The Air Up Here

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Mom was, by anyone’s standards, extremely devoted to those of us in her blood family. Although her parents were hoping that she could turn her musical talents into a full-time career when she was in her teenage years, that never really came to pass, especially after she became pregnant at nineteen. I can’t speak much to the first ten years she was a mother, because I hadn’t been born yet, but she often did everything she could, and usually more than she should have, to provide me with everything I needed as I dealt with a very difficult childhood. Even well into my adult years, and even as she fought more and more medical problems, she was always asking me if she could help me with anything from laundry to emotional support. She spoiled me rotten, and her treatment of me remains an example I try to follow in my personal and professional lives.

One of the ways she helped me in her final years was with all the baking I did. I frequently baked cookies for my students in my early years of teaching, not only because I cared for them and wanted to thank them for putting up with me, but also as a way to bribe them into coming to class. (Also, class discussions don’t tend to drag  if you pump your students full of sugar beforehand.) Mom often helped me with baking cookies, even when I was more than capable of handling that task myself, and I think a lot of that had to do with her wanting to make up for lost time. When my father started his own business in 1987. Mom was  strong-armed into becoming his secretary (and later did 2-D CAD work for some of his clients), which forced her to cut down on her housekeeping activities. Our backyard garden went to dirt, home-cooked meals became more and more of a rarity, and she just didn’t have the time or the energy to do a lot of the things that she’d loved to do for us.

After my father died in 2008, his business pretty much died with him, and even though Mom was twenty years older at that point, she still wanted to get back to being the same person she’d been when she was just a housewife and mother. Her old garden space became a lawn after the house fire in 2001, and back pain probably would have kept her from gardening at that point anyway, but she started cooking and cleaning a whole lot more than she had been doing, and every time I asked her if I could use the kitchen for an hour or two so I could bake cookies for my students, her response was always, “Can I help?”

(One of the most wonderful semesters of teaching I ever had was the one where my father died, because several of my students took it upon themselves to provide comfort for me and Mom at that time, signing cards and giving me flowers to take home. Some of my students even stayed after class every day that semester so I’d have someone to talk with about the emotions I was going through, and most of them have remained friends with me over a decade later, and that, possibly more than anything else in my teaching career, has convinced me of the need for teachers to be kind to their students. You never know when you might need that kindness returned.)

It’s now been over two years since Mom started her last hospitalization, so it’s been more than two years since I got to taste anything cooked or baked by her loving hands. (Her birthday is this coming Friday, so I’m probably going to be thinking  about her even more than I usually do.) I’ve made a few batches of her macaroni and cheese since then, but even if I was capable of making it as well as she (or her mother) made it, I can’t make the real thing here in Colorado due to lack of access to a regional ingredient, one that would be prohibitively expensive to ship out here thanks to refrigeration and such.

One thing I haven’t tried to do since Mom went to the hospital is bake cookies. In addition to baking being a more time-consuming process (and me not having much free time during her hospitalization and after her passing), I didn’t get her recipe file after her passing. Her cookie recipes weren’t family secrets, though, and I still remember the sources of the three kinds of cookies she made most (Toll House’s recipe — minus the nuts — for chocolate chip cookies, Betty Crocker’s recipe for peanut butter cookies, and Quaker Oats’ recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies). Finding those recipes online isn’t exactly much of a problem.

What is a problem, though, is trying to make those cookies the way that Mom did. As many miles as I’ve moved laterally since Mom’s passing, I’m now living over a mile higher in the air than I was back in Toledo. With that comes a lot of complications for baking, and even though most of the food I’ve cooked since moving to Colorado hasn’t been affected by the altitude change that much, all of these cookie recipes come with significant alterations for high-altitude locations like mine.

If I were just making cookies, I’d simply use the high-altitude directions and be done with it, but I’m not “just making cookies” here. I’m making Mom’s cookies, and using different directions, even when there’s a good reason to do so, makes me feel like I’m deviating from what Mom did, and when I’m craving that experience of eating the food that Mom so lovingly made for me all those years, I almost feel like I need to follow the recipes she used closer to sea level, even when they won’t bake up the same. I know they’ll taste different from what I remember no matter what I do here (if only because there won’t be any cigarette smoke around me while I’m baking and eating), but trying to figure out which sets of instructions to use here is still just reminding me all the more of how much things have changed since Mom’s passing, and how I’ll never truly be able to get some of the most comforting parts of my early life back, regardless of what I do.

Living in Toledo for most of my life definitely spoiled me when it comes to food; even though I’ve never been any kind of epicure, I definitely appreciate food that tastes good. (I’m still looking for pizza here in Colorado that comes remotely close to the mastery of what I used to eat at J&G Pizza Palace and Original Gino’s.) Nothing I ever eat for the rest of my life will compare to Mom’s cooking, and I’m well aware of that, but I wish that it was easier for me, up here over a mile above sea level, to do my best to replicate Mom’s cookies without dealing with this conundrum about high-altitude baking. Adjusting to her passing has been painful enough on its own. Not having the ability to accurately replicate her cookies just exacerbates those feelings of loss all the more.

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