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This Christmas Baking Tradition Became an Answered Prayer

Her grandmother no longer recognized her and she prayed that God would awaken her spirit during the holidays.

Jeffra A. Nicholson. Photo credit: Matthew Gilson
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My beloved grandmother, Nanny, has been gone now for 50 years, but she lives on in my heart. And never more so than at Christmastime, when we took part in a cherished tradition I was afraid we’d almost lost.

I was a senior in college that Christmas Day I visited her in the nursing home where she’d been living for three years. Her mind and body were failing her.

How I missed the warmth of her house, the overstuffed armchair I grew into over the years, the smells of each room, especially her kitchen at Christmastime, when we baked batches and batches of snickerdoodle cookies for neighbors, friends and family. That had all stopped when Nanny could no longer manage on her own, and it felt like the end of so much more than a simple Christmas tradition.

Today I wondered if Nanny would even know who I was. On the drive to the nursing home I’d prayed that God might awaken her spirit, just briefly, so I could see some spark of recognition in her eyes. I’d brought a plate of fresh-baked snickerdoodles, hoping the cookies would somehow prompt a memory.

We sat together in the visiting area, our silence awkward. I extended the plate.

“Have one, Nanny,” I said. She hesitated, appearing puzzled, then took a cookie, held it for a moment and took a bite. She put the cookie back on the plate.

“Good?” I asked. She nodded, but her expression remained blank.

I showed her some photos. There was one of me as a little girl sitting in her lap in the big armchair, a shot from a family reunion when I was older, another of us each holding a plate piled high with snickerdoodles at Christmas. One by one, I handed them to Nanny.

Nanny set the pictures on the little table between us. She didn’t understand. I took her hand in mine, and she smiled. Maybe her smile is miracle enough.

I stared at the plate of cookies and felt a rush of memories. No matter what day of the week December 18 fell on, Nanny and I went shopping for cookie-baking ingredients. The first Saturday after that, I ran to her house early. She met me at the door and wrapped me in a hug. Then, as if following a script, she gave me my apron and put her hands on her hips.

“Shall we bake cookies today?”

Her words sent a shiver of excitement through me. Standing as tall as I could, I sang out, “Absolutely!”

Nanny measured the ingredients and cracked the eggs. I stirred the bowl until my arms ached. We lined cookie sheets with parchment paper and rolled out the dough. We used Nanny’s cookie cutters to make stars and snowflakes, bells, Christmas trees and angels—and slid the full pans into the oven to bake. Meanwhile, Nanny set out colored icing and piping tips. I took charge of the sprinkles.

An intoxicating aroma filled the kitchen. The cookies came out to cool, and we talked and giggled like conspirators. Nanny told me about her childhood Christmases and how her grandmother had be-gun the cookie-baking tradition with her. In between stories, we decorated our snickerdoodles and divided them up for delivery. Friends and neighbors expected our “Merry Christmas!” at their doors.

Now Nanny and I sat in the visiting area in silence, the sweet aroma of fresh-baked cookies replaced by the smell of institutional food. “Let’s take a walk outside in the sun,” I said.

Nanny nodded absently, and I slipped on her coat. We walked the grounds a bit and sat in the gazebo near a pond. The daylight brought a glow to her wrinkled features. Nanny had yet to speak a word.

“How’s school?” she suddenly asked.

I was stunned. Every detail I could think of poured out of me. Courses I was taking, friends I’d made, even the guy I was dating…. I kept talking, not wanting to lose her, hoping God’s answer to my prayer could go on and on. Nanny listened until I finally paused to take a breath. Her eyes met mine, a look of quiet determination on her face, as if she was forcing something from her mind.

“Shall we bake cookies today?” she said, her voice clear and strong. I gasped and kissed her on her cheek. Then I stood, straightening up, hands on my hips. “Absolutely,” I said.

That Christmas visit was the last time my grandmother was able to speak to me or even recognize me. But to this day, on December 18, I gather the ingredients for a tradition that links generations and fills me with joy and awe, and the love of Nanny that will never die.

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