Every holiday season for about ten years now, I've baked cookies. I'm not sure how this particular tradition got started, but I can roughly date it back to the first December I spent with Glenn, the man who became my husband. We'd been dating for a while, and I decided I wanted to impress him by making my mother's secret recipe for chocolate-chip cookies. It worked. After we got married, I adored doing simple domestic things, and baking topped the list. Before long, because of my enthusiasm, the cookies became my responsibility for the Christmas family gathering at my parents' house each year.
When Maggie arrived, baking was a good excuse to foist the baby on Glenn and get some time alone. As she got older, Maggie was recruited to help me bake, and the activity quickly transformed from sacred alone time to precious mother-daughter time.
Lucy was born in late November 1998. That holiday season, with a 3-year-old and a newborn, I remember cursing the obligation to bake. No one was forcing me, but the ritual was ingrained. So I made the cookies, hating the extra work yet noticing that a tradition had crept up on me when I wasn't looking. I vowed never to skip a year.
But I did skip the year 2000. After a short but devastating illness, Glenn died in early November, three weeks before Lucy turned 2. I barely noticed the holidays that December and certainly didn't feel guilty about skipping the baking. In fact, I didn't feel much of anything. It was a season of numb.
The next year, I vowed to make that season better than the previous one for my girls and for myself. My determined grasping for normalcy led me back into the kitchen, Maggie and Lucy at my side. I heard myself telling the girls how much their dad loved these cookies, that they shared his sweet tooth, how he'd hover in the kitchen doorway waiting for the first batch to cool. Maggie swears she can remember all this. Lucy can't possibly, but if I keep telling her the stories, maybe she'll spin the memories in her head, and they'll be just as real as Maggie's.
That year, 2001, we brought a tin of cookies, still hot, to the fire station on our block in Brooklyn. This was only a few months after 9/11, of course, and the kids and I understood the particular grief of loss so close to the holidays. The firemen seemed grateful, and the kids suggested we bring cookies every year. And we have, adding another emotional ingredient to the recipe of our tradition. Hopefully, the bits of our lives we throw into the mix from now on will be happy -- and all our future memories will be sweet. But even if they're not, we'll know there's always a new batch, or year, that could turn out better.
Valerie Frankel, a mom of two, is a contributing editor to Parenting.