By Susan Clements
Mrs. MacGamwell had one foot through the door when a small voice piped up. “Did you bring your banana cake?” I asked. She handed a foil-covered pan to my mother and ushered her three, snowsuit-clad girls into the kitchen.
Fifty years later, I still remember the menu for the annual Christmas potluck and caroling party. I imagine all the members of the original four “Allegany” families could recite it verbatim. It never varied from year to year.
This holiday meal was a reassuring reminder in the turbulent ’60s that some things were constant and could always be relied upon. As always, Mrs. MacGamwell had brought her banana cake. Had she shown up with chocolate, 14 children would have howled in protest.
My mother’s contribution was her famous cornflake chicken. Mrs. Baxter and Mrs. Schmidt provided identical pans of lasagna. Each family had its own signature Jell-O: ours was orange with mandarin oranges and pineapple.
Our families lived within a few blocks of each other in my home town of Tonawanda. Peg Clements, Do Schmidt, Della Baxter and Rita MacGamwell had been sorority sisters at Buffalo State Teachers College in the late ’40s. Every fall, our parents packed up four station wagons with 14 kids and one dachshund for a camping weekend at Allegany State Park. The Allegany kids were my constant companions – at church, in school and racing around the neighborhood. Their parents were like aunts and uncles, dispensing love and discipline in equal measures.
That cold December evening, after all the kids were liberated from snowsuits and red rubber boots, paper plates were heaped high. Conversation was loud and hearty as the dads snapped photos with their 35mm cameras. In all the years of the Allegany party, I can’t remember anyone ever complaining about the food, or refusing to eat something.
After the plates were cleared away, it was time to cram the kids back into their snowsuits for caroling. We crunched along the silent street, stopping at neighbors, who opened their doors wide and always seemed happy to see us. The Allegany caroling party was as much a tradition for the people on our block as it was for us. We sang from little Christmas carol booklets, though everyone knew the words by heart.
Once sated with serenading we crunched our way back to the host’s house, and it was off with the snowsuits again. It was time for Mrs. MacGamwell’s banana cake, assorted home-baked Christmas cookies, Kool-Aid for the kids and coffee for the adults.
At last, it was time to go home, and the kids were stuffed into their winter gear once more. I remember feeling impatient, sweating in my snowsuit, as the parents talked for what seemed like hours at the door. I understand now that they cherished that annual get together, their 35mm slides recording our growth from toddlers to young adults. We children were eager to move on to the next adventure, but they lingered by the door, savoring the Christmas tradition they had created together.
Eight of the original 14 Allegany “kids,” now in our 60s, gathered recently to give a proper send-off to our last remaining parent as she moved out of state to be near her daughter. Our reunion was a potluck, naturally, and of course there was Jell-O. We talked, laughed, reminisced and vowed that though we are scattered across the country, we would meet again when time and travel permit.
Our connection to each other has remained constant through the decades: as pure as harmonies echoing through a snowy night; as comforting as cornflake chicken; as nourishing as lasagna; and as sweet as Mrs. MacGamwell’s banana cake.