Aunt Emma’s Kitchen

A True Story from Home

Marilee and her sisters cooked up a storm in Aunt Emma’s kitchen— checkerboard cakes, popsicles made from fresh cow cream, and Aunt Emma’s squirrel dumplings. They’d haul vegetables in from the garden, eating the asparagus on their way back to the farmhouse. Marilee’s family lived in a Missouri suburb but every summer, they spent weeks at Aunt Emma’s farm, where there were cows to be milked, beans to be picked, and cakes to be baked. 

Marilee remembers when one of the livestock would die and a wagon came for the carcass. The hatch would lower, and Marilee and her siblings would stare in at the rear ends of a dozen dead cows. They called it the Dead Wagon. Aunt Emma kept lava soap for the men to use when they came in from that kind of work, and the smell of that soap still takes Marilee back to the farm kitchen. So does hot coffee and bacon in the morning. Marilee’s gas stove today is a far cry from Aunt Emma’s rickety one, but now in her seventies, Marilee still likes to cook up a storm. 

Her own mom didn’t have much time to spend in the kitchen. She whipped together basic meals like meatloaf and fish sticks for her nine children, but it was in Aunt Emma’s country kitchen that Marilee learned to love a good meal.

Marilee married Bill when they were eighteen and twenty, and he served in the Army before they moved to a brick flat in St. Louis. Marilee managed best she could there. A drunk lived in the apartment above them, and she tried to ignore his clattering over her kitchen. She was rinsing dishes one day when she heard a thud and a groan. She peered out to see the man sprawled against her kitchen door. He’d tumbled down the apartment stairs and was rasping for breath. Marilee tried to picture her children playing on the kitchen stoop, and that did it. 

“Bill, we gotta get out of here,” she decided.

The farmhouse they bought was not beautiful, but it was perched on enough acreage to farm. They bought pigs and two geese named Laverne and Shirley, and Bill planted a mighty garden of tomatoes, corn, and kale. Their neighbors, Richard and Carol, were dairy farmers— and generous people, too. When they needed milk, Marilee would drive down the lane to dip some out fresh, and Carol would often brew coffee and offer her wild plum jam on a biscuit.

Bill and Marilee had three children now, and when winter settled over the farm, they taught them to tap the trees for syrup. Bill drilled a hole into the maple trunks, pressed in a spiel, and hung milk jugs to collect the sap. Come February, they would boil the sap and cool it into a rich syrup.

Marilee liked her new place and the role it gave her, because it reminded her of Aunt Emma’s.  She was still young, with little kids and a farm in need of repair, but there would be time to grow old here and learn how to care for it like a mother.

But that day came sooner than Marilee ever dreamed. Her mom broke the news that she would be moving away to Hawaii and taking Marilee’s siblings with her. She had always been a restless soul, looking for some adventure beyond rural Missouri, and that meant leaving Marilee on the farm alone. It was a blow. Her mom hadn’t always been a matriarchal presence, but she was her mother— who kept the siblings together and hosted the family holidays. 

Marilee looked around. Dark cabinets and plaster walls stared back. She looked over the gray barns outside, where Bill was wrapped in coveralls, pulling a sled of firewood up to the house. Spring would melt the snow soon enough, and then it would be Easter, and someone would need to host the family meal. Christmas would come, and Bill’s brother would be home from the Navy, looking for a place to stay. Her mom was gone, but Marilee was there, and Bill and the children needed a wife and mother. They needed Aunt Emma to set the table, make the beds, and cook their meals. 

So Marilee tied on an apron and took up that role.

Her hands filled with farm work and food and children, Marilee had no room in her mind for the diagnosis that came when she was 43. She had breast cancer.


She didn’t understand. Her family needed her. God wanted her there, in the farm kitchen, doing the work she loved— didn’t he? 

Chemo sapped Marilee’s energy and made the beef they raised taste like steel. The farm seemed to taunt her with everything she couldn’t enjoy. As a girl, she’d left the Eden of Aunt Emma’s to wander from Army bases to apartments— so this farm had seemed like the land of milk and honey she’d longed for. But now? God had set the table, only to rip away the cloth and shatter the China dishes. 

And yet even in the wilderness, God kept a table set for his people, didn’t he? The manna from heaven wasn’t saltless and dry, but as heavenly as one of Aunt Emma’s checkerboard cakes. It didn’t just keep his people alive; it tasted like something from Eden.{i} In the wasteland of cancer, the Lord offered Marilee a sustenance she couldn’t cook up. She feasted on God’s Word during those years, writing verses on recipe cards and filling her pockets with them. While she swept or baked or rinsed, she let his Word simmer like a rich soup in her mind. Just as manna kept the Israelites hoping for a Promised Land — a “tableland” — where milk and honey would flow, the taste of God’s Word reminded Marilee there was something sweeter beyond cancer. 

“How sweet are your words to my taste, 

sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

~ Psalm 119:103

Chemo made food bitter, but it turned God’s Word sweet, and Marilee realized he was the only thing that could sustain her. Like Jesus’s friend Mary, Marilee left her work in the kitchen to simply be fed by Jesus. She’d been a lot like Martha, cooking and setting the table for her guests, but now, she was sitting at the table herself and being served the Bread of Life. 

“This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

 ~ John 6:58

That was all thirty years ago. Just as she can remember the smell of Aunt Emma’s lava soap, Marilee still remembers the fragrance of God’s Word during her famine. In a way, it still fills her log home and kitchen, which is burrowed back in the Missouri woods. 

April will bring Easter, when Marilee will again cook a meal and set the big, oak table. Her family will gather, and the smells of lamb or roast pork will drift from her kitchen, rise out the windows, and up through the trees. The sharp, spring winds will meet them there, and together, they’ll blow forth the scent of a meal to come in the new creation. 

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will

make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, of well-aged wine,

of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine

well refined.”

~ Isaiah 25:6

{i}  Guthrie, Nancy. The Lamb of God. (Crossway: Wheaton, IL. 2012), 224

One thought on “Aunt Emma’s Kitchen

  1. I love this! Not least as a farm girl cooking for someone on chemo… :’). But if you know LM Montgomery’s Emily and “The woman who spanked the king”, I think you deserve Mr Carpenter’s praise too ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

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