My two grandmothers were as different as night and day. They were alike, however, in the most important way—they were both the best grandmothers in the history of the world.
My childhood memories of baking with each of them are among my most treasured. I think about them this time of year as I make holiday plans, specifically baking plans.
Grandma Cecelia was Polish. Her kitchen was meticulously organized. Her stovetop gleamed. Grandma Cecelia liked to learn how to create new treats every year. She clipped recipes from magazines and made notes on which ones were her favorites. She took great care to make sure each dollop of cookie dough was uniform so they baked evenly. She wrapped homemade chocolate candies in delicate foil. She moved deliberately and kept the kitchen tidy. A lovely presentation was nearly as important as taste.
She supervised as I wielded a cookie press. She would nudge my hand left or right a smidge to evenly space the dough on the cookie sheet. She was exacting. But as was befitting of the best grandmother in the world, she made one thing clear. Being in my presence for our kitchen lessons was the only place she wanted to be.
Grandma Ellen was the opposite in terms of culinary style. To my Irish grandmother, if it tasted good, it was good. And if I made it, no matter what it looked like, it must be a work of staggering genius. Her kitchen cupboards were a tumble of crockery and her cookie jar was always full. If my grubby hand left a print on her window glass, she was loath to wipe it away. She encouraged me to add whatever I wanted into the mixing bowl. If my toddler whim inspired me to stand on the kitchen table, she hovered underneath to be sure I didn’t fall. Once, upon witnessing her performing the function of a toddler safety net, my parents scolded her.
“Why are you letting her stand on the table?”
“Because she wants to.” Argument over. This is classic Grandma Ellen.
My baking education came to me through both of my grandmothers.
And before I move on, please know, if you have little ones and your holiday to-do is long, you do not have to bake. Do not feel guilty if you cannot get to it. I’m the first one to order baked goods from skilled local bakers or a box of cookies from Kroger. Anything you can delegate—at the busiest time of your life, at the busiest time of the year—you should.
For twenty years, that was me. Holidays overwhelmed me when piled on top of the day-to-day responsibilities of family and career. The bar is so high for young parents. The expectation to make Christmas a Disney-level magical experience is not joyful, and rarely triumphant.
The busyness of having to do everything loosens a bit as the nest empties. This is the gift time gives us if we’re lucky. These days I work for myself, and my kids are grown-ups. I’m not a grandmother yet. (She writes, hopefully.) To some degree, I can decide the level of hustle I’m willing to bustle.
I still lean on my grandmothers for cues.
Innately I am more like my Grandma Ellen in the neatness department. Try as I might, my cookies are never uniform. I’m not artistic or skilled at delicate decorating. If it tastes good, it is good.
But the other side of the Christmas cookie coin is also important to me. Grandma Cecelia would not be rushed out of the moment. She was deliberate and calm. No frenzy accompanied her food prep. She was content and patient with the time required to cook or bake. Comfort and real joy are found in the process.
The holidays, untethered from expectations of grandeur, can be grounded in the simple pleasure of baking cookies, whether you’re an Ellen or a Cecelia in the kitchen. And if you’re a baker of a certain age, don’t lament that the kids are grown. You’re in the sweet spot of doing the things you love with those you love. The best grandmothers in the world know the recipe for warm holiday memories is ever-changing and uniquely yours.