RICHMOND — After a year of enduring the rampage of a life-changing virus, every tiny indication of “normal” gets noticed.
So, seeing a photo of the new first lady, Jill Biden, carrying cookies to National Guard members guarding Washington loomed as ordinary. Not a normal thing for first ladies, but such a common thing for so many other women. (She was quick to tell the soldiers that White House staff made the chocolate chip cookies.)
For my mother, perhaps looking for a bit of conversation, the act of delivering her nanamo squares, snowballs or Congo squares was an excuse to bake, take a drive, and be greeted with a smile and an invitation to come and sit awhile. In her lifetime, she must have made millions of cookies, including boxes mailed to us in college.
Her older sister Mary was known as the “cookie lady” in the town of Holden and once, in the middle of a failed batch, wrote me that her cookies had “misbehaved,” perhaps, she said, because her pans had been used for more than half a century. I sent her a new one, to her delight.
And one of the family’s great cookie moments was what one of Aunt Mary’s granddaughters did when asked to take part in her funeral service. Hesitant about talking, she baked a basketful of Mary’s ginger cookies and passed them around the chapel. So many of the 26 nieces and nephews, plus friends, had shown up that each cookie had to be shared at least three ways. It was a wonderful, biblical moment on a day of mourning.
At my longtime friend Peggy’s memorial service last year, held outdoors on a sunny fall day, the large crowd included members of the town road crew and landfill workers. It was mentioned that she had a habit of giving them cookies while they worked. And they remembered.
The first lady’s delivery of chocolate chip cookies also brought back memories of one of the rare occasions that my parents took us to a “nice” restaurant. We went to the Toll House in Whitman, where Toll House chocolate chip cookies had been created a few years earlier. I remember the waitress served bowls of water with rose petals before dessert, and our parents had to explain it was for washing your fingers. We were about to drink it. Cookies usually spell comfort, but there was no consoling our daughter when she arrived for Christmas one year and couldn’t find the large box of her creatively decorated holiday cookies when she unpacked her car. Tracking her actions of the morning, she suddenly recalled putting the box on the roof of her car while packing presents and luggage. The box had flown away somewhere on Interstate 87. But, every other year, she’s treated the rest of us to perfectly decorated gingerbread boys and girls, stars, snowmen, trees, candy canes and wreaths. Maybe she inherited a Hilda/Mary gene, but it’s more likely the talent came from pre-Christmas days, with a babysitter who made beautiful cookies and found baking a perfect way to fill a winter afternoon. Of course, as usual, I did look on the internet to find out where cookies were born. Some researchers think they first appeared in 7th-century Persia and were called test cakes. That meant the cook took a little of the cake batter and cooked it in a small blob to see how it tasted. They had created a cookie.
We keep trying to eliminate those electronic cookies that pile up in the computer. But, perhaps we should expand the horizons of the real thing: sweeten rancor wherever it occurs, use them as part of diplomacy, soften the edges in Congress.
It sounds absurd, but who can stay angry when the aroma of warm chocolate chip cookies wafts into the room? Perhaps it’s a way to open bigger doors than the one down the street. A little piece of normal.