My Mom And I Have Been Estranged For A Decade, But I Make Her Caramel Rolls On Every Christmas

They’ve come to represent one of the few times that our highly dysfunctional household felt warm, joyous, and predictable.

by Kate Nelson

They’re gooey, chewy, and decadently sweet — but never quite right. My Christmas caramel rolls are always too crisp around the edge and too soft in the center. My partner and his family still devour them, but I know that, in the dozen or so years I’ve been making these holiday sweets, I’ve never been able to match my mom’s creations from my childhood. That’s because there’s no written recipe to follow, and I can’t ask her for baking pointers since we haven’t spoken to each other in more than a decade.

Like the taboo topics of abuse, miscarriage, and mental illness, estrangement carries with it a certain stigma. But it’s actually fairly common, with 27% of American adults (an estimated 67 million people) cutting off communication with a family member. That number is presumably growing due to our nation’s deep political divide. Unlike Hollywood depictions that involve liberation-themed montages, estrangement is often accompanied by deep pain, lingering shame, and ongoing identity issues. After all, who are we without our family?

In my case, my relationship with my mom shifted from codependent to nonexistent as I came into adulthood. After my dad’s untimely passing in 2004, I started to ask hard questions about my upbringing in a chaotic rural Minnesota household dominated by my parents’ alcoholism. When I discovered the concept of adult children of alcoholics and started setting healthy boundaries, it became increasingly clear that my mom and I had irreconcilable differences in our versions of reality (a common estrangement cause). Eventually, our heated discussions — and our relationship — dissipated into nothingness.

Over the years, I’ve been hit with new waves of grief. At first, I was overcome with anxiety any time someone asked about my family. (I used to respond with vague, veiled language, but now I just say it like it is.) I still feel a pang of sadness when I’m reminded that I have no one to ask about things like ancestral history. And I have an immense envy when I see families engaging in typical banter, recalling fond memories, and making new ones — realizing that all of mine now live in old Polaroids and VHS tapes.

Then in 2020 as the pandemic raged on, we were hearing countless stories of rekindled relationships amid an unprecedented global event. The optimistic part of me wondered if my mom and I might reconnect, but that didn’t happen for us; our rift is simply too wide. Where others ached to see their loved ones during lockdown, I felt an utter absence — after all, I lost my family long before the pandemic. Last I had heard, my mom was living in Ecuador with her new husband. I’d watch the news to see how the country’s Covid rates and response were looking (not good), but I never reached out to her, nor she to me. That’s when it really dawned on me that we might never speak again.

Estrangement can be at once absolutely necessary and totally heart-wrenching. There are no winners or losers. There’s no black or white.

And yet, every Christmas, I make my mom’s caramel rolls. Why? Because they’re the food that binds me to my past and my family. They’ve come to represent one of the few times that our highly dysfunctional household felt warm, joyous, and predictable. We unwrapped presents Christmas morning, which meant that my parents hadn’t started drinking yet, unlike our other holiday happenings.

My most notable Thanksgiving memory, for instance, is the time my mom drunkenly cut her palm open while slicing the turkey. At that point in the evening, my parents were too intoxicated to drive to the hospital to get her stitched up, so she wrapped her bloody hand in an heirloom tea towel and put herself to bed. My dad was left to feed my sister and me, a rare responsibility for him. Come morning, we had a good laugh when my mom explained why he couldn’t find the stuffing — it was inside the turkey — and we pretended like everything was normal. (After all, all I longed for was a normal childhood.)

Christmas morning, in contrast, was a magical time largely unmarred by addiction. These memories are set to a soundtrack of Burl Ives and Nat King Cole classics and adorned in ribbon and tinsel, with the smell of caramel rolls baking in the background while we unwrapped presents. When I think back on my youth, these are the times I want to remember.

That’s the thing about estrangement: What makes it so painful is that the good and the bad are inextricably intertwined. My fondest recollections are happy moments, yet they’re still tainted by trauma. Estrangement can be at once absolutely necessary and totally heart-wrenching. There are no winners or losers. There’s no black or white. Instead, you’re exiled to an eternal gray area, a land of what if’s and what now’s.

I’m no longer ashamed of my past or my family’s estrangement. It’s taken me years to get to that point. Now that I’m in my late 30s, I have a more nuanced understanding of adulthood and its many challenges, even without kids. I recognize that my parents were only human and did their best to raise us (even if that was a poor job). While I used to be filled with anger and resentment, today I have mixed feelings about it all, knowing that my upbringing made me who I am today yet still yearning for a childhood of innocence for my younger self. Like I said, it’s complicated.

So, too, is Christmas, and in turn these caramel rolls. They’re both sweet and bittersweet. In making them every year, I honor my mom and all she did to shape me, good and bad. I honor my own complex childhood, rather than trying to wish it all away. I honor my right to make new holiday memories and traditions with my chosen family. And I’ve come to realize that my Christmas caramel rolls — too crisp around the edge and too soft in the center — are perfectly imperfect exactly how they are, just like their baker and her origin story.

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Kate Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor based in Minneapolis. She currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Artful Living, a top independent boutique lifestyle magazine. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Bustle, Saveur, and other national publications. A lifelong storyteller, she's also an avid equestrian and a pop culture junkie.