Baking Cookies in My Mother’s Kitchen

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I keep a photo on my nightstand of my mom and me making handmade biscotti when I was little. I’m wearing an oversize apron, my cheeks as voluminous as her ’80s-style hot-rollered hair. The photo is a reminder of a joyful time when I still liked making cookies and I still had my mom.

In my family, cookies were much more than just a treat. In 1983, when I was 3, my mother, Bonnie, and her mother founded the wholesale biscotti bakery La Tempesta, helping to introduce the Italian cookies to the United States. A single mom, she started baking a family recipe at home and selling it to local cafes, eventually producing over 300,000 biscotti a day for customers all over the country. What began as a way to scrape together rent rolled into the dough that funded my Barbies, Hello Kitty pencil boxes, questionable adolescent fashion choices and first car.

I took my role as the daughter of the “Queen of Biscotti” very seriously. After-school playtime was spent pretending to answer phones and filling out purchase orders with crayons. But by the time I was filling out college applications, Mom was gearing up to pass on her crown and sell La Tempesta. I went off to college and biscotti and I went our separate ways.

Eventually Mom missed being in the kitchen and decided to reclaim her “throne,” launching Boncora Biscotti — a play on “Bonnie” and “ancora,” which means encore in Italian. At my wedding reception in 2014, Mom lined the tables with hand-decorated packages of her biscotti. She sparkled that day as we all danced, drank wine and sang at the top of our lungs.

A few days later, while my husband, Jeff, and I were sipping Negronis in Positano on our honeymoon, my mom called. Her voice sounded so small — clearly terrified, but trying hard to sound calm. “There is something wrong with my liver,” she said. We soon had a diagnosis: metastatic breast cancer. “She could live another five years,” the oncology nurse told us. I refused to believe it; the nurse must be wrong. And she was: Less than six weeks after that conversation, my mother passed away.

When she took her last breath, squeezing my hand that sunny Thursday afternoon, I fell through the looking glass. I had no idea how to function in a world that no longer included her.

Amid the painfully tedious tasks that followed — accounts to close, people to notify, policies to cancel, a memorial to plan — there was no guidance for one of my biggest questions: what to do about the cookies?

The answer seemed obvious: Close Boncora. The bakery had operated at a loss and there were no good reasons to continue running a business that required a huge commitment of time and money, especially when I was so damaged. Except one: By keeping the business open I wouldn’t have to face the truth that my mom was gone.

In the months that followed I gave up almost everything as I poured myself into the business. The cookies became a buffer between me and reality. I shuttered my thriving psychotherapy practice, withdrew from friends, and pushed my husband away. Sleep and exercise gave way to long days trying to resuscitate the business. My edges became sharp — my warmth and humor replaced with indifference and cynicism. I felt more alone and brittle than ever before.

Still, the business grew. People loved our story: “Grieving daughter carries on family tradition out of love for her mother.” To the outside world, I looked like the model of healthy coping, but internally I felt like a war zone. The cookies became a symbol of my pain, a projection of my grief, and an excuse for why I remained untethered.

One day while cleaning my mother’s office, I glanced at one of the many framed articles about her on the walls. As I read her quotes, I could almost hear her voice.

“You have to feel really strongly about it,” she said in reference to owning a business. “It needs to be more than a good idea, you have to have this gut feeling, an inner voice that says you’ve got to do this. I’ve always listened to those voices.”

Her words jolted me. I saw clearly what had been invisible for the previous 18 months: Her real legacy was not the biscotti but the mother she had been to me. She had cared for me, believed in me, and told me to follow my intuition and dreams. And in running her business, I had done the opposite.

I was passionate about honoring my mom, not about biscotti. No number of cookies sold or dollars earned was going to fill the emptiness created by her absence. Keeping the business alive would not bring her back to life. Nor would it make me feel cared for and protected in the way she always had.

So I decided to take her advice. With a heart that was half broken and half relieved I said arrivederci to biscotti and to the business.

A few weeks later, sitting in the backyard where her ashes are buried, I felt a deep urge to bake biscotti. I went inside and made a batch at home for the first time since she had passed. Massaging the dough, my sharp edges softened. I felt my mother’s presence intertwine with the warm smell of almonds and sugar that filled the air. Suddenly those days spent together joyfully immersed in a world of biscotti didn’t feel so far away. And neither did she.