Every Christmas they would be waiting for me in a leftover Royal Dansk tin of butter cookies, or a tin covered in snow men and christmas trees. I’d open it to find christmas coordinated paper towels and nestled within them would be the treasure I had been searching for all winter. Sugar cookies. Glistening and sparkling like little miniature snow drifts. They were always crispy and after eating far too many and spoiling dinner completely, my mouth would be completely coated in butter and sugar. I’d crave my Aunt’s sugar cookies starting no less than a week before she’d arrive, sometimes earlier. My Aunt Lu (who was actually my Great Aunt) was a tiny woman with blue hair whose attire often reminded me of Mama on “Mama’s Family” but with a sweeter disposition. My grandmother, Vera, called her Luella.
“Is Aunt Lu bringing sugar cookies?”
I’d always ask my mother this as if for some reason she’d come and not bring them. It’d be like asking if she was going to draw the little music notes on either side of my name on my Christmas card, or asking if she stopped going to basketball games. But one year it happened. My Aunt Lu, towards the end of her life, forgot them. And I mean she really forgot them. Forgot them like they never existed.
“Where are the sugar cookies?” I asked her with a big smile on my face.
“What sugar cookies?” she replied. At first I thought she was joking though she was never one to be sarcastic. I get a lot of my talk first think second from my Aunt Lu. She’d often put my grandmother into a coma discussing the latest Redbirds game. My grandmother would be snoring so loud we could hear her from the kitchen and Aunt Lu would just keep on going as if she was wide awake.
“The sugar cookies you bring every year of course.”
“I’ve never brought sugar cookies.” My heart sank.
“Aunt Lu? You didn’t bring the sugar cookies?” my mom asked.
“I’m sorry. I just don’t remember ever making any.”
We left it at that. It was as if someone had come into our lives and plucked something away. Not long after that last Christmas with Aunt Lu she went into the hospital. She had been complaining about not feeling well. She passed away the same day like flipping a switch. She’d always been in perfect health and it took us completely by surprise. She didn’t go like my grandmother and her cancer. It was swift and shocking. There was no chance to prepare, no chance to really ready yourself for the grief to come. But surely we all thought that we could help preserve her memory when we went through her things, find the recipe and carry on the Christmas tradition.
But it was as if the recipe had become ‘The Lady Vanishes‘. What sugar cookies? Sugar cookies? I don’t know about any sugar cookies. Perhaps you’re imagining things. And despite our searching the recipe was not to be found. Over the years I’ve occasionally searched the internet looking for something that would come close. None of them worked. Too big. Too thick. Not crispy. Too chewy. No sugar topping. And even though I’m a good cook I’m not a good baker. It’s not like I could make these things up on the spot and hope they’d turn out. And so every year since then I remember the sugar cookies as best I can. I remember the butter and the sugar and the little blue tin and a little piece of my childhood comes back.
And then last week I got a text from my mom. It was a picture. A recipe.
“Might be Aunt Lu’s sugar cookies. Lou found recipe books at shed,” said the text that followed.
I replied quickly. “What? OMG it is. OMG.”
Mom wasn’t so sure these were them and to be honest neither was I. We’d been waiting ten years to taste these cookies again. We’d thought them lost and never to be found again and this was nearly too good to be true.
So the plan begun. I wrote down all the ingredients and yesterday Cathy and I went out and bought everything I would need.
“It’s the weekend. Do something other than work. Maybe write a little?” she said.
“Alright. Fine. I’m making the cookies.”
She gave me a worried look and followed me into the kitchen.
“I don’t want you to be disappointed if these aren’t them or if they aren’t as good. You’ve built these things up quite a bit.”
“I won’t be. Even if they aren’t perfect it’ll be the memories I’m after.”
She smiled and nodded and went back to working on her novel and I got to work. I lugged out the stand mixer and within ten minutes I’d made a complete disaster of the kitchen. Flour everywhere. Sugar on every surface. Cathy came out to the living room to write some notes for her story.
“I’ll clean it up. I promise.”
“I know,” she said, smiling but not looking up from her moleskine.
Moment of truth. I had the bottom of a glass sugar coated and a ball of dough on a cookie tray. Press. Roll. Press. Roll. Soon enough I had about sixteen cookies looking up at me. They looked perfect. But they looked small. I had remembered them as being these massive things in my small hands and now that my hands were large the cookies, a bit larger than a silver dollar, looked almost cute.
It was the longest ten minutes I’ve had in years. When I baked french bread last year there was definitely the same excitement but this was far more important. These were Aunt Lu’s sugar cookies. Soon the edges were golden brown, slipped onto a plate and waiting. For a moment I wished I had a tin to put them in. I’d wrap them up and then present them to myself. But I couldn’t wait.
They were perfect. They were everything I remembered and all sorts of amazing Christmas memories flooded my mind as I bit through the crisp little cookies. The butter and sugar and vanilla coating my mouth much stronger than I had even remembered but even still I knew it was right.
“Well?” my mother asked on the phone. I called her immediately. “How did they turn out.”
“Permfefrct. Themr perfmfeect.” I was still eating one.
“Are you sure this is them.”
Cathy tried them and thought they were good. She said they were delicious but I could tell it wasn’t the same for her. She’d never met Aunt Lu. She’d never met the blue-haired lady who told me the latest scores the Bulls had and how well Scottie Pippen was doing. She’d never met the lady who taught me Algebra in pre-school. The lady who encouraged me to learn and read. The lady who left me her Buick when she passed away that Cathy and I cherished for the first five years of our life together. She never met the woman who’d draw little music notes on my birthday cards, who brought me sugar cookies and put my grandmother to sleep just by talking. She never experienced that day when she forgot as people do when they got older. Their minds fill up with memories and it gets too full and other memories get pushed out. The memories just get evicted and it’s rare that they get the person gets to choose which ones they will keep. One day that memory is just gone.
But somewhere the recipe was remembered and we found it. And we won’t forget. We’ll make sure our family always has the recipe so they can remember her and remember what Christmas was to me. Christmas was sugar cookies and music notes and my grandmother snoring and basketball scores and little blue tins filled with treasure. And now a little piece of what was lost is back. Just as it should be.
AUNT LU’S SUGAR COOKIES
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup butter (cubed and softened — do not melt)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (quality stuff)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 & 1/4 cups flour (King Arthur, all purpose)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Preheat over to 350 degrees (if using a gas oven put the rack on the bottom slot).
Mix in order given. Drop by teaspoonful on non-stick cookie sheet. Here’s the tricky part. Get a large flat (Clear and flat) bottom glass and give it a quick rub of butter to get it sticky. Put a decent pile of sugar (1/2 cup?) on a plate and then coat the bottom of the glass with sugar. Tap off any excess and then press each round cookie until nice and flat (about 1/8 inch thick). Bake at 350 for 10 minutes or until lightly golden around the edges. Immediately remove from cookie sheet with spatula onto a rack/plate to cool. Makes around 50 cookies.