Making Space

My new husband and I have been busy lately, so busy that most of my normal daily activities have fallen by the wayside—including this blog.

We’re combining two households, four home-for-the-summer college kids, a dog, and a cat. To make space we’re finishing the basement of his 1907 home. This means jackhammering the old concrete floor, digging down another eighteen inches, creating new footers, fortifying the foundation, cutting windows and window wells, pouring a new slab, framing, and all of the finishing tasks that turn a cellar into livable space.

At the same time, we’re building a cabin about two hours away in the mountains. We’ve hired a crew to do the actual building, but my husband has been swinging a hammer nearly every step of the way.

You could call us ambitious or crazy, and both would be correct given the untold minutiae that we discuss at the end of every day. “Is the water pressure good enough in the mountains to avoid putting in a pump for the required sprinkler system? Will a 63” bathtub fit in that space? Where will the electrician put the outlets now that there’s a step of concrete running along the perimeter of the new basement?”

Did I mention that while this is happening, I’m readying my house for sale? Um, yes.

I can hardly keep up with grocery shopping, laundry, and pulling a few weeds in both yards. My exercise is sporadic and I don’t see my husband (let alone friends) nearly enough.

We know we’re incredibly fortunate to be able to do these things. These are big dreams we’ve shared for many years. But goodness we’re tired. We’re also disconnected from ourselves and each other lately. Last weekend, I’d had enough.

I wanted to burn our to-do lists and inflate our bicycle tires.

My sweet husband took it one step further and arranged a picnic for us. We took off with our food, huffing up a hill that is not normally so difficult. We arrived at a grassy park and unfolded our blankets under a tree. After a simple dinner, we lay on the blanket under the sky. And it was—every minute, every bit of food, every word of conversation, every color of the sunset—exactly what we needed.

We relaxed into each other’s presence.

For the past year, nearly all of our energy and time has been spent working toward aspirational projects. And while we’re excited about our future, we haven’t listened much to our fatigue or the birds singing beyond the windows.

I wonder if a human life requires equal measure of dreaming and being. Any dream requires an investment of time—graduate school, writing a book, running a marathon, starting a company, building a house.

But how much life can one sacrifice in the process? We live in a culture that seems to prize goals more than picnics. Last weekend my soul knew better. And this time, I listened.

(Artwork by Kelly Henderson.)

Only One

I’m making one kind of cookie this Christmas. The recipe comes from my mother’s side of the family. I remember my grandmother bringing the dough to our home one Christmas, carrying it in waxed paper on the flight from California to Utah. Before taking off her coat, my grandmother placed the dough in my mother’s refrigerator to chill. And when it was time, she did the baking herself. I remember her raised brow as I skipped into the kitchen to swipe three from the counter.

My mom’s mom was more judicious than my dad’s mom, who would have told me to take as many as I wanted. This grandmother was not as outwardly generous, but friends, she could bake.

Her cookies were perfect. Light. Crisp on the edges. Soft in the middle. A harmony of chocolate, walnuts, and powdered sugar.

These were cookies that could break you, so that before you knew it, you’d eat six and want two more. These licentious morsels defied my grandmother’s strict and dignified demeanor. They begged indulgence with each successive bite.

And try as I have over the years, following her recipe carefully, each step measured precisely, I have never baked them quite the same. They’re still tasty, but I’ve never gobbled up my own cookies impulsively. I’m left to wonder what secret essence she possessed that defied her reserved and principled nature to make her cookies unlike any others?

If I’d asked her this myself, she would have looked at me quizzically and told me to follow the recipe.

My grandmother raised four girls, including my mother. Like many women in the 1950s, she kept an exceedingly organized home. But I understand that she also played sports, climbed tall ladders to hang her own Christmas lights, and piled her girls into the car for weekend camping adventures alone. She was an artist and a sculptor. Out of a sense of duty, she recycled tea bags. A master gardener, she taught me how to compost banana peels by cutting them up into small pieces and burying small batches in the soil of my own garden.

In spite of these things, I didn’t know my grandmother well. She was a reserved and private person. I know she had impeccable integrity, but I know very little about the wild, delicious spirit that came alive in her cookies.

My grandmother Myra passed away two days ago. I’d planned weeks ago to post her recipe, but when I learned of her passing, it took on another meaning entirely.

Maybe you’ll find yourself devouring these cookies as I did when I was a girl. Maybe you’ll catch a secret, tantalizing essence as you bake them. I can’t help but think if I capture it, I may find the same ingredient in myself too. And perhaps I can bring it to life in a way that she, a sensible woman of her time, did not allow herself to exude wholeheartedly. This one’s for you, Myra!

Myra’s Chocolate Crinkles
(makes 48 cookies)

½ cup butter*, softened
1 2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
2 1 oz. squares unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1/3 cup milk
½ cup chopped walnuts
confectioner’s sugar

Thoroughly cream butter, sugar, and vanilla. Beat in eggs, then melted chocolate. Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add alternately with milk. Add walnuts. Chill three hours. Form 1-inch balls and roll in confectioner’s sugar. Place on greased cookie sheet 2-3 inches apart. Bake in moderate oven (350°) for 10-12 minutes. Cool slightly; remove from pan.

*Update: I have recently learned (after posting!) that Myra likely made these cookies with margarine instead of butter. I haven’t bought margarine in years, but for the best texture (crisp edges, chewy middle), I’ve been told it’s best. I’ll try it next time, and if you try it, let me know how they turn out!