Four Decembers ago, my friend Jonathan and I went camping. (If you know both of us, this is only mildly absurd.) We went to Assateague—you know, the island where the wild ponies are?—and the freezing rain started on our drive there. It didn’t stop as we pitched our tent. It was so windy we couldn’t even get a fire lit to heat water for coffee. After one night, our spirits weren’t totally dampened, so we went hiking on the beach. We got back, freezing, wrapped ourselves in sleeping bags and ate cheese and apples in the tent. Jonathan produced some Ziploc bags full of his mom’s molasses cookies. The rain turned to snow, and we decided to leave, cutting the trip short.
We took a lot of pictures on the trip—Jonathan sitting on some driftwood as grey, winter-storm surf rolled in, me running on a beach that looked like the craggy surface of the moon with the grey sky hanging low—so it looms large in my memory. The whole affair was brief and completely miserable, but somehow we both remember it as this pinnacle event of our lives.
It also etched Jonathan’s mom’s molasses cookies into my memory indelibly. When you’re hungry and cold, anything tastes good, but something actually good tastes extraordinary. Awhile later, I visited Jonathan’s parents home, and I made sure not to leave without the molasses cookie recipe. Scrawled by his mom, Dennie, on the back of an old graduation announcement, I guarded it in a notebook in my kitchen.
Dennie and I have kept in a sort of sporadic touch the past few years, trading letters and cards, and every once in awhile she sends me cookies. Jonathan sends her links my blog posts when he thinks she’ll like them, which is another way of keeping in touch, I guess. When I wrote about my grandpa this summer, she sent me the kindest letter. It was partly to send condolences, but partly to exhort me: Write. Keep writing. Write a book. Whatever you do, write. It was a vote of confidence from someone I don’t know that well, which is maybe what made it so compelling. I re-read the letter a lot.
And then I wrote back. Poor woman didn’t know what was coming—I spilled out a lot of insecurities to her, all the things that make me not write, that tell me that the link between my head and typing fingers is never good enough and never true enough to life. That the stories I have to tell are ugly, sad, or sometimes cynical, and aren’t the types of generous, warm-fuzzy things people want to read. That I think I’m all tapped out on the warm-fuzzy, dammit.
It was one of those letters that I immediately felt a flush of embarrassment after I sent it, self-conscious about how honest it was. It was a silly feeling. I forgot about it, and the letter.
. . . . . .
I have been having a hard time getting in a jingly mood this year: sort of tired and world-weary. I’m a bit suspicious of it all, in a way that makes me realize I’ve actually become a grown-up. Work has kept me away from home a lot. We haven’t had time to get a tree, and I basically nixed it because we just can’t fit it in. There are mice living under the floorboards. Things like that. Nothing extraordinary, but enough to feel like what I really want to do is sleep, rather than celebrate.
Jonathan lives on the West Coast now, and we don’t see each other that regularly. He and his brother and sister-in-law passed through on their way home for the holidays yesterday. They walked in the door with bourbon and pumpkin pie, a harbinger of how nice their visit would be. We sat around the woodstove and drank the bourbon, eventually drinking enough that I convinced Ben to play “Wagon Wheel” on banjo and we sang it.
This morning they stayed for awhile, chasing chickens and eating pie. Eventually we wound up around the dining room table, looking at maps, discussing which explorer was least horrible (Bartolome de las Casas? One of the polar explorers? Does Darwin count as an explorer? Definitely not Vasco da Gama).
I sent them away with a dozen eggs for Dennie, who they’d see in just a few hours. I made Jonathan promise to get me the molasses cookie recipe, because I somehow lost it last time I moved. They left the rest of the bourbon.
After I watched the car pull out of the driveway, I walked to get the mail. An orange slip told me that I had missed a delivery-confirmation package. At the post office, the clerk handed over a small box. It was from Dennie. I opened it in the parking lot, thinking it would be cookies. But it was a Christmas gift, and a long letter, responding to the one I sent this summer. Who cares?! she wrote. You need to write. Be brave and do it. When the page gets a tad blurry because of tears, you’re doing it right.
And so here I am, rambling away with my well of holiday cheer somewhat restored. I’m thinking about how silly I am, and how it really doesn’t matter, and how much I like bourbon, and how I’m probably about to have some more. I’m remembering the ending of that classic O.Henry tale where some other silly young folk get more than they deserve:
And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.
[I'm leaving you with a recipe for hot buttered bourbon. I'll post that molasses cookie recipe when I get it. Whatever you celebrate and whether or not you do, wishing you all things merry and bright.]
Hot buttered bourbon
- 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup brown or demerara sugar
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- For assembly:
- Hot water
- A squeeze of orange juice(optional)
- In a bowl, mash the butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon until well mixed.
- To make the hot buttered bourbon, put a tablespoon of the compound butter in a glass. Add 1 ounce (or more!) bourbon, and then top with 4-5 ounces hot water, stirring to dissolve the sugar and butter. Finish with a squeeze of orange juice if desired.