Of course it turned out that Christmas cookies are not just any cookies you happen to bake for/on Christmas. There was a specific kind of cookie that Claire had in mind. She told Landon all about them while we were rolling out the dough and using cookie cutters, all about how making these cookies was a family tradition. I had no memory of making these cookies before, but you know, I figured maybe I was banished (or hiding) in my room while that was going on…?
So the thing with these Christmas cookies is the baking is just the first step. Then comes the decorating.
We made some covered with a white icing and some without, and then you basically paint on them. I had been exaggerating to Bart but it turned out I wasn’t exaggerating at all. We easily made over a hundred cookies. Maybe it was closer to two hundred. They had to cool sufficiently before they could be decorated, and only two cookie sheets at a time could go in the over. So it was a multi-step process. This really did take all day. We had to take a break for lunch. Or maybe dinner? Or both? Most of what I remember was just baking endlessly, batch after batch.
Not that this was a bad thing. It was something to do, and Landon seemed very content to be part of what the grown-ups were doing. And the grown-ups, maybe in a rare occurrence, weren’t fighting about anything.
We were just about to start the decorating process when Courtney turned on the TV and looked to see if she could find the variety show Bart had mentioned. She stood in front of it, clicking through the channels with the remote in her hand. “Does Janine still believe that popular music is the contagion of the devil?”
“If she does, well, it’s Christmas music, right?” Claire said. “What could be more innocent?”
“You used to believe it, too, you know, Mom.” Court found the channel and pumped up the volume.
“Well, it made a certain amount of sense when you think about it.” Claire spread the decorating supplies across the dining room table. “Music leading people into temptation and all that.”
“Temptation and all that?” Court repeated.
“Don’t play dumb with me, child. Music is seductive. It sedates your logic and stimulates your…” She trailed off as Landon climbed up into his seat. “Revs your engine,” she said instead.
“It leads to making some very poor decisions sometimes,” Claire said firmly, and then changed the subject by talking to Landon. “Are you ready to decorate some cookies?”
The decorating is the really fun part of the process, of course. Although we had made some cookies with the cutters shaped like snowmen or the candy canes, most of the ones we made were shaped like stars. Stars upon stars upon stars.
I forgot about the show for a while. I don’t remember exactly who was on it. When I think back on it now I hear Burl Ives doing “Holly Jolly Christmas,” but I’m not sure if that was really part of it or if my brain is just filling in something that seems logical–or maybe substituting something I saw as a kid. That’s probably it since by 1991 I’m not sure Burl Ives was really still doing that kind of show? Anyway: it was various famous people singing various Christmas songs, often in duets with other people, and I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was concentrating on painting my stars with icing of many colors. I was making them kind of psychedelic, with radiating stripes and streaks like fireworks, using lots of colors and sprinkles. I looked over and Claire’s were in a kind of progression. They started out very sedate, with neats rows of silver balls criss-crossing the icing, and only one color per cookie, but the ones she had done more recently were much more like mine. Much more, well, rock and roll, I guess. She smiled at me when she saw me looking and held one up for approval.
And then all of a sudden the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I heard the opening chords of “Candlelight.” Court sat up straight and turned toward the TV, too. The arrangement was orchestral, so it was violins and harp instead of guitar but the riff was unmistakeable.
Next thing I knew, three of us were sitting on the floor in front of the TV, Claire perched on the armchair nearby. Ziggy emerged from the back of the stage, walking forward in the spotlight as he slalomed his way through set pieces made to look like snowy mountains. As he hit the first chorus, the bluish backlights gave way to rose and orange and wouldn’t you know it, the cheesy motherfuckers stole the radiating sunbeam effect we used to use with the Solar 250. (Well, okay, maybe Ziggy even suggested it to them for all I knew.)
That wasn’t the only thing that happened when he hit the first chorus, though. A second voice joined his, a female voice, one I recognized instantly. The lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. I blanked on her name for a while. She looked vaguely uncomfortable in a long white ball gown with rhinestone straps. Ziggy looked resplendent as always, in a white tuxedo lined with rhinestones on the lapels.
They were a terrible match for a duet. Natalie Merchant (I eventually remembered) has a unique singing voice, with a kind of warbly timbre (that I actually can’t stand, sorry Natalie). That’s not to say it’s bad, just not my favorite sound. It’s a very singular voice, almost rough, and sounds best within a very small range of notes.
“Candlelight” does not stay in a small range of notes. And Ziggy, come on, Ziggy has some of the most vocal firepower out there.
He was trying hard not to blow her off the stage, but it was a mismatch. He was doing a song he’d done a million times in all manner of impassioned circumstances. She was trying to match his performance in the impassioned department, but her voice just isn’t that type. Her way of getting impassioned was to sort of shout, which didn’t go well on the lines they were supposed to sing together. It was all right when they were trading lines back and forth, I guess…
All I could think was, who the hell music directed this?
And then came the quiet section after the bridge, and the female vocal dropped out entirely, and it was just Ziggy and a harp, and I lost it and started to cry. A Pandora’s box of negative thoughts in my head opened and poured out. I don’t even know if I can recreate them because of course they didn’t all make sense. The whole industry was fucked if it thought that performance was a good idea. It put Merchant in the worst light and didn’t really do much for Ziggy either. And of course I wasn’t part of it despite writing the song. And how much you want to bet he was going to make some kind of terrible decision and sleep with her after the show? With me a thousand miles away.
That was the kind of things I was thinking.
When the song ended I got up and shut myself in the bathroom. The meltdown continued. This is exactly what Claire said. Music drives us to bad decisions. She had to have been talking about her getting together with Digger in the first place. It drives you to misery. A few moments of ecstasy on the stage paid for by a lifetime of this. Of sitting on the grungy bathmat crying because you’ve been holding it all in for far too long.
I had a little flashback to the water tower. Oh yeah, right, I’m a little bit nuts still, I thought. Maybe I should’ve called my therapist instead of Bart earlier. Although how would that have helped?
A knock came on the door. “Daron?” That sounded like Courtney. “Landon needs to get in to brush his teeth so he can go to bed.”
“Just a minute.” I literally shook myself like a dog, like that could shake off the bad thoughts. It kind of worked, actually. I started to think maybe what I was having was an actual flashback to the angst of South America. The one bright spot every other day was that fucking duet with him. Hearing him singing it just set me off, I guess.
I got up and washed my face. “Okay. I’m fine now.” Or at least the crying was over. I let them in. Landon was looking up at me with very wide eyes. “I’m okay,” I assured him. “I was just sad.”
“Because Ziggy was there and you’re here?” he asked.
It was as good an explanation as any. “Yeah. Sometimes when people we love aren’t with us, it makes us sad.”
“It makes Mommy sad when I go to Jake’s,” Landon told me with a nod. “But she told me we can’t always be in the same place at the same time.” He patted me on the leg and I realized he was trying to make me feel better.
“You’re right,” I said. “Now brush your teeth.”
He wanted me to be the one to tuck him in again, which left Courtney somewhat miffed, but what was I going to say, no? I went and tucked him in.
When I came out of his room, I shut the door behind me and tiptoed down the hall. I could hear the TV still on in the living room, turned down pretty low, and female voices. Claire and Court talking down there.
As I passed Claire’s doorway I noticed her light was on and I stepped into the room to turn it off. On the bed was a magazine. It was open to a glossy spread.
Huh. A how-to article on Christmas cookies with Martha Stewart. In fact, the whole magazine was Martha Stewart. The photos featured not only glamorous closeups of star-shaped cookies, dotted with gold and silver decorating balls, but a happy, functional looking blond family with a little boy, his big sister, and a mom and a dad. (And Martha.) I was pretty sure they were all models hired for the gig. (Except Martha.)
So it wasn’t just that I didn’t remember ever making these cookies before. I was pretty sure that Claire didn’t intend for anyone to see the inspiration for our family “tradition.” She must have been slipping back here to check the recipe every so often. I tiptoed back out of the room without touching anything, and went down to the living room.
Court went off to the bathroom herself–presumably not to cry–and Claire offered me some cookies. “Would you like some milk to go with them?”
Yeah, if it’s in a white Russian, I thought. Not that I was seriously thinking about drinking. I tried to joke, instead. “Do we get to eat them now? I thought they were for Christmas.”
“That’s why we made so many. So there will still be some by then,” she said seriously. She pushed a tray on the coffee table about an inch toward me. I picked up a candy-cane shaped one and nibbled on it.
“That was sweet of you to put Landon to bed,” she said.
“Yeah, well, when a tiny vulnerable human asks me for something that’s within my power to do, it’d be ghoulish for me not to.”
Without missing a beat she said, “You think I was ghoulish to you when you were growing up?”
I coughed up some cookie crumbs. “That wasn’t meant as a criticism of you–”
“But do you.”
Remember I’d just had a deep if brief dive into the whole negative mess in my head. I didn’t want to create more pain or trouble, but I wanted most of all right then to cling to something real. So I said “Yes.” That was it. No hysterics, no flashbacks, no descriptions of what she was like or things she said and did, orchestrated with four part harmony. Just yes. You were ghoulish to me and now I’m haunted.
There were no elaborate defenses or justifications on her part, either. She just looked toward the television instead of me, though her eyes were downcast. She might have said “oh.” That was it. No fight. No blaming. No moving the goalposts. Maybe we were both too tired for it. I prefer to think the silence was a form of truce.