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Connections

The traveling Christmas cookies

Our tin has been a presence each December through life’s ups and downs.

Gracia Lam

The smell of cookies and the music of Christmas filled the air as my 3-month-old sat in his bouncy chair on the kitchen table watching me press cookie cutters into dough. I looked out at the dark house across the street, empty as my neighbor Mary Lee cuddled her newborn at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The baby coming home would be a friend for my infant son. It was 1988.

The next day I spotted a green tin at Pier 1 — perfect to fill with cookies. Mary Lee loved the cookies I baked and decorated for every occasion; she’d once jokingly asked, “Is Veterans Day a cookie holiday?” We’d been neighbors just a few months, but we’d become fast friends.

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I packed the cookies — in the shapes of Santas, trees, stars, and wreaths and decorated with frosting and sprinkles — and trudged across the street. Two-year-old Leah picked the cookie with the most sprinkles. “With a baby born December 16, I’ll be planning John’s birthday party every year,” Mary Lee said. “I’ll never have time to bake Christmas cookies.”

“No worries,” I replied, “I’ll fill this tin with cookies for you every year.”

Day-to-day life was measured in quick phone chats interrupted by the chaos of our four kids and occasional meetings in the middle of the road to borrow and return things. Once Mary Lee left soup on my doorstep when our family was sick; another time she brought wet laundry over when her dryer broke. We shared a mommy friendship woven through long days and years that flew by. There were worries, joys, money woes, laughter, and, of course, cookies.

By 1992, the tin had made four trips across the street filled with holiday goodies. I left Connecticut and my best friend/neighbor when we moved to South Carolina, but that December UPS delivered a box to our new house. Inside was the familiar green tin filled with small toys for my sons and a scarf for me. I reminded my boys, Calvin and Craig, that we’d bake and decorate enough holiday cookies to fill the tin and mail it back to Mary Lee’s family in Connecticut. A few years later, the tin found us relocated in Boston. By now my sons knew the routine — as we baked and decorated, we talked about our old friends.

The tin has been a presence each December through life’s ups and downs. There was December 2000, shortly after I discovered my husband was gay. My holiday plans were in a shambles. I was desperate to maintain some normalcy at home, and the arrival of the tin that year kept me grounded to a tradition that outlasted my marriage.

Seasons and years passed. Our four children — Mary Lee’s Leah and John, and my two sons — became teenagers. It was more than a decade since they’d seen one another, yet they felt connected through stories Mary Lee and I each told them when the tin arrived. We were neighbors and became friends at a magical time when our children were little, but we’ve long since moved to different places in many ways.

We’ve changed jobs, hairstyles, and houses. I’ve changed husbands; we’ve each had another son. We’ve struggled with and celebrated the changes that come with children, aging parents, health issues, college decisions, and finances. Our youngest sons barely know their moms’ long-distance friends, but they know all about the cookie tin, a bit faded and dented these days. This December I filled it for the 25th time.

I’m not sure that our friendship would have endured without the holiday cookie tin. It became the tradition that kept our friendship on track through the seasons of life.

Laura Long is a writer in Needham. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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