Don't Let Family Roles Define Your Easter -- How I Graduated from Napkin Girl to Pie Lady

Tracy Stengel

Everyone has a role in the family

As the Easter approaches, families are scrambling to decide how the pandemic is going to affect the festivities.

You may be the person contacting everyone to get their opinion, because you are the glue of the family — the one who holds everyone together. Or you may be sitting back, waiting for the text or phone call telling you to prepare for a virtual Easter. After all, no one expects you to make any decisions. You were always the one who made bad choices. Remember the time you released crickets in the elementary school library? No one has taken you seriously since!

Sometimes, our family role sticks with us far longer than needed. An article in Psychology Today explains how adhering to outdated generalities of our family members can be “corrosive” to relationships.

That’s what happened in my family. This is the story of how I graduated from The Napkin Girl to The Pie Lady.

When my family gathers, its a smorgasbord

In my big German-Irish family, we’ve got a little bit of everything. Amongst my fifty-some cousins and their dozens of children, we’ve got the usual suspects: police officers, plumbers, electricians, nurses, teachers, writers and engineers. There are also the ones who don’t fit into a mold: the cartoonist at Walt Disney, the burlesque dancer, the blackjack dealer, the world-travelling dive/ski instructor, the actress who owns her own theatre, and the vegan mother who dabbles in writing porn under a penname.

Much to my mother’s disappointment, it was pretty clear which group I was going to fall into. Not that one group was better than the other, but my parents liked things neat and tidy. Their first two children memorized the book on rule-following and obedience. 

Then, five years later, the Tracy tornado showed up and blew all their best laid plans into a million bits. It was like someone had walked up to their house of cards they had painstakingly and lovingly balanced just so … and sneezed.

A rambling rose won’t grow in tight, straight rows

The choices I made in adulthood weren’t the ones my parents would’ve made. I was in college. Took a break from college. Doubled up on college.

It was hard to keep track.

It was even harder to keep track of my boyfriends.

I didn’t realize every guy I introduced to my family sent a signal of “He might be the one!” No wonder they were nervous.

I wasn’t looking for the one, I was just having fun. It may have looked promiscuous, but I wasn’t sleeping with every guy I had dinner with and didn’t think my sex life, or lack there of, was anyone’s business. If people wanted to form assumptions, so be it.

While they all huddled together whispering and making faces, I was figuring out what to wear on Wheel of Fortune. I didn’t know why they were so surprised. I’d been telling them since I was five-years-old I was going to be on the show someday. Apparently, they hadn’t been listening.

It seemed like the no-brainer thing to do, when I received my WOF winnings, was to move to Vegas and bet it all on black. Kidding … I didn’t bet it all. And I only lived there six months.

So, once I was back in Michigan, I married my first husband. We lived about 25 minutes from my mother. A few years later, we parted in the most amicable divorce in the history of divorces. That’s when I moved to Toledo and decided to finish my degree once and for all.

Anyway, you get the picture of how my life didn’t follow the straight and narrow path my mother had envisioned for me. pie, baked with love by the author. Photo courtesy of the author.

Low expectations yield low results

Every year, as the holidays rolled around, my sister was right there, days in advance, helping my mother prepare the food and bake the deserts.

I’d call the night before and ask what they wanted me to bring. I always got the same answer. “Maybe you could bring the napkins?”Yeah, it stung a little, but I shrugged it off. I’d show up with the fanciest napkins I could find at the local grocery. Then, I made a point to rave about the subtle nuances of flavor in the gravy. I complimented everything, noticing all the effort it took to produce each dish.

My sister would note the napkins were particularly absorbent this year.

I’d thank her for her kind observation.

Some years, I would call a month ahead, trying to wheedle my way into the planning committee. “Hey, I could bring an appetizer or two? I came across some great recipes and decided to try them out.”

“Oh, no!” my mother would say. “You don’t need to do all that. I don’t want you to fuss! I’ve got my menu all laid out.”

“Are you sure, Mom, cuz I can –”

“Please. I don’t want you to bring a thing.” Her tone became desperate, almost pleading. What was she afraid of? That I’d slip pot in the brownies? I wasn’t a pot smoker, so what the heck?

The night before, I’d call her and insist on bringing something.

“How about some napkins? That’d be plenty.”
I’d arrive the next day in a cute outfit, freshly polished nails, and a package of napkins in hand.

My sister would still be in sweatpants and no make-up. She’d driven over to Mom’s before six o’clock that morning to get things ready.

“Anything I can do?” I’d say, looking around. The table was set. Appetizers arranged. The oven jam-packed inside and out.

My sister would glare at me. “Nope. I think we’re all set.”

“Super,” I’d say, grabbing the hand of whatever guy I brought along that year. “We’ll be in the living room watching the Lions.”

I wasn’t going to play their game of guilt or shame.

Some years, Mom would throw me a curve ball when I complained about napkin duty.

“Well, maybe you could bring some nice rolls, then.”

This new responsibility astounded me. Which ones should I buy? Fresh? Frozen? Garlic? Buttery? Savory? My nerves were atwitter. I couldn’t screw this up!

I’d increase my odds and get a couple different kinds, only to arrive and see my mother’s bread basket piled high with homemade rolls, fresh from the oven. I’d shoot her wounded looks.

“What? You can never have too many rolls. I’ll just put yours in the freezer in case we need them. Oh, look at the napkins! I love the design!”

The napkin request grew paper-thin

Over the years, it occurred to my family that perhaps my haphazard ways was actually something I was consistent about. Remember, my mother values consistency, and I didn’t waver from my spontaneous, flighty, unconventional lifestyle.

It was a turning point. While they didn’t trust me with anything weightier than napkins, they began grudgingly admitting that some of my recent escapades sounded pretty darn exciting.

As my mother grew older, my sister decided to take on the responsibility of hosting the holidays. I’m not sure how any of this was easier on Mom, because she still was the one who made the turkey, dressing, and gravy. Then, she had to haul it over to my sister’s. (She still does.)

Made zero sense to me, but I’m not interfering.

Four years ago, on the inaugural Easter at my sister’s, I’d just started dating the man I am married to. Sam embodied the words: solid, reliable, steady, and true. He shocked my family by being enchanted by my quirks and inconsistencies. (I’m pretty amazed myself.) My mother seemed concerned I didn’t try to act like someone else around him.

“Mom, we’ve known each other over twenty-five years. He knows all there is to know. I’m not going to try to sugar-coat anything now.”

Mom would get that worried-bird look on her face and I’d laugh.

On that first holiday at my sister’s, I called about a week ahead and decided I wasn’t going to ask what I could bring. I was telling them. “I’m bringing pies. Get your own napkins.”

There was a long silence.

Did I hear my sister gulp?

“Pies? Are ya sure, Trace?”

“Yep. Pumpkin and something else.” The pumpkin was for her husband. “And a cheesecake. You gave me that springform pan for Christmas one year and I’m pretty good at making them. What kind do you want?”

She laughed, playing along. “Something chocolate and decadent.”

“You got it. I’ll make some cookies for Uncle Jerry to take home, too. Oatmeal raisin. They’re his favorite.”

“That’s an awful lot. Are you sure?”

She called a lot in the days leading up to Thanksgiving to make sure I hadn’t changed my mind … or was hampered by a hangnail. and cheesecake made by the author and her sister. Photo courtesy of author.

It shouldn’t have taken years to get to our delicious conclusion

My family’s preconceived notions of what I was capable of made them miss out on years of sweet-filled goodness I could’ve brought to the table. Because I accepted their definition of me, I hid my talents and served up flimsy compliments and thinly veiled resentment.

There were no winners …

NUntil I walked into my sister’s house Easter Day like a boss. My desserts were pieces of art. I’d made rose buds out of the dough and cut out leaves to decorate the edges of the pie. The tin roof chocolate cheesecake could have been on a magazine cover and Uncle Jerry’s cookies were uniform, plump, and perfectly golden.

Everyone looked at me funny. I saw them inspecting the desserts to see if there was any possible way they were store-bought and then put into my own pans.

My uncle said, “I didn’t know you could bake. How did I not know that?”

“No one dared to find out,” I said, pointedly.

Turned out, everyone forgot to bring napkins, so our fancy meal was accompanied by torn off sheets of paper towel.

I didn’t mask my smug satisfaction as I pointed out that for years, they’d been spoiled with the finest paper napkins sold in this hemisphere. We all got a good laugh about that.

My years as “the napkin girl” will forever be part of our family folklore.

This year, we’re adding a cheeseball to my list of Easter contributions, along with pies and desserts. And whatever else they ask me to bring.

But as for napkins and rolls … they can find their own.

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Tracy explores the world with a positive eye, an open heart, and a sprinkling of humor. Without laughter, she would be lost.

Onsted, MI

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