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Facts & Arguments Essay

Christmas starts with Nanny's shortbread Add to ...

I felt the recognition in my body before my mind caught up with it.

I was pushing my twin daughters home in their stroller on a cool, bright afternoon in December two years ago. The traffic was heavy and it was hard to hear their commentary over the noise of the cars. I acknowledged it with absent-minded uh-huhs and hmmms as I looked around, enjoying the sun on my face and breathing in the crisp, exhaust-tinged air. And then I saw her.

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She stood outside a low-slung beige building, a retirement residence, leaning against a short, wrought-iron fence with her walker before her. She looked like she was waiting for something or someone. My mouth went dry, my heart began to beat faster and I felt an odd stirring of excitement in my stomach. I stared. Our eyes met for a moment.

Something in her eyes, in the slight downturn of her mouth, reminded me of my grandmother, my father's mother, who had been dead more than a decade. I shook the feeling off with a shiver as I walked by, and was consumed with memories for the rest of the walk. Christmas would be here in a few weeks. I knew exactly what I was going to do when I got home.

My grandmother - Nanny, we called her - had taken 10 years to die. She had a rare, degenerative disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. It's like ALS, slowly, cruelly robbing sufferers of their ability to move, to swallow, to talk, leaving their mind intact. What begins with stiffness and frequent falls ends with tubes and immobility.

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I remember visits to the palliative-care ward of the hospital where she died, which always smelled to me of urine and the greyish-beige nutritional supplement that helped keep Nanny alive. There was a cassette-tape player on the windowsill so she could listen to books on tape, or the homemade recording of Christmas songs my family had given her one year. I often wondered how long she had to wait before the nurses remembered to turn the tape over and press play.

Though hers seemed to me barely a wisp of a life, a thought that often brought tears to my young eyes, Nanny extracted from it everything she could. When the time came, she agreed to a feeding tube rather than allow herself to wither away. Even when she couldn't coax her facial muscles into a smile, she hadn't lost the twinkle in her eye - she could still laugh at my father's jokes.

When we knew the end was near I went out on a limb and told Nanny that I loved her. I had never said that before. I crouched down, brought my face close to hers and spoke to her softly. In our family, such things were shown, not said aloud. But love is what I felt, and it was what she gave me from the moment I was born. It seemed important at that moment to tell her so. She died a few hours later.

With Nanny there was always warmth, comfort and welcome for me. There were no expectations and no demands. There was no pressure to be anything other than myself.

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I can see the same sort of relationship developing between my daughters and their grandparents now. It's a bond built around simple togetherness. The children make the rules and the adults don't sigh when they're asked to play the patient or the fairy godmother yet again or read a story for the 17th time. Schedules melt into the background and play takes centre stage, a respite from the "real" world of responsibilities.

My daughters are fortunate. They have four healthy grandparents who, having sent their own children off into the world, can now relax and enjoy the youngest members of the family.

One of the things I adored as a child was being at Nanny's house at Christmastime. We would dance in the living room to the old 45s that used to belong to my dad and my uncle. We'd throw snowballs in the vast backyard or play Ping-Pong and darts in the unfinished basement.

And in the evening, after supper, Nanny would disappear into the cool of the cellar and return with a foil-wrapped package of her homemade shortbread. She would unwrap the six-inch rounds and break them into bite-sized pieces onto a plate in the kitchen, the buttery aroma making my mouth water in anticipation. It was powdery, delicious and never too sweet.

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I make Nanny's shortbread myself now at Christmastime, and it always makes me think of her. When we arrived home that December day, I immediately went into the kitchen, located the flour-dusted page where I'd copied the recipe in pencil years ago, and got out the ingredients: butter, icing sugar and flour.

I found my measuring cups and began assembling the dough. As I kneaded it and flattened it into two rounds, I imagined Nanny's hands, wrinkled and soft from the butter, doing the same.

After roughly scalloping the edges with my fingers and pricking the rounds all over with a fork, into the oven they went. I set the timer for 35 minutes and waited for the sweet, rich aroma to fill the air. It was warm and delicious. It smelled like love.

Lara Mills lives in Ottawa.

Illustration by Neal Cresswell.

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