We first met Doris at a neighborhood block meeting. Nothing fancy, that meeting. Just a small gathering of people perched on folding chairs on the sidewalk in front of Marta’s house. I’m sure we discussed neighborhood security issues, but I only remember the people. Don told us about some troublemakers messing with his garage, and then he swore like a sailor. I shot a look at the girls to see if they had heard. Marta reined in the talk, funneling it in useful directions. And Doris leaned into my double stroller, making funny faces at the girls.
I often noticed Doris working in Mr. Neighbor’s yard after that, her face flushed, and sweat dripping from her chin in the summer. She did leaves in the fall and snow removal in the winter for him too. We exchanged waves whenever I was outside.
And then the gifts appeared. Doris dropped off little surprises for our girls on holidays. She worked at Litin Paper Company and got some good deals, she said. Each of the girls got orange pumpkin-shaped bags of goodies on Halloween, trinkets in Santa bags at Christmas, and little baskets of treasures for Easter. We’d come home from our out-of-town New Year’s festivities to jolly noise-makers and candy on our back step. And her fondness for Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka on Valentine’s Day came in the shape of hearts filled with chocolates—one for each girl.
Touched, we decided to do some doorstep treats of our own. We began our Christmas cookie venture in 2004—the year Dicka was born. Just because people don’t normally deliver homemade cookies to strangers in a city neighborhood didn’t mean we wouldn’t.
Nine-year-old Ireland, Willow’s older sister, who came regularly to play too, caught wind of our idea. She abandoned her favorite game of dressing up our wiener dog Dexter in baby clothes and scrambled into the kitchen. Her innovative spirit lit up the room. She helped us bake the cookies and afterward suggested an assembly line process: one person putting the cooled cookies onto paper plates, the next person sliding the plates into Ziplocs, and someone to do the labeling. Plates for Dallas, Glenda, Doris, Marta, Charlie—the old jazz musician two doors down—and a few neighbors we didn’t know yet. We also fixed a plate for our mechanic and the lady across the street who never returned my hellos. And of course there was a plate for Mr. N, who I was determined to befriend after our air conditioner fiasco.
The cookie delivery process was arduous. Since the stroller wouldn’t move on the snow-clogged sidewalks, we trudged down the block at a snail’s pace, Flicka and Ricka clutching onto the hem of my coat while I held Dicka in one arm and balanced a plate of cookies in the other. Ireland and Willow had already gone home, so the girls and I were on our own to manage delivering one plate at a time. After work, Husband helped us finish our rounds.
Later, the lady across the street came over to thank us for the cookies. From her speech, I realized she was hearing impaired. She had never heard me yell hello all those times in the past. After that, I waited to catch her eye before waving. And since there was no reason anymore to yell hello, I mouthed the word to her instead. And she said it back.
Our list of unknown neighbors got smaller the next year, and our cookie delivery list grew. We expanded our varieties of sweets from basics I knew everyone would like—gingerbread, frosted sugar cookies, and dipped pretzels—to more risky recipes like Rømmeringer, Sand Bakkels, and Krumkake. We would shake up the neighborhood with our Norwegian goodies that varied only in their shape and proportions of butter, flour, sugar, and almond extract. But even though not one colorful sprinkle could be found on those all-white delicacies, we hoped our baked love tasted like fireworks.
Baking was neither a favorite hobby of mine nor one where I showed any impressive skill. In fact, I recalled two embarrassing kitchen errors from much earlier days.
“I just put baking soda in the biscuits instead of baking powder,” I told Mom when I was about eleven years old. “Will that make a difference?”
“Bake them and find out,” she said.
Even the family dog back then wouldn’t touch those dark orange, super salty rocks that came out of the oven.
And one day at age twenty-one—when Husband was just Boyfriend—I announced my big plans to make a turkey.
“For the great leftovers, you know,” I said, feeling domestic. “A big dinner now. Soup next week.”
“Where’s your pan?” he said, looking around my kitchen.
“Here.” I pointed to a cookie sheet.
Boyfriend saved me from a horrible mess in the oven—most likely to be followed by a kitchen fire—by purchasing me a good, sturdy roaster.
The Christmas cookies weren’t about dazzling the neighborhood with my talents. My skills were adequate—tasty, simple recipes made with clean hands—but there was more to my desire to share some sweets at the holidays with people I may or may not have known.
It was a way in.
We ultimately won the heart of Joe, our mechanic. Or if it wasn’t because of the cookies, it was because of our faithful and frequent business, thanks to our unreliable vehicles at the time. Either way, he never said no to me when I asked for a certain date for the next oil change or car repair.
Bruno, the neighbor three houses down, gave us a beautiful store-bought gift of hot chocolates and candy from a department store downtown one year. The others thanked us, sometimes asking for the names of the Norwegian goodies, expressing a particular fondness for one or the other. But I didn’t hear a word from Mr. N. Until six years later.
And what he told us then changed life in the neighborhood for us forever.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.