My friend Joan died this morning.
She was 86.
Eighty-six. That’s seven dozen plus two. Which is roughly the size of the batches of cookies she’d bake.
If you knew Joan, you knew her cookies. Not one type in particular, but that array of sweets for every, any, and no occasion that was uniquely, immediately recognizable as a plate from Joan.
Joan created sweetness, and she shared it freely.
For a woman who loved chocolate, she was surprisingly facile with walnut, almond, apricot, lemon, vanilla, and butterscotch. For Joan, there was no one way to be a perfect cookie – she appreciated each confection for its own innate delightfulness.
Which is how she approached people, as well.
There was no one way to be a perfect person for Joan. She appreciated each individual lucky enough to be in her sphere for their own innate self.
There’s an old joke – when two Jews are having a conversation, one of them is talking and the other one is waiting. Joan never waited when she talked to you. She was not formulating in her head what she was going to say while she waited for her turn to speak. She listened. Fully. And then she responded. Her attention was on you. She was fully present – listening, hearing, and remembering what you said.
We became friends twenty years ago, when my sons were seven, six, and three. The math is easy – they are now twenty-seven, twenty-six, and twenty-three. She watched up-close as they went from boys to men. And I had the good fortune to watch so many of her interactions with them along the way. And those interactions stayed fundamentally the same – a simple, respectful, thoughtful curiosity and appreciation for the children, then the teenagers, then the men in front of her. She showed them, even as little, loud, somewhat messy people, the same regard for their person-ness that she showed me and my husband and the other grown-ups in her life.
Joan understood that we’re all a little messy. That we all adjust our flavorings or chocolate chip content from time to time. That we all do better when we know we’re valued for who we are.
Did I mention that she used to be a kindergarten teacher? I can’t imagine anyone more suited to launch a roomful of five-year-olds into the world.
Joan didn’t use cookie cutters. Her confections were dropped, rolled, broken into brittle. They were never shoved into a mold or forced into a rigid shape. They were not even, uniform morsels, but were relatively free-form in their shapes and sizes, and fillings would frequently overflow.
Before our lives intertwined, she and her husband had raised their own two men. If you know them, you know that it looks like Joan used two different recipes, but you can tell that she used the same technique, the same baking sheets, the same respect for their individual essences. Her eyes lit up every single time she spoke of them. And that same radiation of joy emanated from those eyes every time you asked about her brilliant grandchildren.
Joan did not skimp on sugar or butter. She wanted the full richness of life. She was devastated by the loss of her husband a decade ago, but she didn’t allow that to stop a different sweetness from developing when she found a companion some time later. A different cookie. A different texture. But Joan knew quality ingredients when she saw them.
For years and years, I would get an annual birthday delivery from my dear friend – a heaping plate of apricot-filled nuggets of deliciousness. I do not know what was in them. I can’t even really describe them – I just know that they were rich and sweet and they made me smile and my smile made Joan smile. Part of me wants to ask her sons for permission to search her recipes so I can try to recreate this nectar of the gods. And most of me knows that I would never be able to recreate it. I know I would look at the recipe and decide that it’d be fine with half as much sugar, with a third less butter, with low-fat cream cheese. I would be too careful with how much apricot preserve I added to each one – I wouldn’t want to overdo it.
But maybe I will ask to raid her recipes anyway. I know a few guys in their 20s who know their way around a kitchen and spent enough time in Joan’s kitchen to do her recipes justice.
Joan brought sweetness and richness to all of us. She brought her presence fully to every interaction. She loved. She was loved. She made the world a better place. Her memory is indeed a blessing.