When my teacher asked what I could bring for the Christmas party,
I remembered Mama and Daddy arguing over grocery money,
so I whispered that we didn’t have much money for food.
He patted my shoulder, winked at me and said, “Then you just bring ketchup.” He probably assumed we had ketchup in our refrigerator and was doing me a favor by telling me to bring something we already had. He didn’t know the three foods Mama never brought into our house were meat, eggs, and ketchup.
When Mama went to the store later that week, I went along and checked out the price of ketchup. I was relieved to discover it cost 19 cents. I waited until Mama got to the pickle aisle to say, “I’m supposed to bring ketchup to the school Christmas party.”
Mama’s nose wrinkled up like she smelled something sour. I got the feeling she couldn’t be more disgusted if I were responsible for bringing a roasted pig.
“Ketchup is made from rotten tomatoes and vinegar. Why would you sign up for something so unhealthy?”
“I don’t know. Everyone has to bring something.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous. You’re not taking ketchup. We don’t even eat ketchup. If the school wants ketchup, let someone else bring it.”
“But Mama, I have to bring something.”
“Well, it’s not going to be ketchup. Maybe you should just skip the party. It’s not an actual school day anyway.”
“But I have to go to the party! All my friends will be there!”
I tried to hold back the tears because I knew Mama didn’t like public scenes, but my eyes watered anyway.
Mama grabbed my arm and spoke sternly, “Look, if you can’t be mature about this maybe you need to wait in the car with Daddy.”
When I got back to the car, Daddy listened to my side of the story and said, “We’ll discuss when Mama gets back.” Then he went back to reading his newspaper.
And that’s how my entire family sat in the dark parking lot of the grocery store debating whether we should use our last dollar to buy ketchup. If this had happened in Sequim, I wouldn’t have cared, but I finally had friends, and I was determined to go to the party. I made my case by describing the humiliation of going to the party empty-handed. It was bad enough to tell the teacher we didn’t have much food, but if the other kids saw me coming to the party with nothing, then everyone would know I was poor.
Mama had only one dollar and fifteen cents left in her purse. If I bought the ketchup, she’d be down to less than a dollar. Daddy was more sympathetic than Mama, and after some negotiation, they agreed I could go in the store and buy the ketchup. It was a hollow victory because I felt terrible for robbing Mama of her last grocery dollar. At the same time, I had to attend the party, or never be seen at school again.
My hand shook as I handed the dollar bill to the cashier. It was a relief to hide the bottle of ketchup inside a brown paper bag, but even then, I was afraid every person I passed on the way to the car, could see how selfish I was for buying it.
As I lay on my bunk that night, I remembered how Mama once bought an entire box of Peppermint Patties for me to hand out on my birthday. A case of candy cost a lot more than a bottle of ketchup, so why was Mama so resentful about me spending nineteen cents to attend a party? I felt like I was worth less than a bottle of ketchup. Had she stopped loving me?
When Mara turned out the light, I smothered my face in my pillow so she couldn’t hear me cry and asked God why he sent me to a poor family. As I lay there crying, our cat, Cubby came to me and gently put her paw on my face as if she was trying to comfort me. Grandma told me how Jesus loves us through our kitties. It felt like a sign. I reached out and cradled her soft body in my arms. She touched her nose to mine and soothed me with her purr until I fell asleep.
The next morning, I took the bottle of ketchup to school, placed it on the table and never saw it again. I was looking around for my friends when something else on the table caught my eye. In the center of the table, arranged on a fancy platter, was an entire choir of cookie angels. Their golden forms were exquisitely decorated with jewel-toned royal icing, and their colored robes glowed like lights on a Christmas tree. They reminded me of a picture from a children’s fantasy book.
Mama had trained me to recognize foods containing eggs at every potluck or party. I knew most cookies–unless we made them, had eggs in them. I was pretty sure these cookies had both eggs and butter—two taboos, but I was mesmerized by their beauty. I couldn’t stop staring at one purple robed angel. I wondered what it would be like to taste her dainty foot. I must’ve licked my lips because a kind-faced older woman came up to me and said, “Go ahead and taste one–I made them for a girl just like you.”
I looked behind me to see if she was speaking to someone else, but no one was there. Then I quickly scanned the room to make sure Mara wasn’t watching before reaching out my hand. The angel was too beautiful to eat, so I held her up to my nose and took a whiff of her vanilla scented yellow curls. The idea of eating such a lovely cookie felt like a crime. I was afraid to taste her because of the eggs, but I couldn’t take her home because I knew if Mama saw her, she would end up in the garbage.
The nice lady was staring me as if she was waiting for me to taste the angel. To be polite, I cautiously bit off one shoe. The texture was flaky and slightly salty, but my tongue danced at the mouth-watering sweetness. I decided to eat the other foot too. Before I knew it, I’d swallowed the angel up to her waist. I thought of the song, “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor,” only, in this case, I was doing the swallowing. Her purple robe felt soft to my lips and sweet on my tongue. I wondered if this was what manna tastes like–if so, I could eat it every day and never complain.
The cookie angel was more than a snack. She transformed me from feeling like a girl who was less than a bottle of ketchup, into someone worthy of eating the most beautiful angel I’d ever seen. When I went home, I kept my secret. Like Mama said, “What people don’t know, won’t hurt them.” I took stock in my eleven-year-old wisdom and decided one bottle of ketchup is worth the entrance to a party. One kind friend is worth more than a school of unfriendly faces. One warm cat is worth more than a thousand blankets, and one beautiful cookie is worth more than a whole table full of food that doesn’t shine.
PS If you would like to make your own cookies here is the recipe.