Michelle Martin

Flaming desserts

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

My mother-in-law died early this month.

She was a wonderful woman, someone I knew for more than 30 years. She raised my husband and made my wedding dress before the dementia that eventually took her life began stealing her away.

Her death was not really a surprise — she was 95 and had been in hospice care for years — but it still came as something of a jolt, a shock that something that was always coming was suddenly here.

As we entered the in-between time, the days between her death and her funeral, busy with plans and arrangements and still work and school and everything else, we gathered for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.

The plan was made days before her death; my nephew’s wife was attending a concert, leaving him at loose ends on the evening of his anniversary (not to worry; they celebrated another day), and it was the day after my husband’s birthday, so they decided to celebrate together. A couple of hours after the plan was hatched, the group expanded to nine, including Teresa, our youngest child and my mother-in-law’s namesake.

So, the day after she died (yes, she died on my husband’s birthday), we gathered with an old black-and-white photo of her as a child in El Salvador on the table. We toasted her, and my husband, and my nephew and his wife, and pretty much everyone in the family, for something or other.

Then, when the dessert menu was brought, Teresa asked the question she has asked almost every time we go to that restaurant: Can I have a flaming dessert?

We had always said no before. Who would eat all of it? And it’s a lot of work for the restaurant and a lot of spectacle that, frankly, I’m not comfortable with.

But on this occasion, with so many members of the family around her, we said yes. “Peaches, cherries or bananas?” we asked.

Bananas foster it was.

The maître d’ looked thrilled when he wheeled the cart with its propane burner and pan and all the ingredients over to our table. His pride and showmanship increased as the eyes of all the diners in the restaurant turned toward him. The flames were, indeed, spectacular.

The dessert was advertised as serving two; Teresa ate most of one portion and the other was passed around, a delicious, gooey mess of hot bananas and caramel sauce over cold vanilla ice cream.

I think my mother-in-law would have appreciated it. She wasn’t someone who liked to grab the spotlight, but she didn’t hesitate to figure out what she wanted and then go for it. She came to Chicago in 1951 by herself with something like a sixth-grade education, sponsored by a family friend.

She made connections here — the first families she lived with in Chicago became godparents to my husband and his sister. She married a man she knew in El Salvador who followed her to Chicago. Their children were raised with the expectation that they would go to college, and they did.

I have to believe that if she wanted the flaming dessert, she would have gotten it.

After we finished eating that dessert, before we left the restaurant, we saw the cart being wheeled to another table. Someone apparently followed Teresa’s example.

Let this be a word of advice to you: If you want the flaming dessert, go right ahead.



  • family life