Essay: Norman Rockwell in Real Life

Dec 23, 2016

The classic images of Christmas so often include food: families sitting serenely around a table filled with food; Santa Claus, climbing down the chimney with a picturesque plate of cookies awaiting him.

For some, these familiar scenes set the standard for the ideal Christmas experience. But as Lake Effect essayist Meagan Schultz explains, real life doesn’t often imitate art.

In a Norman Rockwellian holiday picture, the aproned mother would be smiling sweetly, mixing bowl wedged in the crook of her arm, whisking the batter while her children vie for her attention at her side, begging to be the first to press the cookies.

In normal real life, it’s my sister mixing the dough with a wet towel wrapped around her head and yesterday’s makeup smudged below her eyes. She’s just out of the shower and is determined to make three different kinds of cookies with our children, aged four, three, two and one all before naptime and it’s already noon. I am her assistant for the annual Christmas cookie bake. Neither of us are wearing an apron, but we are both sporting our oversized, overstretched Target maternity tank tops that we still wear on a daily basis despite neither of us having been pregnant for almost a year (two in my case!). She doesn’t have a rolling pin, so we makeshift a wine bottle (thankfully she drinks cabs and not pinots) and I get to tossing flour directly onto her kitchen’s granite countertop, quickly judging with a finger swipe that it’s clean enough.

We have this idea that the kids will flock to us once they see how much fun this Christmas cookie tradition will be, perhaps arguing over who will get the reindeer and who will get the candy cane cutter, anxious to be a part of the action.

Instead, we are begging them to enjoy this.

“Come over here Sweetie! Don’t you want to taste the dough?” my sister sing-songs in her high pitched happy voice to her daughter who is playing on the floor with her cousins.

My niece hardly looks up.

“Hey buddy, come see these cookie cutters,” I ask my son, “which one do you want?” hoping the word “cookie” will lure him to me.

It works, but only for a moment. He walks toward the table where I’ve laid the cutters, but gets distracted by his cousin’s Doc McStuffin’s stethoscope along the way and turns his attention to these new-fangled earplugs and his own heartbeat.

In the end, the kids cut one or two cookies apiece and eat at least four or five in raw dough alone. Though we probably should be worried about salmonella, neither of us blink at this. Perhaps it’s because we’re eating just as much of it as the kids, only we pretend otherwise, eating ours on the sly.

In the end, it’s me and my sister making five dozen cookies while the grandparents and husbands laze around her living room, entertaining the kids, watching cartoons, asking if we need help with no intention of actually helping should we say yes.

We’re laughing, wiping flour from our faces, scraping dough off the floor, and swearing when we discover we’ve forgotten to set the timer and we’ve burnt an entire tray of sugar cookies. Again.

“These are just the way I like them,” my husband says, eating a few crispy brown reindeer straight from the cookie sheet to make my sister feel better.

My sister is nine years younger than I am, so by the time she was old enough to appreciate the rituals of the holiday season, I was gone. I don’t remember baking with her, or caroling, or decorating the tree, though of course we would have overlapped for at least a half dozen years before I left for college. And no doubt I returned home for the holidays for a few years at least, until I moved overseas and only made it home sporadically.

So perhaps we are baking these cookies today for ourselves, and not our own kids, for the childhood we missed together. When I look over at her with flour all over her faded yoga pants, there’s a part of me that wants to bust out with a chorus of Irving Berlin’s ‘Sisters’ song made famous in White Christmas.

We all have an idealized vision of what holidays will look like when we have our own children. And of course, it never turns out like the picture. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s better.

Essayist Megan Schultz is a writer who lives on the east side of Milwaukee. She is a contributing writer for MKE Moms Blog and has had her work published on Brain, Child Magazine’s blog, and elsewhere.