It’s a Christmas ritual that is the closest thing to childbirth: Making 10 restaurant-size trays of elaborate Greek holiday cookies while juggling a full-time job, being a mother of children under the age of 10, and absolutely everything else in between.
You do it, it feels horrible, you swear you’ll never do it again.
And then you do it again.
So many of us have rituals at this time of year. They involve remembering people who are no longer with us. For me, that ritual consists of many pounds of butter, cups of olive oil, honey, and three words, 13 syllables, that are as hard to pronounce as they are to pull off:
Kourabiethes, Baklava, Melomakarona.
No. 1 is butter cookies kneaded with chopped toasted almonds and coated top to bottom in confectioners sugar. (Pronounced koo-rahb-YETH-es.)
This one requires I can’t tell you how many pounds of room-temperature-softened butter. Nor can I tell you how hard it is to hand-chop the pan-toasted almonds without a food processor.
No. 2 is buttered sheets of filo dough layered with a mix of chopped walnuts, sugar, freshly ground cinnamon, and lemon rind. (Bahk-lah-VA.)
No. 3 is honey-soaked cookies made from extra-virgin olive oil and topped with walnuts. (meh-loh-mah-KAH-roh-nah.)
My mother died when I was only a few years out of college. Gone before I could cook alongside her for more than a few minutes as a woman. Now I insist on making her Greek cookies the old-fashioned way. For my boys.
My mom used to make these cookies — and more — when my sisters and I were kids. I would sit at the kitchen table and watch as she used only a few wooden spoons, a hand chopper, and a handheld Sunbeam Mixmaster. She didn’t seem to break a sweat. She had learned to make all of these difficult delights as a girl in a southern Greek village that, when she immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, had no electricity and only well water.
Of course, in retrospect, my mother was breaking a sweat. But what kid truly understands how hard it is to be a mom day in and day out?
I use the same prehistoric tools she used because I have to. Because it brings her back into my kitchen as I remember her. Because it humbles me to experience what her own motherhood must have felt like.
My sons, of course, see things a bit differently.
Says the older one: “Cause it’s fun!”
Says his sidekick: “Cause they taste good!”
Before anything begins, there is propaganda.
I ask the boys, now that we’ve been doing this for a few years, why it’s important to them.
“Do you know who used to make these when I was little?” I ask.
“Your mom,” says the 5-year-old.
“That’s right," I say. "Do you remember my mom’s name?”
“No,” he says.
“Panagiota,” I say.
He repeats: “Pah-nah-YO-tuh.”
High five. We move on.
Then we begin a race against time and exhaustion.
This year, there was even less time than the no time that usually exists, thanks to the late-in-November Black Friday and — did I mention? — the full-time job. And the husband working weekends. And the older boy getting sick with a high fever on what should have been Big Baking Day Number One. And Christmas shopping and cooking and laundry and — oh, I’m sorry — does this NOT sound like a Hallmark card?
All the treats had to be baked, soaked in honey or coated in sugar, removed from their trays and gingerly placed into cupcake cups by NO LATER THAN LAST THURSDAY so they could be given as thank-you gifts to all the teachers who do so much for the boys all year long.
So, of course, one night last week turned into this disaster:
I came home from work. All my pre-dawn and post-dusk efforts had thus far yielded only butter cookies. I ordered my husband to get dinner from Wendy’s. He and the boys munched at the kitchen table while I stood at the counter and filled two bowls, separately, with dry and wet ingredients.
I counted out loud through 11 cups of flour. Freshly ground cloves, orange juice, eggs, etc.
Then the baking soda. One, two, three, four, five, six teaspoons. Plop.
Into the wrong bowl. OH MY GOD THE BAKING SODA is sinking into the eggs. OH MY GOD ALL THAT EXPENSIVE VIRGIN OLIVE OIL is ruined. And so are these cookies. THIS DOES NOT FEEL CHRISTMASY.
The sound that came out of my mouth was that of a wild animal speared by a hunter’s bow. The boys turned from their chicken nuggets as I threw my head back in despair.
“That’s OK, Mommy,” said the older one. “At least this year you didn’t make a big mistake early, like you did last year. That means you’re getting better!”
This is the ritual. It isn’t a Hallmark card because life isn’t a Hallmark card, even at Christmas. Life is family, it is love, it is struggle, it is sweetness. And it produces the memories that live on long after we are gone.