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Baking with Oma
Oma — my mom and the grandmother of my kids — was dying a slow death at the hands of ovarian cancer. While cruel, it allowed us four years to say goodbye. Often life ends suddenly and you never get a chance to say goodbye. We had a long farewell. I wrote extensively about Oma’s influence on my career in 2010.
Growing up, Oma used November to bake. She baked thousands of German Christmas cookies for family and select friends. Under the cover of darkness (or so it seemed), Oma carefully placed the treasure of spitzbuben, haselnussmakronen, and weihnachtsplätzchen in large tins in the cool, dry utility room. They were sealed until the first advent of Christmas.
Through the Advent season, we sang carols, read scripture, and lit the candles on the Advent wreath. With the spice of mulled cider in the air, Oma distributed plates full of cookies to each of us kids, and to Opa — if he behaved. Christmastime was near, which also meant it was time for cookie trading. Cookies displaced dollars as currency during the holidays.
When Oma took ill, something nudged me to carry on the German Christmas cookie-baking tradition to honor her and keep our heritage alive.
The Christmas before her death, we flew Oma and Opa for a visit – and to bake. Oma baked from scratch and out of love, following secret family recipes that had been handed down through generations. With my kids, we dutifully watched and practiced the art of German Christmas cookie-baking with Oma.
Today, despite careful translation, calculations, and experimentation, our creations are not as tasty as Oma’s, but we remain determined. One of my sisters also continues the tradition and we now have annual cookie-tasting contests to see whose baking finesse is closest to Oma’s.
I cherished the times we baked with Oma and I know she loved to teach her kids and grandkids. I still can see our flour-covered aprons, smell the sugar and cinnamon melting in the oven, and hear the retelling of stories about previous generations and their baking escapades. Rat Pack Christmas records would play in the background and texts and phone calls would not interrupt us. We relished in the pure joy of togetherness and enjoyed laughter, silliness, and I confess, raw cookie dough.
This year, our baking tradition grew to include my two daughters plus the girlfriends of our youngest boys. There I was, like Oma years before, converting grams to ounces and reminiscing. Oldest daughter Talitha is now the baking matriarch and organized our novice bakers. Seven hours later, we had baked a dozen dozen German Christmas cookies. We even managed to bake some gluten-free cookies since we wanted to be politically correct.
Lessons learned baking with Oma:
- If you want to know people, you have to spend time with people. That’s pretty obvious, but ask yourself how many hours you spend with family or direct reports really getting to know them. My relationship with Oma grew exponentially after I left home because of the uninterrupted hours we were able to spend together being silly, doing things like baking cookies.
- Magic happens when you create together. Watching movies is fun and taking walks enables conversation and touch. But when you create together, it takes relationships to another dimension. While certain deliverables may take longer to create, I am increasingly amicable to working with others to develop presentations and other work products.
- Learning stimulates creativity. I am not averse to the kitchen, but I have never really enjoyed cooking. However, baking with Oma stimulated my creativity by forcing me to learn new things, such as how the mixture of various ingredients and the addition of heat can bring about change. I now recognize that there are many parallels between baking and many work activities that can lead to transformation and innovation.
- There is joy in cooking. It’s not so much the cooking that brings the joy, but the uninterrupted time spent with the ones you love. There is no joy in multitasking. I continue to struggle, but I am getting better at putting my phone away.
- Serving is good for the soul. Many of us don’t take the opportunity to serve enough. Baking cookies and sharing them is a simple act of service (though arguably it matters whether or not they taste good.) Delivering cookies you baked to friends and families is powerful. It reflects the money, time, and energy you poured into creating something for the benefit of others.
- Understand the workflow. There is no substitute for being there and walking the walk. Had Oma sent emails that we followed ingredient by ingredient, line by line, our cookies would have been OK. It was not until she was with us and we watched and emulated her, however, that we really understood. Understanding the workflow turned out to be the ultimate secret ingredient.
- Create memories that lead to legacies. Oma was absolutely the queen of cookie baking! The memories that my siblings and kids have of Oma are forever etched in our minds and we fondly retell our stories of German Christmas cookie-baking hundreds of times. Memories and legacies matter, as evidenced by my own family’s commitment to annual bake-offs to see whose cookies most closely emulate Oma’s. Consider what you are best known for in the workplace and decide if it’s the legacy you want to create.
I could continue with lessons learned, but these are the ones that quickly come to mind as I reflect on this past holiday season. The pictures and videos don’t do justice to the bonding that takes place when you take time to be in the moment and create with family, friends, and co-workers. Look for such opportunities in your daily life. I promise you won’t regret the time spent creating new memories.