Almond extract, not vanilla. It was a simple swap my mother always used when baking cookies and one I came to enjoy. Typically, the difference is fairly small and the taste just a bit more unique.
As a child, I learned the hard way that those extracts do not taste as good as they smell. Feeling intoxicated by the smell of vanilla and the excitement of the moment, I popped the teaspoon into my mouth without thought. My stomach seized up instantly and I doubled over. The teaspoon fell from my mouth and left a sticky, tan spot on the cheap linoleum. My mother stood by and laughed. I learned my lesson. But I never stopped baking with extract.
The house seemed remarkably empty without my mother. She always knew how to fill up a space, especially with noise. We had our differences, but we were all each other had and we figured out how to make it work.
The coldest winter on record had yet to begin and I was already feeling it. Another holiday season was upon me and this one, I would be going through alone. My mother was six feet under in a cemetery across town. She had been there long enough for grass to grow over her grave and for the ground to level. It was me who put her there. I selected the plot and stood by, in a black dress and pointy high heels, during the graveside service. It had been the heat of summer and sweat poured down my cheeks, smudging my makeup. Yes, I was the one who put her there, but I was not the reason why she needed to be. That blame lay with someone else entirely.
It was during the heat of the summer when I last saw her alive. When anyone last saw her alive. It was an unremarkable day. Humid, sticky, and hot. A completely normal, sleepy summer day. I do not know how she managed it, but my mother always took walks during the heat of the day. Brisk walks with a Poland Spring bottle held firmly in one hand and a house key in the other. The risk of heat stroke was moderate to high that day, but that had no affect on her.
No, what took her life was our neighbor. A careless, cruel man. A man who routinely had neighbors over for barbeques in the summer and who picked up neighbors’ mail when they were away. On the surface, he did not seem cruel or careless, but he was. He managed to hit my mother and kill her in a residential neighborhood in broad daylight. His inattention led to him jumping the curb and striking my mother only a few blocks from our house. I fought for charges to be pressed, but all that stuck to him was a few hours of community service. He completed his hours with a smile. Meanwhile, I had to look at my mother’s blood stain every time I returned home for weeks.
I felt it was high time to make my own peace with the situation.
Nathaniel Brooks lived at 359 Front Drive. A widower, he had lived there longer than I had. His yard was well-kept. After he lost his wife to cancer, he put all of his energy into the house and yard. But loss and a fastidious nature do not make a good man.
He accepted my invitation graciously. He pulled me into a tight hug and expressed, again, his sorrow and regret. I accepted his words with a forced smile plastered on my face.
I decorated my property with a vigor I typically did not feel for the holidays. The lights covered the bushes, the nativity was set out in the yard. Inside, I hunted down all of my mother’s Christmas CDs and set them next to the CD player. Then, my baking began.
I carefully measured out each ingredient, using a knife to remove the excess flour from each scoop. The smells were intoxicating. The sprinkles I used were red and green. I created a mix of those two colors for the cookies that could be had by all. The pure green sprinkles I saved solely for the cookies designated for Nathaniel. I wanted to make sure each person received what was rightfully theirs.
The shared cookies I placed on platters throughout the living room and kitchen. How festive it all looked! And the house was still full of the smells of joy.
Miriam was the first of the neighbor’s to arrive. In true Miriam fashion, she had on a sexy Mrs. Klaus costume and brought with her an obnoxious number of miniature loaves of cranberry bread, undoubtedly a bit well-done on the bottom. Next was the Robertson family. Elena and Kenneth were accompanied by Lucia, their nineteen-year-old who was newly home from college. They brought a yule log cake that Lucia had iced herself. Within half an hour, all of the neighbors had arrived, but one.
The unknowing guest of honor, Nathaniel Brooks, was last to arrive. His cookies were off to the side, away from the platters the others were already sampling from. Each guest had their own Tupperware that was being filled with the cookies the others and I made.
Sexy Mrs. Klaus clasped my hand in hers and told me how thankful she was that I initiated this holiday event, this cookie exchange despite the difficulties of the year. I smiled and told her that soon it would all be behind all of us.
As I made my way around the room I ensured Nathaniel Brooks was taking the cookies with the green sugar. I watched contentedly as he popped on after the other into his mouth. He closed his eyes in the delight of tasting the cookies I crafted just for him. After a swallow, he beckoned me to come over. With eyes shimmering with delight he asked for the recipe. I told him I would make sure he did not leave without it. Then, I took a step back and waited for my secret ingredient to make itself known.