This is the second of seven winners in the Deseret News' annual Christmas writing contest, "Christmas I Remember Best."
Aunt Maggie wasn't really my aunt. Mother's parents died when she was young, so she lived with an uncle and aunt and their daughter Maggie.
I never realized that Maggie was different. Because of a physical handicap, she was forever trapped in the body of an 11-year-old girl. As a child, she underwent dangerous surgeries that left her with a dramatic speech impediment along with other physical ailments. She remained a spinster all her life, living out her days in the small greystone house on a corner in Fowlerville, Mich.
Forever on her own, Maggie embraced all of us as family and we spent many Sundays at her home enjoying some very odd meals. You see, Maggie believed she didn't need recipes to cook. In fact, she didn't even need measuring spoons or cups. With a handful of this and a pinch of that, Maggie would mix up her brand of culinary specialties — like her infamous dinner rolls.
My brothers and I tried not to snicker as we passed the inedible orbs around the table. The steady glare of Mother sent a clear message, "take one and eat it." I took a bite while Aunt Maggie looked inquisitively in my direction. I chewed and chewed while she stared and stared. Finally, she asked, "Well, how are they."
On the spot, with my brothers looking and Mother's face turning a deep red, I summoned my courage and blurted, "Well, they're chewy!"
Little did I know this was a precursor to a lesson about love, service and Christmas that would forever etch Maggie into my heart and memory.
Each year, after Thanksgiving passed, we set aside a Saturday to join in the massive production effort known as Maggie's brown bread.
Without a recipe and calling on her somewhat lapsing memory, she would grab a handful or two of flour, a fist full of sugar, a scoop of shortening and other ingredients and toss them in a huge bowl while Mother hand-mixed them.
There was a family secret surrounding this event that we were to keep upon penalty of a quick and painful death — Maggie's brown bread was awful!
The nearly 100 loaves she made each year seemed like a thousand. After they had baked and cooled, each loaf was carefully wrapped and tied with a bow. Then my brothers and I would be charged with the sacred responsibility of delivering Maggie's Brown Bread to the residents of Fowlerville.
I loathed this job. It was cold; the bread was nasty and everyone in Fowlerville knew it! Other kids would laugh and point at us as we wheeled the red wagon from door to door, knocked and proclaimed, "Merry Christmas from Maggie!"
It was always the same, they smiled politely, took the bread and told us to thank Maggie for her thoughtfulness. The real truth was that the bread went in the front door and straight out the back. Maggie's bread had a better chance of being used as building bricks than ending up on someone's dinner table.
But Maggie loved everyone and everyone was good to Maggie. This was her way of telling them she loved and appreciated them. No one ever told her the secret, so far as I know, not us, our parents and certainly not the good people of Fowlerville.
As far as I know, Maggie left this world with the recipe for brown bread in her heart.
In my later years, I was moved by her selfless act of kindness and love every year until the last year of her life. She sacrificed to buy the ingredients, sacrificed her time to make the bread and lovingly prepared it for delivery. I firmly believe that the recipients looked forward each year to her Christmas gift. She didn't fill their stomachs. But she filled their hearts.
I remember Maggie now as vividly as if it were 50 years ago standing in her little kitchen working away. I am thankful that she taught me such a valuable lesson. Who would have thought that a loaf of bread would teach a little boy a lesson about a gift of love equal to the Christmas gift so many centuries ago. A gift of love, of sacrifice — a gift that was accepted by millions.
And so it is that while we beckon Christ in our front door, we too, often put him right out the back. Every Christmas, like Maggie's brown bread, we can partake of the gift of love and open the door for him again.
May brown-bread blessings find their way into your homes and hearts this holiday season.