Snickerdoodles was a ridiculous name for something to eat. It sounded like a concoction destined to be choked on at tea parties or served up by someone in a Disney movie. Naomi was making cookies because Angela and Brian and new baby Amy were coming for Easter. Arriving on Good Friday. Tomorrow. She felt the need to be maternal, grandmaternal she supposed the word would be. The cleaning service had scoured the house; she had made the beds for company and borrowed a portable crib from a neighbor. So, it was just the cookies. There were three reasons why the cookies were snickerdoodles. First, she remembered her mother had made them for her and her brother as children. The recipe was from her mother’s cookbook, the classic 1950 Betty Crocker picture book with the red cover. She was also making them because she had flipped the pages for about an hour the night before and decided that, in fact, snickerdoodles looked far easier than anything else. And finally, the ingredients were already in the house. She really did not want to make the effort to go to the market. It was April, but it was snowing. Where were the “showers sweet” of Chaucer’s April? As she looked out the back window, she noticed the snow was dry and coating everything like confectionary sugar. Damn it, she thought, I am starting to contrive trite kitchen metaphors, and I haven’t even begun cooking yet.
Naomi was a professor of English Literature and Chaucer was her man. He had given her a long ride, but she was retiring at the end of the semester. She still loved the bard, but she had started not to love her students or colleagues and knew it was time to quit. Coincidently, her first grandchild – her daughter’s daughter – had been born four months ago. She had gone out to California (to ooh and ahh) for a few days over the Christmas holidays, and was somewhat surprised it meant anything at all to her to be a grandmother. If she were not retiring, she thought it would not have. But now it was tied to getting old and other changes. While her granddaughter had been an unexpected joy, most of the other changes related to old age were anything but pleasant. Old age reminded her of the Reeve. Naomi had had the Reeve plodding around her head morning; she had always thought he was one of Chaucer’s most interesting characters. People were surprised when she said this; they were always expecting her to concentrate the female characters, which was probably why she didn’t. Back in the days when she had gotten her degree and started her teaching and research, there had been relatively few women in the field and she didn’t want to be buttonholed. So, it was the Reeve. He had gotten a full chapter in one of her books and been the subject of many of her lectures and journal articles. She had always started with an explanation that a Reeve was the manager of a rich man’s estates. Chaucer’s Reeve was not particularly liked by the other pilgrims on the way to Saint Thomas’s shrine in Canterbury, but he was an old friend to Naomi.
The Reeve’s age had always been a problem. In the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, the Reeve had not been described as elderly at all, but by the time Chaucer wrote the Reeve’s Tale, Geoffrey had decided to make him an old man. As an old man himself, the poet had not had time to edit such inconsistencies in his work before he recanted it all and died. What was it that the repentant Bard had said? “The Canterbury Tales sownen into synne;” in his dying moments, he had decided the tales led us into temptation. In that case, she was surely damned. But whatever eternity held, she could not get the words of the elderly Reeve out of her mind today. All fades to ashes in old age, the Reeve laments, and the only burning embers left in our elderly lives are “Avauntyng [boasting], liying [lying], Anger, and Covetise [avarice].” Lately, she was not sure she had any embers left burning, and there was certainly no one around to rake the coals.
Since she had been divorced (passive tense as it was something done to her and not by her), she had done little cooking and never had done much baking. Even as she greased the pans and turned on the oven she felt resentful. Shouldn’t her talents be used for something more important than snickerdoodles? Where were the graduate students asking her advice? Would snickerdoodles still be in print in ten years, as she was sure at least two of her books would be? Watch it, Naomi, she chastised herself. Sounds like you think you are too good to make a few cookies. Avauntyng. Boasting. The first sin of old age. Try to focus on what you are doing now. The kids will probably appreciate the cookies more than they even had any of her academic work. None of them, as far as she knew had ever read any one of her five books – even one dedicated to them. To the two smallest pilgrims on my long trip to Canterbury: John and Angela. She actually thought there were times when they wished she had a regular job so they could live in a household where the mother’s hours were more predictable and there was no end of semester stress (coupled at times with the angst of publication deadlines). Well, no deadlines today. She had all afternoon to make the snickerdoodles. She could make snickerdoodles all day if she wanted. It was a scary feeling. Naomi started measuring out the dry ingredients. Flour, cream of tartar, salt …
Phone. “Hello.” “Oh, John, it’s you. How are you?” John needs money. John always needs money and is not afraid to ask. Angela could actually be hungry, homeless even, but she would never ask for anything. How did the children grow up to be so different? She listened to the latest story about checks not arriving from free-lance jobs and his therapist’s hourly rate as the pre-heating beeper went off on the stove. The oven was ready even if she was not. She was in no mood to give John money. “I’m sorry. I can’t help you this time.” “I know you need it, but what would you do if I weren’t here? You forget I’m about to retire. I need to look out for myself – I intend to live a long life.” He probably thinks if she would only live a shorter life, he would inherit some of her money and his problems would be solved. Well, she was still here, and they both knew she could well afford to give him the money. Covetise. Was she withholding funds because he was a spendthrift? Because he reminded her of Bill? Or, because he interrupted her afternoon? Avarice. Money and time. He would probably have called Angela to complain before tomorrow. Angela would not bring up the denied loan request directly, but it was fairly certain she would hear a tale of John’s tough times. Maybe she should have suggested John call his father. Better yet, let him call his Bill’s new girlfriend. They were about the same age – maybe she would understand his problems.
Was it her own aging the thing really bothering her? Changes in one’s own body were not easy to behold; when she had enough nerve to look at herself in the bathroom mirror, she could not get over the feeling someone was playing a very bad joke on her. But, it was in the nature of things. She felt like she was slowly accepting those changes – more slowly than they were happening, but accepting them nevertheless. Not welcoming, but accepting. She had even accepted that her academic discipline had changed and gone on to new theories and priorities without her. Such acquiescence was a slow and painful process, but her retirement was a way to gracefully (she hoped) sidestep the issue. But, Bill’s desertion was not something she could accept. It was not in the nature of things. It was personal. It was hateful. Anger. Friends and even her children had pointed out to her how common her plight was. It did not help. Common did not mean inevitable. Inevitable was sagging jowls and age spots and dental work. The divorce was something Bill had done to her and the kids had forgiven him for. Anger.
As she worked the dry ingredients through her old-fashioned sifter, her head shook with the rhythm with which she was moving the canister back and forth. Naomi had to keep reminding herself she had chosen to retire and leave the University. She could have stayed. And aged. And continued to be fuzzy about the new theories the younger faculty went on and on about. Naomi remembered the Reeve served as manager for a lord who was only “twenty yeer of age.” I wonder how much respect the old man got, she thought. Naomi could have refused to notice or care that enrollment in her seminars was getting smaller and smaller. And that she was hardly ever asked to direct a dissertation committee or take on any special assignments for the department. She was hardly ever asked anything. Better to leave with one’s head up. Even with sex discrimination and harassment, life had been better in the old days. Well, not really, she supposed. Still, she was glad to be away from it all. She had earned the right to make cookies and read mystery novels. She was the lucky one. Liying. Lying.
She creamed the eggs, shortening, and sugar together with a whisk. Eggs and shortening – not the best for the cholesterol. It looked beautiful though. Once she had started, she hated to stop whirling it together. Add the dry ingredients and then came the part she remembered. Stick your fingers right in there and make “walnut-sized” balls to roll in the cinnamon and sugar. No rings to take off first. There were some advantages to being single again. She rolled the balls between her palms, and then dipped them into the cinnamon-sugar mixture. The wet sticky dough brought her back to her mother’s kitchen, the kitchen of their first house, of her earliest memories. All of the little balls pressed onto the cookie tin looked like some kind of sweet mushrooms. In went the cookies and on went the timer. She had learned little about cooking over the years, but she had learned she was absent-minded enough to have to use be reminded when to check the oven.
Had she ever made snickerdoodles with Angela? She could remember chocolate chip cookies with John (he ate most of the dough before it was cooked), but she couldn’t remember ever cooking with Angela. Angela seemed to cook now, though. They were vegetarians and were always in the middle of a tofu “something” whenever she called. Where had Angela learned it? Would Naomi make cookies someday with her new granddaughter? Maybe her granddaughter would like her better than her children had. What was the saying about children and grandparents? “Parents and grandchildren get along because they have a common enemy.” Her kids had certainly gotten along with her own father better than she ever had. Their grandfather didn’t expect anything from them, and they never took him seriously. Of course, the grandchildren were only visitors to their grandfather’s world; they hadn’t had to live with him.
Buzzzzzzzzzzzz. Out with the cookies. Something was wrong. They were supposed to flatten out, but they looked like runny eggs all flat and wrinkled and seeping into each other. This was not how she remembered them. She tasted one. Not bad, but they would look ridiculous on a plate. They looked as old, flat and deflated as her chest. What had she done wrong? Couldn’t she even get this right? By leaving the University had she given up the only thing she knew how to do? This is how despair starts, she thought. Luckily she hadn’t promised Angela cookies. Plenty of time to run to the bakery. And, god knows, Angela would have no reason to expect her mother would start baking after all these years. But, what on earth had gone wrong?
Angela. She had wanted to name this last child, this only daughter “Alison,” but Bill would have none of it. I haven’t lived with you all this time without learning a little about Chaucer, he laughed. Isn’t Alison the one who is always rolling in the hay with someone other than her husband? It was true most of the bawdy women in Chaucer were named Alison – or Alisoun or any of the many ways it looked in the days before spelling was standardized. But, all of the Alisons seemed to have had such a good time. The greatest Alison of all, of course, was the Wife of Bath. She settled on this old familiar character for a minute. Alison had been through five husbands – three in her youth and two in her age. And she is looking for a sixth. Why else go on a pilgrimage? Bill was right. All of the Alisons had fun. They knew the “art of the olde daunce.” The Wife of Bath took whatever life had to offer. The Wife of Bath, who loved men and sex as well as anyone in Chaucer, did not begrudge her old age or the loss of her hearing and a few husbands along the way:
. . .I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, all, that al wole [will] envenyme [poison].
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith [vigor].
Lat go. Farewel! The devel go threwith!
The flour [flower] is goon; There is namoore to telle;
The bren [bran], as I best kan, now moste I selle.”
Certainly the Wife of Bath never made cookies – she was too busy looking for her next husband, taking trips to Canterbury and stopping at every tavern along the way. Naomi slammed close the old red cookbook and took the pathetic cookies over to the trash can, stepped on the lever, and deposited her offering. “Let go. Farewell. The devil take you!” she eulogized. She slammed the cookbook shut and went upstairs to find something good to read.