Our family is not stringent. We do not cling fervently to any sort of tradition, and at this point, with divorced parents and three adult children, we have come to trust and accept each other, to find our way back together in whichever state, city, or house we might be calling "home" at the time. Between my parents, my younger brother and sister, and myself, we are five drastically different people held together by humor and perseverance.
When my parents divorced, there were few traditions we felt we needed to cling to, few customs or recipes that were integral to our dynamic as a family when we were growing up. Since their split, holidays have been relaxed between my parents, who are civil to one another, and thankfully not possessive over we three kids, belongings, or family recipes.
Looking at our family from the outside, there wasn’t too much wrong, except perhaps some curiosity as to why we moved houses so often, constantly changing schools, neighborhoods, states. And by proxy, we were always changing kitchens, company, and dishes. There was always food on the table and a roof over our heads, but no consistency of a singular dish; there was an underlying chaos that was more honest than the offering of a roast or a steak and mash dinner.
But for Christmas, my mother began a ritual that became familiar and comforting. Even during years when I wasn’t home, in another country or too sick to make the trip back, the sound and scents of her Christmas ritual would visit me one way or another. Even now, wherever I am, when Christmas comes around, the music of Handel’s Messiah must be played at some point, and with it comes the aroma, either tangible or in memory, of baking sugar cookies.
It was Martha Stewart’s recipe, the answer to the question my mom was asked about her cooking. Resourceful, my mother had turned to the classic American matriarch of the home kitchen to do something that had not been taught to her, but was an instinct to integrate into her Christmas routine.
Her mother, from what I can tell, was not a baker. My maternal grandparents were part of the Central Intelligence Agency and then the Foreign Service during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. A large portion of my mom’s childhood was spent in southeast Asia during and after the Vietnam War. Helicopters and bulletproof car windows were facts of life for her, and I can’t imagine it was a time when domestic tips and sugar cookies were shared across diplomatic dining room tables.
It’s hard to tell now that she was brought up in such strident fashion, with bombs deployed in the distance. Everything about her now is warm, present, and nurturing. She always had been so, making the effort to have the relaxed household and hands-on interaction with her kids that she didn’t have herself.
There was another sort of chaos in our various homes, though, the chaos that had been cause for us to pick up and try to start over fresh somewhere new every other year. My father’s childhood in Louisiana had been a different sort of chaotic state, and one that was brought into and mismanaged through my own childhood homes, eventually passed on to me. Addiction is said to touch as many as two-thirds of American homes. It touched all of ours. Yet it is still stigmatized and hard to talk about. Certainly it was the case when I was growing up.
The tension caused much fighting and discord between me and my siblings. My mom was often caught playing referee and intervening in hair pulling, scratching, rough housing, and sometimes full-fledged fist fights. Between this discord, the school involvement, and the non-profit work she took on, she was shell-shocked and exhausted, particularly with the eventual full weight of the household and education expenses as my father’s illness progressed and his mental state deteriorated.
It was not the chaos of the Vietnam War when she was seven, or the largest American military base in Thailand when she was 12 that was most difficult, but her own battle, one that she was equipped to fight with patience, love, and a Martha Stewart cookbook, which we kids had scribbled on and stained.
What I now know is that there is no set course to follow when a spouse unwinds as my father did. I’ve spent the last few years in recovery from my own addiction, and I see the small miracles associated with anything reliable. The nature of the illness, like a personal war, is unpredictable, volatile, and chaotic, leaking into the lives of all surrounding it. It is a miracle that in the midst of this, someone would be so tender and considerate as to stop and put on music to bake cookies with her kids. That she remained graceful and calm as possible, even when they left fingerprints in the dough and stole raw chunks by the handful as it chilled, was an oasis in the chaos. My mom is reliable, and so is her Martha Stewart cookbook with the recipe for sugar cookies, best accompanied by Handel’s Messiah.
Virginia Rand is a writer and actress living in Los Angeles. She has grown up and resided in a wide array of places, including Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Virginia, the United Kingdom, and New York City. She attended New York Univeristy for her B.A. and is undertaking an M.F.A. in Creative Writing remotely via NYU. She can be found at https://virginiaginny.com/ and https://www.whataclevername.com/.
Iced Sugar Cookies
(adapted from Martha Stewart)
4 c. sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 c. sugar
1 large eggs
2 t. pure vanilla extract or lemon juice and zest
In a large bowl, sift flour, salt, and baking powder.
In electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
Beat in eggs.
Add flour mixture to butter mixture, and mix on low speed until combined.
Stir in vanilla extract or lemon juice and zest.
Wrap dough in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 325 F.
On a floured surface, roll dough to 1/8 inch thick.
Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.
Place on ungreased baking sheets and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Bake for 8 - 10 minutes, or until edges just start to brown.
Cool on wire racks before icing.
Makes about 16 cookies.
1 large egg whites, or more to thin icing
2 c. sifted confectioners' sugar, or more to thicken icing
juice of 1 lemon
3 drops glycerin (optional)
liquid or paste food coloring, optional
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry.
Add sugar, lemon juice, and optional glycerin.
Beat for 1 minute more.
If icing is too thick, egg more egg white; if too thin, add more sugar.
Use liquid or paste food coloring, or leave the icing white.
Spoon the icing into a pastry bag fitted with a small round tip to decorate cookies.
Let iced cookies dry overnight.