At the turn of the century, my great-grandparents emigrated from Germany to Chicago and opened a bakery in a narrow building that faced a brick street bordered with shops. My great-grandfather's hands shaped yeast rolls and stollen freckled with citron. My great-grandmother pressed vanilla-scented dough into a thin rectangle with her rolling pin and stamped out heart-shaped sugar cookies.
When their daughter, my grandmother, finished school, her feet stepped behind the counter so she could fill customers' requests.
One particular gentleman frequented the bakery where his native language filled the air along with the fragrance of rye bread. One November day, this man - my grandfather - slipped a wedding ring on the hand of the baker's daughter. My grandmother packed several cookie cutters among the clothes in her valise and moved with him to a fruit farm in southwestern Michigan.
Made of thick tin and a little more than three inches square, each of the cutters sported a sturdy handle soldered to the dip and the tip of the heart. After years of use, scratches dulled the metal, and, for some unknown reason, someone tied a bit of string to the handle.
Shortly after I married a fruit farmer, my grandmother presented me with a choice.
"Would you like the rocking horse or heart cookie cutter?" she asked.
"Oh, the heart one, and thank you!" I replied, holding the shape that connected me to that long-ago bakery.
I like to believe that my great-grandfather gave me my love for baking. Using his cookie cutter, I have cut out dozens of ginger and orange cookies mixed from the recipes my grandmother gave me. But I've also pressed it into slices of bread on Valentine's Day so that heart-shaped toast greeted my family for breakfast on Feb. 14. I have also slathered whole-wheat hearts with peanut butter and strawberry jam for a holiday lunch.
One time when I needed a quilting template for the border of a baby quilt, I even ran my pencil around the cookie cutter, scattering hearts across the calico.
Each February the smooth tin cutter reminds me of the first Valentine's Day my husband, John, and I celebrated together. I filled a small basket with heart-shaped cookies, and we rode an hour across undulating farmland to my grandmother's house.
Snowdrifts lingered between the rows in the vineyards and orchards we passed. We shared tea and cookies with my grandmother and chatted about the seed order I had just mailed off.
During our drive home, John and I stopped by a maple-sugaring supply shop where we purchased 25 shiny spiles and a home-printed booklet of maple recipes. A joyous sun warmed the air, and melting snow slumped off the dripping eaves of the shed that served as a store.
"Time to tap," the shop owner said. "Boys are out there now."
"Already, on Valentine's Day?" John asked.
"I thought sugaring season began in March," I added.
"Sometimes," the man agreed. "But about Feb. 14, we start checking to see if the sap is flowing. Look at that sun! Temperature's 40 degrees. Time to head to the woods."
After arriving home, we gathered our supplies and bounced off in John's pickup to a stand of maples along a fence row. A trio of bluebirds chortled around us as we drilled holes, tapped in the spiles, and hung our buckets.
That first year, we trucked our sap to a local farmer, who boiled it for us. Soon, Mason jars filled with amber syrup sparkled on my kitchen shelves, and I scanned the recipe booklet for treats.
Pulling out the ingredients and my heirloom cutter, I stamped hearts from tan cookie dough. The scents of maple and ginger perfumed my kitchen, blending memories of crisp sweets baked by my grandmother and the delight of sugaring we had discovered on Valentine's Day.