There’s magic in making a recipe that you haven’t tasted in more than 40 years, from a beloved baker who hasn’t been around to guide you through a recipe for a quarter century. It’s like finding seeds in an archeological dig and testing to see if they’ll grow.
That’s how it was making my Mom’s fruitcake this year during the COVID-19 holiday lockdown. Mom passed away in 1995, and this was the first time I’d tried making it myself. The recipe came by way of my sisters, with measurements like “a package of” that I had to guess at just how big a package Mom had used. I adjusted the recipe below with the way I measured the ingredients.
Growing up, I never knew that people didn’t like fruitcake, because I loved my mom’s. Aurelia Kempster made this moist, spicy cake with juicy fruit and nuts throughout. It always made the house smell of great holiday spices, and was a favorite dessert for me and my siblings.
Santa came to our house on the eve of Christmas Eve each year, the night before December 24th, a whole day earlier than for everyone else I knew. My mom explained to us that there were way too many people in the world for Santa to visit on one night, so he had a special Christmas Eve list and we were on it. We also opened our presents ahead of tradition on Christmas Eve night, right after dinner, not the next morning like everyone else. But we didn’t ask for an explanation for that difference, not after waiting an entire day, from dawn to dusk, with unopened Christmas presents in the house.
Yes, later when we were older we learned that mom had practical reasons for breaking with tradition. She wanted to avoid squirmy children at church on Christmas morning. She had learned that, whether presents were opened right before or immediately after church, they danced too much in the eight wee little heads she needed to keep calm through Christmas morning mass.
Nelson Mandela’s death reminds me of all the great men and women who put their lives on the line for peace and justice, especial those of my childhood.
As a kid in Catholic grade school in the 1960s I was very aware of what the “reason for the season” really was. It was something more powerful than Santas kneeling before a manger, a fish on a bumper sticker, or a fight in a mall parking lot over being wished the wrong happiness.
We were taught that the message of the first Christmas was the longed-for good news of the coming of peace and justice to those who needed it most: the poor, the war-torn, the oppressed, and to ourselves when we recognize our humble role in the story. The great messengers of my childhood were not just from MY church or MY country, but from all over OUR world, and these men and women literally risked their lives for it.
Christmas of 1989, my first after having moved to New York City, would have been fairly lonely had my then brand-new-beau Bob not invited me to his home in Beaver Falls outside of Pittsburgh, PA to celebrate the holidays with his family, or should I say at “Bubba’s.” That’s what his family called his mother. Bob’s father’s side of the family was Serbian, and even though his mother is a lean, wise-cracking, back-woods Kentucky woman—someone who’s real name of Katherine or “Kitty” would have suited her better—nevertheless, as soon as her first grandchild was born, she was given the nickname “Bubba,” a Serbian term of endearment for grandmothers.
Now, Bob’s family is one of the wildest, most chaotic groups of people that this little son of a lockstep German woman has ever spent the holidays with, but that first Christmas at Bubba’s swirls in my memory as the wildest. Continue reading “my first christmas dinner at bubba’s”→
My sister Sally’s return address stuck out on the corner of the padded parcel envelope that someone had crammed into my mail cubby in the faculty lounge. I removed my gloves and carefully extracted the package from its tight squeeze, fearing that Christmas cookies, or what have you, might have been crushed. It was that time of year again. From Thanksgiving to New Years, my large family sent small gifts and packages to my work address in the City (the postal service in Brooklyn was not to be trusted), and most times the people at the elementary school knew better than to cram a package of cookies into a five-by-five-inch cubby.
As I freed the last corner of the envelope from the metal rim of the mailbox, I could tell that the contents were not crumbly at all. Rather, whatever was inside felt soft and pliable, like a small quilt or pillow. Continue reading “working-class heirlooms”→