I don’t make Christmas cookies with my kids.
It’s not that I don’t want to—I love cookies, and I love cooking, and I love my kids—so you’d think those things would go together nicely.
Except that, when I make cookies, my heart starts racing and I forget to breathe. I start moving as quickly as I can, trying to get the process over with, all the while giving myself a pep talk and attempting to feel my feet on the floor; saying things like “I’m okay. It’s okay. I’m safe. It’s 2019. I can do this. I can handle this.”
My heart rate doesn’t come down until the last cookie is out of the oven, and the kitchen is clean again. That’s the reason I’m rushing. I have to get that kitchen clean. I have to hand wash all of those dishes immediately, even though I have a dishwasher that most of them could go in. I have to put everything back the way I found it.
You see, if I don’t, my mother will come and get me.
Okay, that sounded creepy. My mother won’t actually come and get me. There are four hundred miles and a state line between us. But the one that lives in my mind will. That voice that follows me around, judging me, criticizing me, pointing out everything I’ve ever done wrong—it’s her voice. In my nightmares I see her staring at me, telling me with her eyes that she hates me even as she sucks me dry.
Except, I see that when I’m wide awake too.
When I was fourteen, my mother wanted us all to make Christmas cookies together. Shape cookies. The kind you cut out with whimsical metal cutters and frost and decorate with sprinkles. We had a nice collection of cookie cutters, some from my mother’s childhood, bent with age and charming. It should have been a nice way to spend a December afternoon.
Except, I hate making cookies with her, and those cookies in particular. The activity combined everything she detested—messes, cooking, and me. It was sprinkle-littered ordeal punctuated by my mother’s iconic sighs of disapproval—sounds that hurt more than yelling ever could. It took hours to complete, and by the end I’d be an exhausted basket case of nerves. And, to top it all off, the cookies weren’t any good. Nobody ate them until weeks later when the other desserts were gone and they tasted like stale, sad cardboard.
So that year, I said no. I didn’t want to make the cookies, and I wasn’t going to. I was going to my room, and I was going to read, and that was that.
You would have thought I’d set the house on fire.
My mother got my father, her faithful stooge, involved, and the two of them cornered me, my father spewing venom about what an ungrateful brat I was. I knew that this argument was leading up to them spanking me, and I saw red. I was NOT going to be spanked anymore. I didn’t care if they grounded me, or punished me some other way; but damn it, I was fourteen fucking years old—I was in high school! I was far too old for corporal punishment. It was simply not going to happen again.
As my father came at me, I slid into a wider, lower stance, and started using the blocks I’d learned in the karate class I’d been taking at the YMCA. I hadn’t planned to react that way, it was an in-the-moment decision. And for a moment, it felt so, so good.
But only for a moment.
My father told me to “stop using that karate shit on him,” and redoubled his efforts. Once my mother got involved it was a lost cause. I wasn’t very large and I was still basically a child, while they were two full grown adults. My father grabbed me under my arms and my mother grabbed my ankles, and they dragged me down the stairs and shoved me out the front door.
“Come back in when you’re ready to act like an adult,” they said, slamming the door in my face and locking it tight.
It was a relatively mild day—for December in a place of the world that regularly saw snow and sleet that time of year. I stood there on my front stoop in my stocking feet, with no shoes, no coat; evicted from the house by my parents. I stood there in shock at first, but then my survival brain started whirring. I had to get around to the back of the house before they thought to lock that door too. If I could beat them, I could at least get my shoes.
I sprinted to the back door—the door was unlocked—I gasped for breath, my heart pounding with the adrenaline. I had just gotten my shoes on my feet when my father confronted me, demanding I get back outside. I looked at him and told him calmly that I had only come in to get my shoes, while my blood pounded in my ears. When he didn’t engage me further, I turned and walked back out the door.
I didn’t even take my coat with me.
I walked across our backyard, through the neighbor’s yard, and through a few more yards. This was out beyond the limits of town—there were no fences or sidewalks or street lamps. It was a gray day, as I remember, and the sun would be setting soon. Eventually I came to a house where a young lady, Hannah, lived. She was in college, and she had baby-sat for my siblings and me in the past. I liked her and I looked up to her, and for some reason, I thought she would understand.
Hannah and her mother were surprised to see me, but they sat me down at their kitchen table and listened to my tale of woe. I still remember the looks on their faces as they tried to think of something to say. They seemed entirely at a loss as to what they should do. In the end, they told me to try to be patient and trust that things would get better. Then they sent me back home.
I was glad that they had listened to me—but I knew that things were never going to change.
My parents said nothing to me when I got home. I went to my room and stayed there. At some point they informed me that my punishment would be that I was not allowed to perform with the church choir for Christmas Mass. I protested that this was unfair to the other people in the all-volunteer choir who were counting on me to be there, but this was ignored. Besides, I should be happy to get off so lightly.
I suppose I might have asked why I was being punished further, being as I’d already been shoved outside the house on a winter day with no shoes or coat—but it didn’t occur to me at the time. Somehow I’d known, even when I’d been sitting in the safety of Hannah’s house, that there would be more punishment waiting for me when I went home. It’s just the way things were.
On Christmas Day, I sat with my family in the pew while the choir performed without me. I tried to keep my face as impassive as possible—I hated how reactive I was and how my parents would use this to make fun of me and as proof that I was a childish baby. But my throat was tight with my unshed tears. Afterwards my father told me that he was proud of me because I’d borne my punishment with “Christ-like dignity.”
At the time, I stared at him in disbelief that he’d said such a thing. But looking back now, I wish I’d asked him: “If I’m taking my punishment like Christ, who does that make you?”
So, no, I don’t make Christmas cookies with my kids. Not now. Not yet. And it hurts me and I feel guilty about it. And maybe all this is why it’s hitting me so hard this year that I’m not able to sing. I’ve been off work, crippled by my PTSD for months, and I thought I’d gotten used to it. But, if I were busy with singing gigs, like I usually am this time of year, I’d be able to use that as my excuse for not making those baking memories with my little ones. Instead, I can’t escape the real reason that I avoid it. And the fact that I’ve been sidelined reminds me so much of that year when my parents put me on the bench.
Looking back, I wonder why Hannah’s mother didn’t call the cops when I brought her my story. I guess there wasn’t any proof, and I guess she had no way of knowing that this was not an isolated event, never to be repeated. And I don’t know if I would have been better off if they had called the police. As Aslan said, we’re never told what would have happened.
I want so badly to be free of these memories—or at least to have them stay memories, and not triggers that engage my limbic system and cause it to send me into the fight/flight/freeze/appease response that they do now.
I want to make cookies with my kids. I love cooking, and messes, and children, and all of them together. But that’s not going to happen this year.
I want to sing. I’m good at it, I love performing, I love music, and I think I love God (as much as I understand what love is at all) and I love all of them together. But that’s not going to happen this year either.
I feel that I’ve hit rock bottom more than once this year—but maybe, in a way, that’s a good thing.
Maybe there’s nowhere left to go but up.