My mother stayed up baking most nights before the holidays. We were only a family of four and didn’t need to lay in twenty dozen cookies, but as she panicked about a lot of the stuff in her life — paying the bills, whether she wanted to stay married to my father — she followed a sort of self-prescribed homeopathic cure that called for her to treat stress by adding stressors. The equilibrium she sought took the shape of hundreds of cookies layered between sheets of wax paper, carefully frozen in white Tupperware blocks for the coming of Christmas. A fortress of cookies: thumbprints rolled in chopped walnuts and dented to hold a dab of jam, acres of little green trees from the cookie press, apricot squares, brownie bites.
She exhausted herself with these labors, and she didn’t seem happy doing them. She was satisfied afterward, though, and proud, feeling like she had met some intractable standard demanded of her. Look how triumphantly she could rise to the occasion as a model homemaker! And, of course, we, the family, loved cookie season, munching our way through unholy amounts of sugar, all the way to New Year’s Day.
We, the family, had an expiration date. It always felt like the four of us were on a journey to the end of something, even when I was too young to understand the what or the why. Though the final collapse of my parents’ marriage came when I was a teenager and my brother was away at college, it had always felt that, as a family, we had been given to hold one of those cartoon bombs shaped like a giant cherry, the fuse lacerating our arms with sparks as we passed it around. It was our bomb, though — to hide, to cradle, to not speak about — somehow making us all the more a family as it promised our undoing.
The years were held in place by my mother’s kitchen rituals, unbending and hard, her hair shirt, her incredible inner will made outer for us to behold. We could only stand back and applaud as the baking sheets came out of the oven, one after the other, her stay against the failure of the home.
In a strange way, her strategy worked. I love the holidays. It’s not that my memories of the season are sentimentally idealized, but when I remember the tension in the house and my mother’s headaches and balled-up tissues, the dark bitter of her sadness is always laced with the scent of baking sugar. Her determined gifts. And my father’s gifts as well: four steps up the ladder to string the next 6 feet of lights, four steps down to move the ladder along the perimeter of the house, four steps back up to string the next 6 feet. All so I could come around the corner at dusk on my bicycle to see a house crowned in glowing color, and go to bed with those colors filtering through my bedroom window, magical and temporary.
I have always baked for my family when the holidays are coming. Not for a solid month, and not in a dozen varieties, as if entering the advanced competition. But enough sugar cookies to feel indulgent. And for dinner, pies with crust rolled thin the way my mother taught me and her mother taught her. The rituals have meant something to my kids, first as children, now as men coming home with their own loved ones.
When the holidays came to my house growing up, my mother felt they were daring her to prove our happiness. She’d look into herself and not feel it. So, she’d set herself the task, a little grimly, of creating it out of nothing, cracking it open, whisking it to a froth, beating it together with what was formerly inert, then heating up the oven coils until they glowed red hot and warmed the entire kitchen.
Suzanne Matson teaches at Boston College. Her latest novel is Ultraviolet. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. TELL YOUR STORY. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.