We never know when it will be the last time, do we?
If I had known, I would have paid closer attention to the story mom shared about her acquaintance’s daughter’s friend. I usually listened half-heartedly to these stories she often told. I probably wanted to tell her more about my own life. But that time, the last time, I would have listened, maybe asked a question or two. I’d have leaned into my mother, given her a smile, and taken the time to be completely and fully present.
We would have been standing side-by-side in the kitchen making Christmas cookies. My mom would gather the shortening, sugar, brown sugar, and two eggs to put in a mixing bowl. Perhaps I cracked the eggs one at a time into a measuring cup (like I still do today – in case one of the eggs is bad.) We’d mix these first ingredients all together in a mixer.
Mom would then gather the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. She’d mix all these together in a separate bowl by hand and put a little at a time into the sifter.
I recall that I would often do the sifting, the metal arms moving back and forth in the bottom of it. Like my mother taught me, I would squeeze the handle and shake the sifter a bit, tapping my hand on the side so that everything would come out. I would watch the white powder cover the dough like an early snowfall.
After the dough had chilled for exactly 1 ½ hours in the refrigerator, it was time to roll it out and start using the cookie cutters.
I would flour the counter, then we would take a portion of the dough and put it on top and add more flour. Kneading the dough together, then sifting some of the flour on, then kneading the dough, then more flour. We’d roll it out using an old rolling pin with a cotton cover. My siblings would join us and press our Christmas tree and gingerbread man and Santa and Christmas stocking cookie cutters into the dough. Carefully, we’d use a spatula to lift the cookies and place them on a cookie sheet.
As the cookies were baking, mom would stir the ingredients of the icing together
in another bowl and she’d let us put the food coloring in. So beautiful, I always thought, to watch the colors so strong and dark at first, then mixing with the white icing until they were light blue or red or green.
And then we’d decorate after the cookies had a chance to cool. Along with the icing, we had jimmies and confetti and red-hot candies to put on.
We all wanted to eat them right away. It was hard to wait for each baking sheet to come out of the oven, for the cookies to cool, to decorate them, put them on a plate – and then not to eat them.
I seem to remember that mom would let us have only one cookie, and we’d each grab the largest one - the gingerbread-shaped man. We’d bite off a head or arm or leg and laugh. Later, I’d sneak into the kitchen and take another cookie, carefully rearranging the cookies on the plate so it did not look like one was missing. I doubt I fooled my mom.
These memories do not include the other times in our lives when mom told me I was “too much” for her. I knew she meant too emotional, too expressive, probably even too loud. Sometimes, and I hope I never told her this, she was not enough for me.
At one point a few years ago, an aide mistakenly called my number instead of my sister’s from my mom’s memory care home. Mom’s mind had receded, the ability to care for herself had slipped away. Still, when she was told it was me, mom said she was delighted to speak with me.
‘You are always so kind, Cheryl, I will always remember that. You are so kind.’ And I knew the memory of our conversation would soon be stolen from her – but it would stay with me always. I stifled a sob and pressed that memory to my heart.
A year before my mom would pass away, I stood again in her kitchen.
How do you decide what to take from your family home of 45 years when the time has come to sell the house? I traveled through memories, experienced a profound longing.
I knew decisions must be made. Everything in the kitchen needed to be taken, given away, or trashed. At first, I could not move my feet, get myself to move forward, but then took a step to a cabinet and opened it. At the very front on the shelf, I saw the sifter.
It was aluminum, and it was old. There were rust stains and bits of flour on the screen. There was unidentifiable gunk on the outside, too.
I picked it up and squeezed the handle, heard the swish woosh, swish woosh, of the arms and the metallic click as the inner handle squeezed and met the outer handle. A memory stirred and I held fast to it.
I brought the sifter home with me, cleaned it up, and it sits on the shelf in my office. I miss my mother so much sometimes I put my head down on my desk and sob.
But when I look over at the sifter, I am back in the kitchen with mom, and we are baking. I hear the sound of the sifter, feel the dough in my hands. Mom’s telling me a story and I pay close attention. And this time I lean in. I just lean in.
About the author
Cheryl Somers Aubin has an MA/Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of The Survivor Tree: Inspired by a True Story. She has been widely published and is the former nonfiction editor for the Delmarva Review. Cheryl teaches memoir writing and speaks at writing conferences and workshops. Www.thesurvivortree.com
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