The envelope was sandwiched between a November 1968 Good Housekeeping magazine and the latest edition of Arizona Highways. I nearly missed it among the clutter of holiday advertisements piled in the bottom of the mailbox. It was a small envelope, probably left over from a box of old Christmas cards. The edges were worn and stained on the lower corners. She had scrawled my address across the face in blue ink – she never used black – and had only written “Wilson” in the upper corner as a clue to her identity. Nevertheless, I knew who the letter was from.
My mother never wrote. She preferred phone calls every other week on Sunday afternoons while my father watched his weekly football game. I would call from a pay phone, armed with just enough change to cover the cost of about eight minutes – enough time to catch up on family news, her nasty neighbors, my grandparents’ health, and a bit of chatter about my job and the weather, but not long enough for any in-depth probing into my personal life. She would start with questions right out of the gate – plenty of them - delivered in a rat-a-tat style that reminded me of machine guns firing away in old black-and-white movies about World War II – but I was a hard nut to crack, and the sixteen-hundred miles between Wilmington, Delaware and Phoenix, Arizona prohibited unexpected drop-in visits or protracted long-distance phone conversations with her reluctant daughter.
I fingered the envelope warily as I opened the front door of my tiny one-bedroom efficiency apartment. The envelope was thin, and I doubted it held more than one undersized slip of paper. Fearing a written diatribe about a subject I probably couldn’t remember, I deposited it on the kitchen table along with the rest of the magazines, the latest Book-of-the-Month Club selection and the local newspaper, and headed for the kitchen for a cold drink.
I opened the refrigerator door and enjoyed the sudden onslaught of cold air as it poured out of the metal box. It had been a hot day, easily in the 80s, and the walk home from work had seemed long. Even though I worked in an air-conditioned office, there was something wonderful about the first good wave of refrigerated air. Such a delicious and immediate feeling of relief. I lifted a pitcher of iced tea from a middle shelf, grabbed a glass from the drying rack on the counter, and wandered back to the kitchen table. The letter lay there, taunting me. I eased onto a comfortable chair, poured myself a drink, and picked up the envelope, slowly examining all of its surfaces for clues to the contents inside. Nothing. Oh, well, I thought, better get it over with…
The paper was white and lined, with rounded corners and a raggedy edge along the left-hand side, presumably torn from a small, old-fashioned notebook. More blue ink and surprisingly meaningful contents:
Dear Barbara –
Here are the recipes for the cookies we used to make when we lived on Clayton Street.
Fancy Christmas Cookies
½ pound of butter 1-1/2 cups sugar
4 cups of flour 2 eggs 1-1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder 1/2 tsp salt
2-3 tsp milk.
Chill the dough. Grease pans? Bake at 400 until lightly brown.
6 cups flour 1/2 tsp baking powder
6 eggs – fluffy 1/2 cup sugar
Add to eggs 1/2 lb of melted butter, juice of 1 orange + and grated rind of 1/2 lemon.
Grease pan – 375 – lightly brown.
Roll dough into balls – smaller than golf balls – Ice when cool with white, pink & chocolate.
That was it. No signature. No “Love, Mother.” Just the recipes as she remembered them.
I sat in my kitchen in the middle of the Arizona desert on a warm December day, staring out the window at turquoise water sparkling in a kidney-shaped swimming pool. A bristly cactus garden stood tall in the corner of the entranceway to the complex, shallow roots planted firmly in a white stone bed. Palm fronds arched gracefully against the blue desert sky, and the pink adobe cottages across the courtyard formed neat clusters of one-story housing for families with more than two members. And I thought of autumn in the East, of trees brilliantly colored, the leaves falling into the gutters lining the narrow city streets, of orange pumpkins in the fields, and dried, brittle corn stalks marching along country roads, Thanksgiving over, a hint of Christmas in the air. And I remembered the Christmas that I was seven and she baked holiday cookies for the very first time. And she let me help.
And for the first time in a very long time, I thought wistfully of home.
Barbara E. Gray is the Administrative Manager of the Center for Pediatric Research at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. She was awarded the Delaware Division of the Arts 2015 Individual Artist Fellowship for Emerging Fiction, and is the Director of the Delaware Literary Connection and a host for 2nd Saturday Poets in Wilmington, Delaware.