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My mother lives three blocks away from me. Her house is filled with artwork. There is a statue of Moses and the Ten commandments on her piano, she has a ceramic dreidel collection in the living room and her Sabbath candlesticks sit on a high shelf in her dining room. Naturally, this December I decided it would be a good idea to bring my newborn to my mothers house and spread some interfaith cheer by attempting to make Christmas cookies while my mother was in New York at the theatre. My plan was simple: I would leave a plate for her when she got home. I was making Christmas tree, reindeer and candy cane shaped sugar cookies.
Why didnâ€™t I bake them at my own house? Well, my mother has more space, more bowls, more dishes and I thought it would be a nice adventure for my newborn daughter. â€śWeâ€™re going to Grandmaâ€™s house to bake Christmas cookies!â€ť I told the baby who promptly drooled and went to sleep.
Mistake #1: My mother does not have a crib in her house but she does have a playpen, which I thought would have been sufficient to put the baby in for a nap. Newborns sleep a lot and so I thought I would just put a sheet on the bottom of the playpen and my sweet little girl could nap and I could make my dough and have a cup of tea and maybe read a book. Hahahaha, WRONG!
Hereâ€™s a play by play of what REALLY happens when you try to make cookie dough with a newborn: The babyâ€™s diaper is dirty and she needs a change. Once thatâ€™s done sheâ€™s hungry. Feeding takes about 10 minutes. Then (miraculously) she doesnâ€™t want to sleep so she coos and plays for almost an hour. Then she is over stimulated and starts to cry. I walk the baby around in my arms for 10 minutes and she starts to fall asleep. Finally I put the baby down in the playpen. She startles, cries, but then she somehow manages to fall asleep.
I run at top speed to the kitchen and start throwing flour, sugar, eggs, baking soda, butter and vanilla into a bowl. The second I start kneading the dough the baby starts crying. My hands are covered in dough. I canâ€™t turn the water on to wash. The baby is screaming. I try to get my elbows to the faucet to turn the water on and the front of my shirt falls in the sink and gets drenched in a bowl of milk that was left in there from earlier that day. Now I have dough on my hands, milk on my shirt and a screaming baby who hates the playpen idea.
When I finally get cleaned up and refrigerate my cookie dough I run to the baby. Another diaper change! Also, the baby is looking at me like I must have been insane to put her in such an uncomfortable contraption. After the diaper change she falls asleep on me for two hours. I have to sit still so she can sleep and all I can think about is how Iâ€™m going to roll the dough when itâ€™s ready. She wakes up and yet another diaper change, then another feeding.
Mistake #2: Christmas cookies usually take about 40 minutes and as a new mother I thought that it would be a simple task. WRONG! Forty minutes in new mommy time translates to six to eight hours.
I decide to hold the baby while making the cookies. I face the baby forward in my left arm so she can see everything Iâ€™m doing. I also decide maybe I should put some bowls in the dishwasher so I have more room on the counter to roll the dough. While attempting to move the bag of flour it slips from my hand, rips open and covers the baby and me in white powder. My daughter looks like a mini Charlie Chaplin without the mustache. I just look crazy.
Mistake #3: If you think you are going to make exact Christmas shapes in the dough while holding your newborn, think again. Rolling the dough with one hand is hard enough but putting the cookie cutters in the dough and then trying to lift out the shapes is near impossible. The reindeer come out looking like pugs with mohawks. The candy cane shapes look like sad broken worms and the Christmas trees look like women wearing housecoats. In other words, I have basically made my Christmas trees look like me and all the other Jewish women in my neighborhood.
My newborn tires of my cookie cut outs quickly. She cries and I hear myself say â€śJust one more batch of disfigured reindeer! Just one more!â€ť She cries louder. She needs another diaper change, or sheâ€™s hungry, or sheâ€™s tired or she just wants to go home.
By the time we get cleaned up and ready to go I leave a plate of cookies for my mother. We get back to our house and wait for Adrian a.k.a. Papi to get home! When he arrives he asks why Iâ€™m covered in flour. I had a chance to change the baby but was too tired to change myself. I tell him it was a long day. He takes the baby. At midnight he tells me he thinks the baby has a rash on her stomach. I panic. I lift up her onesie to have a look. Right next to her belly button I see the rash. But, itâ€™s not a rash at all; right there on her little belly is a sandy crystal smear of white DominoÂ sugar.
I may have been the only one who knew what those Christmas cookies were supposed to look like but Adrian was so happy that I put in the effort. We even put a plate out on Christmas day when all of his brothers came over to celebrate with us and the baby. Upon seeing the cracked and somewhat disheveled cookies, his brothers reached politely for a taste and Adrian said with a smile, “Anna made them for us!” Next year I’ll make sure to bake in our own home and find a time when Adrian is home to hold the baby while I bake.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that I didnâ€™t know yet what I would do for Yom Kippur. In the end, the Books of Life and Death helped me answer that question.Â Just before Yom Kippur, a beloved relative inÂ my husbandâ€™s family passed away after a brief illness. On Erev Yom Kippur, we found ourselves driving the short distance from the Chicago suburbs to the Milwaukee suburbs for the funeral and interment ceremony of Benâ€™s great-aunt Elaine.
Elaine, already in her eighties, became ill a few weeks ago with a blood disorder. Doctors told her that she had two to four weeks to live. Just days before Rosh Hashanah when the DaysÂ of Awe would begin, sealing all lives in the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the years to come, phones across the country rang as Benâ€™s family shared this sad news.
Elaine and her sister Pauline had hosted Benâ€™s and my rehearsal dinner: As always, Elaine baked cookies and desserts by the hundreds, bringing them on the plane to the celebration. Her sister Pauline, always the artist, made delightful tissue-paper flower decorations for the rehearsal dinner tables, decorations that still brighten our home more than ten years later.
My in-laws purchased emergency plane tickets and visited Elaine in her hospitalÂ room. With over a week remaining until she eventually passed away, she talked vigorously, offered advice and stories, and, knowing the end was near, ate chocolate of every variety at nearly every meal.
Although I could not know for sure, to me it seemed that Elaine had done what so few of us have the courage or opportunity to attempt: She had chosen that this would be theÂ end of her life. She rejected invasive, intrusive treatments that might cure a body that was already into its eighties, and a mind which must have missed the presence of her husband Al, who passed just over two-and-a-half years ago.
I did not know Elaine very well, although I often felt I knew her through her baking, her generosity and warmth, and the stories I’ve heard through the years. My encounters with her were always studded with humor, welcome, compassion and joy. Before I first met Elaine, my future mother-in-law (herself a convert to Judaism) told me that Elaine “taught [her] how to be Jewish.â€ť Living in the same city, Elaine welcomed Karen lovingly as a new member of the family and of the Jewish people.
This effusive welcome greeted me the first time I met Elaine, who enfolded me in a bear hugÂ before passing the plate of Hanukkah cookies, insisting I eat some. Elaine always broughtÂ desserts to funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and any other gatherings at which food offered welcome in ways thatÂ went beyond words. I remember especially her mandelbrot and her crescent cookies dusted with powdered sugar, and my surprise when I learned that she received “her” cheesecake recipe from my mother-in-law!
Elaine’sÂ funeral service at herÂ synagogue was filled with the sounds of tears and occasional laughter as her sister, daughter and son offered eulogies. Already set up for High Holiday services, the chapel had been closed off from the large hall outside, where chairs already stood in rows waiting for that eveningâ€™s Kol Nidre service.
At the graveside interment, friends and relatives carried her plain wooden casket with a Jewish star engraved on top to the open grave on a beautiful, warm-but-not-hot fall day. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees, and the sky glowed that bright blue that only happens when the darker days of fall hover just around the corner. After a prayer and the Kaddish, everyone present helped to shovel soil back into the grave until the hole was filled and Elaine lay at rest next to her husband. I couldnâ€™t help but feel that Elaine would be happy to be near him again.
â€śAshes to ashes, dust to dust,â€ť I thought to myself, searching for words to describe the symmetry, and finding I could only use those which were most familiar.
As the stunning blue sky of the day before Yom Kippur waned toward the darkness of night, Ben and I drove home, our thoughts on the year that had just passed and the one just starting. He hummed Leonard Cohenâ€™s â€śWho By Fire,â€ť aÂ folk song inspired by the High Holiday liturgy. Itâ€™s a powerful song even after the DaysÂ of Awe have closed and when a beloved person hasnâ€™t, herself, chosen â€śby brave assentâ€ť that this could be her time.
If Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, of making amends for the sins of the past year, I feel that all of us who knew Elaine received a special blessing over these last few weeks. As she lay in the hospital and then in hospice, holding tenaciously onto life even as it slipped from her grasp, she found time to make peace, again, for the hundredth time, with every one who came to visit. For each person, she offered a final message, shared one more story, and once again made the people in her life feel welcome. I was not there in her final moments, but I am comforted by the hope that she found atonement (or â€śat-one-mentâ€ť as Iâ€™ve heard it be called) with her life as she had lived it, a life which was, by all accounts, beautifully lived.
Rest in peace, Elaine. May your memory be always for a blessing, and may those whose lives you touched be inscribed this year in the Book of Life.