Today's post is a personal first: my first self-published work. The following is a story I wrote for my creative writing class at Vassar. The themes of family and Christmas joy are very appropriate as we all prepare for the holiday weekend. I hope you enjoy it, and please feel free to leave comments.
I wish all of you a very joyous Noel!
Sugar and Spice
by Leanne Sowul
It was tradition: the Saturday before Christmas, the Wallaby women gathered to bake their Christmas cookies. It didn’t matter if the Saturday before Christmas was a full week before the holiday, necessitating far-flung relatives to travel twice (“Oh, stop your whining,” Granny Ellison would scoff), or if it was Christmas Eve, when they needed to begin before dawn to finish in time for the late afternoon mass. (Cousin Margaret, who was the most pious of the bunch, would rush them through the day. “Church!” she’d cry, as if God himself was clocking their baking time.) Every Wallaby woman came, from Granny Ellison down to her youngest grandchild. It was tradition, and the Wallaby women abided by it, year after year, generation after generation, until nobody but Granny Ellison and Great Aunt Marian could remember how it started.
This year, for the first time, Leah was hosting. According to the tradition, the baking party rotated from house to house around their small suburb of Jamestown, where most of the family, including matriarch Granny Ellison, still lived. Leah and her husband Paul, newlyweds (for this is how they were still referred to among the family, even two and a half years after their wedding) had recently purchased a restored 1890s farmhouse just a few blocks away from her parents’ raised ranch. At the open house, everyone had oohed and ahed over the light, airy kitchen with the large butcher block island set over refinished oak floors, surrounded by a cast of stainless steel appliances that would make an Iron Chef jealous (or so said Aunt Caroline, who idolized the Food Network chefs like her pre-teen daughter Madison idolized Justin Bieber). Hearing their reactions, Leah and her sister Jodi had exchanged glances. It was clear that Leah would be the one to host the baking party this year, and judging by the enthusiastic cries of “Double ovens, think of how many trays they’ll hold!’ and “Look at that pot rack!” it seemed possible that the tradition of moving from house to house might be abolished in future years.
And so on the Saturday before Christmas, which this year was neither Christmas Eve nor a full week before (thank goodness), Leah found herself rising earlier than even her weekday schedule required to make sure the house was clean, the coffee made, and the baking materials set out. Feeling a mixture of pleasant anticipation and unwelcome nerves, she dressed in loose black drawstring pants and a red plaid flannel button-down (the Wallabys were nothing if not practical about their baking attire, and Leah was grateful for this now). Leah left her still-slumbering husband and went to the living room to turn on the Christmas lights. She allowed herself a moment to breathe in the fresh fragrance of pine and admire the beauty of the Douglas fir against the backdrop of their new picture windows. The tiny white lights on the tree looked like stars against the half-darkness of the sky outside, while over the hills, the gleam of sunrise pink rose to match their brightness.
In the kitchen, Leah laid out mixing bowls, wooden spoons, baking sheets and cooling racks as the coffee brewed in the urn. The smell gave her a bad taste, like old milk, and she wondered at how much she’d loved the smell of coffee before, and how much she hated it now. She double-checked the stock of ingredients, dry: flour, white sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, spices; and wet: butter, canola oil, eggs, whole milk. (The Wallabys didn’t mess around with “healthier options” as was once timidly suggested by an in-law back in 2006. Christmas cookies were meant to be both fattening and delicious, and that was the way they would make them.)
Shortly past seven, Leah heard Jodi’s knock at the back French door, the “one-and-a two-and, and four” pattern that they had once made fun of their mother for using, and now used with each other as a joke. Leah mouthed “Come in!” through the glass, and Jodi stepped inside, immediately shedding her puffy jacket and wool gloves and tossing them nonchalantly on a chair, then at Leah’s look, retrieving them to hang on the hooks by the door.
“When’s the herd set to arrive?” Jodi asked, walking over to the iPod dock on the counter, pulling her pink Nano out of a pocket, and holding it up for Leah to see. “I told you I’d remember to bring music this year!” (It was the one thing Leah and Jodi had been responsible for since the age of fourteen, when their musical taste had surpassed their mother’s, but year after year, they had showed up to bake without CDs or iPods, and year after year, everyone had been disappointed.)
“Everyone should be here around eight,” Leah answered her. “Mama and Aunt Christy are bringing the bagels.”
Jodi pressed play and Nat King Cole’s baritone boomed out, shockingly loud in the serene morning air. Jodi yelped and depressed the volume, but the damage was done, and a few minutes later, Paul wandered in, rubbing his temples beneath his half-spiked hair.
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” he sang over-loudly, and the girls laughed. Paul put his arms around Leah, kissing her neck and smoothing his palms over her stomach. “I should have known it was you, disturbing the peace,” he teased Jodi, who stuck her tongue out at him, the stud she’d pierced it with in high school gleaming in the now abundant sunshine pouring in through the windows.
The “herd,” as Jodi referred to the gaggle of women, began arriving at eight o’clock sharp. Without knocking, they came in through every available door: the front door cross-beamed with reclaimed barn wood; the glass French doors off the kitchen; the garage door downstairs. They left handprints on the glass and smudges of mud on the wood floors. (Cousin Bea, the compulsive one, immediately wet a paper towel and went to work erasing the damage, though Leah told her not to worry.) They filled the house with a cacophony of female voices: high and shrill sopranos, oddly masculine tenors, a melodious alto or two. Granny Ellison’s brash cackle rose over all the rest, drowning out Jodi’s iPod, still blaring Bing Crosby and Harry Connick, Jr. Now Leah remembered why they’d never bothered with music in the past.
After a bagel and a cup of coffee apiece, they all set to work. Aunt Caroline, the keeper of the recipes, pulled out the little cards and passed them around. Her daughter Madison read out the schedule. They would mix the batters that needed to be refrigerated first: the pecan logs, the Mexican Wedding cookies, the peppermint whirls. Then they’d prepare the quicker mixes: the chocolate nut-balls, the peanut butter Hershey kiss cookies, and the oatmeal chocolate chip that was a favorite with all the husbands. In the later afternoon, they’d tackle the refrigerated dough and the cut-out cookies. That was when things really got messy, Leah knew. All those rolling pins coated with flour, arthritic fingers attempting to smooth down stubborn shortbread. It would take her the entire night to clean up the kitchen. She hoped Jodi and her mother would stay to help out; she was getting tired earlier and earlier these days.
The women hit their stride after the peppermint whirls were rolled into logs (everyone agreed they were the most perfect cylinders they’d yet made) and were safely in the fridge. Their conversation, previously focused on how many cups of sugar the recipe called for and how much time in the microwave was needed to soften the butter, now turned to the usual family topics. Caroline’s oldest daughter Jessica was in the process of adopting a baby from Korea. Everyone wanted to know what the baby looked like (Jessica had forgotten to bring the one picture; she was notoriously scatterbrained, and Leah wondered at how she had been able to keep track of all that adoption paperwork) and how much longer it would be before Jessica and her husband Sam could make the trip to Seoul.
Meanwhile, Great Aunt Marie and Cousin Sue were grilling Jodi about the celebrities and local politicians who were her clientele. Jodi worked as a freelance stylist, a venture that had once seemed risky- much too risky, if you asked the elder Wallaby women (and you didn’t have to ask; they’d tell you, just as they’d told Jodi herself nearly every day). But after the local paper printed that Jodi had dressed Amanda Seyfried for a movie on location in Buffalo, her reputation (and income) soared. Jodi now owned a stylish office with a studio apartment above. The Wallaby women had been pleased, though surprised, by Jodi’s success, but there were no apologies for their earlier doubts. It was understood by all that they had the right to speak their minds, as long as there were no “I-told-you-so’s” when they were right, and no forced eating of humble pie when they were wrong.
Leah worked by herself at the stovetop, melting chocolate with butter and mixing in confectioner’s sugar for the chocolate nut-ball topping. As she stirred, Leah listened to the rise and fall of her family’s voices amid the clatter of measuring cups and spatulas.
Aunt Christy was arguing with her mother, Granny Ellison, about Christy’s girlfriend Chloe. Granny Ellison, who had been completely unfazed at the news that Christy was gay (“You always did keep your hair too short, dear,” she had said) was now in a towering temper over Christy’s decision to take Chloe’s last name when they married next spring. Christy argued that since they didn’t plan to have children, the Wallaby name would die out in her line anyway, but Granny refused to acknowledge the point. “Chloe’s last name is Chavez! What kind of a fool name is Christy Chavez? Stupidest name I ever heard,” Granny grumbled.
Leah smiled to herself. She knew Granny would give in eventually. She loved Chloe, as they all had, ever since the baking party two years prior when she’d not only proved to be a pro with a rolling pin, but introduced them all to her Mexican Wedding cookie recipe, with the half-crunchy, half moist insides and topping of soft powdered sugar. The only reason Chloe wasn’t here today was because she volunteered at a children’s hospital, and they’d asked her to dress up as Santa Claus for their Christmas party. (“A Mexican girl playing Santa!” Granny had scoffed, but they all knew that Chloe, with her round chin and winning smile, would be perfect as the Giver of Joy and Christmas Cheer.)
Standing at the stove, Leah’s throat suddenly tightened with unshed emotion. She had a vision of her child, the one growing inside her, joining in with the baking in future years: tiptoeing on a step-stool to help her grandmother stir in chocolate chips; giggling as her Aunt Jodi made silly frosting faces on the cut-out snowmen; tugging at Leah’s apron with flour and chocolate-smeared hands, wanting to be picked up and cuddled. Of course, the baby might not be a girl (it was too early for the sonogram) but Leah had the feeling that a girl was almost inevitable, a necessary stake in the next generation. Being born into the Wallaby family (though Leah was now a Carter, on paper if not by personality) meant living under the jurisdiction of the Wallaby women, for better or for worse. It was best if the husbands and fathers understood this implicitly, as Paul now did and Leah’s father always had. (A few husbands along the way had not come to this understanding soon enough; they had eventually been either overpowered or dismissed, depending on the Wallaby wife in question.) Though this baby, along with Jessica’s child, would be the first of the new generation of Wallabys, Leah already knew their birthright would be the same as hers and Jodi’s, the same as their mother’s and Granny Ellison’s.
As if in response to these thoughts, Leah’s stomach gave a little lurch, causing a brief moment of panic while she weighed throwing down the spoon and running to the bathroom against the certain dawning comprehension of all the women in the room. No one knew about the baby yet except her and Paul. She was only seven weeks, and there had been losses in her family before; she understood, from those experiences, a small piece of a women’s pain when she needed to communicate the news that she was no longer pregnant. That understanding was enough to seal her lips and give her a superstitious feeling about speaking of the pregnancy, even with Paul.
Leah grabbed a glass and filled it with water from the tap, taking small sips and willing her stomach to stay settled. She hadn’t had much morning sickness yet, and she prayed that it would hold off until after Christmas, when she could spend the remaining few weeks of her required silence avoiding her family. She knew that only a greenish tinge, a declining of foods she once loved, a little swelling of her face would be enough to tip them off, these women who loved and protected and meddled so freely, these women who knew her so well.
As she drank, her stomach gave another, sharper lurch, and suddenly Leah’s back was pressed against the sink, bent over in a spasm of nausea- or was it pain? She couldn’t tell, and in that moment, a flash of fear, and one word- bleeding- took over all conscious thought.
Through the pain, she heard her mother’s voice from across the room, an edge of worry arcing it over the din. “Leah, are you all right?”
Every conversation stopped. The hush sounded loud in the big kitchen. Pull yourself together, Leah thought. The nausea, or pain, or whatever it was, seemed to be lessening. The worry that she was bleeding, that this was the start of something unthinkable, lowered itself to a dull hum, a valid worry, but one that felt increasingly unjustified.
She raised her head and looked around the room. Every female eye was penetrating her, every female hand was stilled, hovering over ingredients and utensils. Leah could see lights going off in heads, realization dawning as the women took in her loose shirt, her fuller cheeks. She didn’t know what to do. Should she just tell them? But no, that was too risky, she couldn’t bear telling them, not yet. Then what else was she to say?
Just then, Granny Ellison piped up. “Shortbread batter’s done,” she said, matter-of-factly.
Leah was confused- hadn’t Granny just been looking at her in that knowing way? (“I had four kids and they all had kids and I know what a pregnant lady looks like and you, dearie, are pregnant!”) She knew Granny knew. Granny always knew. Some of the women turned to Granny, though a good many pairs of eyes still rested on Leah.
“I’ve got an announcement to make,” Granny said. Now everyone was looking at her, but she was watching Leah, speaking to Leah, who held her breath.
“Cliff and I are moving,” Granny said.
For a moment, the words hung in the air, and then everyone started talking at once. “What?” “Where?” “When?” Granny held up her hands. “Just across town, to the Golden Age Retirement home. It’s about time. We can’t take care of that big house anymore, and most of our friends live there now. We’ll be more comfortable.”
The questions continued, and there was some crying, some arguing, some “What will happen to the house?” and “You’ve lived there for fifty-two years!” All attention was on Granny now, and Leah stayed by the sink, forgotten. She placed one hand on her abdomen. All seemed still. Smiling to herself, Leah turned back to the chocolate on the stove, which was now fully melted, about to burn. She was sure she’d seen Granny wink at her through the crowd. (“You owe me, dearie. Better name that little one after me.”) Sophie Wallaby Carter, Leah mused as she stirred, hoping Paul would like the name.