Growing up in the 60s and 70s in the Midwest meant that my friends and I had childhoods unfettered by screens. There were only three television channels until PBS came along. No such thing as home computers for a decade or so yet, and phones were attached to the wall.
Not to wax too nostalgic, but it felt to me as if there was more time and more freedom for us at a younger age. I was judged to be old enough to walk to school by myself at the start of first grade. It was just seven short blocks down to the grade school and the Junior High (as we called it then) was right next to it. Some days I’d walk home for lunch.
For three years in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, I was pulled out of that easy walk to go to a different school, an accelerated learning program or ALC school that was a bit further away, next to the community pool that only charged 25 cents to get in and 25 cents for a locker and a place to stay cool and wet during the long summer days in Wichita, Kansas. It was also around the corner from where the BTK killer nabbed some of his victims, but we didn’t know about such things back then.
I had a red Schwinn bike with basket panniers on the back that I rode to get to school at the ALC, which would take me about 15 minutes. I’d ride three blocks on a side street, take the “bumpty sidewalk,” so called for all the trees that had nudged their roots under the cement, down two blocks to the main street, then a left and up a couple more blocks to the big intersection. Back then there was a grocery store on one side where I’d buy a Marathon bar or a Bit O’Honey when I had enough change scrounged up. Across from that was the Sinclair gas station with a green Brontosaurus for their sign. The attendants came out to fill your car and wipe down the windows for you. I don’t remember what the third corner was, and on the fourth were grassy fields and a barn with horses. Riding past all that another long block or two was the school. I rode back home for lunch many days for chicken and stars soup. We must have had an hour for lunch, I don’t know how I’d have made it otherwise.
The ALC was a small group of 20 or so “smart kids” nested into a larger population of “normal kids,” which led to some fairly fraught encounters on the playground. I made lifetime friends in ALC, and still communicate with many of them. We had great teachers, read Homer in 4th grade, learned to type, went on spectacular field trips, learned Spanish from a teacher most of us detested, and ran around the backstops as part of gym class, which most of us also detested.
Valentine’s Day at that school was also fraught with tension for me. We made pockets out of manila folders and decorated them with our name on them. These were taped below the chalkboard (oh, the smell of chalk! And the squeak of chalk!) at the front of the class about a week before Valentine’s Day. The envelopes were supposed to be for all the Valentine’s cards and candy our classmates gave us. We’d have a party with punch and cookies and open them.
You could make the Valentines, or you could buy them at the store. By 6th grade, most were buying them. My mom came from England, and didn’t quite understand the idea that we could just buy pre-made valentines, so I ended up making mine every year. Being an egalitarian-leaning person even back then, perhaps fueled by my own deep understanding of loneliness and being left out, I always made one for everyone. I’d get red and pink and white construction paper and big white paper doilies and cut them into triple hearts with “lacy” edging scavanged from the doilies and write something nice on them. One for everyone. Maybe even glue a red dye #2 hard candy heart (wrapped in cellophane) to the center of it too.
I was always sure I wouldn’t get anything in my envelope. It was awful, seeing other kids’ containers filling up while mine stayed pretty flat as the week rolled around. My good friends came through, of course, with cards, as well as some of the kids whose parents made them do a Valentine for everyone.
My dear friend Laura, who saved my sanity throughout those ALC years, and continues to do so to this day, sent me a Valentine this year. I love it.
Valentine’s Day has lost its power to make me feel less than these days. My husband and I got married ten days after Valentine’s Day, and that has replaced the “romantic” February celebration. These days I like to bake for the family to celebrate the day. I made sugar cookies this year. I’ve given you the recipe before, but here it is again. It makes a sturdy cookie that is close to shortbread in flavor and delicate mouth crumble. If you want just plain cookies, be sure to sprinkle sugar on them the moment they come out of the oven, and press it in while the cookies are still warm. I prefer to putter about with royal icing, recipe for that is below as well. As for the dubious artistry, well, it really is the thought that counts, right?
THICK SUGAR COOKIE RECIPE
This makes somewhere between 18-24 cookies, depending on how big your cutter is, and how thick your cookies are. I aim for about a quarter inch thick. It gives the cookies a good strong base for the icing.
3 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon vanilla, it’s okay if a little more splashes in there.
Cream the butter and sugar together until creamy, add the egg and vanilla and mix. Sift the flour and salt together and add in three batches. The dough will be a bit crumbly at first. Knead and shape into a disk. Put in fridge overnight or at least 4 hours before rolling out. I take mine out about a half hour before I want to roll it.
Bake at 375 for 10-11 minutes (turn sheet midway), the edges will just be looking slightly golden. Cool on sheet for 5 minutes and then on a rack.
Make sure your cookies are completely cool. Sift together 4 cups of confectioner’s sugar, 3 Tablespoons of Meringue Powder (it’s a magic ingredient, no more separating egg whites!) and about 3-4 Tablespoons of warm water. Mix to get a thick paste with a fork, and then beat with a mixer, roughly 10 minutes on high. Add water or confectioner’s sugar to get the consistency you want for icing. I use Americolor gel paste for my colors. A little goes a long way. Your hands might become a bit colorful for a while, but it washes off after 4-5 good scrubs.