Remembering another November 13

It was one of those days I’ll always remember. And it makes me wonder why so many of “those days” people say are memorable are for something bad that happened…like the day Kennedy was shot, or the day Reagan was shot, or the day the Challenger shuttle exploded, or of course, 9/11. Can’t say I remember many really happy days in that way — my wedding day stands out, but little else. Maybe because I never had a child — do moms & dads remember their kids’ birth days that way? Or is the brain pre-wired to remember trauma more than delight? To feel pain more deeply than joy?

November 13, 2001, is memorable for me because it’s the day my dad died. Unexpectedly, though, thankfully, peacefully in his sleep. I remember everything about that day and the next few. As hard as they were, they answered a question that had troubled me for a long time — what would it be like to lose someone so close to me?

Until you live through it, you can’t know. But once you do, I think there’s a certain peace in that knowing. A “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” kind of peace amid the pain and sorrow. It allows you to understand and feel a kinship with others who have experienced similar losses — you’re all part of the club now. You know what it’s like. You can empathize, rather than simply sympathize.

Of course, I was very lucky to delay that experience until adulthood — how horrible, and how different, for a child to go through the same thing. I can’t imagine any peace in that circumstance.

I’ll spend today focusing on the good things I remember about my dad, and the positive lessons I took away from that sad day 8 years ago. It’s a luxury not everyone has — to remember a life and a death in a reflective, peaceful way — and I’m thankful.

We understand death for the first time
when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.
~ Madame de Stael

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Eight is enough

I’m a Christmas cookie baker. For many years now, I’ve made dozens of cookies to share with family and friends. This year, I made 8 different kinds over the last few days, now safely stowed in the freezer to be doled out liberally over the next couple weeks.

But I was itching to try just one more. A new recipe called “Hungarian Pinwheel Cookies Featuring Poppy Seed Filling.” It was the poppy seeds that got me. You see, my dad was a wonderful baker. Mostly breads, except for one phenomenal exception: poppy seed roll. Every year, on special holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, we were treated to this amazing concoction. I can still see it, on the cabinet in the kitchen, on a cookie sheet, under a towel. I can still taste it, moist, sweet, unique. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

But none of us ever learned how to make it, and I’ve never found his recipe, except for the dough (I think). But not for that incredible filling. So when I saw this cookie recipe, I just had to try it. It had simple step-by-step instructions, and even pictures along the way, including this one of the finished product.

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Mmmmm. Don’t they look good?

Yup, too good to be true.

I should have known I was doomed when I couldn’t find Baker’s poppy seed filling. I’m pretty sure this is what my dad used, although I think he doctored it up pretty good (maybe adding raisins?). But Wal-Mart had none, and Giant Eagle had every other kind of Baker’s filling imaginable — except this one. Just the telltale label on an empty section of shelf.

I remembered the store had baking items in other places, especially at the holidays. After spending a good 15 minutes searching, I managed to find some near the bakery. Looked kinda funny. In fact, when Mike saw it on the counter at home, he said, “What the heck is that?” despite the clearly labeled (and clear) package.

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I won’t tell you what he said it looked like, but it wasn’t flattering.

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I tasted a bit and thought, “UGH.” It was nothing like I expected. But how bad could it be? Nothing ventured…

So I dug in, following the directions to make a “soft dough,” rolling out the sticky mess between wax paper, and refrigerating it “until firm.” I couldn’t fit it in the freezer, which the recipe advised I may want to do if the dough was too soft. (Yeah, turns out I should have found a way to freeze it like a rock.)

I’m not much of a dough chiller. After 40 minutes, it was past 10:00 o’clock and I was ready to be done with the darn cookies. So I went at it anyway, spreading the disgusting poppy seed mess over the dough and attempting to roll it all up in a neat tube — just like the picture showed. The key, the recipe urged, was to roll tightly. Success, it cautioned, depended on how tightly you rolled up the dough along with its filling.

I failed miserably. The dough stuck to the waxed paper, the poppy seed filling bled through, and I ended up with not the lovely pinwheels in the picture, but these blobby messes.

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Well, I’m not Martha (obviously). So at least if they tasted good, I could live with them.

But no such luck. Trust me, they don’t taste any better than they look.

So, Mike finally has his answer to “When can I eat cookies?” (Now dear, choke down as many of these as you like.), and I still have 8 kinds of lovely, edible cookies to share. Eight is definitely enough. Don’t worry family and friends, you won’t be getting these!

But, alas, my craving remains. I looked a bit longingly at the poppy seed roll at the bakery at Giant Eagle. But I’ve had it before — a poor substitute, even at $7.99.

So if there was ever any doubt, I now know for sure what I’d ask for “If I could have anything I wanted for Christmas…” — Dad’s poppy seed roll, and him here to bake it.

Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.
                                                                          ~ Gloria Naylor