39: Sweet Balls of Dough

39: Sweet Balls of Dough

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Amazing Mom

Sweet Balls of Dough

If baking is any labor at all, it’s a labor of love. A love that gets passed from generation to generation.

~Regina Brett

My mom taught me many things while I was growing up—certainly, among them, the basic art of cooking. Most would agree it is a survival skill—we have to eat. But watching Mom all those years slicing and spicing, broiling and braising, blending and baking, I realized cooking was more than a survival task for my mother.

My mother loved to bake, especially her traditional Italian cookies. Whether it was for a birthday party, a holiday gathering, a club meeting, or a new neighbor, Mom would don her red flowered apron and start rolling dozens and dozens of sweet balls of dough. And that custom continued well into Mom’s nineties.

I lived about an hour away, but I visited my mother often, especially when she turned ninety. Even though my brother and I had felt it was time for Mom to move in with one of us, or switch to an assisted-living residence, she wouldn’t hear of it. She said assisted living was for old people. And as matriarch of an extended family living nearby, she insisted on staying in her own home. My brother and I acquiesced, but we strategically scheduled many family members and friends to stop by when we couldn’t be there.

I remember one of my visits as if it were yesterday. Mom was ninety-six years old, and she had insisted on baking cookies for her great-grandson’s birthday party. I had offered to make them for her, but she dismissed the thought. Even though she had advanced arthritis in her knees and couldn’t stand for long periods of time, she wouldn’t entertain the idea that she couldn’t bake anymore. Mom was proud of her signature batch of sweetness decorated with confectionary sugar frosting and rainbow sprinkles. And she wanted to contribute to the birthday party’s menu, just like she always had.

Mom had decided to bake first thing the following morning. I had suggested she wait until I arrived that next day, but she said she would be fine. So when I went grocery shopping, I made sure Mom had all the basic ingredients for her morning undertaking. I placed them on the kitchen counter, except for the milk and eggs, and gathered her yellow ceramic bowl, measuring spoons and cups, cookie pans, cooling racks, and her favorite mixing spoon. And since it had been a handful of months since Mom had made her cookies, I decided to write the recipe out again. The original was pretty worn and stained, and I wasn’t sure she would still remember all the ingredients and measurements. Before I left for home, I set the oven temperature to 350 degrees. All she had to do was turn it on in the morning after she mixed and rolled.

When I arrived the next morning, a sweet scent filled the rooms. I walked down the hallway to the living room, through the dining room, and into the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the table with ice packs on her knees, a regular after-breakfast ritual. And her cookies were cooling in rows on wire racks. She had accomplished quite a lot that morning, and it was only nine o’clock.

However, Mom wasn’t happy. She told me the cookies didn’t rise like they were supposed to, and they tasted awful—her exact words.

I blamed myself for not insisting that we bake them together, but I had never talked to my mom as if she was a child, and I wasn’t going to start then. When she couldn’t golf anymore at the age of ninety, she had adjusted. When Mom couldn’t drive anymore at the age of ninety-three, she had adjusted to that as well. But to not be able to bake her cookies anymore? The disappointment on her face made it quite clear that Mom felt defeated, as if she had lost her purpose at the age of ninety-six.

I looked at the cookies. They did appear flatter than usual, but still presentable. Mom had always been the master baker and definitive taste tester, and she was right again. The cookies tasted awful. I assumed she had probably left out some ingredients. Maybe she didn’t read the recipe correctly. She told me she had used up the rest of the bottle of vanilla, but that confused me. The recipe only called for 11/2 teaspoons.

After drinking her coffee, Mom slowly went upstairs to get dressed. While she was bathing, I washed and dried her dishes and utensils, and hung the rewritten recipe on the refrigerator for easier access. Then something caught my eye. The recipe called for 11/2 teaspoons of vanilla. But it also listed three teaspoons of vanilla further down the list.

No wonder Mom used up all of the vanilla. And no wonder her cookies didn’t rise much. The list should have read three teaspoons of baking powder, not more vanilla.

In my haste to get back on the highway to avoid commuter traffic heading north the day before, I had made a mistake writing out the recipe. I couldn’t wait to tell Mom, although I felt like a kid again, confessing to a misdemeanor.

When Mom came back downstairs, she asked me what I was laughing about, and I told her. At first, she couldn’t believe it. She sat down at the kitchen table. “It was you?” She paused. “Not me?”

I nodded as Mom’s eyes widened, and her smile returned. It was as if she had won the lottery that day. She decided right then and there to bake a fresh batch of cookies that afternoon. I quickly corrected the mistake on the recipe and dashed out to buy another bottle of vanilla. After lunch, I sat and watched Mom in all her glory don her red flowered apron, just like she always did.

I find myself each and every day doing things like my mother. Why not? She was my first teacher, passing on what she had learned from her own mother and grandmother. And she taught me well—not only about cooking, but also about caring and sharing. When Mom passed away less than a year later, I took down her yellow ceramic bowl, now in my kitchen cupboard, and made dozens and dozens of sweet balls of dough. The wake wouldn’t have felt like a family gathering without Mom’s Italian cookies.

~Elaine D’Alessandro

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