The Holidays are now bearing down on us with all the speed of a jetliner. My husband recently scaled back his Christmas cookie projections, which in years past have been pretty ambitious. This year he’s going with what he considers to be the three essentials: chocolate chip (from the Fannie Farmer cookbook), Spice Cookies (the recipe for which, if the family lore is to be believed, dates back more than three centuries on his mother’s side), and linzer cookies (clipped from a magazine 30 years ago).
The recipes are easy to reference, as they’ve been framed and occupy a place of relative prominence in our dining room. They were glued decades ago onto a sheet of typing paper (you can still see the watermark on the back if you take the time to remove the page from its frame), along with a recipe for biscotti and another for smoking bishop. Smoking bishop, or just “Bishop” or “The Bish” if you’re talking to Andrew or his brother, is a traditional holiday punch. Their recipe is (again according to the family lore) the same one prepared in the household of Charles Dickens.
It’s an acquired taste.
The frame is part of a set. Next to it is its fraternal twin, which completes the list of his favorite family dishes. The recipes for crumb pie and spaghetti and meatballs were both typed on a typewriter, and not a particularly pricey one from the looks of them. The latter is stained with drops of ancient tomato sauce. I like to wonder whether his Italian great-grandmother prepared the recipe for her husband (a mason) and their four children every few weeks, or whether it’s something his mom picked up decades ago from a friend or magazine and threw into the family cookbook.
“I’ll ask the next time I talk to her,” he’s told me on the occasions I’ve asked. So far I haven’t seen much progress on that front.
The recipe for vegetarian meatballs is scribbled on a page from an old spiral-bound notepad, the small ones that would fit in your pocket. It was given to Andrew’s father by a patient of his on hearing that his willful, headstrong son had decided to stop eating meat, a six year old’s act of defiance that lasted for nearly twenty. The other two, recipes for blueberry muffins and colonial seed cake, were clipped from a newspaper, the off-white of the newsprint turned brown from age.
Now the recipes have all been transferred to a Word document, which is both infinitely safer (with copies living on his hard drive and floating around somewhere in the cloud) and less romantic. Looking at the document they seem less a part of living history than just black words on a cold, white background.
“I could change the font if you’d like,” he answered wryly when I remarked on its appearance.
I look at the things Andrew’s mother is slowly passing down to her children and grandchildren as she ages—recipes, Nana’s china and silver, family birth certificates more than 160 years old—and wonder what I’ll be handing down to ours. The birth certificates measure thirteen-by-sixteen inches, were printed on a press and later hand painted, whether by a professional or a talented son or daughter I don’t know. Mine and his are both photocopied and notarized, boring looking forms filled out by a doctor in a hurry, his or her signature illegible.
I’ve started putting together a list of the things, the little pieces of me and Andrew, that I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to see. I can guarantee there won’t be china—for tableware, moving into our house is tantamount to a death sentence. Birth certificate-wise we both come up short, and the recipes, while no less tasty, if printed would have all the charm of a driver’s manual.
At the top of my list—the things that I hope show our family in its best, most truthful light—are the treasures I’ve had printed up since I started at Pear Tree. We have invitations to parties we’ve thrown, Holiday cards, birth announcements…
Maybe nothing can ever recapture the charm and simple splendor of the heirlooms we’ve been handed down. At least, not for us. But I look at some of what we’ve put together at Pear Tree—my son’s birth announcement, last year’s holiday card (the year I was pregnant and Andrew was almost killed in a car accident), the invitation to my brother’s bachelor party—and they’re beautiful. They say as much about us as anything Andrew’s mother has handed down says of his ancestors.
I wonder if some day, a hundred years from now, a little girl my daughter’s age will look up at a frame on her family’s dining room wall and ask her mom or dad, “What are those?”
Her mother or father will pick her up and point at a few of our cards that have been lovingly cared for and passed down.
“That’s your great-grandma and that’s your great-grandpa,” my imaginary grandchild will tell her, pointing to each of us in turn. “Let me tell you about them.”