“Mama! I see Grammy!”
Sarah waved to her grandmother as they pulled up the gravel driveway to the old Victorian house on the hill overlooking the busy waterfront across the street.
As soon as the van stopped, Sarah was out the door in a flash, not even needing her mother to unbuckle the car seat. There was no such thing as Sarah-proofing anything. Grammy bent down and gave Sarah’s blonde head a quick kiss, and then hugged her until she got tired of the bear hug and wriggled free.
“I’m so happy you came to see me today, honey,” Grammy said. “I’m baking some cookies for you and your brother. Your favorites—Grandma Lee’s Plain Cookies.”
“Is Grandma Lee coming over, too?” Sarah asked, hoping to see Grammy’s mother who had lived for many years in the small white house across the footbridge that separated her grandma’s and great-grandmother’s yards.
“No, Grandma Lee won’t be coming, sweetie. Remember, Grandma Lee doesn’t live here anymore. She lives in heaven now with Jesus. That’s why I made her cookies today; because I was thinking about her. Just think, someday she’ll bake us all her special cookies in a heavenly kitchen. Won’t that be wonderful?”
Sarah shrugged. She may have been wise for her years, but she still only had the life experience of a four-year-old. Without experiencing even the passing of a pet at this point in her life, Sarah was a bit unsure about what all that death talk meant. She knew the topic came up a lot in church, but other than knowing you got to go see Jesus after you died, she was still unclear about the process of how that actually happened. Did you get on a plane to fly up to heaven to meet Jesus? She gave up trying to decipher the intricacies of going to heaven and decided to concentrate on the here-and-now.
“Can I have a whole cookie this time?” Sarah asked, hopefully.
Grammy smiled at Sarah and said, “You know the rules, sweetie. Just half a cookie for little kids. Besides, you’ve gotta save room for your dinner.” Sarah sighed. She knew no argument could win out over the save-room-for-dinner comment adults frequently made to kids.
Eating a whole Plain Cookie in their family was actually a pretty big deal. The special family cookies were so big, they were almost a meal unto themselves. Sarah’s Great Grandma Lee had been making the giant sugar cookies for three generations of their family; and Grandma Lee’s mother had made the same cookies for several generations before that.
Along with the traditional cookie recipe, there was the same rule passed down through the generations—only half a cookie for small children. No whining or repeated begging allowed, or you’d find yourself with no cookie at all. The cookies were plain white in color, but with distinctive scalloped edges. They also contained a special secret ingredient that gave an almost haunting quality to the family’s favorite treat. The cookies were the highlight of all family gatherings. The best part, though, was the single raisin baked into the center of each giant cookie. When Grandma Lee broke the cookies in half for the younger kids to split, whoever received the half with the raisin in it got to make a wish. It was more fun than getting the large end of a wishbone. Grandma Lee always broke the cookie behind her back, warding off accusations by the littlest Lee’s of any possible favoritism.
Mama unpacked baby Neil and all his assorted paraphernalia from the van, giving Grammy a quick one-armed hug as they all headed up the steep stairs to the front door. Mama looked at Grammy with a worried expression. “Mom, I really think you and Dad need to think about moving. These stairs are dangerous. Now that your mother isn’t next door anymore, you really don’t need to stay in this big house.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Grammy answered with a tender smile. “The stairs don’t bother me, and your daddy and I always use the back door when it’s just the two of us here. You worry too much, my Annie. Daddy and I are fine. We might be getting older but we’re not dead yet, girly.” She winked at her daughter and then laughed softly. Her good-natured quiet humor brought a smile to Annie’s face. “Here, let me take the baby. You and Sarah can go help your father. He’s cleaning the fishpond.”
Sarah perked up at the mention of her grandfather. “Is the kitty helping him clean the pond?” Suddenly a worried expression crossed her face. “Oh, no! The kitty might eat the fishies, Mama! We’ve gotta hurry to help Grandpa save the fishies!” Sarah ran out the back door and down the grassy side yard, her mother jogging along behind her.
“Hi, Grampa! Where’s the kitty? Did he eat the fishies?”
“Hello there, pickle puss. Don’t worry, the cat didn’t eat the goldfish. See, the cat’s right over there on the edge of the pond and the fish are smart and hiding under the lily pads. Look over there. You can see an orange one peeking out at you.”
“Oh, I see him, Grandpa! Hi, fishy! What’s his name? Can I name him? I want to name him George. Can we name him George, Grandpa?”
“Sugar, you can name the fish anything you want. That reminds me, I finally named the cat.”
Sarah grinned from ear-to-ear. She’d been pestering her grandfather to name the stray cat that had appeared from the woods one day and adopted Grandpa, following him as he puttered around the yard on sunny days.
“What’s the kitty’s name, Grandpa?”
Grandpa’s eyes twinkled as he said, “C’mon.”
“Okay. Where are we going?”
“No, honey. The cat’s name is C’mon.”
“What?” Sarah crinkled her forehead, thinking hard. “You can’t name a kitty C’mon. That’s silly, Grandpa.”
“I didn’t name him. He named himself. Whenever I wanted him to follow me, I’d say ‘C’mon’ and he’d come. He decided all on his own that was his name.”
Sarah wasn’t sure if her grandfather was teasing her, or if the cat really had a strange new name. She decided to wait a bit before using the name so she wouldn’t look silly in case it was one of Grandpa’s jokes. Sarah might be only four but she had already learned her grandfather was only serious about half the time.
After scratching C’mon behind the ears for a few minutes and watching the goldfish swim lazily in the shade of the lilies, Sarah asked, “Mama, can I play by the creek?”
“All right, honey, but stay where I can see you. Don’t go behind the bushes, okay?”
Sarah’s grandparents’ yard was situated next to a small shallow creek that ran down off the hill, through their yard, into a culvert under the street, and then into the lake on the other side. The creek was backed on one side by a greenbelt that seemed to Sarah to go on forever. She called the greenbelt The Magic Woods, certain if she was quiet enough and waited long enough, she’d see fairies or gnomes. Sarah skipped to the creek’s edge so she could watch the familiar water striders suspended on top of the still water next to the shoreline.
“Look, Mama! The bugs can walk on water like Jesus.”
As Sarah squatted down to get a better look at the miraculous bugs, the hem of her flowered dress dipped slightly into the water and frightened the insects further upstream.
“Oh, come back little bugs!”
Her gaze followed the water striders and she noticed for the first time, the body of a dead raccoon lying next to the creek. She wanted a closer look at the “sleeping kitty,” but that would mean going behind the bushes and out of sight of her mother. She decided to grab a stick and see if the kitty wanted to play.
“Wake up, Kitty. Here, kitty.”
Sarah wiggled the stick in front of the raccoon’s lifeless eyes. Since it didn’t show interest in the stick, Sarah gently poked it in the shoulder. Still no response. Two flies circled in the filtered sunshine of the woods, landed on the raccoons face, and climbed onto its lifeless eyes. Sarah noticed the raccoon didn’t blink. The water flowed gently against the fur on the raccoon’s back, which was the only movement Sarah could see from the raccoon itself.
Looking over her shoulder, she tried to decide if she could move closer to the sleeping kitty and still obey Mama, staying within sight but not going behind the bushes. Sarah scooted a bit closer, grabbing the end of her skirt to keep it from dipping into the water again. She didn’t want to scare the sleeping kitty the same way she’d startled the water bugs.
“Kitty? Stop sleeping, Kitty.” Once again, nothing. Sarah stood up and called to her mother, “Mama, the kitty won’t wake up. Come wake up the kitty for me.”
“Sarah, what are you talking about?” her mother questioned. “Grandpa’s cat is still here by the fish pond.”
“No, this isn’t C’mon. It’s a different kitty. It’s striped and has a black Halloween mask on its face.”
“Oh! Sweetie, stay away from the raccoon!” Annie ran quickly to the creekside and found Sarah standing by the water and poking a dead raccoon gently, begging it to wake up and play.
“Mama, why won’t the kitty wake up?”
“Sarah, that’s not a kitty. It’s a raccoon. A wild animal that lives here in the woods.”
“Oh. It’s pretty.”
“Yes, it is pretty. But it’s dead, honey. We need to stay away from wild animals in the woods. Even the dead ones.” Annie looked back toward the fishpond and called to her father, “Dad, can you take care of the raccoon?”
As he stood up from bending over the fishpond, Sarah’s grandfather put his hands on his lower back and stretched. “No problem, honey. Be right there. Let me grab a shovel and the wheelbarrow.”
Sarah held her mother’s hand while they waited, never taking her eyes off the raccoon’s body. “When will it wake up?” she asked.
“It won’t wake up, honey. The raccoon is dead. It isn’t sleeping. It won’t ever wake up again.”
“Oh.” Sarah was uncertain about all this. Hadn’t Grandma Lee died? But Grandma Lee was with Jesus now, so she’d obviously woken up. Sarah decided this whole death thing was puzzling, but wasn’t even sure what to ask her mother in order to understand better. So she just stood quietly, watching the water continue to gently ruffle the raccoon’s fur. Several more flies had gathered on the raccoon’s face, and Sarah noticed one climb in and out of the furry ears. She knew if a fly crawled in her ear, she’d probably scream. But the raccoon just lay there giving no signs of irritation. Sarah absently scratched her own ear as she continued to gaze at the lifeless figure in the sand.
Grandpa arrived and scooped the dead raccoon up with the shovel, placing it gently in the wheelbarrow and then lifting the handles to start walking up the trail into the woods.
“Where are you taking him, Grandpa?”
“I’m going to bury him in the woods,” Grandpa said as he glanced sideways at this daughter. He spoke quietly to his daughter, “Annie, do you want Sarah to see this?”
“Yes, I think so, Dad. It’s a part of life and I’m not really sure she understands the finality of death. It might be good for her to see the burial.”
Sarah perked up at the mention of her getting to see something. She wasn’t sure what a burial was, but knew it was the next stage in dealing with the raccoon. Grandpa led the little funeral procession down the path into the woods until he came to a spot with some soft dirt. He set down the wheelbarrow, gave Sarah’s head a quick pat, grabbed the shovel, and started digging a hole in the ground between two lilac bushes in full bloom. The scent of the flowers infused the little scene with an additional funeral-like air, although Sarah didn’t realize at the time that the smell of flowers was a scent others associated with funeral homes and memorial services. She walked over to the nearest bush and buried her nose in the lush blooms, taking in a deep breath.
“Mmmm. The flowers smell yummy.” She smiled up at her mom, but noticed Mama looked sad. “Mama, are you crying?”
Annie sniffed slightly, wiped her eyes, and said, “I’m okay, honey. I was just thinking about Grandma Lee. It makes me sad we won’t be seeing her out here feeding the ducks anymore. She sure loved these woods and the creek.”
Sarah turned and continued watching her grandfather dig the hole for the raccoon’s body. When the hole was deeper than Sarah’s waist, Grandpa lifted the raccoon with the shovel, and then gently set its body down in the bottom of the hole. As the hole began to refill with the freshly dug earth, the raccoon slowly vanished from sight. First its hind legs were covered in dirt, then its body, and finally the masked face disappeared beneath the brown earth.
“Grandpa, you got dirt in his eyes!” Sarah said frantically.
“It’s okay, honey, he won’t feel it,” Mama whispered, hugging Sarah tightly to herself.
When the hole was completely refilled, Grandpa tapped it all over with the back of the shovel to pack it down. Mama reached over and picked a few stems of fresh lilacs, laying the flowers softly on the newly dug grave. Sarah quickly grabbed some of the flowers, too, and laid them out next to her mother’s simple bouquet.
“Do raccoon’s like flowers?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t think so, honey. Putting flowers on a grave is just something people do to say good-bye to people they love.”
“Did you love the raccoon?”
“Oh, sweetie,” Mama said. “I don’t know. Maybe. Well, actually now that I think about it, I suppose I do love the raccoon in a way. It was a living creature and I feel sad it died. Death is always a sad thing.”
As they turned to walk back to the house, Sarah asked quietly, “Mama, what did they do with Grandma Lee? Did someone dig a hole in the ground to put her in, too? Did she get dirt in her eyes?”
“No, she didn’t get dirt in her eyes. Her body was put in a special beautiful box to keep the dirt out. But yes, someone at the cemetery dug a deep hole and her body was placed there.”
Annie hugged her daughter tightly once more. Sarah was quiet as they followed Grandpa and the now empty wheelbarrow back to the house. Grammy and baby Neil were waiting for them in the kitchen, playing patty cake games and laughing happily. Sarah’s serious expression brought Grammy’s laughter to an abrupt stop.
“What’s wrong, baby? You look so sad.”
“Grammy, I don’t want to go to heaven.”
Grammy’s eyes got wide as she leaned forward and hugged Sarah, asking, “But don’t you want to go to heaven and be with Jesus forever and ever, honey?”
“I don’t want to go to heaven. To get to heaven, you have to die. Like Grandma Lee. And the raccoon. I don’t want to die.”
“Oh, honey. C’mon over here to Grammy.” Grammy brushed the hair off Sarah’s forehead and kissed the spot she exposed. “Bless your dear little heart, Sarah. Nobody wants to die. But when we do, Jesus is there to make the journey with us.”
Grammy, Sarah, Annie, and baby Neil all melted together into a long, tight family hug. After the tears subsided, Grammy wiped Sarah’s face with the corner of her apron and said tenderly, “Sarah, sweetie, if Grandma Lee were here with us, I think she’d say today you’re big enough to have a whole cookie all to yourself.”
Sarah blinked, not comprehending. “But Grammy, you know the rules. Little kids can only have half a cookie.”
“I know, sweetie. Just half a cookie for little ones. I know.”
Grammy reached into the cookie tin, and with glistening eyes, handed Sarah her first ever full sized cookie. It wasn’t only calendar age that earned someone the blessings of the Lee family’s rite of passage.
from the kitchen of Grandma Lee
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup shortening
- 1 tsp. soda (in a little bit of water)
- 6 Tbsp. cold water
- Flour enough to handle without sticking to board (about 5 cups or so)
- 1 tsp. Baking Powder in flour
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 tsp. lemon zest and a little vanilla
Roll thin. Cut with largest cookie cutter. Place raisin in center. Cook in 400 degree oven. 10 minutes. Only half for the young ones.