One of my happiest holiday memories is now fading for me, but it is still there in an old movie-reel, lovely sort of way.
Aunt Marilyn, my father’s sister, always in an apron covering a dress, (both of which she had made herself on a very old sewing machine) welcomed my sisters and me in to her kitchen for an afternoon of holiday baking.
She had never married, and we were the children in her life. I think of that now, and hope that we brought joy to her.
We thought that she seemed old, perhaps because she stayed home, caring for her father and for the big old house in which she had been born. She was, in many ways, our Aunt Bea.
Marilyn could cook a great meal, can delectable jars of beautiful harvests from her garden, sew and sing and play the piano. But, in my memory, she was one of the best bakers any family could hope for. So, to welcome us in to her kitchen for a baking day felt like a great extravaganza to four little girls.
I remember asking if I could wear an apron, somehow assuming it would give me magical powers over those big bowls of raw ingredients.
My big sisters were much better than I, rolling out dough with a few tips from our aunt. We made cut-out cookies, delicious orange sugar cookies with tiny bits of orange peel ground in to the icing, design cookies pushed through a press.
Aunt Marilyn waited until we were tiring of the stirring and cutting, then instructed us to stay back away from the stove. She reached for a box, saying she had something new to try. This wand with a design on the end was an intimidating thing. My older sister said it looked like a branding iron, which sounded just scary enough to get my attention.
A bowl of soupy batter was dipped in to by this branding iron, then placed in something hot that made the most sinister sound. Our aunt did this repeatedly, then brought a plate over to us, along with her sifter with the red-handled crank I was always hankering to use.
We were each given a plate, and one by one, we were allowed to use that sifter to place as much powdered sugar on this pretty little golden design as we wished.
“It is an ornament for the tree?” my big sister asked.
Marilyn laughed and said it would be too fragile for that. It was a new treat for us to try. To this day, I remember the amazing crisp treat as the most heavenly thing I’d ever encountered. I turned that sifter crank till I had a blizzard of white atop my very own novelty. Let’s just say the apron I was wearing turned out to be a very good idea.
There was one item Marilyn made when no one else was in her kitchen, because it was a recipe she held as her secret. Orange date-nut bread was the gift she gave to many she cared about at Christmastime.
“If everybody could make their own, it would no longer be my special gift,” she said.
Gone too soon
Our dear old aunt was not old at all. She died at age 36, and the empty place was a sorrowful ache for a very long time.
The first Christmas after her springtime passing was the hardest of all.
Magically, the secret recipe Marilyn had held all those years showed up in my mother’s kitchen. Each time I taste it, a tender place is touched, recalling four little girls around the big table, helping turn dough in to gifts.
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