Bags packed? Check! Jeep fueled up? Check! Caitie in the back asleep? Check!
At zero dark thirty (which translated to about six o’clock in the morning) the jeep was ready to make the thirteen and a half hour trip from Columbia, South Carolina to Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It was December of ’98 and Christmas was days away. I was five years old and the only things I cared about were race cars, Barbie dolls, and playing outside.
By the time I woke up, we had made it to Virginia. That meant it was time to get changed and more importantly, eat. I quickly put on an outfit my mom set aside for this exact purpose. Soon I would sitting inside IHOP with a stack of silver dollar pancakes, a tall glass of orange juice, and a few pieces of sausage in front of me. When the food was brought out, I was always overwhelmed by how delicious the fluffy pancakes smelled. Or how the orange juice tasted as though a straw had been stuck into an orange.
The syrup was always my favorite part of a pancake breakfast. I had the same philosophy about syrup, the maple scent filled my nose and I did not stop pouring until the pancakes were covered. Now the real challenge with syrup drenched cakes is that you have to eat them quickly otherwise the spongey cakes would soak up the syrup and they would not taste as good. After the entire plate was cleaned, my orange juice was finished, and the bill had been paid we headed back out on the road. After a few more hours, and the occasional nap, we reached my Nanny and PopPop’s house.
The next day, the fun began. It started out with me waking up to hear the John Wayne marathon the television and my Nanny yelling from the kitchen, “Howard! Come out to the kitchen table and eat your breakfast!” No one dared disobey Nanny when she scolded. As a grandchild I never experienced what it was like to be on the receiving end. In her words, ‘My grandbabies can do no wrong’.
As I sat down to eat my own plate of breakfast, bacon and eggs, I could smell the Christmas tree. It was just as things should be, and always had been – the train was set around the tree which was decorated to near perfection with the family angel at the top to watch over everyone. One last step had to be completed; the placing of the candy canes.
One of the best decorations of all on a Klein Christmas tree. The smell of the sweet concoction usually made my mouth water when the box was first opened. The smell of peppermint hit me hard. The red and white spiral stripes reminded me of the North Pole from one of my favorite movies, the Santa Clause. Once the candy canes were in place it was time to get bundled up and head outside to play for as long as I could before I got called in. it was time for snow angels and sledding down the hill by the apple tree on a piece of cardboard that had not yet been burned which was soon upgraded to a plastic sled.
As the day continued, I took breaks to eat lunch and dinner at which time I was in for the night. The next morning was spent doing the same routine – breakfast and playing outside until lunch. The afternoon was the most important time of this day. It was time to get baking. My mom helped put my hair up while I washed my hands. Nanny got out all of the bowls and ingredients. This was before the ‘Break and Bake’ cookies were thought of being used by anyone in the family. Who needed corporate cookies when we had true homemade cookies all to ourselves? We start with chocolate chip because they are my favorite and I always got to choose where to begin. Not only are they super yummy baked, but the raw dough was equally tasty.
The dry ingredients were mixed first and the wet were added bit by bit. The secret was to add small amounts of wet ingredients in at a time and mix it well. By adding them stepwise, the cookie dough was a little smoother. Of course for chocolate chip cookies this was not the main concern, it just occurred out of habit. The next step was to roll the cookie dough into balls and place them on the cookie sheets.
The texture was always a little funny – grainy from the sugar and course from the chips. It was like picking up a handful of wet sand right off the shoreline where the shell fragments lie. After the promising morsels were placed on the sheet, Nanny walked them over to the oven which had been preheated, making the kitchen slightly warmer than the rest of the Klein house. My ninja skills kicked in and I swiped my finger through the raw dough making sure to snag a few chips. This was one of the best parts about baking with my grandmother; getting to taste the dessert before it was ready.
Once the sheet was in the oven we took to the remaining dough and filled another sheet. As we waited for the first sheet to finish, we started mixing the dough for the next batch of cookies. These would be ones we use the cookie cutters for. Once the dough was mixed by my grandmother’s expert hands I helped rolled out the white dough. For me, it was a little work but I managed.
“Nanny, this is hard work making these cookies!” I said.
“Is it Caitie?”
“It is! It’s making me thirsty!” At this age I still could not quite get the ‘th’ sound right and it came out ‘sir-sty’ instead.
“You’re sir-sty?” Nanny said mocking my pronunciation. “Well what do you want to drink?”
“I want some milk” I replied, but again had pronunciation issues and this time it was the ‘milk’ that troubled my tongue. The word sounded like I had a German accent with an emphasis on the ‘i’.
“Okay, I’ll get you some milk.” Nanny walked over to the cupboard and grabbed the plastic cup I always used, the pink one with a white lid. She poured the milk, placed the lid and I took a sip. The next task was to take the cookie cutters out of the closet in the hallway and pick which ones I wanted to use. The first one out was the Christmas tree, followed by Santa Claus, a gingerbread man, and a star. We cut out multiples of each until we ran out of dough while keeping an eye on the chocolate chip cookies. The kitchen was ours for the taking all afternoon. We had turned it into a cookie factory and it was the best smelling house on the whole road.
Sweet. Chocolate. Sugar. Butter. Vanilla. Warm. Mouthwatering. Delectable. Yummy. Scrumptious. Aromatic. Soft. Chewy. Divine. Gooey.
By the end of the day the kitchen table was cover with containers of cookies. Some would be eaten that day, some would be left out for Santa, while the rest would be eaten over the course of the following week while we were still visiting. The morning of Christmas, presents were opened, candy canes were eaten, and a cookie or two were snuck out of the cookie containers. The rest of our wintery vacation took us to Candy Cane Lane to look at the decorated houses and for me in particular, the back yard where I rode on the tractor to help bring fire wood into the house and played in the snow for hours each day.
After the New Year one evening, I decided I would try baking cookies myself at our home. Of course I did not know how to operate a real stove, rather I used my play kitchen. I set out to the real refrigerator to get some butter and eggs. I used the real kitchen table and my plastic play kitchen bowl to mix the two together.
I grabbed some flower and some sugar to mix into the bowl after. In mid-mix, I heard a noise and looked up to see my mom awake. She looked around at the mess I had made. There was an egg I failed to crack into the bowl dripping off the edge of the table, sugar all over my hands, and flour covering the table and floor around my feet. The best way to describe the scene was “gross”.
I do not remember much else from the night other than making way back into bed. One thing I do remember is the feeling I had while baking alongside my grandmother. It is one part of Christmas I miss greatly. After she passed, the holiday season was never the same. So if you’re reading this, keep in mind not to take moments like those for granted with people you love. You never know when you want be able to anymore.
What became important to me is to carry on the tradition of cooking baking during the holidays which I do every year. Though it is not quite the same without Nanny there by my side, it is still my favorite part of Christmas. I like to think she’s there in spirit in the angel atop our tree watching over us.