Except that's not what my grandmother called them. I don't remember what she called them. I've tried to reach back, swim through the hazy waters of my memory, and remember, but I can't. I don't have her recipe to refer to, written on lined paper in her loopy script which was both American and European in its form. So now they are just that. Italian Christmas cookies with sprinkles.
I don't have any of her recipes. This makes me want to cry. Truly. I want to cry because my grandmother expressed her love through her cooking. And her creativity. And independence. The kitchen was her territory. While the world around her -- and her own body -- may have been trying to defeat her, she was in command in the kitchen. Whether it was Sundays cooking gravy steeped with meatballs and beef braciole or Friday nights pulling homemade, square pizzas from the oven in our tiny, galley kitchen, this is where she was queen - an oh-so benevolent queen who shared her gifts, time and time again, with those she loved.
She died when I was 13 -- while on a class trip at the Bronx Zoo - so I don't have many clear memories of her. One that stands out, so simple yet so vivid, is my standing with her in the kitchen at night while she counted out the coffee scoops into the chrome percolator for the next morning.
"Mitzi, you made me lose count with all your talking," she would chastise lovingly, as she dumped out the grinds and started again. I'm sorry, Grandma, sorry for so many things. Forgive me, Grandma, for I have sinned. It's been a lifetime since I've been to confession.
My grandmother, who had nothing to sin for, always went to confession. I can't think of her without thinking of Sts. Peters and Paul church. She was quarters in the collection basket and "peace be with you" and desperate, whispered prayers over glass rosary beads for a daughter lost to mental illness.
My grandmother was Easter-bread dough rising under dish towels throughout our small apartment. Those little mounds - which would become bunny-shaped bread with jelly bean eyes - were everywhere, including the bedroom she shared with my grandfather.
My grandfather's side of that bedroom was all Brylcream and burled wood pipes. My grandmother's was an Infant of Prague statue and golden filigree perfume bottles, empty and glistening.
Did those bottles ever hold perfume or were they for decoration only? Time holds this secret but refuses to share the answer, though I beg to know.
I am going to make Italian Christmas cookies with sprinkles. But I won't be alone. When I am beating the eggs and softened butter and combining the anise extract with the confectioners' sugar and milk, my grandmother will be with me. She will be there, in her house coat with her soft black hair and smooth skin that smells of Pond's Cold Cream. She will be there because she is in my heart. Most importantly, she will be there because she was and will always remain the queen of the kitchen.
Saluti, Grandma. I love you.