Poppy seed understands

In the small Pennsylvania town where my grandparents grew up is a bakery — one wonderfully frozen in time. When we would venture north to visit my great-grandmother, cousins and great-aunts, we couldn’t pass by without dashing in to admire their treats.

And fill our mouths, of course.

Easter was the best. We often left Maryland for spring break, visiting the Poconos Mountains and swinging back through Wilkes-Barre and Nanticoke on our way home. My great-grandmother lived in the bottom apartment of a duplex, and I can close my eyes and see her waving to us from her shaded side porch.

When we drove through town seeking Sanitary Bakery, my sister and I would stare agog at all the colorful cookies, cakes and chocolates. If we were lucky, a kind baker behind the counter would offer us samples — and my parents would nod as we shoved candy into our delighted mouths. I grew up on nut roll and poppy seed bread, a Polish treat.

I’ve always been an adventurous eater who loves everything others seem to find quirky — but I fit in well with my mom’s parents, who embrace their Polish roots through classic foods like cabbage rolls and kielbasa. Kate and I spent most afternoons at my grandparents’ home after school, and the aroma of ham and cabbage simmering away is intricately woven through many of my memories.

Christmas 93

Katie and me, Christmas 1993

Isn’t it funny how that happens? Our sense of smell is so powerful that, with one whiff, we’re transported back to a county fair, cafeteria, old library. My mom, sister and I actually returned to our elementary school for a craft fair in October. Though I hadn’t walked through those doors in nearly 20 years, we took one step inside and laughed. It was different . . . but it wasn’t.

“It smells the same,” I said, shocked and ecstatic and hit with a wave of nostalgia so powerful, I almost couldn’t breathe.

Food is like that, too. When Gram called me yesterday to say she had some poppy seed bread to share, freshly arrived from Pennsylvania, my little pregnant self couldn’t get over there fast enough. I mean, I may or may not have run a red light. (Okay, I totally didn’t. But I thought about it.) Gram and Grandpa rarely come home without local treats for us from their trips, but this was an unexpected shipment. A true delight.

This morning I sat by my Christmas tree and sliced into the bread that tastes like tradition and growing up rolled into a dense, delicious pastry. I thought about those long-ago drives to Nanticoke; the family reunions and trips with my grandparents, laughing over pie and coffee late into the night at a diner in front of our hotel. Visiting the family cemetery, where many loved ones now rest. Beautiful old churches with stained glass fronts. Curving mountain roads and sleepy storefronts. Running into cousins on the street, our Maryland license plates like sirens in the quiet town.

I miss those days, those trips. Being bundled in a backseat without a worry.

But poppy seed roll? It will always be there for me.

Poppy seed understands.

You better watch out, you better not cry: Timothy is coming to town

Some people grow up believing Santa Claus is peeking around every corner, spying at every recess. Christmas songs have popularized Santa as an omniscient being: someone who knows when you’re sleeping, when you’re awake. If you’ve been bad or good. (So be good, for goodness’ sake!)

In my house? Well, Santa wasn’t lurking around every corner as we were growing up; we knew the Big Guy was far too busy for that. My parents patiently explained to their two eager daughters that Mr. Claus was preoccupied setting up for the holidays . . . but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t keeping tabs on whether we were eating our vegetables and practicing piano.

Santa outsourced all that.

In the mid 1990s, Katie and I were introduced to Timothy the Elf, Santa’s head of North Pole communications, via my dad’s old fax machine. A series of whirring beeps from the den signaled a fax transmission was headed our way. “It’s from the North Pole,” Dad said ceremoniously, and Katie and I scrambled to rip the thin paper from his hands. We read it aloud.

Timothy wrote us short missives about Christmas, hoping we’d behaved ourselves and listened to Mom and Dad. In one particularly exciting fax, Timothy included a hastily-drawn self-portrait: pointy ears, big shoes and a winning smile. We hastily sat down to write him back, promising that we had been very good indeed, and Dad disappeared to zing our message up to the North Pole.

Kids these days can chat with Santa on Twitter, watch his progress on radar and communicate directly with him through email. Technology has allowed Mr. Claus to plug into our lives in real time, and I doubt he needs to outsource his communication to Timothy anymore. Tech-savvy elves can do all that.

I imagine Timothy has been forced into an early retirement — another victim of the digital age. As Santa’s former right-hand elf, Tim is probably living the good life far from the icy tundra that was once his home and workplace. Maybe he’s lounging poolside in Bermuda, sipping a frozen hot chocolate and slathering on sunscreen. Perhaps he’s found a lovely little she-elf with whom to share candy canes.

Like many of us, he probably hasn’t touched a fax machine in a decade — but I hope he’s around to chat with my own kids someday.

Though I heard he set up his own Gmail account. Guess we’ll have to write him and find out.


Did you write to Santa when you were little? Ever get a phone call or letter from the North Pole?