Before she passed, the world revolved around Grandma.
Every Christmas, we’d gather on her farm — nothing more than a run-down barn, its animals long-since retired, and a sprawling stone ranch with an oversized fireplace anchoring its center — and do all the things Christmas stories wax about.
Mornings were reserved for coffee and carols. One of my uncles was a semi-accomplished pianist, so he’d plunk out tunes on Gram’s 50-year-old upright in the living room while we meandered our way through various melodies, sometimes hitting the right notes.
By the time we were all awake, Gram would herald the start of baking. We assembled in a ragtag group near the kitchen island and she would call out our names, giving each one of us a sacred responsibility — with an absurd title.
“John, you’re the Infante of Icing. Elizabeth, you’re the Baroness of Butter. Frederick, you’re Don of Dough.”
My title? The Knight of Kneading. Gram would hand me a ball of soft, pliable dough and ask me to push, pull, roll, repeat. We each got our station in the kitchen — assembly line style — and went to town on our ever-so-important tasks. Gram would stand back with the bustle underway and quip with a grin: “Henry Ford would have been proud.”
In the early days of this ritual, I was too young to know how all of the pieces of this assembly line puzzle fit together. And, to be honest, I didn’t much care. I just wanted the end result: Silky, pillowy cinnamon rolls tucked together in a doughy embrace, drizzled with a snow-white icing oozing off the edge. There’s no flavor, no image more vivid in my mind.
Over the course of our Christmas holiday with Gram, I would devour at least a dozen of these. My mouth would be half-full of doughy cinnamon roll when we attempted our morning carol crooning, and, more often than not, I’d be mid-roll chew when we shuffled out the door in our puffy jackets to go romp in the snow. You know the sticky back of Post-it notes? That was my face — from about December 14 to December 25 every year.
After Gram passed, Mom kept the ritual going. Sort of. We no longer gathered on the farm, and the carol-singing faded with my uncle’s health. But the cinnamon rolls continued. The first few years, they were lackluster — the dough was tough, the cinnamon was overpowering, the icing too much of a cover job. But eventually, she got it down. And while I slowly pulled back on my bun consumption — four became the norm in my college years — it was still a central part of the holidays. No rolls? Cancel Christmas.
After I secured my mortarboard and mostly useless degree, I made it home less frequently. I had girlfriends and adventures planned; no time to shuffle back to see the family. And to be honest, the rituals had grown tiresome. Most of the family members willing to attend were old and couldn’t do much. I had nothing in common with them anymore, save for our continued obsession with Gram’s cinnamon rolls.
To keep the baking tradition going, I asked Mom for the recipe. Somewhat reluctantly, she sent it — knowing this was the end of an era. Instead of typing it out in an email, she photocopied the 70-year-old recipe card Gram had given her ages earlier. When I got the envelope in the mail, I stopped in the hallway of my apartment building to open it. For some inexplicable reason, I expected to learn something exciting about Gram by looking at the original recipe: What her handwriting told me about her personality, secrets she kept hidden away in recipe-code, and most importantly, the magic behind the cinnamon rolls that defined my childhood.
I didn’t see any of these things, not really. Instead, I was transported back to my childhood days on the farm. In a sudden rush, I could smell the baking in the kitchen, see Gram in her ivy-gilded apron grinning next to the oven, and feel the happy-calm of sitting in front of a roaring fireplace with snow gently falling outside. Cliché, I know, but that was once my joyful reality.
Just as fast as it had come, the flashback faded. My eyes locked onto the recipe title — “Original Cinnamon Roll Recipe, 1938” — and I sighed. Maybe I should have gone home for Christmas. Maybe I should do more to stay in touch with—
That’s when I caught it. On the edges of the recipe card, I could make out faint imprints of other text — like the card had been stuck in a book or pamphlet that leached its ink. The words were backwards, but I could just make out three of them: “Horst… Wessel… Lied.”
I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe I was too absorbed in my flashback, or too busy thinking about the minor dramas of my own life. It was only later, on a call with Mom, that I remembered.
“Hey Mom, where did Gram keep the recipe card?”
“I’m not sure, hon. Probably in a box or cookbook or something. Why?”
“I saw some faint text on the top of one side — like it was pressed against a newspaper or something.”
“I don’t remember seeing anything like that. What did it say?”
“It was German — ‘Horst Wessel Lied.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
Mom hesitated —for a flash. If you didn’t know her, you probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But I could tell something was left unsaid.
“No, I don’t think so,” she responded, nonchalantly. “I mean, Gram’s side of the family is German, so maybe she kept it with some family documents or something?”
“Ah okay. Was just curious.”
We said nothing more about it. But I was curious enough to keep digging. Later than day, I Googled those three German words. This popped up on my screen:
“Inspired by the Hitler Youth, members of the German American Bund took German lessons, received instructions on how to salute the swastika, and learned to sing the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ and other Nazi songs.”
I’m 42 now — almost 43. I’ve got a wife and two kids. As with any family, we’ve built our own Christmas traditions. There’s no farm, no caroling (we’ve long since resigned ourselves to our musical ineptitude), and no snow. But there’s always baking. Instead of Gram’s cinnamon rolls, though, we make rugelach — mountains of rugelach. Chocolate, fruit, cream. We’ve made every kind under the sun. And when the baking is done and the kitchen is brimming with sugary treats, we package them up and take little parcels to our neighbors, wishing them each a very merry Christmas. Peace, prosperity. Love and wellbeing. You know the script.
This past year, as we left the last house on the block, I felt myself tearing up.
“You okay, honey?” my wife asked me, grabbing my hand as the kids ran ahead.
“Yeah, yeah. Fine. Just… remembering Gram.” She nodded, knowingly.
We said nothing more about it. But she knew, as she always has, I suppose: Never again in my life will I make or eat a cinnamon roll. And may God forgive me for making them the center of my childhood.