Today, I’m thinking of marshmallow squares. Delicious little plain-based, sweet topping cookies that Mom made every Christmas. For as long as I can remember, and most certainly before I was even a twinkle in my dad’s eyes, my mom had baked those same treats every holiday season. Along with her shortbread, her dark and light fruit cakes and her Christmas logs, she was nothing if not a woman of routine.
I can’t really say that she would have baked those cookies specifically because I, or my brothers were feeling sick, or upset. Truthfully, she was much more likely to force us to drink a spoonful of cod liver oil, or a glass of some nasty concoction known as ginger beer when we were ill. Yuck.
As far as feeling down or being depressed, we grew up in a generation of “get over it.” We were taught to take things with a grain of salt, or to "toughen up". That’s not to say that our parents were cruel. It was just a different world than we are living in today; a world with an outdated attitude where people didn’t take mental health issues seriously, especially when it came to children.
I do remember my mom making desserts for us. Not the cookies I mentioned. Those were saved for special occasions like Christmas and Easter. She did, however, make cakes and other cookies, muffins and cupcakes, puddings and jelly with custard, along with various other treats. And sometimes, those treats came right when we needed them most.
Sometimes those treats came when we were sick, and they were the perfect remedy to cure us from the nasty illness of the taste of cod liver oil and ginger beer. Sometimes they came when we were feeling down, and they were served with a big hug and, of course, a message to toughen up thrown in for good measure.
But this story is not about those other cookies or various treats she made, or even about my childhood. It’s about me, as an adult, trying to help my aged mother carry on a tradition that she had partaken in for more than sixty years. It’s a story about Mom’s marshmallow squares, or more precisely, about me trying to make Mom’s marshmallow squares and attempting to pass on a recipe with a missing piece of vital information.
Marshmallow Squares Recipe
Flour (2 cups approx.)
1 cup butter
Mix together, flatten into square pan.
Bake until light brown.
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Boil for 2 minutes
Sprinkle 2 packages of gelatine in a large bowl.
Pour ¼ cup of cold water on top and let sit for a few minutes.
Add hot liquid to bowl and blend with high-speed mixer until mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes).
Pour topping over base, sprinkle shredded coconut on top. Chill overnight.
Cut into squares, roll squares in shredded coconut.
You may have noticed that for the flour in the base, I mentioned (2 cups approx.) That would be because the measurement was the missing piece of information I mentioned. My Mom’s recipe just said “flour,” which worked for her as she had been making the squares for decades. But for the rest of us?
A few days before I attempted to bake the cookies myself, my brother had called me from his home on the west coast to ask for said recipe. He mentioned that they were his favourite Christmas cookies and that he wanted to have his partner, who is a great baker in her own right, make them for him. I gave him Mom’s original recipe from her handwritten notes, and of course he asked me how much flour.
I still laugh when I think of Mom’s reply to my brother’s question:
“He’ll know when it’s enough.”
I swear my brother and I both responded with the same word at the same time:
I asked Mom if she could give me a clue, “one cup, two cups?” She gave me the same answer. It didn’t matter how many times I asked, or how I worded the question, the response was always the same. “He’ll know when it’s enough.”
My brother, who has an incredible sense of humour and the sarcasm to match, instructed me to ask her if he should use “two cups or two 10-lb bags.” I couldn’t help but laugh and was pleased to hear my mother’s laughter as well when I told her what he said.
He eventually ended the conversation with him accepting that his partner would have to figure it out herself. Considering Mom’s (at the time) moderate dementia, we both knew we’d gotten the only answer she was capable of giving us. She never needed a measurement to tell her how much flour was required. She knew by texture. She knew by sixty years of experience.
A couple of days later, it was my turn. It would be my first time making Mom’s cookies.
She’d always done it herself until that year, but as we approached Christmas, 2021, I could see the sadness in my mother’s eyes. She had mentioned several times in the weeks leading up to the holiday season that she felt she was no longer capable of doing the Christmas baking. Her legs were weak, and her memory was failing.
I could tell how much it bothered her, losing the ability to do something that for most of her life had been so simple. It bothered me to see the sadness in her eyes. I offered to make the cookies myself. She asked if I knew how. I told her I could follow her recipe.
Ugh. The dreaded recipe. I came face to face with it once again. Considering it was then a couple of days later, I decided to ask her again the same question I had asked for my brother.
“How much flour?”
“You’ll know when it’s enough.”
I measured the butter, threw in a cup of flour and hoped for the best. The dough was way too sticky, so I added another half cup. Still soft as but not quite as bad. I asked mom to come in the kitchen to let me know if the texture looked right. Requesting her help worked for my benefit and hers, at least she could be involved.
She told me it was too wet, then grabbed a tablespoon from the drawer and began scooping up extra flour to add to my mixture as I kept squishing the dough with my hands. Next thing I knew Mom was washing her hands and pushing me out of the way. She was going to do it herself. I had been relegated to flour scooper status while she took over the main event.
As I stood in that kitchen, adding spoonfulls of flour as instructed, I couldn’t help but smile. I watched her form the dough and press it into the baking dish, as perfectly as she’d done so many times before, and I knew I had my mother back – even if just for a moment. Just a half hour earlier, she was too tired to stand. Just ten minutes earlier, she wasn’t capable of giving me directions that made sense.
Yet there she stood in the kitchen, making her Christmas marshmallow squares, the same cookies she’d made for my entire life, and even before. I had to excuse myself so she wouldn’t see my tears that had begun to flow.
My mom is gone now. She passed away in June of this year. As we face our first holiday season without her, I have yet to decide whether I will attempt to make her cookies this Christmas. I guess it will depend on my state of mind and heaviness of heart at the time.
What I do know, however, is that that whether I make the cookies or not, I will look back on that day in 2021 when I attempted to do my mom’s baking for her. What started out as me trying to help my mother when she was feeling depressed, ended up with her helping me so much more. And the cookies turned out as delicious as they always did, even if the dough was a little dry.
I had been merely going through the motions and the struggles of a family caregiver without giving much thought to how Mom's depression was affecting me. When she walked in that kitchen, moved me aside and took over her rightful place, she gave me back my mother. She gave me a reprieve. She gave me a memory that I can smile and even laugh about for years to come. I believe, deep in her heart, that she knew that I needed that smile. She knew when it was enough.
And that is what I wish you to take from my story, whether you choose to make the marshmallows squares with the incomplete recipe or not. Whether you choose to make a different type of dessert, an appetizer, a main course or even if you offer someone a meal from McDonalds or a bottle of wine is not the point. The point is that it comes from kindness, that it comes from your heart, and that it comes from a place of truly wanting to help someone feel better.
If you offer your gift from a heart that's filled with honest kindness, love and empathy, “you’ll know when it’s enough.”
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