...personifies all that is good about this season: His smile lights the darkest corners; his generosity knows no bounds; and his faith in us all is automatic.
And I came to really learn this quite by accident - if chance ever plays a role when someone special graces your life, that is.
On a nippy Sunday two weeks before Christmas, we went to get our tree. (Yes, we're Jewish; yes, we have a tree. Christmas is a secular celebration in our house where Dad was raised Catholic.) And like most families, we have a tradition surrounding this adventure. Our favorite place is Bill's tree stand - where Dill, and now Jere, got their first tastes of employment - and where the trees and the maple syrup, like Bill, come from Vermont.
Once our fir was tied high atop the van and the car alarm finally stopped (a tale for another day!) and we tipped our helper (Thanks Jere!), Bill roped me into working for him too. Actually, he sweetly asked if I could spare a few hours helping decorate wreaths because his primo decorator had a family emergency.
So as John tangled with the tree at home, I set about wiring cones and berries and bows onto wreaths. For four and a half glorious hours. And when he asked me to work some more, I returned Monday armed with Wild Cookies and learned how to make garland out of fresh brush. Though I became the self-monikered Queen of Garland, I was sure I was doing it 'wrong' because I went through bunches of brush as soon as they were clipped. But people seemed to like the super lush, thick, garlands because each strand sold before I finished it and I started taking special orders.
So maybe I didn't need to bribe 'em with the cookies...but before I knew it, the cookies were gone and Chuck (Bill's right-hand man) told Bill I should sell 'em at the stand...so besides selling Chuck more dozens than I could count, I made my first professional cookie sales to people I didn't even know! A big step for Suzy's Wild Cookies, Yay!
Toting more cookies and heavy work gloves, I returned every day except the brilliant day Dill came home from university in Ireland. (More on that in a bit.) Over the next couple weeks, I reconnected with people I didn't expect to see and others I had hoped to - You college guys have grown into Mensch Men! - learned more about my community, and made new friends including Jim & Peg (Bill's NJ hosts) and Bill's son, Bret, who lived with us for a week.
Through Bill, the world grew smaller and my sense of self-worth grew larger. And I found a subtle peace that I lacked.
In a famous New York Sun editorial, the writer told an 8-year-old girl her "little friends were affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age." And a 114 years later, it's truer than ever.
But Bill turns that on its ear with his grace and appreciation and soulful optimism. When people arrive at the tree stand with neither the requisite cash nor check, he simply tells them - no matter who it is! - to return with the payment later. When older customers ask him to deliver their trees, he doesn't just plop it on their porches. No, not Bill. He'll bring it into the home and make sure it's sturdy and safe in its holder. And when people arrive at his stand just to say hello, I saw their crestfallen faces if he wasn't there. He's cultivated friends and turned them into his New Jersey family.
Some skeptics might say: Oh, well...this joy is due to the Holiday Season. But I say it's Bill's spirit: It's just his way...and his joy and his spirit have no season.
I've known one other person like Bill... and like the girl with skeptical friends, I was 8 when this 9-year-old boy wiped the sticky apple cider off my hand at the local farm...his eyes sparkled and he left an impression on me of all that is good and possible...I see that again in Bill and I am honored to have become part of his legion.
So to further paraphrase that well-known editorial: Yes, my friends - skeptics or not - there is a Santa Claus...and he is Bill Manning.
So onto the recipe...Bill makes amazing maple syrup so I've been experimenting with it in a variety of baked goods...I made this maple coffee cake the day Dill came home...but honestly, I didn't need to sweeten that day at all. When Dill came down the ramp to the baggage claim, he saw his brother and he saw his father....but he stared at me, came straight for me and held me so tightly for what seemed like forever...That, is the best present a mom could get.
-Preheat oven to 350F and grease and flour a 10"x16"-ish baking pan.
-In a small bowl, combine a half c white sugar with 1 T cinnamon and 1 c chopped pecans. Set aside.
-Incorporate 1 and a half c Maple Syrup - preferably Bill's Fancy grade! - and a half c dark brown sugar into 8oz butter...it'll be a tad separated, but that's OK.
-Add 2 beaten eggs and 1 c plain Greek-style yogurt and mix to combine.
-Add 2 and a half c flour, 1 T baking powder, a quarter t salt and 1 t cinnamon and beat to a thick batter.
-Spread half in pan sprinkle with 2/3 of the cinnamon sugar mixture and a nice handful of dried cranberries.
-Spread or plop the rest of the batter on top and sprinkle the remaining sugar mixture on top.
-Bake for 45 to 60 mins until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake.
-Cool just until you can handle the pieces you cut and enjoy!
So when the days seem to be darkest - whether by calendar or clouds of blue - remember Bill's smile and Dill's hug and that the most real things in this world are those you can't see. After all, a new year is upon us and the best gifts come in magical, human, packages.
Happy New Year!