Cookies at the Kitchen Table
When my great grandmother was upset she would always make bread dough. My grandmother told me that “even if it was evening and she didn’t need bread until morning she would go out there and punish that dough to get her frustrations out. I never heard her complain about anything, but when we heard her making dough at strange times of day we knew she had been upset about something.” She put the darkened loaf pans on the back of the stove where it was warmest, covered with a towel. The sunlight always came in to kiss the cook in the mornings.
They don’t build houses like that one anymore– respectful of the land and moving with it instead of obliterating its gentle curves and centuries old trees and little streams to create grids of cookie cutter houses, all equally without personality. This house had nestled into its little valley by a dirt road for over a century– and its face remembered today’s mail truck bobbing up the lane in a cloud of dust as readily as it remembered Civil War soldiers sitting for a moment beneath a shady tree for a moment’s respite from the afternoon heat.
There was a little creek that giggled and babbled its way through the back. That creek and the old house had been lovers for years, and as in the best marriages they didn’t crowd one another yet never really ventured too far away. On a soft summer night with the windows open and the breeze whispering at the curtains the “crick” quietly sang its love song to the house, just as it had done for decades. The moon seemed to rise larger than life just for them.
There was a clothesline so long that it had to be anchored in the center with a long pole placed in the ground to keep the wet quilts from touching their soft feet to the earth. As the quilts dried and became lighter the line would become almost buoyant, flapping with such joy and wild abandon that sometimes you had to get a handhold on one end of the line and work your way toward the center, just to catch it.
The kitchen had been carefully situated to flow with the land too– positioned so that the morning sun flooded in through the large windows and bathed the counters in golden light as the lady of the house rose to make breakfast. The doors were angled just right so that you could prop open the back door and the front door on a hot day and have a continual stream of air passing through to cool the hot kitchen as the oven flared to produce hot, bubbling pies or loaves of golden brown bread. “This is like free air conditionining,” my grandpa would say as the breeze whistled merrily through the kitchen– taking out the heat of the day and rustling the papers held to the refrigerator with electric company magnets. “Those boys knew how to build houses. No one pays attention to the land anymore. It will always tell you if you take time to listen.”
There was a spring house and a summer house. When I was a child I never understood why we didn’t have “a fall house” and “a winter house” too. The spring house was an ancient stone building standing guard over a bubbling spring that came down from the mountains to feed the house and property (and creek). The structure kept animals from polluting the spring at its source, where the house got its drinking water. After watering the house the creek obligingly meandered out from underneath the springhouse grates to offer water to anything or anyone else who was thirsty. In the first spring thaw the water would race at such a fantastic rate that sometimes it seemed like it would tear the grates apart. But it never did. In the hot, sticky days of August sometimes it would slow to a mere trickle, and you had to hold your cup for a long time under the faucet to get a drink. On days like that my grandpa would measure the water line with an old yardstick and gaze into the dusty skies. “Wish it would rain. We could sure use it.” A farming community is the only place where people smile when it rains. Each drop is a gift. A blessing. A bit of life’s blood for the land and crops and garden.
The summer house was a relic from time past, when the entire kitchen was essentially moved to another building to keep the house somewhat cool during the punishing heat of the summer months. The women would stoke a mammoth fire and do their canning at the summer house– boiling corn by the hundred ear, stuffing jars and canning green beans, stirring berries and pressing the dark purple juice through hanging cheesecloth bundles to get the seeds out. Hour after hour, jar after jar they toiled, lining their treasures up like jewels along the wall of the cellar for winter. It must have been a mammoth operation. In my entire childhood I never knew the summer house to be used for anything but storage, its cavernous fireplace still blackened from decades of cooking by women whose names have now quietly joined the roster of those who have become the history of this place.
We did our canning in the cellar, a place whose stone floor was blissfully cool on bare feet as pressure cookers whistled and canning jars were pulled, steaming, from hot water baths and cuddled with towels to get them to seal. Pop, pop, POP! Their seals echoed like gunshots. Gram checked them all. If one didn’t seal it was a “dud,” and we got to eat it. It would spoil before winter otherwise. I used to stare at the pint jelly jars of black raspberry jam, hoping that at least one of them was a dud so that we could spread it early, like a ripple of purple jewels, on our morning toast.
The kitchen was never quiet. First thing in the morning the stove was fired up to make breakfast. Even long after the farm quieted from its frenetic heyday, my grandparents still rose at the normal time before light. It was in their blood after years of dairy farming– they could not have slept in if they wanted to. There was oatmeal cooked over the stove. Raisins and a spoonful of brown sugar if we were good. A stream of milk from the chipped pitcher with the Holstein on the side. Cups of black coffee– sipping a second cup was the only time during their day that they didn’t really rush.
Breakfast dishes and the day’s work began. There was always something to do– always work to be done. I helped Gram make rolls, pillow soft, and covered them with a flour sack towel on the back of the stove to rise. She showed me how to cup my hand upside down and make tiny circles around and around each dough ball to make them completely smooth. We made cookies and mixed up pie crust. She always sifted her flour. When I mentioned that the flour was already pre-sifted she answered without looking up: “Do you want to do it right? Then sift.” I now have three sifters in my own kitchen.
Gram’s cookies were always perfect– always precisely the same size. You could stack them in a row and look down the line and they stood, like soldiers, exactly the same. She always used Toll House chocolate chips– no other brand. Her pie crusts never cracked– the filling never boiled over. Her rolls were so light and soft that they pulled apart in little lacey flakes when you took one from the pan. I used to wonder how in the world she did it.
Gram never praised you. Of course, she never praised herself either. She worked quietly and let her work do the talking for her. I used to be sad and a little bit annoyed if I worked very hard on something and presented it to her, so proud, for her praise. She would never praise it. She would turn it over and over in her hands. “These stitches could be a little tighter,” she might say. “Crust could be a little more tender. You overworked it.” I used to get so frustrated that it didn’t seem like anything I did was ever good enough. Looking back now with the eyes of an adult, I realize that her reactions to her own creations were the same– a quiet, thoughtful critique. She never rested on her laurels. She never felt “good enough to stop trying to be better.” Her advice was nitpicking because her standards were exacting. “Good” was not good enough. You could always try harder and do better. There was always something to learn.
I also realize that she showed her approval for my attempts in other ways. Sometimes I would come inside after completing a job for her– hanging out the clothes or picking tomatoes from the garden, and she would have made us a little pan of pie dough cookies from her crust scraps. She didn’t say it, but I knew that she showed her love and appreciation by doing things for us. When I was away at college she often sent me care packages of cookies– each one carefully wrapped in plastic wrap, the address written in her precise hand. The stamps were placed all over the top of the box in exact denominations, each one counted and carefully licked to make it sticky. I pictured her “getting ready for town,” which she always did before going anywhere off the property. She would wear the cameo brooch at her throat and put on her good shoes. She would wear a sweater and a dress when she took those cookies to the post office for me, paying in exact change, carefully counted. She would keep the receipt and go over it when she got home.
That was how she showed love.
Sometimes even when all of our jelly jars had sealed, she would put a jar of black raspberry on the table for breakfast. We didn’t talk about it, but her actions said thank you.
She made each of her grandchildren a quilt– sitting for hours with her head bowed over the huge quilt frame that filled her living room each winter.
And sometimes, after a long day, you would come inside and see that she had placed some cookies on a plate for you. She would take the plate and look over her shoulder. “Nice day. Let’s sit on the porch for a bit.” You’d follow her out and sit on the porch swing, the cookies between you. The old swing creaked as it rocked. The trellis with the pink and white clematis bumped softly against the porch railing. The birds sang. Far away a car went past, too far away to hear any sound of it. “Let’s try these cookies we made.”
Her offering was her approval. You had worked hard today, and she was grateful. Her hands and the tasks she completed were her way of showing it. Work hard; don’t complain. Make their favorite dinner. Sew the buttons back on their shirts. Spend hours in the sun picking berries so that they can have their favorite pie or jelly. Put thousands of stitches into a quilt to keep them warm at night. Pray for them every day.
She was the true epitome of the phrase “actions speak louder than words.”
And just for that moment of time, the cookies between us were a gift– an offering that said “I see what you did. I’m proud of you. Here is a reward because I really am proud of how hard you worked. I love you.”
She gave me the last cookie. I ate it with the sound of the creek in my ears and the whisper of the summer breeze on my face. I smelled roses. And I knew she was proud.
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