure.
Even when I was very young Christmas didn’t live up to the myth. My mother was a single parent waitress. Christmas for any single parent is a struggle but for those who live on “tips” planning for Christmas is impossible. It didn’t matter if we were naughty or nice, Santa depended on tips. The weeks before Christmas people aren’t going out and business is slow. The few customers that do show up are unusually stingy. Then at the last possible moment, sometimes Christmas Eve, the Christmas spirit hits and the cash begins to flow. Then tips are plentiful. That made our Christmas sporadic and last minute. We managed only the bare essentials of Santa Magic leaving out the frills; no Christmas tree, no stockings on the mantle and sometimes just drug store gifts.
We didn’t have our own Christmas tree. Instead we’d pile in the car and drive downtown to look at the lights. All the buildings were dressed up for Christmas, even the Detroit Metropolitan Museum of Art. JL Hudson’s Department store had a nine story tree that lit up the side of their downtown store. The window displays had mechanical dolls dressed like elves. In one window they filled Santa’s bag and loaded his sleigh. Other windows had Mrs. Clause making cookies and elves making Christmas stockings. The 13 floor was the North Pole where Santa Clause took requests and photographers took pictures with Santa. A weekend shopping trip to Hudson’s was a kind of rite of passage for young girls. It was the place to shop for perfume and scarves and stop for lunch on the mezzanine or get a hot dog at the Lafayette Coney Island.
After looking at the lights downtown, we’d drive up to see the decorations on the Ford or Dodge Family mansions in Grosse Pointe. As we drove, we’d sit huddled in the backseat trying to keep warm. Our tender legs would be frozen to the vinyl seats and we’d pull our heads inside coat collars like turtles. The streets were lined with tiny lights that made you feel like you were driving into a magic fairy land. Bundled up in the backseat we’d gush with delight at each new house.
After I was grown, with kids of my own, I went home to Michigan one Christmas. I had an appointment so I took the express bus downtown. I planned to stop in Hudson’s for some shopping and lunch. I got off at the regular stop and walked past the building where I worked when I was only eighteen and found the Hudson building. The first door I tried was locked and the windows were empty. I tried another door, another door, turned the corner and tried again. I kept walking, round and round the building. No matter how many times I walked around it remained empty and bolted shut. People on the street stared at me like “Where you been child?” I just looked back at them in astonishment.
I finally gave up and took the bus home. This time I took the regular bus with frequent stops and had time to actually look out the window. The Motor City really is a wheel. Neighborhoods circle the city – with the low rent districts closest to the center. The farther out you go, the higher the rent and the whiter the tenants. The city had always been poor at the center. There were always some neighborhoods full of boarded up houses and empty stores. It began with busing and white flight. Now, it looked like the city was ground zero from some atomic war. Concentric circles of empty boarded up buildings and tenement slums, spreading our further and further invading white suburb after white suburb. I hadn’t noticed till it hit my town, my neighborhood, my friends. That day was a rude awakening for me. I had no idea my city was so broken, abandoned and boarded up, left for dead.
Back the story. Shortly after my mother and stepfather married, we moved out of the inner-city. We moved from the land of the upper flat and Ma & Pa corner stores, to rows of single family houses that were rewards to WWII soldiers and their families. We moved to the town where all of my step-father’s family lived. He had three brothers and two sisters and they had husbands and wives and kids. Suddenly we had cousins by the dozens. We were no longer gypsies on the run from the landlord for the rent but part of a big family rooted in a community. We were hillbilly French Catholic.
Since my mother no longer needed to work, she became the happy homemaker living in the suburbs. She sewed and cooked and planted tomatoes in the back yard. She canned pickles and upholstered furniture. She’d go for coffee and visit with the neighbors and bowl with the Ladies League on Tuesday nights.
That first Christmas, my mother was in her prime. She made Christmas wreaths and table linens and filled the house with decorations. But her crowing glory was the baking. She made three kinds of fudge, sugar cookies that she decorated with sprinkles and icing, and those Swedish nut balls that melt in your mouth. Oh yea, she tried making fruitcake too. I think someone is still using one as a doorstop. But aside from the fruitcakes, the baking was great.
The week of Christmas was a week of parties. One night we’d all pile in the car and drive to a cousin or uncle’s house. My step-father would warm the car up first so it was nice and toasty, no more frozen legs on the vinyl. Then we’d pile in with stacks of presents and baskets of baked goods. When we got there, we’d walk up together and ring the door bell. When they answered we’d all say “Merry Christmas!” The next night it was a different relative, different food, different presents. One night it was our house. Christmas Eve it was Midnight Mass with all the family and breakfast in the middle of the night. Then off to sleep to wait for Santa. It was heaven. I loved it all, the noise, the family, and the piles of coats on the bed. I loved feeling like I belonged somewhere. I loved having a family.
Until that Christmas, Sugarplum fairies never danced in my head. Santa came some years and some years he forgot. One year all we got were a couple of books from a local church with someone else’s name scribbled out with marker. I didn’t mind because I didn’t expect much. But once those Christmas cookies got in my brain, once I knew the glow of lights from our own Christmas tree and the feeling of belonging, I could not go back to the austerity of my early childhood. I would forever be yearning to repeat that Christmas and to know that feeling again.
The first Christmas after the divorce, after my mother had been taken away to the mental institution, I stayed alone in the house. I was one month past sixteen. My Big Brother was home from Vietnam but only his body had returned. My half-a-sister took my baby sister to live with relatives but none of the relatives wanted me. Half-a-sister told them that I had driven my mother crazy. Who would want a girl who drove her own mother crazy? Only one of many Cookies left by my half-a-sister.
Days passed alone in the house. I kept going to school till it was Christmas break. They turned off the gas heat and hot water. Then they turned off the electricity about the same time the neighbors put up their Christmas lights. Some nights I stood at the window in the living room and just stared at the houses across the street. They all had trees sitting in front of their picture windows. The glow from the houses was a golden yellow. I could see people walking in and out of the rooms; wrapping gifts, greeting guests and sharing the holiday. The trees in the picture windows lined the street like the girls in the windows in Amsterdam – each shouting “pick me! I’m the prettiest, pick me!”
A group of carolers came by and I stood in the dark and silent room trying not to let the frost from my breath escape. After they left, I leaned against the window and felt the icy cold on my forehead. The giant walnut tree in the front yard was naked now. Its branches covered in ice. Last summer, when life seemed to hold so much promise, the tree was alive. Its leaves formed a cover over the yard and kept us cool during the long Indian summer. That’s when I would lay on the cement porch, listen to the radio and daydream. I took a mental picture of those moments – as though I knew I’d need them later. Now the tree was stripped bare gleaming in the moonlight, all sparkly and strangely beautiful. It was as though all the buds and leaves, all the heat of that summer, all the promise of that beginning was locked inside the ice, never to age, never to fade, but never to grow beyond those early first buds. Like the tree I felt like I was encased in ice.
Standing in that window that Christmas night, is the last memory I have from that time. I carry that image with me. An old boyfriend once told me that I have “poor little match girl” complex. I admit the girl in the window is dear to me. Whenever anyone gets too close I am frozen in that window again waiting to be abandoned. I know that I have to let go of that image if I am to move forward. But I am tied to it until I can fill in the missing pieces of time.
A few years ago, the half-a-sister told me that she sent the step father over to visit me during that blank time. She and the rest of my family forgot about me and no one came. No one took me home with them for Christmas. But she told me that she sent my step father over to “visit me”. The idea tormented me. Then I realized that was just what she wanted. I began to remember all the mysterious lies that cluttered my life and as I searched my way through, she was always there, standing on the sidelines, popping her chewing gum. Cookies. Not the kind you leave out for Santa, but the Trojan kind, the evil kind. The half-a-sister filled my life with poison cookies.
I escaped and In time, I had children and created my own little family. We lived on top of the Sierra’s in a snow globe world. We made our own traditions; trudging through the woods and cutting down the tree, hanging the stockings, making eggnog, and Christmas morning omelets. For a few precious years, when my children believed I was Santa Clause, Christmas was a joyous event. But children grow and seem determined to find the cracks in your façade. My snow globe broke open. Children scattered to opposite ends of the continent and opposite ends of the political spectrum. They seldom speak to each other and never speak to me.
Suddenly I’m startled by the ringing phone and for a moment I hope … But it is my friend David. He’s on his way to Midnight Mass and wants to come by with communion for me. David is well over seventy and has been bringing me communion for a decade. It all began with a program called Welcome Back Catholics, a kind of night class for stray Catholics seeking redemption.
OK…OK…. I can just see all you atheists and agnostics rolling your eyes now, scanning the page to skip past the religiousie parts. Worse yet are the ones who can hardly wait to slam me in the comments for daring to acknowledge Christianity in public. Faith has become the “Don’t ask don’t tell” of an intolerant left that snickers like mean girls in school and litters the language with vulgarity.
I know some of the aversion is because what is being marketed as Christianity is a fraud. In fact it’s Anti-Christianity. It’s as though that little devil Frank Luntz has re-branded greed and made it a sacrament and made humility a sin. The religious right and the Mega Church that prays for prosperity has defiled true Christianity. So please don’t judge me by them. I know that you can list all the horrors that religion has caused. But you can also list the same for democracy. Cut me some slack here. It’s important to the story.
Like most people who are diagnosed with a terminal disease, I remembered that I believe in God. In truth, I’ve always believed in God, it’s just that I wasn’t speaking to him for thirty years or so. When I was ready to talk again, I discovered people of St James Catholic Church. Not the building, though it’s a beautiful cathedral, but the people who use the building to try to help those less fortunate. That’s what makes a church. That’s my church.
Anyway, every Tuesday night for six weeks this band of stray Catholics would meet to relearn our catechism and renew our faith. There were about fifteen people in the class and they ranged from Five Star Hotel owner to homeless man and ranged in age from twenty something to well past sixty. The one thing we had in common was a cynic’s view of faith. We were not swayed by the sentimental goop and fake piety that passes for faith in the Mega Church. We were not the prodigal son returning home after sowing wild oats. We were Saul Road to Damascus blinded by the light. We were warriors who had been brought to our knees by life and redeemed by faith.
By the time I started classed I had already lost 75% of my lung function. I was on supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day and carried a portable tank when I went out. St James is a beautiful old cathedral and our classes were held in the building next door. There were two and a half flights of steep stone steps up to the door. It was like the holy steps of a pilgrimage. To me they were the steps of penance. Each week I would walk from the corner with my oxygen tank on one shoulder and my purse on the other. I’d get half way up the steps and have to stop and rest before climbing the other half. When I got to the class it took a full fifteen minutes for my lungs to catch up with the rest of my body. But I did it each week because what was at the top of the stairs was worth the effort.
Rosanne was our instructor and she is one of the finest souls I’ve ever met. We frequently interrupted her lectures with wise cracks and silly questions. She would just smile like a loving parent and answer. The last lesson was about confession and then the questions were beyond silly. We asked, “Do you have to confess for each and every time you commit a sin or can you add them up?” We wondered, “How far back do we go – is there a statue of limitations on sin?” The questions covered our nervousness. Confession was the final stage before we would again be allowed to receive Holy Communion. I love going to Mass and receiving Communion. For me it’s what this whole Christian thing is about. Feeding the soul. Ten years ago I was no longer able to go to Mass and David started bringing me communion. Every Thursday and we pray the Rosary and he gives me communion.
There’s something magical about saying the Rosary with David. It’s soothing. I’m a big fan of the Virgin Mary. I know that if a man had given birth to the Messiah no one would question honoring him. Mary was such an extraordinary person that God chose to send Christ to us through her. So David and I say the Rosary and we ask for Mary’s help. Then David gives me communion. As always David knows the words to say. I’ve done a bit of shopping and I have a little gift for David. When he comes to visit he brings a zip lock baggie with all his books. I’ve found a manly black bag for his books and it’s all wrapped and ready to go. He’s delighted.
After he leaves I pick up my mail and find cards from my ex-mother in law and a letter from a dear friend. I watch Midnight Mass on television with all the lights off. In the morning, Joshua arrives with an extension for my shower which he installs. Now showering need not be a death defying stunt. When I give him the socks I purchased, he lifts a trouser and shows me the holes in socks. My timing is perfect. My last caregiver, Ruth pops by to show off the baby and to bring me a lovely cross. I have a scarf for her and some toys for the baby. As they are leaving, she notices a package by the door. It’s a plate filled with a variety of home made cookies. There are those almond balls my mother used to make. It’s from the neighbor down the hall. Someone has left me cookies. I am redeemed.
I close the door and find myself looking out the window at the lights. This time it’s from an apartment in Chinatown. This neighborhood is clean of the empty symbols that clutter this holy night, none of the “traditional” Christmas trappings. Some say that Santa is symbolic of Christ and the presents are the way that children learn that prayers are answered by a loving God who knows their heart. But it’s not. It’s s about birth or rebirth. It’s about knowing, when all hope seems to be lost in the dead of winter, that the tender buds inside the frozen branches will bloom again. It’s not about looking back and recreating the past. It’s not about tradition, the birth of Jesus shattered tradition. It’s about looking forward with heats full of love and forgiveness. It’s about the promise of redemption.
I hope you find some Christmas cookies – the kind that nourishes your soul.