Holiday baking with Aunt Marilyn remains a gift

Christmas Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

Aunt Marilyn, my father’s sister, always wore an apron covering a dress, both of which she had sewn. She welcomed my sisters and me into the large, old 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 didn’t drive. She stayed home, caring for the old house in which she had been born. She was, in many ways, our Aunt Bea.

Aunt Marilyn could cook a big meal, can delectable jars of beautiful harvests from her garden, sew nearly anything, complete embroidery projects, sing and play the piano. She was one of the best bakers around. Sharing her kitchen with us felt like a great holiday treat.

I remember asking if I could wear an apron, somehow assuming it would give me magical powers. She was happy to fold and tie an apron around me as my sisters began rolling out chilled dough. We made cut-out cookies, delicious orange sugar cookies with tiny bits of orange peel ground into the icing and design cookies pushed through a press.

As we grew tired of the stirring and cutting, Aunt Marilyn 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. One of my sisters said it looked like a branding iron, which sounded just scary enough to get my full attention.

A bowl of soupy batter was prepared, then Aunt Marilyn dipped the wand into it, placing it into something hot that made the most sizzling sound. Eventually, she brought a plate over to us, along with her sifter with the red-handled crank that I was always hankering to use.

We were each given a plate, and one by one, we were allowed to use the sifter to place as much powdered sugar on this pretty little golden design as we wished. Aunt Marilyn told us this was a new treat for us to try.

I recall the amazing crisp treat as the most heavenly thing I’d ever encountered. I turned that sifter crank til 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 only 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 it, it would no longer be my special gift,” our aunt explained.

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.

I can still remember the taste of that wonderful bread if I try hard enough. Each Christmas season, a tender place is touched, recalling four little girls around the big oak table, helping turn dough into gifts.

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