I have been baking cookies these last two nights. This is very typical for me at this time of year. I remember as a young child, around five or so, helping my grandmother make sweet bread and kolacky. I can vividly see her strong hands kneading the dough, over and over. Those very same hands would gently rub my back before bedtime, of course after milk and treats. Today, as I cut out snowman, with their armless bodies, and snowflakes begging for decoration I thought about the power of memories. As I placed the star cutouts, and watched as some of their reaching points turned, I recalled a vacation by the sea and the waving starfish-saying hello. For each year that I have baked, it has marked moments in time. I realize baking became a way to create a snapshot of my life and the people in it.
I recall the excitement and nervousness as I tackled “spritz” as a newlywed young woman, using my mother in laws cookie press under her supervision. It was very hard work, it required infinite amounts of patience, and used many pounds of butter. I learned that red and green food coloring, and lots of colored sugar makes the messiest cookies look festive. I valiantly made this cookie for a few years, until I purchased an electric cookies press. I spent more time cleaning dough shot out of the tube from my walls than I did in actually baking that year. I made cupcakes instead. Those look great with red and green sugar, and fit wonderfully in a shirt box (before the days of cupcake holders)! I learned a lot about myself, my family and the marked difference in expectations and the ability to meet them. I had garnered enough self-confidence or naiveté (sometimes I think they are the same) to move on to more complicated recipes.
During the perfect period – I managed to participate in many “cookie exchanges”. Young mothers would gather at each other’s homes to divide and share their baked goods so everyone had many different cookies lest their families get bored. The connections made with other mothers soothed the tired soul, granted adult talk and provided a chance to compare my child’s growth and social skills with other children. I made lifelong friends. I measured myself against butter, sugar, chocolate, and 90’s clothing. The perfect period lasted quite awhile and traversed different neighborhoods and different states in the country. Regardless of the location, it was still the perfect period, quite possibly because it was in the bountiful 90’s.
As my son grew up, I would bake things in the colors of his school, red one year, blue and orange years later. I would try new recipes, as if searching for something to fill the hunger inside – a sign that life was changing – and I would start school again – filling empty days with papers, reading and reflection. My baking became simpler – due to the limits of time and the reassessment of what the baking meant, not only to others, but also to me. For a few years, baking became a chore, representing, to me, repression. I fought back by grudgingly baking the cookies. Those years the cookies had lost their sweetness, and were tough, I know now, because they had been made without love.
A few years back, during a very sad time, the baking and decorating of the cookies saved me from utter despair. The mindful mixing, measuring, beating, and rolling helped to relieve me, albeit briefly from the breaking of my heart. When it came time to decorate the cookies, I was exhausted, not having slept well, but knowing I needed the respite from my worries. I used dots of blue, balls of silver, a blanket of green. I added sparkles, cinnamon red hots, and lines of red and white. Through blurred vision, due to buckets of tears, I cried my way to creating some of the most beautiful cookies I have ever made. My broken heart began to heal.
I realize now, that the baking of cookies has been a constant in my life. I can rely upon it to make a memory, revisit childhood, capture the sea, laugh, gain self-esteem, believe in the power of love, and soothe a worried and broken heart. As counselors, we know the power of a memory, good, bad, or mixed. Clients share theirs with us in hopes of putting some to rest, forever. They often search to find a way to recapture the best moments of life, while still trying to make sense of it all. Sometimes then, we learn that all memories teach us, mold us, and mark moments – it’s what we do with what we learn that makes it LIFE.
Kathy Renfree is a counselor in a community mental health setting, teaches in a graduate counseling program as needed, and is looking forward to building a private practice.