When I was a kid, going to my great-aunt’s house for the weekend was a great treat. She still lived on the farm where she had spent her whole life, having never married.
All four of us kids would go at once, giving my parents a much-needed break, and we would play board games, run around the yard playing football, go mini-golfing and to some extent, explore the woods and fields that used to be part of the family dairy operation.
Aunt Mary was a small woman as far as height and weight go. I’m not sure that she reached 5 feet tall, and she was petite. She often wore polyester pant suits, knee-high stockings and sneakers. Tiny sneakers. But she was a huge personality with an even bigger heart, and we loved her immensely. Four ornery kids at a time didn’t faze her, and I don’t really recall her ever yelling at us for any of the mischief we caused.
One of our favorite things to do at Aunt Mary’s was eat. She was a phenomenal cook and baker. There were always big containers stacked on one end of the kitchen table that were filled with cookies. Not tiny, two-bite cookies, either. Aunt Mary made cookies that took two hands to hold. At least, two child-sized hands.
She also made a meatloaf that has proved to be impossible to replicate. Served with mashed potatoes and any one of the plethora of vegetable choices she and my grandfather had preserved from their immense garden, it was a meal fit for royalty. I know she gave my mom the recipe, but none of us have ever successfully discovered the secret ingredient in Aunt Mary’s meatloaf.
For breakfast, we often had cereal, but even that was a treat. She never bought corn flakes or Raisin Bran in an attempt to make us healthy eaters. In fact, I sometimes wonder if she read the cereal boxes and bought the ones with the most sugar. Even the bowls she would set on the table for breakfast were special to us. Brightly colored plastic bowls that seemed to hold a half a box apiece – and she would let us go back for seconds. We were probably wired for sound by the time our folks came back to get us!
Christmas meant extra-special baking – and candy. Aunt Mary made a peanut butter fondant that just melted in your mouth. The fondant was thinly rolled out and spread with peanut butter before being rolled back up into a log. The log was then sliced, and each piece of candy was individually wrapped in wax paper before being sealed in a tin for a few days to ripen. To clear my conscience, I will tell you that on occasion, we may have snuck a piece or two from the tin before it was ready. (Just as delicious.)
My mom made the fondant every year after Aunt Mary passed, and I made it this year since my mom is gone, as well. I doubt it will be as good as either of theirs was, but it bears the same love of the season and love of my family as theirs did. And who knows, maybe that love was Aunt Mary’s secret ingredient all along.
Laura Zoeller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.