For J, who enjoys “The Cobbler and His Guest” every year.
Once upon a time, there lived an old woman who loved her village with all her bread.
She was the village’s only baker, and no one wished for another. With great affection, the townspeople called her “Grandmama.” Her floury hands faithfully shaped notched loaves and airy soft rolls each day at her small shop in the town square.
Sacks of honey-colored grains and snowy flours lined her shelves. The beloved tools of her trade were always within reach: mixing bowls and measuring spoons in every size, a menagerie of animal cracker cutters, Christmas gingerbread stamps, even a rolling pin with notched crosses for making Easter sweets. Young tots who could not yet name the months could tell what season it was by peeking in the glass case, for at the bakery, everything appeared in its time.
Harvest time brought pretzel rolls and thickly sliced seed-loaves perfect for dipping in stews. The iciest days of winter seemed to whirl inside to leave an extra dusting of powdered sugar on the snowball cookies and doughnuts. In spring, flowers bloomed both outside and inside the shop, often springing up in the form of sugared violet-topped cakes, and the warmth of summer always ushered in strawberry chocolate tarts.
Whatever baked goods were planned for the day, the grandmama prayed as she sifted and seasoned and kneaded, talking with the Lord she loved. In the afternoons, she often gathered scraps of dough from her morning’s work and made treats to hand to the schoolchildren on their way home. Each child passing through the square walked slowly by her window, hoping that today a hot currant bun or small cookie might be slipped into his or her pocket. Then, always, each one would examine the pastry before carefully nibbling away at it, because the grandmama always marked them with a simple picture shaped from the thoughts that were on her mind.
Sometimes curious little callers returned to the bakery to ask her for the story behind the day’s symbol, and perch on a bench to listen as she worked. This made her happiest of all.
“Ah, the couple holding hands on your scone,” she would say, her eyes as bright as the sugar crystals cascading from her fingers. “Let me tell you about the day I met my Peter…”
Years passed, and the grandmama’s memory and eyesight began to fade. Still she went on, faithfully meeting the requests of the villagers, until she could only see enough to make the plainest baked goods. Whimsical designs no longer graced the tops of the rolls and tarts and scones. The daily bread shelves were no longer as full, and while the seasons still brought their distinctive wares, the bakery case was often only half-populated.
Yet the grandmama refused to be troubled. “My Lord knows the measure of love in this biscuit is the same I put into my wedding cakes with the sugared flowers,” she would say. “For Him that is the ingredient that matters.”
She worked harder, with a steady cheerfulness, though she often had to pause while rolling out pastry dough to rest her stiff, calloused fingers and tired eyes — and pause many times more to recollect the recipes she had once known by heart. She was not at a point where she needed to ask for help yet, she told herself stoutly.
But very early one winter morning, the grandmama forgot to use her mitts as she reached to take rolls from a hot pan. She cried out as the pan crashed to the floor, and her hands trembled as she soaked them in a cool dishcloth.
“Lord,” she whispered, feeling for her bench as her knees gave out, “I do not mind if I cannot see so well as before, and I know You remember all that I cannot, these days. But I would be deeply lonely without You. Even if my hands should forget how to work, do not let me forget You!”
For a long moment, she buried her face in her apron.
In the stillness, the sounds of children laughing and rolling snowmen in the town square came faintly through the glass of her wide window.
Slowly, the grandmama got up. She gently touched her throbbing fingers to the cool panes. She could see nothing more than bright clusters of color bobbing about outside, but she could hear their voices. Such joy. It had been so long since she had made anything to delight those small faces.
In the next instant she was at her counter. As fast as her hands would allow, she hurried to make cookies, rolling out the dough and cutting it into uneven diamonds with a knife. The kitchen soon filled with the aroma of butter and vanilla and cardamom baking, and she smiled as she took the pans out of the oven, double-checking this time to make sure that her mitts were on.
When she called the children, they came tumbling in, breathless from their play. Into each hand she placed a warm and fragrant diamond.
The children were silent.
Unable to see their expressions, she fluttered a hand in apology. “I’m sorry. They are not quite what they used to be.”
But before she finished speaking, every one of the children barreled forward to thank her, clustering around her floured skirt. “Grandmama! It smells delicious!” “I will have mine at home with a cup of hot chocolate!” “Thank you for such a treat — I have missed them!” Tears pricked the grandmama’s eyes at their kindness and their gratitude, and also at a pang of her own grief. For, dim as her vision was, it was the clouding of her mind that hurt the most. She had once known each of these dear ones’ names.
On her way out the door, the smallest of the children turned around and ran back to give her one last hug. “And Merry Christmas Eve to you, Grandmama!”
Ah, tomorrow was Christmas. The grandmama had forgotten that too.
When a merry wind blew into the village the next morning, shaking a generous layer of unsifted snow upon all the rooftops and footpaths, it peeked in at the bakery window and wondered at the unusual absence of answering movement.
The grandmama sat wrapped in a shawl by the fireplace in her kitchen, a cup of hot chocolate and an untouched slice of bread on the work table beside her. She watched the blurry ribbon of flame twist and turn to the music of its own crackle. In a few hours she would get up for the evening service. Until then, she would drowse in the warmth and hope to dream of sweeter days that were now long past.
At noon, a little knock sounded on her door. Wearily the grandmama roused herself and rose from her chair. The knock continued to tap out a patient rhythm at about the height of the doorknob. When the door opened, the small girl from the previous afternoon whisked inside at once, holding the grandmama’s arm in her tiny mittened hand.
“Merry Christmas, Grandmama! Come see what we have brought you.”
The grandmama turned her head toward the stream of cold air behind her as she was led back to her chair, marveling as a steady line of children tromped in and gathered around the table. “But what are you up to, children? Should you not be home with your mothers and fathers today?”
With great ceremony, the tallest boy placed a brown parcel in her lap. Seeing how gingerly she sought the paper’s edge — for some of her fingers were bandaged — a few of the middle-sized children helped her unwrap the gift.
It was a set of wooden cookie molds.
“We stayed up all night to draw them,” the children said eagerly, “and our fathers carved them.” Carefully, they helped her trace the eight designs: a tree, an ark, a tent, two tablets, a star, a hill, a cave, a radiant garden city.
Before the grandmama could ask about the gift, the door opened again, and the women of the village came in. For a moment, the kitchen was a swirl of noise and laughter as they took off their wraps and hugged the children and cheerfully chided them for tracking snow into the grandmama’s kitchen. Delicious scents wafted up from the steaming platters and tureens and pots that they set upon the table.
To the grandmama, each voice seemed like a familiar song. “What is all this?” she asked, finally. “What have I done to earn such a rich visit?”
“We have come to help,” the mother of the smallest girl said, “if you will have us, Grandmama. We will take turns doing the baking for the village under your instruction.” The grandmama heard a smile slip into her voice. “Though not today! Today we will all eat the sweet bread and the food that we made while the men were carving wood.”
“And we will come too, Grandmama!” several of the children chirped, holding up the cookie molds. “One or two of us every day, to tell you all the parts of the Story you love most, just as you told us your stories. We’ll tell them to you as many times as you’d like.”
The grandmama’s eyes filled with tears. “And — how did you know that a gift like this was what I needed most?” She had not dared to confide in anyone out loud.
The children moved as one to take little bundles out of their pockets. Once again they guided her fingertips over the contents. These were the shortbread cookies she had made, with ragged edges from her haste in cutting them out. But the tops…
At once the grandmama understood. The day that she had burned her hands, the day that she had asked God for help to remember Him, she had unknowingly reached past her everyday rolling pin and picked up the rolling pin for the Easter biscuits. Out of her bakery, once so careful in its seasonal observances, had come a collection of Christmas shortbread marked all over with hundreds of tiny crosses.
The grandmama laughed until she cried. When one of the mothers brought her a clean tea towel, she cried into that too, over the knowledge that it was not her capability but her weaknesses that had let love into her house.
And as the women hastened to make tea and sit beside her, and many of the children ran outside to play before the midday feast, there on the table between the roasts and sauces lay the shortbread diamonds, their imprinted symbols bearing witness to One who knows the pain of His people even before they can voice it — and who, by hour and by season, reveals that He is with us in a thousand unlooked-for ways.