One of the ways I remember her is like this: walking up the jetway toward us, carrying shopping bags filled with shirt boxes of cookies. Everything about this is from another time, a time when my brothers and I were about the age my kids are now, a time when there were shirt boxes aplenty, a time when your family might meet you at the airport gate. Could you fly with 300 or 400 Christmas cookies these days? She did then — cookies she’d made all month long, all fall long, even, and frozen until the holiday. We’d hug her, and she’d smell powerfully of sugar.
Inside those shirt boxes were cocoa-dusted sugar balls, a no-bake, hand-rolled cookie made principally from crushed Nilla Wafers and walnuts and melted chocolate and orange juice — then left to “ripen.” Lillian’s cookies, which were (and are) a featherweight butter cookie dusted with red or green sugar. Also, cream wafers, a tiny, deeply fussy sandwich cookie with raw-yolk icing — red and green for those Christmases of my childhood, and light blue for the groom’s cake at my wedding 20 years later.
She had a pinkish-mauve traveling coat. Crushed velvet, black piping. She had tan shoes. She was my Aunt Nancy, my A.N., though she was really my great-aunt, my father’s mother’s sister. She was from Binghamton, New York. She lived alone. She came to Christmas every year.
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They’re called GMCs, short for Grandmother Cookies. A.N.’s mother, my great-grandmother GG (I’m not sure what’s up with the initialing on this branch of the family tree), started making cookies as Christmas gifts in the 1950s: space-age no-bakes from the back of the cereal box, traditional recipes clipped from newspapers and magazines and flour bags, favorites passed on from friends at church. There are date cookies, cardamom cookies, chocolate rumdums, and stag’s antlers. There are Moravian spice crisps and apricot jewels. There are cookies soaked in crème de menthe and cookies soaked in crème de noyau. (Head into your local ABC Store and ask for the noyau and see how far you get.) Several recipes call for shortening or oleo or even Fluffo. The strudel recipe calls for the dough to be rolled out on a floured towel until you can see the towel’s pattern through the dough.
My dad remembers boxes of cookies arriving from GG all through his childhood. Later, when he deployed to Vietnam, A.N. and GG shipped a box of cookies to Long Binh. He usually got choked up when he told us this story, which was often. He also spearheaded the making of the recipe book after A.N.’s death — in her will, she left specific instructions for the layout, the binding, the order of the recipes from her files, even the weight of the paper. My dad and his brother have one; all the grandnephews and -nieces do, too. Mine lives in a place where I can see it all year long.
Another way I remember A.N.: the year she arrived having broken her wrist, carrying no cookies at all. She brought the recipes, some handwritten. I was 11. She taught me to bake (or not to bake, depending). I have been making these cookies ever since.
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She called it Saran, I tell my boys, emphasizing her pronunciation. It sounded like Sarah. You wrap each dozen or so in a little Saran wrap, and you puzzle those packages into shirt box after shirt box — or, in my Greensboro neighborhood all these years later, into Tupperwares that we deliver to neighbors. I always make my favorites, Lillian’s and the cocoa balls. I’ve got notes all over the recipes: ’10: flatten by hand/use old cookie sheets/rounded ½ tsp made 90; ’16: just bash the nuts in the same bag as the Nillas! “Old cookie sheets” means the ones that were A.N.’s. They were passed down to me, along with two white glass mixing bowls and a pastry board that’s at least 70 years old — and has the buttered ghost outlines of generations of cookies on it. We lay my sons’ favorites out on that board these days, too. My not-so-little one, The Wee, loves anise moons the best (made with A.N.’s, or maybe even GG’s, moon-shaped cookie cutter); my now-middle schooler, The Toad, favors a recipe of our own that we’ve added: atomic oatmeal cookies with green and red candied cherries. They each love the lists that we make in the weeks before Christmas — pounds of butter and sugar and flour, dozens of eggs, new extracts when needed.
Two more snapshots: one of A.N. in candlelight, Christmas Eve or Christmas night or even the night of the 26th, laughing with my grandmother and grandfather as the plate of cookies went around my family’s table. Another, though, of A.N., crooking a finger in my direction, inviting me to help arrange that plate in the late afternoon, before dinner. The two of us in the cool of the carport because that many cookies would never fit in the fridge, arranging cookies on my mother’s good plate — which I now also own — and then carefully, carefully sealing them back in their Saran envelopes, though not before stealing one or two.
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