Baking with Sam

Three years ago today, at about this time, I got the phone call from my sister Caroline telling me our father had passed away. Last year I joined a local memoir writing group and I have been sharing pieces about my family cookie bake. This is the piece I shared this month and now I share it with you. Dad – not a day goes by that I don’t miss you or think of some piece of advice you gave me. Thank you for continuing to spark laughter.

Kolachki

According to my sister Caroline, also known in my family as Crinnie, my father is responsible for introducing kolachki to our family. Dad discovered kolachki at a church potluck supper. He loved church suppers because of the variety found in the many dishes. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard him say, “If you go to a church potluck and leave hungry, it’s your own fault Denise.” The kolachki Dad first encountered were most likely served on a cookie platter after a funeral. Crinnie remembers Dad coming home and telling Mom he had discovered a new cookie for her to make.

Like many cookies, there are multiple variations of kolachki from different counties in central Europe. Some are made with cream cheese dough but our family recipe uses yeast. Polish kolachki are often filled with fruit but we make our kolachki filled with nuts and honey, like Hungarian recipes.

Kolachki dough is flaky and light. You can cut the dough in diamonds and wrap the corners over the filling (our usual method) or you can make a log of the dough and nut filling and cut the cookie slices. Whatever method you use, it is important not to overstuff the cookies or the nut mixture will cause the dough to split open.

“Don’t be skimpy on the nuts – put more in,” Dad used to say as we added the filling for the kolachki.

“How many times have you made these?” Mom would reply with a frustrated sigh.

“You should be able to taste the nuts!”

“If you put too much filling in, they won’t stay closed. I’m telling you. I make these every year. You can taste the nuts.”

“Maybe if you pinch them harder…”

“I’m pinching them!”

These types of conversations happened with other cookies as well. As Chief Quality Control Professional, a title my brother-in-law Paul created for Dad, Dad became a self-proclaimed expert on topics such as the proper amount of dough needed to make a good crust for pecan tassies, the optimal amount of filling for the chocolate thumbprints, and the best consistency of oil cookies.

Dad was not present for the first decade of cookie baking. It wasn’t until our cookie bake moved to Crinnie’s house in 2002 that Dad decided to join the festivities. After years of consuming cookies, Dad was now going to become a baker. He showed up that first year with his big green apron, carried in Mom’s baking supplies, sat at the table and said, “Where’s the coffee Caroline?”

Dad’s baking skills took a back seat to his plumbing ability for a few years thanks to Crinnie’s kitchen sink. It’s not clear what the problem was, but the entries in our family cookie journal refer to Allen wrenches and trips to the hardware store as the cookies were baking.

Dad dropped Mom off and then went back home to get tools to work on Crinnie’s sink. Must be he fixed it because he spent the next 2 hours doing dishes. (2004)

Once again, Dad needed to fix Crinnie’s faucet. Didn’t this happen another year? (2006)

This year, baking was done in shifts so we could all take turns visiting Dad in the hospital. We all missed him. Paul asked who would wash the dishes! (2007)

Happy to have Dad back with us again this year. Dad asked Caroline about fixing her sink. Good thing she keeps an Allen wrench close at hand!

Dad enjoyed watching all the chaos that is our annual cookie bake. He would chuckle as “his girls” argued over whether the printed recipe was already doubled or if it required alteration. He rolled up his sleeves and helped roll cookie dough into balls whenever my arms got too tired to continue.

One of our collective favorite memories of cookie bake with Dad happened in 2011, the last year Mary Jane was alive for our annual celebration. Dad was pleased to have all six of his girls together for one more time. Instead of focusing on Mary Jane’s declining health, we embraced the holiday. Donna made new aprons for all of us, including Mom and Dad. Sandy brought us colorful Santa hats. Dad’s hat was green felt with red accents. He wore his hat and apron all day as we baked tray after tray of cookies.

Baking took a backseat as we paused to say farewell to Mary Jane in the late afternoon. Her energy was fading and she was facing a two-hour drive home. Dad escorted her out to her car where they embraced for a long time before loading the backseat with boxes of cookies.

Coming back into the house, Dad slumped in his chair and wiped the tears off his cheeks. All of us were crying, knowing Mary Jane would never be back for cookie bake again. We hugged and sniffled, passing the tissue box around the table. Eventually Dad left the table and went to the bathroom. He returned shaking with laughter instead of sobs. The rest of us stopped crying and looked at him with quizzical stares. It took him a few minutes to find his voice through the laughter and speak.

“All day long I thought there was something wrong with my hearing. I’ve been hearing ringing in my ear. Did you know the hat has a bell on it? I’ve been hearing that damn bell all day!”

Dad’s admission broke the spell for all of us and we joined him in the first of many laughs about that hat. He continued to joke about his hearing at each cookie bake thereafter, including the one we celebrated a month before he died in 2016. Dad’s Santa hat, as I call it, now sits on the Christmas decoration in the corner of Crinnie’s home office. We still laugh about this story every year when we argue among ourselves about the preferred amount of kolachki filling. No doubt, Dad would tell us to add more nuts.

An elderly man wearing a red and green elf hat and an elderly woman wearing a blue apron smile at the camera. He is seated at a table and she is standing. They are making cookies.
Dad with his hat, helping Mom with cookies. Photo courtesy of Sandy DiNoto.

30 Days of Thanks Day 25: The Cookie Journal

Today was our family’s annual cookie bake. Eighteen bakers ranging in age from 4 to 90 years, nineteen cookie recipes, two ovens, and seven hours of chaos in my sister’s kitchen.

I think it’s my favorite day of the year.

Our baking tradition started in 1990 when I was an exchange student to Australia. My sisters Donna and Caroline joined my mom for a day of cookie baking when she was missing “her baby.”

In 2002, Mom gave us little notebooks as gifts. My sister Mary Jane suggested we turn one of them into our cookie journal. I offered mine for the cause.

For fifteen years, we have kept notes in this journal. We write about our flops, like the year Mom forgot to put sugar in the fancy brown cookies because she was worried about Mary Jane and I driving down in snow. We write helpful hints, like how important it is not to put too much filling in the pecan tassies. We sometimes make reference to the fact that someone didn’t read the journal about the last time we had difficulty with a cookie.

Mary Jane started the journal that first year and anointed me the keeper of the journal. Over the years, other sisters and family members have all added to the journal, but each year it comes home with me.

The journal is a record of our family history. The year my father was in the hospital for Thanksgiving, we recorded how we baked in shifts so we could all take turns going to visit him. New births are recorded, as are tragedies.

We all cry when we see Mary Jane’s last entry in the journal tucked against my sister Susan’s words. Her simple message of love, written a month before she passed away, reminds us why we gather together for our annual tradition.

The day isn’t really about the cookies, although we do make some really good ones if I do say so myself. It’s a day full of love and laughter, and I wouldn’t want to start the holiday season any other way.

Being Number Six

All my life, I have been referred to as “number six” by my father. Dad used numbers to describe me and my five older sisters whenever he spoke about us to others. Sometimes we would be at a party and he would call us over to introduce us to a friend.

Have you met Caroline? She’s my number five daughter. Caroline – come over here!

When my parents were first taking me to medical appointments to determine the cause of my disability, Dad always pulled out his wallet whenever the nurse or social worker expressed astonishment upon learning I was the youngest of six girls. Beaming with pride he would flip through the photographs in the plastic sleeves, naming us and offering a tidbit of information he felt important to share.

That’s Susan, number one. She’s pregnant with our first grandchild. And Mary Jane, number two. She’s studying to be a violin teacher.

Photo of six white women varying in age and their elderly parents. One of the women, the author, is seated in a wheelchair.

Dad always said he didn’t care what jobs we did when we grew up, as long as we we did them to the best of our abilities and helped others along the way. When he bragged about us to my orthopedic surgeon, he was as proud of Donna as he was of Sandy.

Smart girls, both of them. All of my girls went to college, and hopefully Denise will too. 

Dad had his favorite stories about each of us. When we gathered as a group for a family dinner or celebration, he would reminisce and share his memories with whoever happened to be around the table. It didn’t matter if you had heard the story many times before, you still laughed when he talked about the time he sent the “five girls” (how he always spoke about my sisters before the time I arrived) outside with a gallon of white paint so he could watch a football game in peace and quiet while they painted the fence. My mother arrived home later that afternoon to find my sisters had used an entire can of paint on just five feet of fence, but also on the grass, rocks, their hair and clothes.

You should have seen her face! She was fit to be tied. You girls were covered in paint.

I was an adult before I realized how much Dad had worried about me. As a child, I never knew he was anxious about whether I would become ill, or if my disability would shorten my life. Then last year at our annual DiNoto cookie bake, he took my hand as I was telling him about work and gave it a squeeze.

Well Niecie, I guess I don’t have to worry about you dying young anymore.

I was stunned, but tried to laughingly reassure him I was doing just fine and was now too old to be considered young if I were to die. While I squeezed his hand in return, I asked if he was still truly worried about me that much.

When you were little, they couldn’t tell us much about what to expect for you. I’m your father. I worry about not just you, but all my girls, all the time. It’s what dads do.

That was the last time I saw my father in person, the last time I held his hand, the last time he pulled me in for a hug and kiss.

Three weeks later, my phone rang as I was returning home from my early morning swim on a cold December morning. When the caller ID on my phone read “Mom and Dad” but Caroline’s voice came through the line, I knew something was wrong. Caroline’s voice cracked as she told me Dad had died. I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, probably because some of the other sisters were trying to call me and my phone kept beeping with incoming calls.

The day passed in a blur as I made plans to leave for a week in my hometown. I washed and packed clothes, wrapped Christmas presents and prepared cookie trays while fielding calls and texts from friends and family. Eventually I crashed in bed, exhausted from crying on and off all day. I fell asleep reviewing my mental list of what was left to pack in the morning.

I dreamed about Dad that night. He was getting ready for a fishing trip. I was a child, standing next to the pile of his gear, watching as he packed the back of his truck. When he was done, he slammed the tailgate. Turning to me, he smiled and tucked my hair behind my ear.

Don’t worry Niecie. I’ll bring back enough for all of us.

 

 

30 Days of Thanks Day 29 – Donna

I share many traits and have many similarities to my five older sisters. People tell us we look alike, sound alike and talk alike. We all played musical instruments and were active in school music groups. And we all love to read.

My sister Donna is one of my regular reading buddies. Donna is fourteen years older than me, and I’m certain she is one of the reasons I love to lose myself in a good book. I often joke that my older sisters taught me to read at a young age because they were tired of reading to me. Donna would come home from college and I would pounce on her, begging her to play with me or read to me. Often, playing involved Donna curling my long hair, partaking in a tea party, and then reading as many books as I could convince her to read.

Donna and I regularly swap book and audiobook recommendations. Donna understands that a good book can be a valuable escape, and I have done my best to escape a great deal this past year. I told her about Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants, which I listened to during my stay at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital. She told me about a Jack Reacher mystery. We discussed Daniel Silva’s characters on the phone while I was recuperating at home. She mailed a copy of a book about a group of friends who start a cookie swap.

Donna lives in Florida, so I see her about once a year. Our visits are never long enough, but Donna does a wonderful job of staying in touch because Donna is the best card giver in the world. I don’t know how she does it, or how much time she must spend looking through the racks of greeting cards to find the perfect card. But, she always manages to get cards which are just right for every occasion.

This year, Donna sent me funny cards when I was in the hospital and needed a laugh. Then, one day when I was particularly low, a note of encouragement showed up with her return address on it. Sometimes Donna’s cards contain newspaper articles she has read which remind her of me. She surprised me with a clipping about a friend of mine, a former Ms. Wheelchair Florida, who lives about an hour away from her home. The penguin bookmark she sent me is inside a book next to my bed.

Five years ago, Donna flew up for my nephew’s wedding in Ticonderoga, NY. After a beautiful fall day on the shores of Lake George in the Adirondack mountains, I followed Donna and our sister Sandy into town where we had reservations at a local hotel. What followed was an adventure that still cracks us up – involving a convenience store restroom, men dressed in British Redcoats a la the American Revolution, the three of us sharing a king size bed at a Super 8 Motel, and getting lost in the village. We still laugh until we cry when we talk about the night we spent a weekend in Ticonderoga. I bet you she’s laughing right now after reading this.

Donna always makes me laugh. She brings so much humor into my life, making me realize there is always a reason to smile even when facing difficulties and obstacles.

Thank you Donna, for being a bright spot so frequently this year. I love our book discussions, even though my “to read” list grows every time we talk. Your little gifts make me think of you, bringing you closer to me even though you live far away. I am grateful you are not just my sister, but one of my dearest friends. I do my best to emulate your generosity and compassion for others. I just wish I had time and patience to find perfect cards for you. This post will have to do for now.

A woman seated in a wheelchair wearing a long pink dress and a pink shawl sits next to a woman wearing a black dress. The woman in the wheelchair has brown hair and is wearing glasses. She has a camera on her lap. The woman standing next to her is holding a glass and a blue shawl.

30 Days of Thanks Day 26 – Mary Jane

Today is the annual DiNoto Cookie Bake, a day my family gathers to start our holiday baking. I have written about our annual tradition before in this post. The day started in 1990, while I was living in Australia as an exchange student. My mom was missing “her baby,” so my sisters Donna and Caroline suggested they join her for a day of baking cookies. Twenty-six years later, we still gather on the Saturday after Thanksgiving at my sister Caroline’s house.

My late sister Mary Jane loved baking with her sisters. When we gathered together each year Mary Jane made the Russian Tea Cakes, pecan shortcake balls rolled in confectioner’s sugar, and the chocolate thumbprints, a recipe from our Grandma DiNoto. Mary Jane’s Russian Tea Cakes were perfection – buttery goodness that melted in your mouth.

Mary Jane joined us for the last time at cookie bake five years ago. She arrived with her youngest daughter Karen that Saturday morning, shortly after Mom had finished the first tray of her oil cookies. Before Karen even had even removed her coat, Mary Jane had her apron out and was asking Karen to tie it behind her back. A few minutes later, Mary Jane’s oldest daughter Sara surprised us when she arrived with her family.

That last year Mary Jane, who never ate cookies during our annual cookie bake, tested each and every type of cookie we made, smiling her enjoyment with each mouthful. She rolled the Russian teacakes in sugar, put mini chocolate chips in the chocolate thumbprints, and gave directions to Karen when Karen helped fill the kolachki cookies. Other family members stopped in throughout the day and many photos were taken. It was the last time all six DiNoto girls were together as Mary Jane died one month later.

Cookie Bake 2012, the first year we baked without Mary Jane, was emotional. More than once, we had to take a break to shed a tear or offer each other a hug. But, that year was also full of joyfull moments like watching Emily, Mary Jane’s granddaughter, having a tea party with her Noni, my mom, or laughing when Mom put an apron on Sara’s husband Will. We did our best to soldier on as Mary Jane would have wanted us to, knowing the day has never really been about the cookies. It wasn’t until after lunch that we realized nobody had made Russian teacakes or chocolate thumbrints, the recipes Mary Jane had always been responsible for at our annual Cookie Bake.

Mary Jane was admitted to inpatient hospice a month after Cookie Bake. I spent several hours at her bedside each day for the week she was a patient. As I helped her eat soup the second night, she told me she had always wanted to write a book about her sisters. I sat with tears streaming down my face, her strong hand clasped in my weak grip, listening to her talk about her writing dreams. Then she asked me to make her a promise.

You have to do it for me. You have to write it. Promise me you’ll write the book. And stop crying!

It took me a couple of years to work up the courage, but this year – a year of one challenge after another – I am finding refuge in writing. I have an outline, and I am spending time each day writing some of our sister stories. I hear Mary Jane’s quiet voice in my head encouraging me to write, and I’m doing my best to honor her spirit and the promise I made.

Thank you Mary Jane, for helping me find a purpose for my writing. I hope I tell our sister stories in a way which would please you. I am grateful for the chance to share memories which keep us connected. Although many of them cause me to cry at my keyboard, they also make me smile. We all miss you so much every day, but especially today – a day you always enjoyed when we were together.

Today, as we measure flour, sugar and butter, we remember we are surrounded by that which can never truly be measured. Love and support from family and sisters mean more than the confections we create as a group. We carry on with traditions, relishing memories while welcoming new bakers into the fold. Mary Jane’s son and daughter-in-law are joining us today for their first Cookie Bake, reminding us part of our dear sister is still with us whenever we gather as a group.

Mary Jane and Denise - Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her sister. Both women are wearing green Santa hats and holiday aprons over red shirts.
Mary Jane and I, matching and sporting aprons made for us by our sister Donna. Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto.