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On nostalgia, Christmas
and visits from ghosts
On the years when my grandparents didn’t come from Saskatchewan for Christmas, we’d receive a big box in the mail. It was well wrapped with brown bags from the Co-op, and lots of packing tape. Inside were slippers and tea towels crochet by grandma. When we were still playing with Barbies she’d make gowns for our dolls with thin crochet cotton. But really what we all looked forward to was the baking. She made these cookies that were like a sugar cookie dipped in chocolate with a maraschino cherry inside, oatmeal cookies, fruit cake (which none of us ate), butter tarts, Nanaimo bars, and most importantly shortbread.
About 12 years ago I asked my grandma to write down all her recipes for me, and thankfully she included the shortbread, which was actually my great grandma’s (Lily). Many of the recipes in the book are accompanied by a story, this is the one that goes with the shortbread:
Last night I made a batch of Lily’s shortbread. The kitchen was full of that sweet, salty smell of warm butter and toasting flour. I rolled out the dough over and over again, cutting cookies, laying them on the baking sheets and repeating over and over until there was a small ball of dough left for my uncooked-dough-loving husband to snack on. I’ve made these shortbread cookies almost every years since I was given the recipe book. I’ve made them for co-workers, for ex-boyfriends. I’ve made them with my step-kids, and my husband, but this year, I felt like Lily was in the kitchen with me.
For the past few months I’ve been wading through family history, Prairie history, and history of the settlement of Canada. Lily (above) and Royston came to Canada with their two young kids in 1926. In a recording made in the 70s, Lily talked about how she thought she could just “pop to the shops” for eggs, bread, or butter. Instead, she had to teach herself with much trial and error how to make butter. In Lorri Neilsen Glenn’s beautiful book Following the River: Traces of Red River Women, she writes “Molecular scientists suggest our trans-genetic memories survive generations.” There are many pictures of me standing on a chair backing with my grandma, I remember my mom handing me one of the beaters from the hand mixer to lick, but largely I taught myself to cook and bake. Or at least, that’s what I’ve thought.
I’ve written about how cooking and baking is a way of conjuring my grandma (who’s still alive, 99 years-old living with my parents), but with my thoughts being drawn to Lily as I research her family, her journey to the Prairies and settlement, I can’t help but believe I’m being visited by a ghost of the past as I make shortbread for the holidays. Do my hands hold her wisdom when it comes to kneading bread and rolling out her shortbread? I didn’t think we had a lot of holiday traditions, it turns out I was wrong. For over a century, women in my family have been sharing love with their friends and family through sweets and big meals, and I am no exception.
** The pictures included in this bit of writing are from my family’s collection and includes a photo of my great grandma Lily.
Last winter I bought a copy of Sue Goyette’s Solstice 2020: An Archive. The book is a collection of prose poems she wrote in the days leading up to the solstice. Like a version of an advent calendar, I’ve been reading a poem a day as we inch towards December 21st and the return of the light. As I read the poems, I pick a line from the piece of the day to use as a prompt for some writing. I’m sharing this with you today. The line I’ve selected for us from the poem for December 15th is:
“Waxing towards full, it’s trying hard to loosen the structure of things or to remind us to be rivers.”
Set a timer for 3 minutes and write without editing, without paying attention to wear your thoughts are taking your writing.
What I'm reading: I’m doing something unusual, at least it’s unusual for me. I’m reading two books at once! I never do this, but right now I’m listening to the audio book for Annie and the Wolves by Andromeda Romano-Lax, and I just started reading Remnants by Céline Huyghebaert, translated by Aleshia Jensen. I find that having an audiobook to listen to is useful for me as I cook and knit. Plus, who doesn’t love having someone read them a story!
What’s next on the reading list: This is going to be a mix of reading for business and pleasure. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family in Victoria and will be filling by bag with books. Some of the titles I’m packing include: Real Estate by Deborah Levy, Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Decolonizing Journalism: A Guide to Reporting Indigenous Communities by Duncan McCue.
What I'm watching: Like many other TV lovers, I recently finished season 2 of White Lotus (WHAT AN ENDING!?) For what I’m currently watching, I’m into season two of Slow Horses which is a great crime drama starring Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas.
What I'm cooking: As you likely gathered, last night I made shortbread. It will just be my parents, grandma, and I for Christmas dinner, so I’m planning on doing a leek and dried fruit stuffed turkey breast, and I think I’m going to make this chocolate pecan pie for dessert.