Christmas floats out of the oven, covering the house like a fog covers the valley. The decorations are not up yet. No Christmas carols ring out from the stereo. But Christmas arrives when I open the oven and pull out the first pan of shortbread of the season.
As I turn from the oven, pan in hand, my mother is instantly with me. I can almost see her smiling up at me from her wheelchair. “Let me see,” I hear her say. I hold the pan out to her. She breathes in the smell appreciatively and nods her approval, hazel eyes sparkling, “It’s lovely, Dear; the perfect soft ivory color.”
“It’s not like yours, Mom,” I whisper quietly, setting the pan down before the tear on my cheek drops on the fresh shortbread. This year the baton has passed to me. This year mine will be the first pan of shortbread. This year my house will be the first to fill with the delicious smell of Christmas coming.
Suddenly all the memories of my mother teaching me to bake flood my mind. I am ten years old again watching eagerly as she pulls out her worn Mennonite Cookbook.
“We’ll start with a Tip Top Cake. It’s easy to make,” she says. She doesn’t say, “and always turns out well,” not wanting to diminish my success when it comes later.
We don’t have an electric mixer so she shows me how to beat the batter, explaining carefully, “We must beat the batter until it is fluffy, so count each stroke to make sure you beat it 100 times.” My small arms are tired and maybe I haven’t exactly counted each stroke but the cake is perfectly risen and delightfully browned when we pull it from the oven. She brags about my accomplishment to the family that night, a proud smile on her face. The beginning of so many years of baking with Mom.
And always there was the first shortbread. We didn’t make shortbread through the year. Shortbread was reserved for Christmas. She showed me how to pat it down in the pan so that it was firm but not hard. Sometimes we would score it with a fork to make it pretty. When we took it out of the oven we sprinkled green and red sugar over the top. Perfect! The special smell, the shiny sprinkles, Jesus’ birthday is on the way.
I turn the pages of my own Mennonite Cookbook now, looking for the recipe for Tip Top Cake. The page is spattered and well worn. Each of my three daughters has heard the story of their Grandma teaching me to bake as I helped them make their first Tip Top Cake. And every year in November we make our first pan of shortbread just like Grandma, and Christmas comes to our house. I smile, remembering the phone calls I got asking for Grandma’s recipe for shortbread the first Christmas after each one of them got married. Christmas can’t start without it.
I close the cookbook, holding it against me, a smile still hovering, but quivering a little. Sorrow mixes with joy. So many lovely memories I cherish. I look up, hoping to see Mom sitting there. “I miss you Mom,” I whisper to the empty space.
I seem to hear her whisper back, “I know you do, Dear. And I think of you often. But don’t be sad for me. This year I am celebrating with the guest of honor Himself. I just came by to smell the shortbread. As delicious as it smells, His fragrance is so lovely and His presence so very sweet, I find I don’t miss it at all.”
“All Your garments are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. Out of ivory palaces stringed instruments have made You glad.” Psalm 45:8 NASB
“Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16:11 KJV
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