“Remember that story we read once, about the woman who cut the ends off her hams?”
My mother wipes her hands on the dish towel that she has slung over her left shoulder. She nods. “She did it because she had seen her mother do it. Turns out her mother had seen her mother do it – and all because she didn’t own a pan big enough to put a whole ham in.”
“I wonder,” I say, “how many people do things without knowing why.”
“Just about everyone,” she says, smiling.
There is a long period of comfortable silence in which cookies are decorated, spread out neatly on a deconstructed brown paper bag.
“You know your Uncle Sonny?”
Uncle Sonny is my father’s oldest brother, career military, a hardened, wizened man, a bit of sinew and bone far tougher than his 70-some years would imply.
“Yeah,” I say.
“He leaves his cheese out.”
I look at her, have an internal debate with myself on how many different ways I can mess with that sentence.
I decide against it.
“He leaves his cheese out,” I repeat.
She rolls a Russian Teacake in powdered sugar. “He likes it to develop a hard crust on it,” she says to the cookie.
“I kinda like the crust myself,” I say.
Now she’s the one to look at me funny.
“I do!” I say. “There’s something homey about it.”
“Homey,” she repeats. She looks at me funny. “They were really poor, you know, growing up. Really poor. Right on the railroad tracks, ice box, everything.”
“Limited room in an ice box,” I say, “So they left the cheese out.”
She nods. “And it formed a crust –“
“—as a cheese is wont to do.”
She nods again. “A cheese will do that every time.”
“We hang on to our childhoods long after we become adults,” I say, staring at the rows of Christmas cookies.
She reaches across the paper bag, hands me a warm cookie. “If we’re lucky,” she says.