Little did we know that this Christmas Eve was the last time our family would be together to make holiday pies. My oldest sister, Laura, married that next spring and moved farther west, just beyond our reach. It was the last time Nana would make a lattice piecrust and gently say, “Don’t use such thick strips,” or “You’re putting in too much filling.” And it was the last time my youngest sisters, Sarah and Paige, and youngest brother, Andy, would sit beneath our large wooden table, mimicking our actions.
My family’s tradition
I passed a leftover lump of dough to Sarah, who muffled a squeal, and then began rolling it out on the floor. Andy would pilfer any other supplies the girls might need. I looked to Nana for an approving nod and was surprised when I didn’t get one. Nothing used to get past her notice.
In the corner of the room, Rachel began singing “O Holy Night” while she peeled an apple. She wore a golden dress with a white half-apron. Her voice was angelic, which was good because she certainly wasn’t a baker.
“Maisy, be careful with your stirring,” Laura scolded me.
Nana would often say, “Baking pies is a family tradition, so pay attention.” But she hadn’t said those words even once that morning.
My apron already had a number of apple preserve and cherry stains on it. That’s why I wore a full-size one over my lime-green dress.
Laura, on the other hand, wore a pristine half-apron. Ma stood next to her rolling out pie dough in a Christmas-red dress that complemented Laura’s green one. By the end of the day, Sarah’s and Paige’s handprints would cover Ma’s full apron.
“My pie will be as good as yours this year,” I told Nana, who sat across from Ma on a chair. She had just finished ladling in the apple filling for her pie.
“Mine will, too,” Sarah said from under the table.
Rachel sang on as Thomas stoked the fire the way Pa taught him.
A good baker
The day was turning out to be a traditional Christmas Eve. Pa had gone to church to help our pastor decorate for the Christmas-morning service. Our cousin had packed some food and left. I doubted we’d see him again until we ate our thin slices of Nana’s apple pie at bedtime.
I wanted to become as good a baker as Nana, but invariably I’d forget an ingredient.
“Nana’s secret ingredient is love, and so is yours,” Ma sometimes comforted me.
Just once I wanted Pa to say, “I can’t wait for a slice of Maisy’s pie.”
We’d made our apple and cherry pie preserves at harvest time, but we added a few apples from our cellar that were still edible. Nana would secretly sprinkle her spice on her pies right before we baked them.
The secret ingredient
An open-faced pie sat before Nana, waiting for her lattice of perfection. Ma set down her rolling pin and walked around the table to Nana.
Laura focused her attention on pouring fruit into a pie shell. Rachel closed her eyes, reaching for a high note. Sarah, Paige and Andy were busy playing with dough beneath the table.
Ma glanced at me, and I knew I should look away. But to my shame, I peeked as she drew a small spice jar with a worn label from Nana’s apron pocket and placed it in her wrinkled hand.
Nana startled as if waking from a nap. Ma turned away, and then Nana sprinkled her secret spice on the pie before returning the jar to her pocket.
For the love of Nana
I looked down for a moment, and when I looked up, Ma was back to rolling out piecrust as if nothing had happened.
But something had. Now I knew Nana’s secret. I didn’t know the exact spice, of course, but I’d often seen that spice jar in the pantry. And if I knew where to find it, so did Laura and Rachel. And Ma.
“This will be my best apple pie yet,” Nana said.
From below the table, Andy reached up to steal a spoonful of cherry preserves as Nana worked on her pie lattice. I glanced at Rachel.
She continued singing, “Truly He taught us to love one another . . . ”
If Rachel knew Nana’s secret, why hadn’t her pies tasted better? And why had Ma and Laura not used Nana’s spice?
Suddenly it dawned on me: This was our family tradition, a gift from Ma and my sisters. They kept Nana’s secret and let her bake the best pie.
I still wanted my pie to taste like Nana’s, but not that Christmas. In that apple pie moment, I understood what it meant to put your own desires last for the good of someone else. Just as Jesus did.
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Read more about the Henderson family and find out what Pa and their cousin were doing.
Learn more about Morgan Weistling’s painting “Family Traditions.”