How to Go from Napkin Girl to Pie Lady

Tracy Stengel
Photo via Kelsey Weinkauf/Unsplash

In my big family, we’ve got a little bit of everything. Amongst my 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 unusual: the cartoonist, the burlesque dancer, the blackjack dealer, the world-travelling dive/ski instructor, the actress who owns her own theatre, and the vegan who writes porn under a penname.

Much to my mother’s disappointment, it was pretty clear which group I fell into. Not that one group was better than the other, but she liked things tidy.

But a rambling rose won’t grow in tight, straight rows

The choices I made in adulthood weren’t necessarily proper. 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. Then, my husbands.

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?”

It stung, but I shrugged it off. I’d bring the fanciest napkins available and 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’d call a month ahead, trying to wheedle my way into the planning committee. “Hey, I could bring an appetizer or two?”

“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 weed in the brownies? 
 I’d arrive the next day in a cute outfit, freshly polished nails, and a package of napkins in hand.

“Anything I can do?” I’d say, looking around. The table was set. Appetizers arranged. The oven jamb-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. “We’ll be in the living room watching the Lions.”

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

Then, one year, Mom threw a curve ball.

“Maybe you could bring some nice rolls.”

I was astounded. Which ones? Fresh? Frozen? Garlic? Buttery? Savory? My nerves were atwitter.

I arrived and saw a breadbasket piled high with homemade rolls and shot Mom accusing looks.

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

The napkin request grew paper-thin.

I started dating the man I am married to. Sam embodied the words: stable, reliable, steady, and true. He shocked my family by being enchanted by my quirks and inconsistencies.

Mom got that worried-bird look on her face, wary I would screw it up.

When my sister announced Thanksgiving would be at her house, I called a week ahead and said, “I’m bringing pies. Get your own napkins.”

There was a long silence.

Did I hear my sister gulp?

“Pies? Are ya sure, Trace? That’s an awful lot.”

Determined to shirk my family’s preconceived notions, I walked into my sister’s house Thanksgiving Day like a boss.

They inspected the pies to see if they were store-bought.

My uncle said, “I didn’t know you could bake.”

“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. They’d been spoiled with the finest paper napkins sold in this hemisphere for decades.

This year, we’re adding to my list of Thanksgiving contributions. I’ll bring the pie and whatever else is needed.

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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