It also occurred to me that I may live long enough for her to get to know me reasonably well—I will have just turned eighty-two when she turns twenty—and that I might possibly play a role of modest but real consequence in her future life. Or not: it’s at least as likely that she will know me only as the great-uncle she met no more than once or twice and remembers vaguely if at all. She belongs to the future, not to my past.
True enough—and yet Lauren and Ryan, her parents, are taking care to ensure that Evelyn Grace will grow up with a proper regard for the past that all of us share. To that end, they have moved from Houston to a suburb of Nashville, which makes it far easier for them to spend weekends with David and Kathy, Evelyn Grace’s adoring grandparents. Indeed, the Teachouts and the Dukes spent Thanksgiving weekend together in Smalltown, U.S.A., and Kathy e-mailed me this snapshot of a domestic scene that fills me with sweet-smelling memories. In it, the Dukes and Teachouts can be seen baking Christmas cookies in the kitchen of the house where David and I grew up, and where he and I used to bake cookies with our own mother. The recipe remains unchanged, as do the cookie-cutters.
In New York City, where I’ve lived since 1985, family traditions, like family ties, are what you make of them, and I know many people who are content, or at least willing, to make nothing of them at all. Not so, however, in Smalltown, where past and present are as close as the pages of a book. It happens that I wrote such a book about my childhood, in which I made a point of mentioning the Christmas cookies that Evelyn, my mother, baked every winter:
Not long after Thanksgiving, my mother would spend the better part of a Saturday afternoon making Christmas cookies and filling two round aluminum tins with dark brown squares of homemade chocolate fudge so rich that we were allowed to eat only one piece at a sitting. David and I cut the sticky cookie dough into stars and bells and silhouettes of Santa Claus and lovingly laid each piece on a greased cookie sheet. The Santa Claus cookies were special, for I took Santa Claus seriously. I left him a glass of milk and a plate of Christmas cookies before going to bed on Christmas Eve, and they were gone by sunup. When I was six years old, my family moved to 713 Hickory Drive, a house without a chimney. We had a long, tense family discussion that year about how Santa Claus would be able to get into our new house to bring us our presents. My father, a true man of the world, calmed me down by explaining that Santa Claus had a master key that unlocked the front door of every house on earth.
It means the world to me that the Teachouts are still making Christmas cookies at 713 Hickory Drive, and even though Evelyn Teachout didn’t live long enough to meet Evelyn Grace Dukes, her namesake, I like to think she knew deep in her generous heart that her recipe for them would live on long after she died, just as her name was passed on to the great-granddaughter she dreamed of but never knew.
As for me, I still have a key to the front door of 713 Hickory, and one of these days I’ll pop by on Thanksgiving and cut a few cookies of my own. That’s part of what close families are for: they pass on old recipes from generation to generation, including the one for abiding love.
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George Strait sings “Christmas Cookies”: