Revised this for my writing portfolio tonight and wanted to share this special story. I hope this piece makes you proud, Jan. Every holiday season I smile with a sad heart knowing you are no longer with us. I am so sorry for not being a better friend. I miss you dearly.
Whoever thought of a funeral for a friend in a kitchen? I’m not doing anything silly like wearing all black or baking in silence. I do nothing special, really, except bake.
In my dated kitchen apartment, I lovingly gather each of the ingredients in the same order Jan listed them in her recipe, the one she typed up for my mom on a pale pink 3x5 card fifteen years ago:
1 CUP BUTTER FLAVOR CRISCO
1 ¾ CUPS SUGAR, DIVIDES
1 TEASPOON VANILLA
1 TEASPOON NUTMEG
2 ¼ CUPS FLOUR
2 TEASPONS CREAM OF TARTER
1 TEASPOON BAKING SODA
¾ TEASPOON SALT
1 TEASPOON CINNAMON
I could correct the typos, but I don’t. The haphazard type job embodies Jan, kind of like the time she cut herself one Thanksgiving morning. Jan, the big sister I never had but always wanted, walked into my mom and dad’s house that afternoon with so much gauze wrapped around her hand it rivaled a baseball glove. “Eh, it’s nothing,” she said.
The many ingredients for Jan’s Snickerdoodles clutter my small kitchen counter as I read and re-read Jan’s recipe card.
Rather than washing the dirty scissors, I decide to open the pack of Crisco sticks with a steak knife. Come to think of it, maybe that’s how the gauze baseball glove came to be, or maybe not. It happened too long ago to remember, which is precisely why I hold on so desperately to something as silly as typos in an ingredient list. Mementos, like the souvenir t-shirt from Maui, the “Lil Sis” charm Jan gave me, and this recipe, will far outlast my already fading memory. After all, I can’t even remember the sound of Jan’s voice anymore.
I preheat the oven to 400 F, and combine the first batch of ingredients—Crisco, 1 ½ cups sugar, two eggs, vanilla, and all of the nutmeg. I set the mixer to medium speed just as Jan said, but, out of habit, switch to high soon after the sets of elegant swirls appear in my butter concoction. Upon realizing my mistake, a tinge of guilt stabs my stomach. I quickly turn the mixer speed back to medium before dumping in the rest of the dry ingredients—flour, cream of “tarter,” baking soda, and salt. Someone once said, “The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention,” and I can’t even do that. I have already failed Jan twice today, once by accidentally setting the mixer speed to high and then by answering a text message.
As I clumsily trip over the mangled rubber bone at my feet, I look up at the ceiling and smile. She forgives me. Jan didn’t have a dog, but I bet money she tripped over one of her cats in her kitchen a time or two or twelve.
Tripping, falling, crashing. You name it, Jan did it. One weekend my pseudo big sister went out into the forests of western Pennsylvania for yet another adventure with her mountain bike club. The usual crew consisted of Jan, my dad, and their friends Craig, Joe, and Lance. Their destination that day: Brockway.
Mountain laurel framed the debris-laden trail when Jan looked to clear a two-log jump. Her front wheel, however, dropped into the gap between the logs, and she flew over her handlebars, hitting her head.
Dropping his bike in the middle of the trail, my dad ran over to help. “Jan, Jan, are you okay?” he asked.
“What am I doing in the woods,” she replied. “Wait, why am I in the woods?”
“You hit your head,” Dad said. “We’re mountain biking, remember?”
A couple of minutes later, Jan, who most likely had a concussion, gathered her muddy bike and her senses and rode on. No matter what, she always rode on.
Jan’s mountain bike club dubbed her “Shark Bite” because whenever she crashed, the teeth on her front sprocket would gash the meat of her leg.
After a long ride, the club would often ride their bicycles off of the pier into a local lake, and then they would proceed to dive six to eight feet to retrieve said bikes.
And this same club also let me join the fun on their tamer days. Needing a nickname like the rest of the crew, Jan called me “Little Shark Bite.” I always thought it was because I shared her aversion for gracefulness. I never knew the sprocket story until just recently. I never knew that the Snickerdoodles my family enjoyed every Christmas were Jan’s recipe until just recently either.
I grab a spoon from the drawer and take a bite of the sweet-smelling dough, wondering if Jan, too, thought that Snickerdoodles are the only cookie ever made that tastes better when cooked. Maybe some more cinnamon sugar will help.
I debate whether or not to grease the pan as Jan suggested in her recipe. I trust her. It’s just that I’m afraid the cookies will stick. So I spray some oil on my barely-used baking sheet but soon decide to wipe it off with a paper towel.
After rolling the first dough-ball in cinnamon-sugar, I try the dough again, but it still doesn’t taste as good as a Snickerdoodle fresh from the oven—a sugar cookie with punch, a treat both spicy and sweet that when cooked just right melts in your mouth.
I’m supposed to shape the dough into one inch balls before rolling them in cinnamon-sugar, but I don’t know how big one inch is. I just eyeball it and get thirty-one cookies, forty-one short of the seventy-two the recipe should yield.
Oven-mitts on, I place the cookie sheet in the oven to bake. I then set the timer on my microwave for exactly seven minutes and decide whether golden brown or not, the cookies are coming out. I’m surprised. Seven minutes go by relatively quickly.
Unlike Jan, I don’t have a wire rack, so I set some aluminum foil out on the counter and let the cookies cool there instead. In the transfer process, a cookie breaks. Rather than piece it back together, I peek over my shoulder and shuffle over to the kitchen sink. With my hand cupped underneath the cookie, I take my first bite. It tastes like Christmas.
To an auditorium of excited children, my elementary school principal read The Polar Express. After hearing the story, I, too, longed for a bell from Santa’s sleigh just like the story’s protagonist. Christmas Eve that same year, friends and family gathered at my parent’s house for their annual Christmas Eve get-together. Jan was there. As always, she was the first to arrive and the last to leave.
Late that night, I hung out with Mom and Jan as they cleaned up red-and-green cocktail napkins, empty glasses, and leftover appetizers. Christmas Eve was the only night I ever had a bedtime, and my bedtime arrived much too soon. I wanted Jan to tuck me in. “Please, Jan, please,” I begged.
“Of course I will,” she replied.
When Dad suggested that he tuck me in instead, I grudgingly obliged. “Jan and your mom are busy,” he said.
It was Christmas Eve. And I wasn’t supposed to pout, but Santa said nothing about stalling. So I quadruple-checked my Christmas list for any spelling mistakes and rearranged the Snickerdoodles on the plate at least twice. You see, every year I set out Snickerdoodles for Santa because my dad once told me they were Santa’s favorite cookie, and I believed him. It makes sense now.
The Snickerdoodles looked so good on that plate. I had to have one. “Can I please have a cookie?” I asked politely.
Mom, Dad, and Jan exchanged smiles.
“You sure can,” Jan replied.
“Mom, Dad, it’s okay, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Mom sighed. “But only one cookie!”
Before Jan sat down at the kitchen table, she poured me a glass of milk in my favorite Nutcracker cup. I climbed up on her lap, and she wrapped her arms around me. Taking my first bite, I admired the cinnamon-sugar glistening atop the golden brown treat before me. It looked like brown glitter, and if you tilted your head just right it twinkled like Christmas lights. I carefully took each bite of Snickerdoodle, not wanting to go to bed. But, eventually, I finished. Jan kissed the top of my head as I drank my last sip of milk.
“Thanks,” I whispered in Jan’s ear.
“Now go to bed,” she said.
I gave hugs and turned the corner to the stairs. With The Night before Christmas in hand, Dad followed me to my room. Once I finally settled, he started to read.
Continuing the theme of eat, drink, and be merry, Mom and Jan downed some box wine as they finished cleaning up the kitchen. Maybe they ate the rest of Santa’s cookies, too. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
They weighed the pros and cons of attending Midnight Mass with a bit of a buzz and finally decided to head to church. On the way out, Jan noticed a set of bells hanging from the front door.
“Terri, watch this,” Jan said as she darted outside, bells in hand. In heels and a skirt, Jan pranced through the waist-deep snow toward my bedroom window.
“Dad! Stop reading,” I exclaimed.
“But I’m not done yet.”
“I don’t care. Did you hear that?”
“That,” I replied and impatiently waited for the bells to ring again.
“Don’t you want to hear the rest of the story?” he asked.
“Not if Santa’s gonna skip our house because I’m not asleep.”
“Okay, okay,” he said as he turned out the light.
I fell asleep within seconds.
That Christmas morning I woke up to a hand-written note from Santa, who that year was Jan, a pile of Snickerdoodle crumbs on the counter, and a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh under the tree. It was magical, and it still kind of is.
It doesn’t surprise me that an adrenaline junkie like Jan would gravitate to a cookie that explodes in your mouth. It doesn’t surprise me that she would gravitate to a cookie with such a silly name either. Snickerdoodle. Snickerdoodle. Snickerdoodle. The more you say it, the funnier it sounds. Supposedly, there’s this big long history about the origin of the Snickerdoodle. Maybe it’s the product of a silly cookie name movement in New England. Maybe it’s named after the 19th century tall tale hero Snickerdoodle, or maybe it’s German. Who knows? Whatever the origins, you really can’t say Snickerdoodle without a smile, and I’m sure Jan realized that, too. But, then, again, maybe she didn’t.
Jan Louise McCoy was born on December 29th, 1961, just one day and twenty-seven years before me. She worked as a pharmaceutical sales rep for some drug company, and in her thirties, she married an alcoholic whom she eventually divorced. Jan had brown eyes and light blonde hair, which she often wore in a stubby ponytail. She died in Arizona on May 27th, 2010, by hanging, and is survived by her family in Pennsylvania. She never had kids, but she did have a few cats. And me.
As I put the cooled cookies in a Tupperware container, I wonder if, like me, Jan didn’t regret a broken cookie or two. I wonder if she wore flour handprints on her thighs, and if struggled with egg cracking as I often do.
And I also wonder how she changed after she was diagnosed with lupus, and if she took her life because she felt too tired to fight or if she took it because she owed so much money on her house. I wonder why no one told me this wasn’t her first suicide attempt and exactly how many times she had tried. I visited Jan in the hospital once as a kid. They told me it was kidney stones, but now I wonder. I wonder if Jan knew how much I idolized her. I wonder if she, too, kept her half of the sister charm, and I wonder where that charm is now.
Sometimes I wish I had attended Jan’s viewing. Sometimes I wish there was a grave to visit, but maybe it’s better this way. To grieve Jan in any traditional way seems wrong. I shall instead mourn my friend when I scrape my knee while hiking, when I hear Santa’s sleigh, or when I bake her famous Snickerdoodles.