It turns out I’m pretty good at making toffee.
This is the first time I’d ever made toffee on purpose. One year I tried to improvise a clear glaze for Christmas cookies and ended up making a grainy, sparkly candy that yielded to the tongue like edible sand, but that was all. I always meant to add it to our holiday baking. This year, we had enough butter in the house to try to make toffee deliberately.
I let Rosie chop up a whole box of butter. I heated it with sugar and a pinch of salt. I stirred in one direction until the butter was melted, then I watched. I watched the sugar crystals dissolve into a glassy, slow-bubbling goo. I watched the goo turn from light yellow to the color of brown paper; then I poured it out on parchment. I poured chocolate chips over the goo while it was still hot, then smoothed out the new layer of melted chocolate. I sprinkled pecans on top. I put it in the fridge.
An hour later, I had real homemade toffee.
I was elated. Finally, I’d made something fancy enough to give away as a gift. There’s a kindly family at our parish who’s always helping us get to church, even though they have a gaggle of children of their own and the father leads Third Hour Prayers before liturgy. Rosie loves playing with the children. We’ve been meeting in the toy section of the library almost every week lately to play Candy Land and Memory. I always wanted to be one of those mothers who remembers to give friends a plate of homemade sweets for Christmas, and now I had both sweets and friends to give them to.
It wasn’t until Christmas Eve that I realized our mistake.
This family has a son, Declan. With a name like Declan I’ve joked that he ought to be their tenth child, but he’s only the sixth; he has five protective older sisters and one adoring baby sister. He’s half Rose’s age and half her size as well, and he likes to play with toy cars while his sisters and Rosie are playing Candy Land. Declan, I remembered, has a sensitivity to dairy products like the butter in toffee.
I know a thing or two about food sensitivities. I get sick for weeks if I eat or touch gluten. I had made five varieties of Christmas cookie this year, all scrupulously gluten-free, in addition to the toffee. But every one of them was made with milk and real butter. Milk is one of the only foods I digest well. I hadn’t given it a second thought.
Rosie and I ran to the kitchen and tried to make a treat without any dairy, to give as a gift to our friends. We got out all the ingredients for snickerdoodles made with Crisco instead of butter before we realized that snickerdoodle dough needed to be chilled for an hour. There wouldn’t be time for that before Compline and liturgy. Then we started creaming the Crisco for thumbprint cookies, before we realized that thumbprint cookies needed powdered sugar and we didn’t have any in the house. All the stores were already closed. The buses weren’t running anyway. It was snowing too hard to walk and there wouldn’t be time to get home before our ride came. We were out of time, without a dairy-free treat to give a family whose only son was dairy-free.I started packing toffee into the bag Rose had decorated with strips of wrapping paper. “I guess Declan just won’t have any.”
Rosie looked as if she was going to burst into tears.
“I wonder if there’s a gift we can give him instead.”
Rosie ran to the living room. She came back with one of her 100-piece jigsaw puzzles.
“No,” I said, “He’s too young for that.”
Rosie ran off again, and came back with a ripped up board book about a duck who goes to the zoo.
“No, that’s too battered to be a gift.”
Rosie came back once more with a clean copy of Six Little Ducks.
A librarian had given Rose that book as a gift when I opened a card in her name. She wasn’t yet a year old. I was exhausted and had a bad case of post-partum depression. We must have read, and by read I mean sung, Six Little Ducks hundreds of times in that terrifying apartment in the worst part of LaBelle. Rosie loved it. I, however, was so overwhelmed with worry and angst that the plight of the mother duck with her disappearing brood made me want to cry with every repetition.
“It’s a baby book,” said Rose cheerfully. “I’m getting too grown up for it. Declan will like it more than I do. It was a gift from the librarian and now it’s a gift for Declan. Someday it will be too babyish for him and he’ll give it to his sister.”
I wanted to cry all over again.
Rose went to wrap the present. She ran out of tape and secured the wrapping with a clothespin, which I didn’t discover until later. I composed myself and packed up the rest of the toffee.
We explained the situation to our friends before church. The girls looked happy at the toffee. Declan looked confused but content in his quiet toddler way. But his eyes lit up when Rose handed him the messily wrapped present.
“Is dat for ME!?”
“It was a present for me, and now it’s for you, and someday it’s for your sister,” Rose explained again.
Declan ripped off the wrapping– that was when I discovered the clothespin. He sat down at once on the floor of the church social hall, surrounded by his sisters, to examine the stout colorful pages of Six Little Ducks.
We all went into liturgy with joyful hearts– Declan clutching the book, his mother carrying the toffee, Rosie still chatting about gifts passed from one person to another.
The Kingdom of Heaven is somewhere in all of this.
(image via Pixabay)