About the Author
Ann Pearlman, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Nominee, is the author of Infidelity: A Memoir, The Christmas Cookie Club, and The Christmas Cookie Cookbook. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Christmas Cookie Club 1
Pecan Butter Balls
2 cups pecans
2 cups flour
1 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Chop the pecans in a blender or food processor until you have two cups. Combine all of the ingredients except confectioners’ sugar. Gather the dough into a ball. With floured hands, shape into one-inch balls and bake on ungreased cookie sheets. I line my cookie sheets with wax paper or parchment paper and spray them with Pam. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes. Pull the cookies and papers off the cookie sheet and onto a cooling rack and let them cool slightly; be sure they’re still warm and then gently shake them in a bag with the confectioners’ sugar. Place them back on the paper and add more confectioners’ sugar while they cool. Makes 5 dozen
MY DREAM FLUTTERS AWAY as I open my eyes. I stretch my arm out for Jim, but he is gone. Outside, the snow falls in tight crystals, almost like fog. Disney sits laughing beside my bed, his tongue lolling and his tail thumping the carpet. Today is a big and busy day and I had better start it. Reluctantly, I leave the remnants of the dream in the still warm bed and slide on my lavender fleece bathrobe, let Disney out, pour last night’s coffee in a cup, and zap it in the microwave. I hug myself for warmth as Disney disappears behind the garage.
I didn’t cut back the perennials and now snow clumps in the hollows. Should have mowed the lawn one last time. The microwave dings and I grab the coffee and continue staring absentmindedly out the window. Seven A.M. Only four in San Diego. I wonder if Sky is awake. She’s supposed to get her results today ... sometime this afternoon, her time. During the Christmas cookie party.
Disney bounds from behind the garage, black ears flopping, and sits at the sliding glass door. He runs in when I open it and shakes off the snow. “You doing a good job bringing in winter?” I ask him.
He wags his tail.
“Good boy.” He has simple answers to all my questions.
I sip my coffee and scan the kitchen and dining room. The cookie party forces me to get decorated for Christmas. Mini bulbs are strung on the tree outside. Chili pepper lights surround my kitchen window. Yesterday I trimmed my tree with the crocheted and macramé ornaments I used to sell at the town’s art fair in my hippie days. A few wrapped presents and my collection of teddy bears cluster around the base. The one that Alex bought Sky for her first birthday lost an eye twenty years ago and Sky knitted him a lopsided red sweater when she was ten. A Steiff teddy I bought when I was in Germany with Stephen holds his arms open waiting for a hug. Tara’s teddy bear sits in her perfection with a pink dress and a tiara. Pretty but unloved. I plug the tree lights in and it looks like Christmas.
After I turn up the thermostat, I make my bed, straighten the room, and slide on some jeans and a red T-shirt. Then I tie on my cookie bitch apron, the one Allie made with the stenciled cookie rules.
At first, the pecans clattering around in the Cuisinart sound angry until the nuts are sufficiently broken. This year, Sky and Tara will get an extra dozen of the pecan balls so the recipe is multiplied by three. I put the butter, a pound and a half of it, in a glass container and turn on the microwave. My mother’s KitchenAid mixer is on the counter. I add in the measures of flour, sugar, vanilla, and salt. The microwave dings and I pour in the melted butter and turn on the mixer. While it stirs, I pull out cookie sheets and reach in the drawer for parchment paper. Then I scrape down the batter into the depths of the bowl and this batch is done. I turn my iPod to my rock playlist and Tina Turner wonders what’s love got to do with it. Everything, I tell her. But I remember my dream and wonder if I had it because I love Jim or simply because I just want to recapture our great sex. Maybe both. I don’t really like that I’ve fallen so in love with him.
Flour feathers my hands as they roll the balls and I dote on the methodical, rhythmical work. My hands place the morsels in rows of four across the top edge of the sheet. Three dozen on each sheet. The simplicity and beauty of the math and the routine reminds me of women spinning yarn with a drop spindle, kneading dough, harvesting berries, beading shoes, weaving, or grinding corn. I am connected to those ancient women, and to women around the world, as all of us, each of us, make food, clothes, tools for our families, our friends, ourselves. I place one sheet in the oven and start on the next. The easy part is done. For a few minutes I return to the peaceful rolling, and place the sheet in the oven, check the timer. Five more minutes.
I cover the dining-room table with sheets of parchment paper, fill a plastic bag with confectioners’ sugar, and place potholders in the center of the table. The timer rings. I drag out a sheet and rest it on the table. The cookies are the brown of fall oak leaves; the aroma of cooked pecans fills the room. Seger sings about autumn rushing in and here it is winter. Already. How did it happen so quickly this year? I think about the revolving seasons and the motions we go through during each of them. I start rolling balls for the third sheet. And then slide the loaded parchment from the hot sheet onto the table, put the metal on the stove to cool, and gently place the balls in confectioners’ sugar.
The work must be done quickly; the cookies can’t be too cool or the confectioners’ sugar won’t soak in. Too hot and fingers get burned. The second sheet is done and I go into the kitchen to retrieve it.
The phone rings.
I jerk around to reach the receiver lying on the counter next to the empty butter container and hit my cheek on the corner of an open upper cabinet. The door bangs closed, my cheek smarts, and the sting spreads.
“You can’t sleep, huh?”
I can’t stop working, so I cradle the phone to my shoulder while my hands continue adding cookies to the sugar bag.
“Nope. Just tossing and turning. Afraid I’d wake up Troy.” Sky’s voice trembles slightly.
The cookies roll in the sugar. “I was worried about that.”
“I figured you’d be up making cookies.”
“You’re right. I just took out the first sheet. I’m shaking them in confectioners’ now.”
“Ah. Nana’s pecan balls.”
I didn’t know that Sky and Troy were trying to get pregnant that first time three years ago. After all, they were both in law school and Sky plans her life to achieve her goals. But she called to brag that they had gotten pregnant on the very first try. The way she said it, “We got pregnant on our first try,” and then giggled, it sounded almost as if they had never made love before.
I bought fabric to make my first grandchild a quilt, was carrying it into the house, when she called, crying. She had lost the baby.
“Darling. I’m so sorry.” My voice fell. “You’ll be blue for a few months.”
“That’s what the doctor said. She said we could try again in six months. This is one helluva period.” Sky sniffled and then tried to muster a laugh. “‘It’s not unusual to have a miscarriage. Especially for the first one,’ she said.”
“I’ll come be with you.”
“You don’t have to.” But her voice lilted with relief.
But then the next year she had a second miscarriage. Again she called to tell me, again I flew out to be with her. “I wish you were closer.”
When she was pregnant the third time, we held our breaths. I tried to wipe the tinge of concern from my voice when we talked. The pregnancy continued. “Maybe I should quit work,” she wondered. “But they’re monitoring this pregnancy.” By the fourth month, I breathed again. Then in the eighth month, movement stopped. An ultrasound indicated the baby had died. The best thing for a future pregnancy was to wait and deliver the baby when contractions started.
“The baby is rotting inside me.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“No, wait, wait till the labor starts. I’ll need you with me then.”
“Scared. Confused. Like me.” She sighed. “I’ll just have to get through this next month. I guess I should remake the nursery into a guest room or office or something.”
“Are you going to stop trying?” I imagined her pacing, holding the cordless phone to her ear and walking past the couch and the dining table, making a loop around the kitchen, and doing it again. It’s what she does when she’s upset. She moves.
“I don’t know if I can go through this again.”
“Plenty of time to decide that.”
“I don’t know if I can even do this.
Live for a month with a dead deformed baby inside me.”
“That’s what they said when they did the ultrasound. There’s something wrong with the baby. Probably why I’ve had those miscarriages.”
“I don’t get that. Why would something wrong with this baby account for former miscarriages?”
“It might be genetic. Troy and I may have a genetic problem.”
I hunted for magic to console her. “They’ll find out what went wrong now. Maybe they can help you. Both.”
“You want to come home?”
“No. I want to pretend everything is okay and do my life. What I have of it.”
I couldn’t argue with her bitterness.
She called as soon as labor started. I flew out to her and arrived as she was entering transition. I held her hand. Troy paced. I wiped her brow. She clenched her eyes and panted. Grunted. She gripped my hand tight. Screamed. She endured all the agony of birth without the happy end. The pain didn’t vanish with the baby’s first cry. She squeezed out tears as she squeezed out the dead infant. Blue. We saw the deformities the sonogram had hinted at. He had very short arms, a smashed-together face. Our glimpse was quick before they bundled the baby away for genetic testing and evaluation.
“At least that’s over.” She sank as though to fall through the operating table and disappear. “I didn’t think I could do it.”
“You did. And you came through like a champ.” I squeezed her hand and kissed her forehead.
“Why didn’t you warn me?” Her eyes were wide with shock, as though I had betrayed her, purposely kept important knowledge from her.
“Because you forget the pain as soon as you hold your baby.”
She sniffed. “I guess I won’t forget, then.”
Troy kissed her. “I love you so much.” Tears fell down his cheeks. “Our poor baby. You’re so brave.”
She sucked out a cry.
“Yes. Brave. Both of you.” I held up water for her to drink. The doctor stitched her episiotomy. They gave her a shot to dry up her milk.
We didn’t know what else to say. We simply cried under the blazing surgical lights, the doctor still sewing between her legs.
“We all lost the baby, didn’t we?” Sky’s gray eyes met ours, the pupils magnified by her tears.
I kissed her. “And we’re all with you, darling.”
Troy squeezed her hand and pulled away strands of hair stuck to her face with sweat.
We cried then and we cried together later on the phone when I returned home. Finally we went through a conversation without tears. And by that time Sky was pregnant again.
Now, four months along, she whispers as though she’s apologizing, “All I ever wanted is to be a mom. I mean that’s what’s most important. You know?”
I place more cookies in the confectioners’ sugar. “Yes.” She tells me this often, as though if she says it enough then it’ll happen, as though prayers are always answered.
She was the little girl who wanted baby dolls when her peers were collecting Barbies. She carried Matilda in her old Snugli, sang lullabies and slept with her. Even her Pound Puppy wore a diaper. I don’t know if it stems from a longing for our closeness before Tara was born, or from some sort of reverse jealousy or competition because of Tara’s birth. Or maybe it’s from seeing my joy at being a mother. Or simply the drives of biology and loving Troy and wanting their love personified. But being a mother is the apex of Sky’s sparky ambition. Maybe I need to accept that what is, just is.
I place the cookies in neat rows. Now six to a row. “There’s lots of ways to be a mother.”
“I just want it to be over. I want the test results. Four months of worrying has been enough. Now, other people know something crucial to my life and I just have to wait. Wish I could know first thing in the morning to start facing whatever’s next.”
“Or enjoy it, the pregnancy and the birth.” I roll additional balls in the sugar. “I’m sure she’ll call you as soon as she knows.”
Sky is quiet. My cheek hurts, I should put some ice on it, but I can’t. Not now. After we finish talking. After this batch is done.
“I hope it doesn’t ruin the cookie party.”
“Ruin it? I’ll have my friends to help me celebrate.”
She hears my glimmer of optimism as tarnished hope. “Or console you.”
“And you, too. They love you, too. You’re not alone.”
The confectioners’ sugar is soft as feathers as I place the cookies in rows. The first sheet is almost done.
There’s quiet. She stops walking. “I keep thinking, wondering why this has happened to us. So weird that Troy and I share this rare recessive gene when we’re not even in the same ethnic group.... I mean, we’re mostly German and he’s Italian.”
“They’re very close, you know?”
“I know, but the doctor said it’s like we’re brother and sister, like from the same family.”
“Maybe that’s why you two are so good together. And don’t forget, you’ve got a fifty percent chance that this one is okay. Each baby has a fifty percent chance. Maybe you’ve done the sad half and now you’ll have three normal pregnancies.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Mom. It’s fifty percent with each roll of the dice.”
I know that. I tell her pretty fairy stories with happy conclusions as though they can erase the negative edge that haunts her. “Happy endings aren’t impossible. Sometimes they actually happen,” I say. The first sheet is finished. The cookies from the second are getting cool. I have to work quickly. “You have enormous strength. Even after the last time, you’re trying again. Something inside you knows this will work out.” I sweep a handful of cookies into the sugar and roll them from side to side in the bag. “So what are you going to do today?”
“Fine.” The truth is that her little sister, Tara, is eight months pregnant, eighteen, and unmarried. The father of her baby is a black ex-convict and aspiring rap star. This summer she voiced the irony that didn’t escape any of us. Shaking her black hair chunked with blue, she’d said, “Damn, here I am in an unplanned pregnancy in what most would call a, like, insane relationship and you”—she tilted her head toward Sky—“who does everything in the supposed-to way, wants a baby so badly and ...” Her voice trailed off; her eyes met Sky’s fully. “Like they say, life ain’t fair. It’s ... what do they call it? A mockery.” Unspoken tension and competition dissipated with our laughter.
Now I say, “You never know how any of this is going to turn out. And each event is ours to interpret. You can see yourself and Troy as victims of peculiar biology, or see yourselves as even physical soul mates and this ordeal as strengthening.” I place the sugared cookies in their row. “So what are you doing toda...
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