A strong figure from my childhood, Ethel the Cookie Lady, exerts her influences over my life fifty years later. She and her sugar cookies, that is. Ethel, a kind, elderly widow, daughter of the town's doctor, mother of three sons that she outlived, and grandmother of several biological grandkids as well as 'grandma' to a host of community kids. Everyone knew Ethel. In her little house in our small Ohio farming community, she arose extra early once or twice a month and baked dozens and dozens of brown sugar cookies, using a recipe she gleaned from her Aunt Ruth.
Ethel stacked the still-warm golden orbs in her egg basket, an aged woven carry-all with a dark-brown, warm glowing patina created by time and use.
Dressed in her ‘public’ clothes, nylons, fresh pressed cotton dress, a pat of powder on her nose and basket slung over her forearm, she set out from her little house. Along the way Ethel stopped at friends’ houses — my parents’ house included. There she left a dozen cookies, a few loving touches, kind words and news of friends. Her smile lingered in our thoughts just as her lavender sachet scented the air, surprising us long after she trudged down the sidewalk to her next stop.
Long after she died, I resurrected her with each batch of fresh-baked cookies.
My sons associated her cookies with Ethel stories and often requested both the sweets and the stories. I felt her gentle hugs and feathery kisses as I scooped fragrant cookies from the oven.
I sought other ways to include sugar cookies in our house.
My husband and I, in a fit of grandiose ideas, bought a fixer-upper. We took pity on this little house that teetered on the brink of demolition. If we didn’t buy it, someone would tear it down. Josie Hall lived there and died there, taking her last breath after 98 years. The house’s history was as old as the farming community that had sprung up around it.
Yet for the past few decades elderly women resided in this elderly house. Both deteriorated. The windows rattled, the sills rotted, the floor joists in the front room had given way. The hard wood floors listed at an odd angle reminiscent of some carnival ride where people rode round and round on pieces of burlap until disappearing through a big hole.
The kitchen bore layers of grease and very little paint. Yet, with idyllic dreams of making a home and saving a house, we set to work.
After years of drywall dust and money spent on things that don’t show — plumbing, electrical wiring, studs, floor joists and sub-floorings, we arrived at the day when I could begin to decorate.
What color paint did I chose? Sugar Cookie.
While my husband painted, I baked Ethel’s recipe. We toasted the newly painted walls with sugar cookies. For a decade we covered scuffs and scars on the living room walls with the same toasty brown sugar cookie paint.
Years later, with children grown, our fixer-upper renovated, we moved into a different house that needed to feel like home. I shopped for paint for a small bedroom soon to become my new home office. I didn’t know what colors to chose.
It shouldn’t look like a bedroom, although that’s what it had always been. I sought a décor that fit such words as “sophisticated” and “smart.” Words that never described me, but maybe with the right décor, they would.
I found a bouquet of silk flowers sporting a mix of colors that I admired. Champagne beige, khaki green, vibrant red, dusky purple, rosy apricot. I took the faux flowers to the paint store where the head of the paint department mixed paint to match my bouquet. I decided to try a faux painting design to go with my faux flowers.
Steve the paint-store guy made no judgments, just worked with me to find the exact color to match the hydrangea in my bouquet -- a cross between a champagne and an apricot.
With anticipation, I brought home my cans of paint and swiped the roller across one wall. The first room that I have decorated just for me, using only my own imagination and yearnings, began to come together. I anxiously applied the paint. It rolled on smoothly and I stood back to admire that first strip of color. Flamingo something the sample said.
But as I stared at the wall, I knew.
Twenty years later, Sugar Cookie is now called Flamingo something.
I feel the need to bake.
Recipe: Aunt Ruth Sugar Cookies
by Ethel Helser
3 cups brown sugar 1 cup sour milk (or buttermilk) 1 1/4 cups shortening
(or spry) 3 eggs 1 tspn. cream of tartar 1 tablespoon baking soda 6 cups flour
(or more) 1 tspn. salt 1 tspn. nutmeg (scant and optional) vanilla (about 1
tspn) bake: 350 degree oven for 5/6 minutes on each rack for a total of 10-12
minutes Mix, roll out on floured surface, cut with round cutter, about 2-3
inches diameter (drinking glass works). Good with frosting or sprinkled with
sugar while still warm.