Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals by Vi Plotnikoff

  1. “The most wonderful day in a mother’s life is when her daughter marries into a good family,” I often heard Aunt Florence say. “Because she knows her girl will be taken care of for the rest of her life.”
  2. My mother would agree with her sister, then look around at her three daughters with a some what worried expression.
  3. Aunt Florence, predictably, had married well. Her husband’s relatives were all pillars of the Doukhobor community.
  4. Aunt Florence and Uncle Fred had a son, Fred Junior, who’d married well to an agreeable and pretty girl named Tina, from an upstanding Doukhobor family. They proceeded to move into the apartment right across the courtyard from Fred’s parents and produce little Fred, much to the delight of Aunt Florence.
  5. Aunt Florence’s other child was a girl, my cousin Marusa, four years older than I. Her mother had great expectations of Marusa, who was extraordinarily pretty with her dark curls, sparkling brown eyes and tiny figure—a figure much enhanced by the fitted gabardine skirts she wore, the delicate nylon blouses with little artificial bouquets of flowers at the throat, or the soft, fuzzy, pastel sweaters. I felt awkward and plain next to her. I was a giraffe with straight blonde hair and blue eyes.
  6. When I visited her house, Marusa could sometimes be pleasant, even fun. Not stuck-up like she was at school. She let me try on her earrings and makeup, but only if she was in the mood.
  7. “She can have her pick of all the nicest Doukhobor boys,” Aunt Florence would say. “You should see Saturday morning at our place. The fancy cars and pickup trucks come in a stream, asking Marusa to go to the movies that night. She’ll marry well.”
  8. Marusa was almost seventeen by now and dating for nearly a year.
  9. Peter was a tall, gawky young man with a too-short haircut and a pleasing personality. He wasn’t very good-looking except when he smiled and showed his dimples. He was showing a lot of dimples tonight.
  10. Peter was considered an exceedingly good catch, especially by the mothers of marriageable daughters.His parents had a small tidy farm, vast apple orchards, a large ranch house with many bedrooms to accommodate their four sons. Mable Zarubin, Peter’s mother, was a hard-working opinionated woman who kept a clean home and was a renowned cook. In fact her borsch became so famous, she’d graduated to head cook at weddings and funerals.
  11. Most of the women in the Doukhobor community helped out with cooking at these important events.The huge wedding feast required several settings, depending on the number of friends and relatives invited, as did the after-funeral meal serving the singers, gravediggers and family of the deceased.
  12. Always at these occasions, in the place of honour at the dining table, there was the borsch. The special soup, thick with vegetables, laced with rich cream. The dish every young girl learned to cook at her mother’s side.
  13. Peter’s mother had impressed the older women with her knowledge as to the right amount of butter and whipping cream, the correct pinch of dill, the quick and pretty way she shredded the cabbage,diced potatoes. So it was at an early age that she became head cook, instructing the other cooks,tasting, giving the final nod to the borsch before it was carried out to the tables by the serving women.
  14. Marusa and Peter began going steady that spring and the following Christmas she received an engagement ring with a tiny diamond.
  15. On a hot evening, a few days after Marusa’s eighteenth birthday, just as we were finishing supper dishes in the stifling kitchen, Peter’s new pink and white Pontiac with the chrome fins drove into our yard. Peter had quit school and got on at the sawmill, making payments to the credit union on the car.
  16. Through the screen door, we watched Marusa lift a big box from the back seat, give it to Peter and hand in hand they walked up the steps.
  17. “Come in, come in both of you,” mama bustled about, taking off her stained apron and shoving shoes into a corner. “Have you had your supper? It won’t take me a minute to set the table, heat the soup.I made it with fresh peas from the garden.
  18. I stared at mama. Now that Marusa was almost a wife, she’d suddenly acquired a dignified new status. Above waitress or store clerk or even secretary. Only a teacher or nurse was superior to a well-married woman.
  19. “Thank you, tyota, but we’ve already eaten at Peter’s place. His mother taught me to make galooptsi3.”
  20. “Yours were even better than my mother’s,” Peter said.
  21. Peter must be blind in love, I thought. Unless she’d improved vastly, Marusa was a careless cook. I’d seen her vareniki come apart in boiling water, fillings bubbling on top, pastry wrappers floating merrily.
  22. I want to show you something,” Marusa said.
  23. She untied string from the box, pushed aside tissue, lifted out lace and satin.
  24. “Page 352, Eaton’s catalogue,” I breathed.
  25. “Marusa, what have you done?” Mother’s shocked voice.
  26. “Isn’t it beautiful? And look at the veil.”
  27. “But I saw your mother sewing your wedding clothes,” mama said.
  28. “She doesn’t know. I borrowed the money from Peter.”
  29. “You should tell your mother right away. I don’t think she’ll let you wear it.”
  30. “It’s my wedding and I should wear whatever I want. But I want you to tell her. She won’t listen to me.” Marusa had her stubborn look.
  31. “Oh Marusa, you should wear it. It’s just beautiful.”
  32. “Quiet, Ana, this is none of your business. Marusa,” she turned to her niece, “you must tell your mother yourself.”
  33. “She’s too worried about what Peter’s mother will say.” She looked at Peter, who was fidgeting with his car keys. “Well? Don’t you think I should wear what I want for my own wedding?”
  34. “Your mother and mine won’t like it,” he said in a mild, hesitant voice.
  35. “Whose wedding is it anyway? I thought it was ours.”
  36. She scooped up the gown, stuffed it into the box and marched outdoors, ponytail bobbing. Peter followed, looking worried.
  37. It was a clear and dewy summer morning. A beautiful day to be married. We were up early, rushed through chores and breakfast, dressed in new clothes purchased at the co-op. Hurried to the bride’s home to help with the cooking and the table setting.
  38. Loud voices broke out directly overhead in Marusa’s bedroom. Aunt Florence’s sounded mad. I dropped the pans in the sink, went through the living room, past guests who lolled on couches and chairs which were pushed back against the walls to make room for the dining tables.
  39. Upstairs I skimmed along the corridor, past bedrooms with their tall narrow windows, spare white washed walls, where Marusa’s grandparents and parents slept. And I thought it no wonder Marusa often complained everyone knew when she came in on a Saturday night, for each squeaky tiptoe, each cautious footstep could be heard on the creaking floorboards as she crept past all those disapproving doors.
  40. The small commotion brewing around Marusa’s door consisted of the bride, her aunt and her mother.Aunt Florence had her turkey look on. Face all red, neck long, saying in a loud voice that she was so ashamed, and to change right away and maybe just maybe not too much harm was done even though it would be all over town by Monday. Marusa was weeping, ruining her rouge, and my mother was standing ineffectually between them, clasping and unclasping her hands.
  41. Then Marusa, who’d looked right through me at school and kept on talking to her friends, who’ dignored me during family visits unless she was bored and then taken me upstairs, told me ghosts were seen floating along the dim hallways, even told me I’d been a foundling abandoned by my real mother near the cemetery, suddenly became Marusa my friend. She reached out and took my hand.
  42. In that instant, as we faced our mothers, I became her ally. Us against them. Cousins forever. I felt her cool fingers, the pressure of the unfamiliar wedding band.
  43. “Yes. Wear what you want, Marusa. It’s your marriage.”
  44. Was that me sounding profound and grown up? Aunt Florence and my mother looked at me for the first time, not knowing what to make of this unexpected alliance.
  45. “It’s your wedding, after all.”
  46. “Ana,” my mother had recovered. “It’s none of your business, or mine either. I’m not going to take sides, Florence,” she said, then turned to Marusa. “Although it will be easier on everyone if you give into your mother, dear.” Diplomatic. No one could ever get mad at my mother.
  47. Marusa let go of my fingers, smiled at me as I said one last “do it,” shrugged her shoulders.
  48. I went downstairs, thinking I’d do the same some day. When my turn came, I wouldn’t give in either.For I’d felt Marusa’s strength. Through her I could reach my dreams, unformed as they were. MaybeI’d take the university program at school, go on to college. I wouldn’t even marry before I was twenty.I could do as I wanted and Marusa had shown me how. She’d opened the door a crack and I had slipped through after her. And the best, most wonderful part of all was that she had turned to me.
  49. “I am ready,” a voice said, and there she was, in her traditional outfit, as demure5 as she’d looked at the zapoy6. She searched the group of people around the steps, seeking approval, smiling when she found it. She didn’t look at me.
  50. I followed the crowd to the cars, my unformed dreams dying inside me.
  51. It was fleeting, Marusa’s independence. Just those few hours in the wedding gown when she lived herd ream. And mine. For after the wedding, after the ceremonies and the feasting, she became a dutiful wife. Within a year she bore a son. Within five years, she had three little boys tugging at her while she shopped at the co-op.
  52. Under Mable’s tutelage, Marusa was becoming an expert cook, her pirahi pastry light, her borsch renowned. It was rumoured, according to Aunt Florence, that Marusa would eventually take over her mother-in-law’s position as head cook at weddings and funerals.


#1 What do paragraphs 1–7 establish about Aunt Florence?

#2 According to the mothers in the story, what qualifies Peter as a good potential husband?

#3 What is the effect of the sentence fragments in paragraph 37?

#4 Which word best describes the narrator in paragraphs 42–45?

#5 In the context of the story, which literary technique is used in paragraph 49?

#6 When Marusa appears in her traditional wedding dress, why does she not look at the narrator?

#7 What does the wedding dress from the Eaton’s catalogue symbolize?