Ronald Reagan’s Christmas Cookies

Greg Molson followed the recipe for gingerbread cookies he’d found in his sloppy, falling-apart, copy of The Joy of Cooking, page 662:

Beat softened butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in molasses. Add the dry mixture to the butter mixture in three parts, alternating with the water. On a floured surface, roll the dough to your preferred thickness.

His copy was the one bought years ago for his wife, before they’d gotten married. The one he’d wrapped and carried in his suitcase on their trip to the Sha-wan-ga Lodge Resort and Conference Center, where they stayed for a three-day, four-night honeymoon in the sweltering Catskill Mountains, among waves of shrill families, clouds of mosquitos, a tight circle of faux-log cabins, six varieties of flapjacks and canned fruit cocktail at each meal, and a deep green lake with unseen slimy, slithery, scaled things that rubbed up against his bare legs like a school of subaquatic feral cats.

“Just so you know, Greg,” Marsha said, on the ride home from the Catskills to their new apartment in Yonkers, holding a cigarette tipped toward the open car window, “Just so you’re not surprised, when we get back, I don’t cook.” 

When she moved out, leaving him after seven slow years of increasingly insurmountable, unavoidable, and seemingly irreconcilable, differences between them, Joy was the one book Marsha left behind for him on the kitchen counter.

Of course, she ate. Certainly, she ate. She ate with relish and gusto. That was something, in fact, that Molson liked so much about her. She loved food. All food. Italian, French, Chinese, burgers, shrimp scampi, pizza, mac and cheese, chow fun, and noodle kugle. Her mother cooked for her. Her grandmother cooked. Her brother-in-law cooked. Her friends cooked. But, in their overheated Hertz rental with the windows down, heading south on the Taconic Parkway, she told him clearly, emphatically, resolutely, and in no uncertain terms, that she did not, could not, and would not cook.

He was disappointed to hear her say that. He didn’t say so in so many words.

“Oh,” he said.

So, by dint of circumstance and dedication, never having cooked a meal before in his life, he found himself going into markets, filling shopping carts and brown bags with handles with what he needed. He stocked the cupboards, drawers, refrigerator, and breadbox. He learned to cook. He learned to love it. He found rest and refuge in it.

Joy became his bible.

And, so, when Marsha and he went their separate ways, he made, ate, and served to others what made him happy. He worked hard. And he came home each evening to a kitchen of respite and re-charge.

The idea for gingerbread cookies came from the need to bake something Christmassy to give to the people he worked with. They made, boxed, and ribboned packages of miniature pecan pies, peppermint bark, buckeyes, and pfeffernüsse, which they handed out with big grins at the holiday party. Gingerbread cookies seemed to be just the right thing.

He mixed, cooled, and rolled the dough. Set the oven at three-fifty, pressed a cookie cutter into the dough and separated out the gingerbread figures. They lay flat and brown on the parchment paper, looking up at him.

And standing at the counter with his floured fingers, he felt moved somehow at that moment, an irresistible urge to draw a gentle, curved, line of a mouth into each figure. A thin, up-turned, simulacrum of a smile.

He took one step back and looked at them. Their arms and legs outstretched. Their dotted eyes. Their smiling faces.

A slow smile came to his lips. It grew and broadened. And he began to laugh. A big, loud, head-tipped-back, open-mouthed, laugh. A nothing-held-back, totally uninhibited, burst of child-like laughter. He was overtaken, carried away by his own laughter echoing in his empty kitchen.

He felt an expansive release from deep within. His body, weary and sleep-deprived, let loose an anthem of inchoate joy. A feeling so surprising and foreign to him that he could find no word to give it.

He laughed in wonderment and deep awareness. How, almost out of the blue, had a bunch of corny cookie faces which, just a moment before, had been blank, and on which, with the tip of a fork and the curved edge of a spoon, he had drawn a simple smile, had looked up at him and had done this to him?

And so, with intention and only a moment’s pause, he turned the spoon around and he pressed a narrow furrow of a frown into one of the remaining cookie faces. And, by the same magic that made him laugh, he felt a sadness grip him, and he began to cry.

Tears welled in his eyes and overflowed his cheeks. Crying as he could not ever remember doing in his entire life other than the day his mother had left him at the door of his kindergarten class on the very first day of school and turned away from him leaving him in the doorway in the firm grip of the tall sharp-faced, Mrs. Howell, and closed the door behind her.

He cried without trying to stifle it. Unselfconsciously. Without covering his eyes. Crying. Letting go, he felt, of days, and months, and years of submerged, un-cried sadness.

A sadness, only then at that very moment, so clearly to him that his skin prickled with gooseflesh, that he knew it was not for himself but for John and James, and Emily, Kim, Rosario, and Jonathan, and every other one of the friends he had lost. The faces of those he would never see again. The faces he’d seen for the last time, only days or weeks before, in a hospital bed or covered in soft blankets on their mother’s long couches, or settees in their own dark living rooms. Faces of those who died, as they seemed to do almost daily then, of cryptosporidiosis, or sarcoma, cryptococcal meningitis, wasting, fever, or pneumocystis pneumonia.

Men and women, younger than him, who’d relentlessly suffered and too-soon lost everything they had and loved and had surely dreamed.

And then he laid all of the cookies, smiling and frowning, in careful rows on the baking sheet and he cried and laughed as he looked from one of them to another and, when he felt ready, he opened the oven door, and wiped his eyes. Grateful, in a way, that he had known each and every one of them.

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