Aunt Kay is my second mom. She taught me so many things by example, including valuable life lessons. She also offered love and comfort when we baked thumbprint cookies together. The ritual had a spiritual quality. We worked side-by-side in silence under the kitchen window where the afternoon light spotlighted our effort and made the countertop soft and gentle.
Aunt Kay baked with purpose and ease, mixing the cookie dough in a heavy aluminum bowl with a few deft strokes. I would pinch dough from the bowl, roll it round, and dip it in a pond of egg whites. Next I rolled the slimy ball slowly down a tray of chopped walnuts, careful to keep it round, under the palm of my hand. It was a messy, tedious affair, but I loved standing beside my aunt and feeling useful.
When I lined up twenty-four nut coated balls on a cookie sheet, she popped them in the oven and, like a miracle from above, they came out plump and golden. We waited for them to cool. While I absolutely loved time with Aunt Kay, I wasn’t much for conversation. I worried about saying the right thing, and I wasn’t sure what that was. The world I lived in with my mom was dark and unpredictable. We didn’t do normal stuff together. My script was always an improvisation of what I thought regular kids said and adults wanted to hear. I was relieved when the cookies cooled off and our conversation ended.
Putting your thumbprint in the soft and airy dough was my favorite part. I went to work, careful to press my thumb in the center of each cookie. The last step was spooning jam in the well. I waited for a signal from Aunt Kay because I had an age inappropriate emphasis on good behavior and decorum. When she said, “Let’s try one,” I reached slowly for a warm cookie and took a careful bite. It was rich and nutty and sweet. The jam felt luxurious.
Baking is magical, the way everything transforms, growing and tasting sweet. For a child it’s a wonder. Putting your thumbprint on a cookie is a bonus and hard to forget. My Aunt Kay baked all kinds of things, but she always made thumbprint cookies with me. She knew I’d have fun, but I believe she also thought the process might make an impression on me, showing me how mothers and daughters can work together in peace and with joy. How being together can be easy. This wasn’t the case with my mom, who lost herself when I was 10.
We are all a little bit broken, and we don’t know as much as we think we do. Having a second mom to spend time with, sitting around or doing simple things like baking cookies, is a tremendous gift. I made thumbprint cookies with Matt and Emma when they were young. While I loved repeating the ritual with them, it never compared to my quiet afternoons with Aunt Kay. When you were with her, the world always felt safe and right.
Aunt Kay doesn’t bake anymore. She’s 86 and her memory moves around, but I have no doubt she remembers making thumbprint cookies with me. You never forget your family rituals. They are love in action and become part of your fabric. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” What we don’t hear is that most of us need a second mom, someone to edit our stories and fill in the gaps. Growing up with a troubled mom is like missing a limb. Aunt Kay couldn’t replace it, but she could teach me how to walk.