In suburban isolation, ‘cookie lady’ built community at the school bus stop

Anne Tabat of Chanhassen holds the now-empty cookie basket which once was her weapon for getting neighbors to know each other. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins) Anne Tabat of Chanhassen holds the now-empty cookie basket which once was her weapon for getting neighbors to know each other.  Bob Collins / MPR News

On the day Anne Tabat was born, her grandmother gave her a cookie recipe book. She’s been “the cookie lady” ever since.

“Cookies are destiny,” she says.

Every Friday, she’s met the school bus in her Chanhassen subdivision, with the notion of thanking the bus driver for his efforts. She came bearing cookies because, she notes, you can’t just give a bus driver a cookie and ignore the kids. She’s been at the bus stop every Friday ever since — 15 school years.

Tomorrow will be the first day without cookies.

The cookie lady has been shut down. Somebody blew the whistle on her.

“I think it’s somebody who just didn’t bother to get to know me and I think that’s what the sin is here,” she said.

It’s also the irony. Anne Tabat uses flour power to break down the walls that separate people.

“I didn’t live in the suburbs until I turned 40,” she told me yesterday, while baking some of the 200 dozen cookies she’ll need for her family’s annual cookie party for anyone who wants to show up.

“Look at the way these houses are designed here,” she said. “They’re not designed with a friendly neighborliness community in mind. I haven’t been in most of the houses in my neighborhood. People live such busy lives; you don’t talk to your neighbors, you don’t know your neighbors.”

You can break down a lot of walls with a good cookie, however, and when she started showing up at the bus stop years ago, a lot of them tumbled, although Tabat dismisses the obvious nobility and eschews the image that comes with being known as the cookie lady.

“I’m not a particularly good mom,” she jokes. “I knew my kids would grow up and blow the secret one day, but I figured if I established myself as sweet old cookie lady, nobody would believe them. It started as an attempt to discredit my children long before their teenage years.”

Last Friday, when the bus pulled up and Tabat approached with cookies, the bus driver sheepishly said the kids can no longer have a cookie. And he rejected one too, if the kids couldn’t have one.

It’s not the end she’d envisioned, but she knew that someday, someone would complain and that would be that. She’d announce, “Sorry kids. It’s been a fun run but have one last cookie. Bye, good luck, maybe you’ll all become cookie ladies one day.”

But an attempt to get people to know each other ended because an anonymous person didn’t.

“This was meant to get to know the bus drivers and thank them for transporting our kids to and from school,” she said. “I know the bus driver. She (the woman who complained) didn’t bother to know me, the bus driver, or anything about the cookie-bus thing. I don’t care if I get shut down, the kids are going to live.”

And, truth be told, the tradition was going to end soon anyway. The last of her three kids will graduate high school soon and the cookie lady wants to go back to work. She was an advertising executive.

It’s the bigger picture that gnaws at her: We don’t get to know each other.

“I woke up the day after this and thought ‘let’s have a protest, let’s sign a petition,’ but the person this would fall back on would be the bus driver. Whatever you do I don’t want anything to stick to the bus driver because this was meant to thank the bus driver.”

She understands the school system had to shut her down, and the woman from school who called her Monday to tell her wasn’t thrilled about having to do it, either. Tabat doesn’t dismiss the obvious concerns about food allergies some parent may have had.

“I know all these well-meaning people who do kindly gestures but they backfire because they’re not thinking about things like that. That’s not what this is about,” she said, noting she’d honor the parent’s concerns if she knew what they were. “I never really got a straight answer. One parent complained and the school district has to be responsive to that.”

Giving away cookies isn’t at all about cookies. Because of the cookies, she’s been able to maintain some small-town ideal, even if it’s just knowing someone’s mother died, or someone has an anxiety disorder or is autistic, for example.

Her kitchen wall features pictures of cookie recipients past. She’s been to bridal showers of young women who once rode a bus. She gives them cookie-making equipment and a recipe book. When a nearby home was put up for sale recently, the Realtor listing noted its square footage, number of bathrooms and bedrooms and, of course, its proximity to the cookie lady.

In the meantime, Tabat is still baking so that people who show up on Saturday — many of whom won’t know each other — will have something immediately in common until they realize they have more.

Every year, the invitations are elaborately themed. This year’s theme is Dr. Seuss. “We wanted to have a Kardashian theme,” she said, “but we just couldn’t make it work. And my husband wanted to be Bruce Jenner in the worst way.”

Some of her neighbors, she says, are more upset about the cookie-bus indignity than she is. “I kept saying if you’re going to do something about this, go out and thank your bus driver. Get to know people, not just your neighbors. Get to know everyone on the planet you’re rubbing shoulders with. There are so many people doing things to make your life better, and they never get thanked for it.”

“People are good,” she says. “I’ve yet to find someone I can’t find commonality with. We’re all crawling around on the planet dealing with circumstances in our life, and most of us just want to raise a nice family and be successful in however you define success and for most people it’s just surviving.”

You can take away cookies for the schoolchildren of Chanhassen. But the cookie lady survives.