More Successful Than Orpheus

Growing up, aside from my immediate family and my best friend Tim, there were two people who were deeply important to me: my maternal grandfather John and my paternal grandmother Ann.

There are many things I remember about her, despite her passing over two decades ago. I remember that she talked straight and told it how it was (and would teach me my first curse words). That she had a nice laugh but could be stern. That she loved deeply, even if she didn’t say it, and took care of all of us as the matriarch of my father’s side of the family. She also made four things, maybe only three things (I’ll explain), that she was famous for in our family: a vinegar so good that the family fought over the remaining bottles after she died, stuffed mushrooms, a tomato soup that is still known as Grandma Ann’s Soup, and a cookie. All throughout my childhood I wouldn’t learn the name of the cookie, just that it was what my grandmother kept above her refrigerator in one of those pink boxes ubiquitous to baked good shops (which may have meant that she didn’t make them herself, but whatever).

This cookie was a simple affair: thin, flour dough, fried crisp and covered in powdered sugar. Every month or so my father would take us kids to visit his mother, every time she would have a pot of her soup simmering on the stove, and after we’d finished our bowls of Grandma Ann’s Soup we got to have two or three cookies. I can remember the crispness of them, how the powdered sugar got everywhere, and how we’d sit in the round nook of her kitchen beneath the old-style phone you had to crank to get an operator and eat while she and my father talked.

I can’t remember which of the two of them passed first, John and Ann, but I know they both were diagnosed with cancer at about the same time and died within a month of each other. Their deaths were one of the great strains on my family, so much so that it nearly tore my parents apart, and it was my first serious taste of mortality, death, and grief. I miss my grandmother and grandfather deeply to this day, to the point where four and a half years ago I intentionally left two chairs vacant and “reserved” for them in the front row at my wedding. I so very much wish they could’ve been there and that they could’ve seen their great grandson.

It seems like a small thing, but one of the things I’ve mourned about Ann’s passing was her cookies. Even if she didn’t make them, they were the one recipe that I associated with her that I never had, didn’t even know the name. I did websearches, talked to other Slavs I knew, and each time I came up blank.

And then I walked into my mother’s kitchen on Saturday and was greeted by this.

They are called fanjki or kroštule. My mother had lunch recently with a cousin of ours, one of Ann’s grandchildren, and asked her if she knew the name of the cookie (her mother, one of Ann’s two daughters, is also a baker). She did, and she knew where to get the recipe. My mother had these waiting for me when they arrived and I nearly broke into tears.

How often do you get to say that you regained something from your childhood you feared lost forever? As I stood in my mother’s kitchen, eating those cookies and thinking back over twenty years to the past, it was like I stole a little bit of my grandmother back from Death.

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