A Little Valentine's Day Magic

The girls and I roll out the sugar cookies with a rolling pin and cut them out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter while I tell them the story of how my mom made these cookies for us growing up. How they weren't the kind that we ever made together or watched her bake. When we went to sleep the night before Valentine's Day, there was no sign of them.

And when we woke up the next morning, they were there.

You were lucky, Amelia says. That's a lot of work.

Damn straight.

This is how traditions were in my family--steady, simple, without a lot of flash. You never needed much to make a little magic or to make someone's day.

These are the cookies my mom sent me on Valentine's Day in a care package when I was in college. I ate the whole freaking batch, sharing them sparingly. They are the cookies I made for my fiancee on Valentine's Day a month before our wedding because every penny I was making at my part-time job in the Men's Basketball Office was going toward the purchase of his wedding ring. I baked them in the apartment that would be our first home together.

They are the cookies my sister, Kendra, made for us the night before our move to New York. But instead of the traditional red sprinkles, she spelled out letters in the icing with the tip of a toothpick. All together they said, "Good luck in NY". We had some at our last meal all together that night and took the rest with us for the journey.

The girls and I are baking ours all together this year, a few days early for a party we're throwing for some of our second-grader friends. I frown when I realize too late that we don't have any red sprinkles, just some multi-colored, flower-shaped ones. My daughters don't know the difference, but I do. Then I taste-test one and cringe. Not like Mom's at all. Not like my sister's. I should have iced them the night I made them, not the day after, I lecture myself.

As the party creeps closer, my performance anxiety kicks in. I remember what a bad party-goer I am--how parties put my three greatest weaknesses (small talk, relaxing, having fun) on wild display. I worry that as a result I'll be a bad party-thrower. I remember the looks on our friends' faces the day before, brimming with anticipation and animation as they jumped up and down and said they already knew what they were going to wear.

Would our steady, simple, without-a-lot-of-flash party be nothing more than a big let-down? Would they look at our decorations and think that if we really cared we would have searched a little harder for the clear tape instead of settling so quickly for the masking tape?

Would they think the flower sprinkles didn't look very valentine-y, that the cookies were a bit too hard, that our heart-shaped doilie valentine craft was too juvenile or plain (for God's sake, I didn't even have glitter)?  Is it possible, I wondered, to make magic from such humble ingredients as these?

Too soon it's time to get them. I rally my adult supporters and walk ten girls home from school. Lead ten girls up to our third-floor walk-up.

I always get nervous when I go to someone's house, one of them confides.

That's okay, I say. I always get nervous when I have people over to my house. I just want them to have a good time.

Coats and backpacks come off, and it's immediately apparent that the girls have brought some magic of their own. Sparkly shirts, frilly skirts, and odes to love of things like horses proudly displayed. One of them brings a bag with candies--the heart ones with messages that it didn't even occur to me to get. The party's a hit before it even begins. Turns out, their enthusiasm and love for each other are all we really need.

It's actually a lot of fun, the nervous one reports back to me. I'm stunned as the humble ingredients and simple traditions work, and a little teary as I watch the best parts of girlhood spin around in a dance with joy.

And no one says anything but good about the cookies.

Traditional Sugar Cookies

3/4 cup shortening

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla or 1/2 tsp lemon extract

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

Mix thoroughly shortening, sugar, eggs and flavoring. Blend in flour, baking powder and salt. Cover; chill at least one hour. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Roll dough 1/8 inch thick on slightly floured wax paper. Cut into shapes. Place on ungreased baking sheet or stone. Bake 6 to 8 minutes or until very light brown.

Icing: powdered sugar, a little milk, a splash of vanilla. For Grandma's touch, add a dollop of coffee. Ice as soon as cookies cool--not the next day.