Photo by Edouard Bruchac, Springville, AL
Bare limbs and evergreen branches against a night sky laced with clouds and lit by stars: this is the deep south December sky I've known since childhood. Ed's picture reminded me of a solitary drive from the Raleigh-Durham airport to Chapel Hill two weeks before Christmas in 2001. This would be the first Christmas without my mother. The first after 9/11. The first with no family dinner. We would have only twenty-four hours to move between consulting assignments: first a flight to Birmingham, then the long trek down I-95 south to Fort Lauderdale. The fruitcake weather of Truman Capote's beautiful story, A Christmas Memory, had arrived but no baking would take place that year.
As I drove up the North Carolina interstate, I saw it. December. Etched on the darkness. The twelfth month, repository of my best childhood memories, was, in 2001, an aching reminder of loss. But the season was not to be denied.
The previous year, we watched as Mother's memory rapidly dimmed. Her bedroom was next to ours so we could hear her get up frequently during the night, dress and make her bed. I'd go to her room each time. "Mom, you must've had a dream. It's only midnight." I'd help her back into her bedclothes and tuck her into bed. Thirty minutes later, the scene would repeat. All night, every night. A friend at The Birmingham News took a picture of me at my desk one afternoon. I was sound asleep. My mouth hung open and a bit of spittle trickled down my chin. You can imagine how overjoyed I was when the thing went viral on screens everywhere.
Amazingly, Mother shocked us all that year. She remembered she was supposed to bake fruitcakes. The Christmas our son was two, Mother asked Patrick if he'd like some more turkey. Instead he pointed to the fruitcake on the crystal cake stand and said, "I'll take that." From that year forward, Mother made three white fruitcakes. One for the family, one for Patrick, and one for my late husband. Her cakes were delicious, decorated with artfully arranged slices of red, green and yellow pineapple interspersed with red and green cherries and pecan halves. And they were her last tradition to slip away.
I bought the ingredients but she couldn't find her recipe anywhere. Nor mine. This did not deter her. We leafed through old cookbooks and pulled together what we thought was a close match. We shelled pecans. She counted, re-counted, and counted again the whole cherries, pecan halves, and slices of pineapple that would be needed to decorate the top. I chopped the rest of the fruit and pecans. But she insisted that she make the batter herself. First she dredged all the chopped fruit and nuts in flour so they wouldn't sink to the bottom of the cake. So far, so good. Then came the measuring spoons and cups. She lost count repeatedly but still insisted that no help was needed. Finally, while I made cornbread for dressing, she put the batter in the greased tube pan and slipped it into the oven. The process had taken hours but she seemed at peace. Until we took the tube pan out of the oven.
The cake, which measured perhaps two and a half-inches (a generous guess) from top to bottom, made up for it's lack of height with its tremendous weight. All Mother saw, though, was the plain, undecorated surface. She had forgotten to arrange the pineapple, pecans, and cherries on top. Tears rolled down her face and I cried with her. For her. Both John and Patrick valiantly ate several slices and, each time, bragged on what would be her last cake. But she knew. Oh, how I longed to see vague eyes staring back at me. But no. We were both denied illusion that day.
My son asked me recently to put my memories into writing. So I am going to take a sabbatical from Abiding and focus on a private collection of stories for my children. After a season of quiet. I hope that you have a blessed holiday - Holy Day - season. Make good memories. And don't wait until you're sixty-one to write them down.
Love. Light. Blessings.