Monday, June 4, 2012

lemon cardamom smiles

After high school, I moved across the state and into an apartment. Living in a second floor walkup is a LOT different than being at home, even if you do have a best friend rooming with you, and it took a long time for Holland to feel familiar. We moved in a few days before Thanksgiving (that was the year we ate turkey dinner off a cardboard box covered with a tablecloth and collapsed the whole thing with a spilled glass of wine) and were good and properly homesick three weeks later.

We were both lounging around on the (New! We weren’t living with cardboard furniture anymore!) couch, talking about what our friends back home were doing, when there was a knock on the apartment door. We exchanged glances (who could that be??) Em went running into the bathroom to hide the extra cat (we were stupid and told the landlord about the one who never came out of the bedroom, instead of the one that liked to sit in the window and rub against strangers’ legs and generally be a chatterbox and public nuisance) and I went to the door, fumbled with the (still unfamiliar) lock, and opened it to find a small older woman, dressed in bright pink and brandishing a plate.

Her name was Mutji. She lived in the apartment underneath us (the one with the generous birdhouses and deep red impatiens in the windowboxes) and she’d brought her new neighbors cookies. Cookies. Little yellow circles of sunshine, with flecks of spice and mint and crispy bits that melted on the tongue. They were good. They were great.

Mutji lived alone for the most part, her truck-driving husband only rolling in and back out every few days, and she loved to hear our stories of the people we were meeting, our new jobs, our adventures when we got lost trying to find the grocery. There were always pots of tea, fresh flowers on the table, and those delectable lemon cardamom cookies.

That spring Mutji began to slow down, complaining of pains in her knees. We tried to help her whenever we could, watering the flowerboxes, feeding her beloved birds,  dropping off plates of dinner (‘do you think she likes spaghetti?’ ‘I dunno. But it’s got to be better than eating by yourself’) and chattering. She was still game to hear stories and laugh with us but she seemed to tire so quickly….and then one day we realized Mutji, the vibrant incredible lady who’d befriended us and eased our homesickness was beginning to look old. And fragile, somehow. We were worried, but there were still flowers, still those wonderful cookies, still mugs and mugs of tea shared while we laughed out on the deck.

That fall, Mutji’s husband re-appeared. We’d met him, of course, but weren’t expecting him to appear at our door and offer us supper. Their apartment felt much smaller with him in it, but there was our friend, smiling widely, offering us tastes of a fabulous meal she’d made, pouring the wine and chattering like old times.

At dessert she served her trademark cookies. This time, though, they were chilled, sandwiched together with a creamy delicious filling. When we complimented her she laughed. ‘It’s a special treat for you all. A special treat for my special friends.’

That winter, after a long bout with illness, Mutji weakened enough so that her husband sold his truck and bought a tiny home in Florida. She was excited to be near her grandkids, but sad to leave her home. The day she left she pressed a recipe card into my hands.

I was looking last week for a special recipe, something that I could wow the kids with when they got home from school, when I found Mutji’s card.  I was astonished to realize that what I had thought must be a complicated sauce was actually COOL WHIP Whipped Topping. Amazingly light and delicious with the sweet cookie, it brought a wonderful finish to the dessert.

I think of Mutji every time I make them. And we always eat them with COOL-WHIP.

It makes it more special.

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