My first photo album contains a pockmarked old picture of my mother baking Christmas sugar cookies. The dimpling is the result of the photo being ironed into the album at too high a temperature, but it’s still easy to make out the subject. My mother stands in the red-tiled kitchen of her first home with my father in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. She is wearing a red top and grasps a cookie sheet with a red potholder. I recognize her signature shade of vermilion lipstick, which she used to paint onto her lips with a tiny brush. Against the backdrop of these shades of red, her pale face glows ethereally. She smiles broadly as she leans forward to place a freshly baked cookie from the sheet onto a platter of others. Closer inspection of her shirt reveals that it’s maternity wear, which provides a further explanation of the glow and also dates the photo to December 1956. At age 31 she is pregnant with her first child, my brother Bill, due three months later. She had had two prior miscarriages in the previous two years, so making it through her second trimester around Christmastime would have had special significance.
The picture has been in my album for as long as I can remember, although I’m not sure how it came into my possession. In blue pen and a very young hand I had scrawled the label “mom” right onto the photo, above her head with an arrow pointing down, as if to affirm her place at the threshold of motherhood. Or perhaps my younger self recognized something amiss with the subject and attempted to reclaim it. For until recently I hadn’t noticed that the picture is actually staged. My mother’s outstretched right hand is hovering over the cookie platter in a delicate pincer hold, but is not actually touching any of the cookies. She is also moving the cookies straight from the sheet to the platter. Every self-respecting baker— including me, who learned directly from her — knows that most sugar cookies would first have to cool on a rack before being plated. Although my father is most certainly the photographer, the reason for the posed shot is long forgotten. He may have taken it for one of several local newspaper articles on homemaking my mother appeared in occasionally over the years. Or perhaps my parents desired an ideal snapshot, a memento of life before the chaos of raising children changed everything for good.
Similar shades of pretense had marked our Thanksgiving holiday in 1975, as my mother hid her cancer diagnosis and instead curated an illusion of health for the extended family coming for dinner. My brother Martin remembers that we had moved the trundle from Bill’s bedroom into the dining room so she would have a place to rest during the extensive preparations for the meal. Martin recalls testing the bed out himself, and our mother jokingly chiding him for lying on it. Of course, all traces of the trundle vanished back upstairs on Thanksgiving Day itself, and the ruse of the healthy, carefree hostess prevailed for the entire celebration. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, however, my mother’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. She could no longer hide her discomfort. She spent most of the day on the couch, too weak to get up without help from one of us. Despite the marked deterioration in her mobility, my parents continued to withhold explanations, at least to their youngest children. Older siblings Bill and Ellen knew that the radiation treatment of a few months earlier had failed. From internet research I know that the unchecked secondary cancer had begun spreading from my mother’s lower back to her spine, disabling one by one the motor neurons that controlled the muscles of her lower limbs. In a month or so she would lose the ability to walk altogether.
In the foreground of the 1956 photograph of a happier time are some of my mother’s cookie cutters. I can just make out a gingerbread man cutout lying supine on the wooden table made by my paternal grandfather. Over the years my mother would abandon the entire cutout-Christmas-cookie enterprise; it was probably too much of a hassle once she had five kids underfoot. The cookies I remember from our Christmases were melt-in-your-mouth Russian tea cakes—a basic drop cookie— as well as store-bought Pillsbury roll cookies that we sliced cold from the refrigerator and sprinkled with Christmas-colored sugar before baking. We left a selection of them out for Santa along with a glass of green Hi-C citrus punch every Christmas Eve. Meanwhile the cookie cutters sat untouched in the back of a kitchen cabinet, an exotic set of tools from our mother’s life before Us. They eventually made their way into a colorful Carrs of Carlisle biscuit tin that my parents had given to Ellen. The square tin was decorated all over with colonial sampler motifs—a favorite of our mother’s—and on each of its sides was one verse of the ancient fortune-telling nursery rhyme about days of birth:
Monday’s child is fair of face;
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe;
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving;
Saturday’s child works hard for a living;
But the child who is born on the Sabbath day is bonny, blithe, good, and gay.”
Growing up, the verse mesmerized me, partly because, by odd coincidence, all of us kids except one was born on a Thursday. Different months and different years of course, but all Thursdays. The exception was the youngest, who was born on a Monday. I remember being envious of her positive fortune: being fair of face seemed to guarantee a happy future. I could at least be grateful that she hadn’t been born on a Sunday! In contrast, the edict of “far to go” had an ominous feel. As described in the website Famlii, “Thursday’s child is sometimes associated with children having special needs or setbacks in life. This concept of ‘far to go’ implies that children have obstacles to overcome.”
I have few memories of the obstacles we faced on Christmas 1975; my mind draws a blank on my reaction to the decline in our mother’s health. In fact, most of this last holiday as an intact family is hazy, and the rest of my brothers and sisters and even my father feel similarly. Ellen initially thought that we might not have celebrated that year, that we might not have even decorated the house or received presents. It is true that my father eventually resorted to giving checks in lieu of presents, but my memory is that this practice started two years later, after he tried for one Christmas (1976) to figure out gifts for five kids. Being the consummate engineer he approached the task in a rational way, buying five versions of the same practical items—such as cardigan sweaters and books—adjusting his choices based on the ages and predilections of each child. The next year he simply handed out checks, although we children continued to exchange gifts with him and each other on Christmas Eve.
After wracking my memory of Christmas 1975, sorting through known events several ways in order to sift out even one detail of my favorite holiday, I remembered that that year Ellen’s boyfriend John had helped us decorate our tree; he had a peculiar way of pronouncing the word ornaments that we had teased him about. So we did have a tree that year; it’s the presents we were less sure about. I contend that my mother might have stockpiled some in the months before the holiday. I could also imagine that her sister Irene helped her pick up items as she shopped for her own five children. Ellen remembered sometimes helping our mother wrap our presents, but drew a blank for that particular year. Martin provided a break-though when he remembered that 1975 was the Christmas he spent hours assembling a new air hockey table we had received. That fact immediately recalled to my mind many happy hours of air hockey tournaments we had in our basement that winter.
My younger sister remembered one other crucial detail: Bill making lasagna on Christmas Eve. She recalled that the entire house was permeated with the smell of melted cheese and that our mother was “upstairs” by then, meaning “in our parent’s bedroom.” If this detail is correct, it provides a timeline for our mother’s transition to the room she would remain in until shortly before her death. I dimly remember a period just before then, early to mid December, when she was camped out on the first floor of the house, on either the family room or living room couch. Or perhaps we had retrieved the trundle from Bill’s bedroom again and she stayed on that. At some point a decision must have been made to move her upstairs; perhaps when Bill returned from college for the holiday break and could help my father with the move.
This detail might partly explain why we don’t remember her on Christmas that year. Perhaps my mother was too sick to participate. Years earlier she would have sat with my father on the pale-gold living room couch, wearing her blue quilted bathrobe and white slippers, sipping coffee with him and exchanging satisfied smiles while the five of us rampaged through our gifts. I remember tossing thank you’s back to her over my right shoulder as I savored each gift opening. The fact that I can’t place her on the scene in 1975 might very well mean that she couldn’t come down from her bedroom. On the other hand, one might suggest that I had “repressed” the memories of that Christmas morning. According to Sigmund Freud’s dynamic concept of the unconscious, repression is a defense mechanism that allows the unconscious to protect the conscious mind from negative thoughts, feelings, and memories. Apart from the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support this theory, worse things were to happen in the coming months—things I remember vividly—so Freud’s explanation doesn’t hold. A more plausible explanation involves the phenomenon of retroactive interference. Because human memories are not stored in a linear fashion, memories that occur after an event can retroactively mix in with the earlier event, making the earlier event less accessible during recall. Since 1975 we have had stacks of Christmases in which my mother wasn’t there. As they continue to pile up, it is possible that they have obscured the memory of our last Christmas morning together. We will never know.
A few Christmases after her death, I fished her cookie cutters out from the recesses of the kitchen cabinet to attempt a gingerbread cookie recipe from her favorite cookbook. She wasn’t there to provide tips on how thin to roll out the dough or how to avoid the cutters sticking to it, but I managed ok anyway. I even remembered to cool the cookies on a rack before plating them, despite the photographic evidence otherwise. Today the cookie cutters sit in Ellen’s square biscuit tin (which she gave to me after my father sold our house, and has since become a collector’s item) on the top shelf of my kitchen cabinet. Each Christmas my kids and I use the cutters to make butter cookies, another recipe from my mother’s old cookbook. Enacting this ritual every year is a way for me to honor the part of her life that was intact and untouched by cancer, from a time before my brothers and sisters and I were born. Before any of us knew how far we had to go.
My mother in December 1956.