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What I Really Know About Family Get-Togethers: Brandy in the Soufflé

The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Below, reader Marilynn Dunham of Fort Bragg, Calif., shares what she really knows about family get-togethers.

I loved the holidays as a kid­—all the family gathering together. I could see down the road from our kitchen window. “When will they get here?” I’d ask my mother for the millionth time. Sweating, with flour up to her elbows and a wisp of hair dangling across her face, she wouldn’t even look up from the pie dough spread out before her: “Not yet, I hope. I still have to make the pumpkin filling, and will you peel the potatoes?” When Dad came in from the back porch, stomping leaves and dirt off his boots, she’d ask him, “Would you taste the brandy sauce?” “Needs more brandy,” he’d say, taking a second spoonful. “Not with the same spoon,” Mom would scold, adding brandy and rolling her eyes to heaven as if to tell God this was in no way her doing.

When I was a young mother with babies in diapers, I’d call my mother: “What shall I bring?” “Oh, honey,” she’d say, “it’s enough work just getting all your family here.” After I persisted: “Everyone loves stuffed celery with that pimento cheese. Why don’t you bring that and a pretty dish to serve it on.”

Time went too fast. There were two empty chairs at our table. My mother had gone to heaven, and my son, Michael, to Vietnam. When my father arrived that first year after Mom died, I asked him to taste the brandy sauce. “It’s fine, honey, just fine.” He laid down the spoon and left the kitchen. I looked at the bottle, tipped it up and took a swig, and prayed that not one more person would ask, “Heard from Michael lately?”

Family gatherings now teem with grandchildren. My children and their spouses plan the menu by e-mail. Martha Stewart’s pumpkin soufflé has replaced steamed pudding with brandy sauce. I’m no longer the lone wolf in the kitchen.

Someday I will be viewing from the other side. I have this fantasy of that day: My dad and I will find a bottle of brandy, and while they’re all oohing over the latest baby, we’ll pour brandy into the pumpkin soufflé. Mom will roll her eyes as if to tell God that this is in no way her doing.

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