Every time I eat one of my great grandmother’s sugar cookies, I think not of her but of her daughter, Vida, my grandmother. Lest you think this is some nostalgic view, let me be clear that my grandmother was not all kitted socks and hot cocoa. Frankly, she was often sharp, pointed, and downright mean. She had an unnerving way of telling me I looked or was either fat or unkempt. My grandmother was proper to a T, wearing skirts and hose and lipstick to her very last days.
But I loved her. She smelled tangy and soft, spice and baby powder. She loved to laugh and dish while she sipped the second of her after 5 pm cocktails. She was no nonsense. I always—even if I didn’t like what she had to say—knew where she stood.
One time, though, I saw how she didn’t want to hurt people. How she’d cherished each and every close encounter of her life. In the months before she died, my mother and I went to visit her in Florida. She’d been given a terminal diagnosis, but things were going slow, the cancer deadly, but progressing at a snail’s pace, giving us time to be together and take care of what needed taking care of. This visit, we were clearing out her apartment so she could move to the assisted care section of her complex, when she brought out a box of letters and mementos. As a writer and a lover of all things historical, I was overjoyed. I began going through the box, exclaiming and commenting and asking questions. But then I found a letter written by my youngest sister Rebecca well over thirty years before. My sister had died ten years prior to this, and I felt stabbed in the heart. Here was her six-year-old handwriting, asking her grandmother to allow her to come visit when my younger sister Sarah and I came to visit our grandparents, a big trip all by ourselves without our parents.
Rebecca wrote, “I’ll be good. I promise.”
The letter had worked. All three of us had come to visit.
With the letter in my hand, I burst into tears. Somehow, the box was taken away, lunch was served, and I went out on a walk in the Florida heat.
Later that afternoon, I asked my mother what happened to the box of letters.
“Your grandmother threw them away,” she said.
“What?” My heart seemed to stop.
“She didn’t want to make you sad.”
I asked my mother where the garbage was, but she didn’t know. My grandmother was napping, and I didn’t want to bother her. So I went outside and searched around the building, but there was a curious lack of Dumpsters. Gone. All those letters. All that memory. All that life.
And within months, my grandmother did die, and the stories I might have known were gone as well.
I do have a lot of her with me. Other boxes were not thrown away. My grandfather’s mementos and relics from WWII. My grandmother’s family lineage, all the way back to the early 1700s in the US. Her DAR membership certificate. And her recipes. Hundreds of them. Her entertaining journal, who came, what was served.
And the sugar cookies. This is one of the central recipes in my new novel How to Bake a Man. In fact, it is my idea of perfection, and my main character Becca (named for my sister) is able to parlay this recipe and many more of my grandmother’s favorites into a changed life.
I might not know all I could about my grandmother. And yes, she had some sparky personality quirks that kept us from being truly close. But she loved me how she could. One of those ways was through her cookies. The mixing, rolling, and baking. The sharing, too.
Jessica Barksdale Inclán is the author of the new novel, How to Bake a Man (Ghostwood Books/October 2014) as well as twelve critically acclaimed books, including the best-selling Her Daughter's Eyes (YALSA Award Nominee), The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. Her work had been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Czech. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Storyacious, Mason's Road, and So to Speak. She is the recipient of Californian Arts Council Fellowship in Literature and a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension.
For more info, visit www.jessicabarksdaleinclan.com
How to Bake a Man
by Jessica Barksdale Inclan
Paperback: 280 pages
Publisher: Ghostwoods Books (October 21, 2014)
About the book:
When Becca Muchmore drops out of grad school, all she has left to fall back on is her baking. Ignoring her mother's usual barrage of disapproval and disappointment, she decides to start a small business hand-delivering her wares. A friend introduces her to an office of hungry lawyers, who agree to give her a try. Her lizard-booted neighbor Sal is happy to help out when he can, and almost before she knows it, Becca's Best is up and running.
Before she can settle into a routine, things get complicated. The office ogress could easily be Becca's sister and has absolutely no patience with cookies or other frivolities. Even worse, her boyfriend is the man of Becca's dreams--kind, funny, successful, and brain-meltingly gorgeous. As the dark undercurrents threaten to pull her down, Becca swiftly finds herself neck-deep in office politics, clandestine romance, and flour. Saving her business (and finding true love) is going to take everything she's got, and more.
Packed with charm, sparkling humor, and a genuinely unforgettable cast, this delicious tale of a woman struggling to find her path might just be Jessica Barksdale Inclán's finest novel to date.