The Cookie Plate Journey: A Homey Story for the Holidays
Every year the holidays are chocked full of traditions: exhaustive shopping, caroling children, spiked eggnog, mistletoe parties…and in my family, decadent cookie plates. From an early age I had learned that the greatest gift you could give someone else is something crafted with your own two hands. Bonus points if it contained high volumes of sugar and butter. In San Francisco I typically dedicate one day to making multiple types of treats and another day to wrap them and ferry them across town to cooking challenged bachelors and women who forget they are watching their waistline. This year I was making more types of calories than usual. I was traveling with my parents on their annual cookie plate trek from Kennewick, Washington to Billings, Montana.
I arrived at the Eastern Washington airport on Dec 21st at 1am. In a more urban setting, I would have arranged for a town car or taxi rather than inconvenience someone to get out of their cozy pajamas for pickup at such an ungodly hour. When I mentioned a taxi to my mother she sounded disgusted. “What?! Taxi! We don’t do that in these parts. People get picked up.” Dutifully, my parents got out of their pajamas, donned their best, and braved icy roads to wait for me in the tiny rural airport two towns down the highway. It felt wonderful to have someone pick me up; someone other than a suited man with my name misspelled on a white placard.
My time in Washington was limited. We were going to embark on a 12 hour / four mountain pass drive to Billings, Montana to visit family for Christmas. However, before such a trip could be embarked upon there was work to be done. Hundreds more cookies and breads had to be baked and placed on holiday trays to bring cheer and calories along the route. Cookie plate pit stops were a crucial part of the journey .
The first drop off was easy. It was to Anna, a jovial round woman who cleaned my parent’s home. “Your parent’s home is one of my favorites to clean,” she said. I wondered if it was because my father had an open bar policy. “No, no, it just feels warm, even in its expanse.” Anna told me that she herself lived in a double-wide trailer. “I raised four kids in that trailer!” she said proudly. “My husband and I always thought we’d get a bigger place now that the kids are gone…but without the kids, that trailer feels like a palace!”
I told my mother what Anna told me and asked her what else she knew about her. “She’s like you, working on a novel!” my mother said. “Apparently an agent is really interested in her prose. Her writing is quite good.” Who would have thought me, a prior fashion consultant, would find such a kinship to a housecleaner? I realized that we have more in common with one another than we may realize…one just needs to take the time to ask the right questions.
We drove in below freezing weather to our next stop. Needing caffeine I was delighted to see it was a gourmet coffee roastery. I was surprised when my mother brought in a cookie tray with her. “You are giving the random baristas cookies? Do you even know them?” I asked.
“Know them?” she exclaimed. “They are part of our lives!” The cheerful girls gave my mother a hug when she entered and readily accepted the baked goods. One of them, a shy brunette, offered my mother a special gift as well. ‘This is homemade toffee,” she said. “And thank you for listening last week.”
My mother explained that Chelsea had moved from barista to friend over the years. Chelsea was in a sad phase as the man she was in love with had just left her for someone else. “I do not know why someone would want to leave someone as wonderful as Chelsea,” said my mother shaking her head. “So I do my best to cheer her up.” I was amazed. I do not know anything personal about my usual barista. In fact I am not sure I can even remember her name. I only asked the people I interviewed personal questions. Perhaps I needed to be interested in people without always thinking of the story I could get out of them.
Stomachs full of foam and espresso, we got back in the car for the next stop, a Bulgarian couple that my father had known for years. Nikolay and Sofia had lived a roller coaster of life together. They escaped their Bulgaria years ago, leaving behind riches and lofty positions in the Communist party for freedom the United States. Nikolay’s first job was as a New York cab driver, Sofia’s a dry cleaner. They eventually worked their way up in life and education; they earned PhDs, positions in international engineering firms, and hosted some of the best dinner parties for miles around.
Sadly, the roller coaster ride was about over. Sofia was on her deathbed with Parkinson’s disease and entertaining was a luxury of the past. Nikolay, too afraid to leave her side, hadn’t gone grocery shopping in months. “Thank you so much for coming by,” he said eying the large plate of goods. We hugged and kissed the gentle man and retreated into the bedroom to do the same to frail Sofia. She couldn’t speak but communicated to us with her eyes.
She told us she was grateful for her life, her husband, her son, and her friends, but she was ready to go. Nikolay took her hand and stroked her hair. I had just written about commitment being passé. This household reminded me how dreadfully wrong I was.
Silently, we got back into the SUV, and didn’t speak until our next stop in Missoula, Montana where we refueled on dinner, wine, and an impromptu whiskey bar.
After spending a night in Missoula we headed east just in time for an Elk Chili dinner at my cousins’, Maggie and Deke’s home. Deke had successfully overcome a very scary brain surgery in June. Now both he and Maggie celebrated life as if each day was Christmas; life was too fleeting to take for granted. Celebrating in Montana meant skiing, hiking and hunting. In fact, Deke had hunted the chili bound Elk himself earlier in the Fall.
“I hope you are back to eating meat again,” Maggie said seasoning the simmering pot.
“Yup. As long as it’s Montanan.” I had been ridiculed last year for not only eying red meat suspiciously, but also using the term ‘female cow.’ (For those of the non-ranching type, the word ‘cow’ actually means female; a bull is male.)
My aunt and uncle, Candy and Dan, were also there hoping that of all these things we brought, ginger cookies were present. If there wasn’t, we were told we could turn swiftly back around. Lucky for us, we had plenty, in return were still allowed to come over for Christmas dinner the next day.
Filled with beans and meat (a scary road trip combination) we headed to Granny’s house in downtown Billings. We entered the large drafty house with hugs and goodies. Granny, whose favorite line was once “Get fat and sassy” was no longer the former. With her illness she had lost about thirty pounds. However, she had plenty of the latter characteristics and insisted that we all do what we knew best, play cards. Granny had been suffering from dementia for years but her mind was alive when spades and hearts came out. We promptly put on Christmas music for the game. The tune “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ came on. “Hey turn that off!” shouted Granny, again proving that she still had her wits about her. We hastily did as told and dealt the cards silently. Granny may have forgotten what game we were playing but still managed to win most hands. Although I learned how to play poker before I could walk, I was having trouble keeping up with her.
“Weren’t you just in Vegas?” Granny asked me.
“Umm…yes,” I meekly said not sure if I was more embarrassed by my life of sin or the fact I was losing to a woman that often forgot what day of the week it was.
“Well, how they hell did they let you in there?” she grinned and then pointed to the back pantry. “Go get some whisky! All this California has made you soft!”
I am not sure if California had made me soft but city living had made me rather comfortable living in a sea of anonymity. Not only did we refuse to get to know the strangers around us, we were also too afraid to rely on people we did know. Perhaps after Christmas I would make more of an effort to get to know those around me and build stronger ties. However, that can wait a few days. My other cousin Lauren’s flight had just landed, and we had a whole plate of cookies, a case of wine, and bottle of whiskey to polish off. The late night Christmas Eve activities were best left to a very non-anonymous type of family.