“Can we get a gingerbread man … please, Mom?” The four of us pressed our noses against the glass case where rows of cookies stood sentry. The Gingerbread Castle grounds had been our favorite haunt that summer, when the medical bills from my sister’s bout with cancer had squeezed my parents’ bank account dryer than last week’s soup bone.
We hadn’t taken the Castle tour that day, which would have blown the budget. Instead my mother had packed up peanut butter sandwiches and fruit, and we picnicked on the grounds, feeding our left-over crusts to the ducks and carp. Then we ambled over the bridge and checked out the little shop across the street from the Castle. I had a secret ambition to get a job as a “Cookie Girl” in the bake shop, to spend the summer baking cookies and scooping ice cream for the dozens of tourists who swarmed the store each day.
This particular day, we were moving slowly. Chris had just gotten out of the hospital, and though she had won her battle against bone cancer, her leg had been a casualty of war. The doctors had removed it just above the knee. Already she was an expert on crutches, navigating the distance between the parking lot and the cookie case with agility. We had grown expert at ignoring the stares of children and adults alike, focusing instead on the spicy treats that tantalized us, just out of reach.
“Can I help you?” the lady behind the counter was watching us intently. Even to my twelve-year-old eyes, she was older by several years than the other Cookie Girls, but she had a kind smile in her eyes.
Mom looked in her wallet, shaking her head. “C’mon, girls. I’ll make us cookies at home.”
“Wait.” Cookie Girl reached behind the counter and we heard the rustle of paper. “This one got a little too done, and the leg is a bit crooked. Do you think you could give it a good home?”
Eagerly Chris grabbed the gingerbread out of the bag and bit off one foot. Then she held it up for inspection. “Look, Mom! He looks just like me!”
He did indeed.
More than thirty years have passed since that summer afternoon, and my family has long since moved from the area. About ten years ago, I brought my own children to visit, and was disappointed to discover that the Castle is closed to visitors. Cookie Girl was gone, but the memories linger sweet and pungent, like ginger and cloves pulled fresh from the oven.
Heidi Hess Saxton is the author of several books including “Touched by Kindness” (Vine Books). She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two children, who enjoy an annual tradition of making gingerbread houses at Christmas.