It was a hot, hot day, which being New York, meant it was even hotter … and very stuffy.
Two summers ago next week, myself, my younger sister, my cousin and my cousin’s daughter found ourselves all sitting crowded round a small round table in a small kitchen in a 7th floor apartment in Queens. We may have been pretty hot and sweaty, but we were all smiling with excitement.
Aunt Cleo was going to teach us how to make cookies.
Not just any cookies. Aunt Cleo’s special cookies. The one’s she made on every family occasion. The box of cookies she always brought when she came across the pond to visit us when I was a child, or sent with my Yiayia when she came to visit. There was something special about those cookies, beautiful in their simplicity, everyone loved them. No one wasted a crumb.
You see, Aunt Cleo has always been a bit of a legend. One of the kindest people you would ever meet. Wouldn’t take any nonsense, but then noone would seek to give her any. We all loved her. She was our great aunt Cleo, eldest of seven children and matriarch of our family. A true lady, through and through.
She came in the kitchen as my cousin’s daughter popped yet another olive in her mouth and I was biting into a stuffed vine leaf. She picked up a pan of melted butter off the stove she’d prepared earlier and with a list of details all butter-related, poured it into the bowl of her trusted kitchenaid and turned it on. She decided to dip into the olives too.
Aunt Cleo had been baking these cookies, possibly as long as all our ages combined, maybe not quite, but needless to say, she had had a lot of practise. Her mother had made them before her and her grandmother before her, way back in the Greek islands that form our heritage. Watching her bake was like watching history, and as she told us all the stories of the generations before us, you could feel tears of pride welling up inside. Her soft gentle hands bringing together the ingredients, knowing from touch alone, how much more flour was needed, it was like watching art in motion. Instinctively forming each cookie, tenderly placing them on the baking tray ready to go in the oven.
Her eyes may have been hurting her that day, but nothing was lacking in what Aunt Cleo taught us. Plenty of explanations, beautiful stories, clear demonstrations were the perfect ingredients for a perfect class. And then. The secret ingredient. In the cookies, it may have been a “jigger” of her special Greek alchohol. In the class, it was Aunt Cleo’s heart of gold: the love she gave to each and every one of us girls.
We will never forget a moment of what she taught us.
In January, when I found out that Aunt Cleo would be leaving us, I flew to the States to say my goodbyes and give her one last hug. On the way out of New York, with tears in my eyes, I penned her a poem.
On the 14th February, on the day of love and one day short of her 96th birthday, Aunt Cleo left us. A warm bright light may have gone out in the world, but look into the night sky and the brightest star out there, that is Aunt Cleo giving us a hug. You can hear her silvery laugh in the wind, and on a warm summer day, smell her cookies baking in the air.
May we carry your legacy on forever.