Michele Hempel

2022 Spring Journal

Dad’s Butterscotch Cookies

One grandma baked. The other one typed. Over 60 years later the recipe is on track to outlive the aged brown, stained, and torn typing paper it was recorded on.

The original name of the cookie was simply Butterscotch Cookies. My dad’s favorite. Crunchy. Sweet and a bit salty. And if a little burnt all the better.  When I began baking them for him, likely in high school or before (mom inherited her typing mother’s aversion to baking) they quickly became known as “Dad’s Cookies”. My siblings and I still refer to them as such, although my sons and their offspring know them as “Grandpa’s Cookies”. Since my husband is now a grandpa, the reference is getting to be even more of a misnomer, but the fondness for the cookie continues across the generations.

As does the story of what happens when a typing grandma attempts to transcribe the art of baking. The aged, crumbling paper “directs” the reader as such:

1 lb. margarine
1 lb brown sugar
2 eggs
2 Tsp. baking powder
4 C flour
2 Tsp. vanilla
Nuts – 350 oven

That’s it. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. Never mind the detail of softening the margarine before creaming it with the dark brown sugar and before adding the eggs. Or the warning that adding 4 cups of flour at once results in an early white Christmas and a stalled mixer – even the heavy duty kind. Not mentioned is that the ‘nut’ element actually refers to a cup or so of whole, raw, almonds, roasted at 350 degrees on a greased cookie sheet for 8-10 minutes, stirring so as not to burn, and then, chopping and cooling them before adding.  

For the bakers who are still with me (I’m sure the typists have left by now) there’s the next step of taking sections of the dough, rolling them into logs, wrapping them in wax paper and refrigerating them for at least 4 hours. Step three is slicing those logs into 1/4 inch pieces, laying flat on a cookie sheet and yes, baking them in a 350 oven. And so as not to leave you in suspense – for another 8-10 minutes.

Step four, after cooling a few minutes on the pan, remove and place on cut up brown paper grocery bags and let cool completely. Store in tins or tupperware. Will keep for weeks – if they last that long.

Thank goodness I started making these when baking grandma was still around to ask questions! Fortunately, I was able to capture her baking wisdom more fully for these cookies as well as for her Crescent ones.  Now as far as her Sugar Cookies, Split Seconds, Jewish Butter Cookies, Peanut Butter Cookies, Philadelphia Cheese Cake and Fruit Cocktail Cake recipes  go – your guess is probably as good as mine – and, I guarantee you, much better than typing Grandma’s.

Things I’ve inherited (and not, but wished I had, etc.)

My dining room is smaller than hers was, yet I’ve managed to cram every piece of her furniture into it. The round back chairs have lost some of their sturdiness. The hutch’s cabinet has a creak I don’t remember growing up with. The small phone table with its matching miniature chair no longer holds a black, rotary dial phone or pad and pen for writing messages. And don’t go looking in its single drawer for a phonebook, neither the three inch thick ones of Donnelly fame or the hand written scribbled ones with as many cross outs as it has pages.

Even her Credenza, standing 6 feet tall with rounded glass sides banking the decorative wood and glass, key locking door, claims one of the only two windowless walls in that room. Who would have ever imagined that as many times as we were reminded (read, screamed at) to “Watch out for the Credenza!”, that that favorite, cherished, dearly expensive and fragile piece of  my grandma’s dining set would have outlasted her – despite being carted from Chicago to Glenview to Milwaukee and back to Carol Stream in the back of trucks? (It may have taken us a while to realize the treasure we actually had.) I have “watched out “ for that Credenza for nearly seventy years now, long enough to repeat those ominous words to all of my own grandchildren, hopefully, in a less desperate tone.

And even though its back is to the dining room, and it is formally considered part of the living room, grandma’s ivory on ivory, channel back, wing chair holds court as the matron of all the new furnishings which come and go in that room. None who could ever hope to survive as many trends and decades as she has.

I don’t know if Ma ‘Ganci (our grandkids, name for my dad’s mother) ever intended me to “inherit ”her precious pieces, but when my dad downsized  her to a smaller apartment, closer to him, he was determined to keep those keepsakes-in-the-making in the family. At that time I had the room, the willingness and the proximity to accept most of them. When grandma passed on, a few years later, the wing back chair and phone desk, of course, had to come to me, proclaimed dad, as I already had the other pieces. The almighty Credenza made it’s way out of state to my sister’s home in Wisconsin for a few years. When she downsized her marriage and home to a single’s life, I re-inherited that too.

Things that I didn’t inherit from Ma Ganci, but wish I had, was a memorable, purplish glass, stacked balls shaped pen she kept at that phone desk. I remember once asking her if I could have it when she died. I was likely around four or five, making her not even 60. My mom chided me for asking and I never did get an answer – or that pen. Some things I did inherit that I would have preferred not to include: her wide feet and arthritic knees, her penchant for bakery goods and a metabolism and body shape that, truly, did not need to be passed on to any future generations.

I love her furniture pieces, however, for their beauty, their history, their memories. I think when they all came to live with me, parts of Ma Ganci must have too. When I took a course in writing children’s books a few years back, she was the center of at least half of them. Her influence on me as a child, and as an adult, seems larger and more magnificent than even her beautiful Credenza. 

Mommy Squirrel

My backyard bumps up against an undeveloped acre full of trees, which, in this early Spring, hosts branches, black and bare, brush, and a pond that can only be seen when all said branches are black and bare. Within that wooded lot, many creatures reside or visit.

The other day there was horse. I heard him before I saw his unsaddled self. I knew by the heaviness of his hoof breaking branches and twigs that something big would emerge from those black and bare limbs. My guess and/or fear was a coyote. I know that they visit, roam and feast back there. The sight of the beautiful, blond horse delighted me, although I wondered if it had somehow, escaped its barn on the other side of the pond.

Even more wondrous, lately, is the mommy squirrel that has recently vacated those black and bare branches and relocated to our barbecue.

The gas barbecue on our deck is my husband’s domain. I’m sure I could figure out how to use it if I wanted to, but, I don’t, so…  I, also, don’t try to tell him how to take care of it. So when he leaves it uncovered and unused during the harsh winter months, I stay out of it.

Which is opposite tact mommy squirrel took, however. She decided to move into it – through the back, somehow. It was about three weeks ago when I spotted her toting a mouthful of dried leaves as she pranced across our wooded railing and then disappeared into the barbecue.  She emerged a brief time late, mouth empty and feet scurrying back into the woods for another munch of nest building materials. Yes, our mommy-to-be-squirrel had decided to skip the traditional birth in branches scenario, for the more modern, babies in a BBQ one.

My husband and I watched her continue to build that creative, industrious nest, day after day, for almost two weeks. At which point, he of the barbecue domain, decided to lift the lid, exposing the massive, impressive handiwork of one determined mom, in hopes of discouraging her plans for it.

When I began to protest his undermining of mommy squirrel’s birth plan, he insisted, “What? I checked. There weren’t any eggs.”

Eggs? I have to admit, it took me a minute. We were much more familiar with the robin nests that sprang up in both our front and back yards each Spring. But still…

I left the barbecue opened for a day. Even without the lid in place, the nest of leaves held its sturdy shape. Like I said, impressive!

Which is why when I saw the mommy-to-be-squirrel return, she looked not only confused, but crestfallen.  All of her hard work, all of her mouthfuls of lifeless leave, all of her hopes and dreams to provide as best she could for her impending little ones – all uprooted by some random guy who thought she laid eggs???

No woman, much less a mom, could witness another mom endure this and not act. I re-closed the BBQ. The nest rebuilding commenced, almost immediately.

I haven’t see mommy-to-be-squirrel in a day or so. Maybe she has taken her birthing place among the dried leaves in that shiny metal bassinet.

We won’t peek. We’ll just let nature take its course – which, according to my research, will allow our barbecue to return to its original purpose, hopefully, by Labor Day.

Michele Hempel is a recently retired psychotherapist and aspiring writer who is breathlessly awaiting the birth of her grandtwins!

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