Every year I make sand tarts. I mixed the dough last night. Today I begin to roll, cut and decorate them by myself. My mother and sister and I made sand tarts together for years, but I do not miss them today. I spread and turn the cold block of floury butter, sugar and eggs. I can make them my own way, not Mom’s way.
In Christmases past, the cookie baking would start well. Our best intentions arrived every year in spite of the year before. Mom would roll the dough so thin that it had to be floured enough to come away, or the stars would lose their points and Santas their hats. Mine will never be that thin, I vow, and stop rolling. When I cut them they pull away with the cutter and drop solidly onto the parchment paper. Mom would have started over and her nerves would begin to fray.
Perfectionism. That was her problem. She would hand over a tray and my sister and I would do the decorations together. First the egg wash, then the cinnamon sugar, then the chopped peanuts. Today I do the egg wash and sprinkle colored sugar. It saves two steps. I wonder what my grandmother used for decoration when she taught my mother. I see my mother helping with the cookies. In my imagination she is six years old, it is 1930, and her mother yells at her. “We can’t waste that sugar! If you can’t do it right, get out of the kitchen.” I cringe for Mom, raised during the Great Depression by a woman who refused to raise her. I shake the sugar sprinkler harder. Green flakes bounce off the tray and pile up on one tree more than the others. So there.
I put my first tray in the oven. We always burnt a tray. We tried not to by having one person watch the oven. Usually me. I would be looking out the window when Mom would notice. For several years that was when she would explode, her anger pouring over us. Anger out of all proportion. I think I was 13 or 14 when I finally got her to laugh at the burnt tray. “Well, we got this year’s burnt tray out of the way.” I pull my first tray out. It is perfect.
What was she so angry about? I wondered if it was me when I was young. Now I know better. She had a miserable childhood and was determined to create a loving home for us. It didn’t work out the way she thought it would. As a wife and a mother, I have felt the lack of appreciation, the constant expectation that my husband and child should come first. I start cutting stars and they stick. I leave the torn ones on the counter. I will squish them together and roll them out again. I know my sister and I didn’t think of Mom as a woman with a life. My second tray goes in the oven with all stars sprinkled red.
Rolling dough again, I think about those early years and the party Mom would have between the Christmas Eve services. We would go to the family service, come home and have 20 or so people drop in until we went back for the candlelight service. I pull my second tray out of the oven and half are too brown. I rolled them thinner than the rest. Mom wouldn’t have served those at her party.
I start the third tray by letting the dough soften before I roll it. In hindsight, it seems crazy that my mother not only sang in the choir but entertained them with perfect cookies the same night. There was a basis for her need to impress the churchgoers. She had gotten pregnant before meeting my dad and left town to have the baby. Fighting the judgment of others with cookies is as rational as being a Christian who condemns single mothers in my mind. I take the third tray from the oven. This one might have earned the forgiveness of the Pastor and the acolytes.
The late service was my favorite. It was a service of carols. “Silent Night” and “What Child is This” sung by candlelight gave me goose bumps. And Mother Mary was the image I saw most clearly in my imagination. No wonder we are perfectionists. The perfect mother got pregnant without having sex and never burned a tray of cookies.
I had planned on making 6 trays of sand tarts, but I’m getting tired with the fourth. Some of the trees in this batch look like they were in a blizzard, bending sideways in the gale. It has taken decades for me to shake off the idea that I wasn’t “good enough.” I know I learned a lack of self-esteem from my mom, but we both came by it easily. As good Christian ladies, we were worshipping a man born to a woman who went through the pain of labor without having had the orgasm. As my mother would have said, “What a crock.”
I roll out my last batch in record time. In honor of women everywhere, I smear the egg glaze around with my fingers and sprinkle the trees with red AND green sugar. I am a child again, not a lady-in-training. Mom is going to love these sand tarts. We will forgive ourselves and each other and feast on sugary goodness. The taste will make up for all the trouble.