A Little Lighter on the Path

For Christmas, my mother sent me the photograph, professionally framed. It took me a second– no more– to realize the effort of it, the sweetness, the singular ray that stretched from my path to hers. There is a light I’ve been awkwardly dismissing between us– I was too skittish. On Christmas morning, I gave in.

It began with my Aunt Tammy’s death. After over two years of silence, my mother called me. But it wasn’t complete. I was grateful, of course– it was my only request since I’d pulled the plug in her kitchen, crying in a huddled mess, begging her and my father to see me– to just call me every once and while. They declined. Until August of 2021, when bad news opened the line. I was suspicious of the circumstances, and asked to work slowly. I thanked her for the call. I agreed to move forward. She agreed, too.

Since then, it’s been a delicate walk– a smattering of phone calls, but mostly we text. Or we email. Or, occasionally, we send a note in the mail. I don’t dread seeing her name pop up on my phone, anymore, and I count it as a win.

The thing about it is, I became my own mother in the last few years. So what I thought I needed from her, I no longer need. What I thought I needed was for her to be someone she isn’t– someone more like me. But she’s not that. Except.

Except sometimes, I think, in her quieter moments.

Like last summer, when she sent me a photo she captured in the woods. She had lately taken up morning hikes in the thick hills of Western Pennsylvania, walking the trails on the family’s 80 acres of blackberry brambles and huckleberry shrubs, messy pines and straightbacked beeches, of fox dens hidden at the edge of the clearing and a bear cave piled high with heavy, mossy rocks on the top of the hill. These are the woods where my childhood imagination conjured evil spirits by the old oil well that still popped in the evenings and ancient secrets whispered from the stream where I built my fort. I clomped and ran and hid most weekends in those mountains, chewing on birch bark and squeezing teaberries between my fingers and teeth for the radiating warmth and mild sweetness.

The photo she sent, taken herself on that morning, flooded me with home.

I imagined her walking alone in those woods, duck boots crashing through the light leafy debris of the path, and looking up to see the sunlight coming through the trees in honest-to-god rays. Rays like in cartoons or those funny, primitive pictures a kid would draw, with triangles long and thin casting out from the light white circle of the sun, the trees achingly still sides of a prism shaping those strange, geometric light swatches to the ground. I imagine her to stop then, taking a breath before grabbing her phone, slowly at first, as though a movement could knock the light right out of the sky, but then more quickly as she remembers the inevitability of the Western PA skies clouding this perfect moment in mere seconds. When she snaps that picture of her solitude, I imagine her feeling close to someone– to god, to her dad– not recognizing the beacon is herself, shining back.

But whoever she was thinking of, she sent it to me. Maybe she shared it with everyone in her church group, and maybe that doesn’t matter. Because she did share it with me, too. I wrote back with enthusiasm. It wasn’t feigned– it’s such a lovely photo. I thought, we are the same, Mom. We are so alone and together and the same.

Since then, our phone calls have dwindled, but our connection has not. Maybe I’m a fool to see it that way. Broken down to its specifics, this relationship looks not so different than before our split. Texts, emails, and empty invites to see one another someday, down the road, when things calm down a bit.

This December, leading up to Christmas, I chose to see the light on the path. My first real home, and I was ready to shed the heartache of the homes I’d been captured in before. But I could not deny the direct line of cookies from my mother’s oven to my heart. I asked her for her recipes– all of them, every Christmas cookie I could remember from my childhood.

Western Pennsylvania is known for its cookies, and not just at Christmas time. At weddings, in addition to cake, there is an entire cookie table set up for friends and family members to bring their best recipe and drop a platter. At the end of the reception, boxes are handed out to every guest, and they take a haul home of their favorites– lady locks, filled Pizzelles, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Thumbprints, Snickerdoodles, Oatmeal Raisin, Chocolate Chip, Italian Peach Cookies, Cannoli. But at Christmas, it was a full time job. My mother would designate two weeks ahead of Christmas to bake, nearly 9-5, inviting friends over to make batches of their favorites, swapping by the dozen at the end of the day. Pizzelles, Russian Tea Cakes, Caramel Tassies, Gingerbread, Peanut Butter, Ginger Snaps, Sugar Cookies, White Chocolate Macadamia, Buckeyes. The recipes would be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, and then cooled down the center of our small kitchen table, occasionally overflowing to the table in the dining room, too. Then, the frumpy old tupperware would be brought up from the basement and, after they cooled, the cookies would be lidded with their respective kind and placed on the back porch. Winter in Western PA was cold enough then to sustain them– should they not get eaten sooner– til almost February. When we had guests, one of the kids was instructed with a large plate to go on to the porch and make a full sampler platter of cookies, bringing them in an hour before so they had time to thaw by the time the guests arrived.

They tasted just as good cold, before they ever hit the plate.

Since the photo my mother had sent me early in the year had split open my home reservations, I wanted to welcome a piece of it into my own home. She sent the recipes in batches, and I baked as I received them.

“I am bonding with my mom,” I told my Someone. “But she doesn’t know it.”

“Sounds good to me,” he said, sneaking his fourth Caramel Tassie from the plate.

And I was. I was welcoming her into my kitchen, into my home, each time I pulled a new sheet from the oven. I texted her photos, or emailed her with questions like “But how much sugar in the Pizzelles? It doesn’t say,” or “Are you sure it’s regular sugar and not powdered sugar for that icing?” I navigated her vague recipes, crawling inside her head to figure out proper measurements.

I told my Someone that maybe it was unfair to do it this way– to create a connection with someone through cookies, not letting her interject the reality of herself into my attempts at becoming closer. I was, clearly, sugarcoating our relationship.

But I have a hard time believing that’s true. Maybe the elements are the same, I cannot deny the way our efforts cut through– the geometric rays that are nearly tangible in their light. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind– a trick of the light– but the path this way is much easier because of it. It’s hard won. I haven’t thoughtlessly foregone my boundaries or changed my mind or given up. It’s quite the opposite. I’ve opened wide to a new friend who, somehow, while we seem nothing alike, are deeply connected by a sharp shard of light that casts its way on both of our paths. Maybe that’s what forgiveness looks like. Or love. Or acceptance. I only know it, now, as lightness.

On Christmas morning, with the taste of my mother’s Gingersnaps and coffee still on my tongue, I opened the photograph, professionally framed. Yes, I knew for certain. Things have definitely changed. I can see it. I can taste it.

5 comments

  1. I have a favorite cake. It’s Date Nut Cake (or bread). When my Someone bakes one and give it to me, I dole it out to myself in very small portions to make it last longer. It’s that good. My mother made it for me as a child and now my Someone makes it for me. I treasure it.

    Reading your stories, especially this one, is like eating my Date Nut Cake. I don’t want it to end. This story is particularly delicious, full of amazing textures and little crunchy bits, and I didn’t want it to end.

    You’re gifted and I appreciate your sharing your gifts.

    I don’t have mom’s original recipe, but my someone found one that does the trick and trips all the memory switches. I’ll send it to you as an email attachment.

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