The Secret to Our Family Peppernuts

When a family is dealing with Alzheimer’s, holiday memories often center around the good times and particularly – food. One of my favorite memories is making peppernuts with Mom.Peppernuts

The smell of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon merged together with enough flour to break my arm when I stirred the giant bowl full of dough. We started on the peppernuts right after Thanksgiving when the kitchen was the warmest room in the house and the Oklahoma winds howled around the window frames.

Mom added the ingredients while I stirred, again and again. More cups of flour – practically an entire sack full. The recipe called for a “stiff dough” – no definite measurements.

But Mom knew exactly when to quit adding flour as she pinched off a piece of the dough and handed it to me. “Not too sticky,” she said. “You have to be able to roll it into a tiny ball.” Even now, I know exactly when to stop adding ingredients and begin making those tiny Christmas treats.

Peppernuts (“pfeffernusse” in the traditional Mennonite German lingo) are a phenomenon that traveled with my ancestors to America. With the traditional Christmas spices, including pepper, they taste great with coffee or tea. And with time, they harden into tiny bits of yumminess that will last for years in a glass jar.

Each family seems to have its own recipe. Some add anise, to give a distinctive licorice flavor while others focus on more of the spiciness. Our family was the latter as we doubled the spices for each single recipe.

It takes an entire day to make peppernuts, but that is one of the secrets to their flavor. Those of us who make them know the time and effort required. So they are a gift of not only taste but also of quality.

I often make mine while listening to Christmas albums and revel not only in the music but also in the memories of family life. Dad, sitting in his recliner, his head turned to catch every note from the violins on the stereo. Mom with her wooden spoon in hand, directing the work in the kitchen. My siblings sprawled next to the Christmas tree, reading books or dreaming about the presents soon to be bought and wrapped.

After the peppernuts baked, we stored them in giant jars. Then as Christmas neared, we transferred them to smaller jars and wrapped colorful bows around the lids. The mailman, the piano teacher, the school teacher, friends and other family all received peppernuts every year.

And now…I bake my peppernuts and think about the past…about the changing of seasons and the traditions that still endure.

The secret to our family peppernuts? Double the spices and triple the love.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” –

What Alzheimer’s Teaches – Part 3

Part 1 of this series encouraged us to be patient. Part 2 reminded us that each day counts. What is another lesson that Alzheimer’s Disease can teach us?

Make Positive Memories.Number 3

When our memories begin to deteriorate, we’ll want our children and other family members to remember good times we’ve shared together.

Life is so busy with work, school and more work – with paying bills, facing conflict and fear. But in the midst of all the hubbub, we need to make positive memories.

Because each day is important, we can spend those 24 hours doing things together that will give our loved ones the opportunity to say, “Remember when?”

One of my favorite memories about Mom happened when I was 11. We were at the library where we visited weekly and checked out stacks of books. I browsed through the young adult section but couldn’t find any books I hadn’t already read. So I wandered into the adult section and chose two of those books.

However, when I tried to check them out, the librarian told me I wasn’t allowed to check anything out of the adult section.

Mom found me crying behind one of the shelves.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. Mom was never a nurturer and if we cried, then there’d better be a  good reason.

I told her what happened. She grabbed my hand and marched with me to the main desk where she confronted the librarian.

“I understand you won’t let my daughter check out these books.”

“Shh,” said the librarian. “Ma’am, these books are from the adult section and your daughter isn’t yet an adult. We can’t allow her to check them out.”

My mother stood her ground with every bit of her 5’8” stature and said, “May I remind you that my taxes pay for the electricity in this building, and the books…and your salary.”

I thought Mom was ten feet tall.

“But ma’am,” said the librarian in her whispery voice. “We just can’t allow….”

“Do I need to speak to your superior or to one of the board members for this public library so that my tax money will be used properly? There’s nothing in these books that will hurt my daughter, and if she wants to check them out – then she’s going to check them out.”

I left that day with “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt.” I read them both and loved them, and I never had trouble checking any books out of the library again.

I imagine that somewhere in that library system, there still exists a 3×5 card with my name on it and a notation, “Beware of Mother.”

That was my mom. She fought fiercely for her kids, and I treasure the memory of her bold love.

What Alzheimer’s Teaches – Part 2

In the first post of this series, we considered how Alzheimer’s Disease teaches us about patience. Another lesson to learn is one we may know, but don’t always keep in the forefront of our minds. Number 2

Each Day Counts.

Although most of us aspire to the philosophy of carpe diem, do we really live every 24 hours to its fullest?

A few years ago, Mom seemed fine. She paid her bills, drove her car all over town and maintained the care of her house. She remembered birthdays, called me often where we carried on long conversations. She competed with the rest of us when we played board games. She knew how to balance her checking account.

Gradually, we noticed the differences in Mom – the forgetfulness, the questions asked over and over, the fear about losing her way when she drove home. Still, she seemed to be dealing with life and able to stay in her own home.

Then she was admitted into the hospital for a pacemaker procedure and overnight – everything triggered. The symptoms of her Alzheimer’s diagnosis intensified, and the doctor said, “She can’t live alone.”

Fortunately, my siblings and I had already chosen the assisted living facility we thought Mom would enjoy – the one with the nicest rooms, the most activities and close to home. Although it was an emotionally draining time, we worked together and tried to help Mom adjust to her new home.

Everything changed so quickly. I wanted to go back and relive each day, to focus on carpe diem before Mom’s diagnosis.

Although Alzheimer’s is a gradual disease, symptoms can change quickly. It’s important to say “I love you” often, to treasure each moment together, to journal the memories and take pictures.

Mom’s disease has taught me to treasure each day I have with my son, to live the philosophy of carpe diem and dedicate myself to serve God with the time I am given. Because I know that one piece of amyloidal plaque can totally change a life.

Each day is precious, because it is all we have.