Oddments

In search of story


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Fruitcake, Part 3

We lived downstairs in a two-flat, my mother’s parents upstairs, so I learned about Grandma early on. When her mother died, Grandma went into months of hysteria, night-time screaming included. One day she hissed into my face “I hope it happens to you! I hope your mother dies!” I was six.

A few years later, Grandpa collapsed and died while shaving. Again, months of loud laments. To me, hollow mourning. How could I not think of the times she’d screamed at Grandpa “I hope you drop dead!”

Early every December Grandma would find some pretense to be furious with Mom and then spend weeks slamming doors and drawers to maintain the tension. On Christmas morning I’d be sent upstairs to invite her down to open presents. That was the beginning of my lifelong hatred of those stairs.

Grandma would be sugarplum sweet Christmas morning and her presents to us were lavish. Later she and I ate fruitcake and sipped eggnog and pretended that everything was fine.

Those Christmases told the story of our life with Grandma: she lived to hurt Mom; the rest of us were collateral damage. Her rages alternated with charm and expensive gifts, interludes of artifical peace. Our stress level was everything she hoped for.

Some would say Grandma had spunk. She was a gifted seamstress and cook. She did everyday things artfully and made the most of everything she had. She could be cordial, fun.

Yet she could never speak a kind word to or about her daughter. Mom did everything she could to earn it but it never came. Mom’s need for that kind word and Grandma’s need to withhold it was the air we breathed.

Fruitcake, anyone?

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Fruitcake, Part 2

While I was writing my last post, “Fruitcake,” I was plotting “Fruitcake II,” intending to suggest that my grandmother was the fruitcake, making myself as snarky as the fruitcake nay-sayers. But I wasn’t sure I should do it. To write such commentary about my grandmother seemed dishonorable.

The NYT sensed my writer’s dilemma and on 1 December published a piece by Ken Budd, who told of similar misgivings and maintained that “honest writing” (his memoir) wins over “feelings of the dead” (his father’s). Helpful, but not quite a perfect parallel since he admired his father and I am, at best, ambivalent about Grandma. Also I am that private person he says his father was. Writing anything remotely personal makes me squirmy, and I know when I write about family I’m writing about me at my life’s foundation; I cringe, knowing that putting life into words — even if no one else reads them – is a way of baring it.

But that precisely is the reason to write, yes? To bare — and bear — life?

Yet enough baring already. With a cosmic chorus of self-revelation reverberating through our quivering psyches, why would I want to add my little paragraphs about my grandmother? Because I am addicted to the writing process, indebted to it, intrigued by it. It dims the din.

I do care that I’m exposing my dead grandmother — and me — to strangers. I do care about her right to rebuttal, which is inconvenient for her right now. But I care more about finding the words. Maybe I’m becoming a writer.


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Fruitcake

People get snarky about fruitcake. This puzzles me. My mother’s mother made fruitcake that dazzled plate and palate.

She started before Thanksgiving. There was one — and only one — place to buy the fruit, and that was the basement of Goldblatt’s, that fortress of a department store whose Christmas window was immortalized in “A Christmas Story.” Our fruitcakes were born there.

Then came the Christmas spirits, poured. The fruit soaked at languid length in Southern Comfort.

A whole day was set aside for the baking. Walnuts and fruit were chopped into acceptably toothsome chunks, brown paper cut into strips and buttered. Pans lined. Butter mounded in a vast bowl, held in Grandma’s lap. Sometimes I got to add the sugar, little by little, as Grandma creamed by hand — and I do mean with her hand in the butter and sugar. She whipped that like a Kitchen Aid. She’d give me a fingertip of the wonderful stuff. Nothing like sweet fat to make a memory.

The batter, with its emerald and ruby lumps, was carefully allocated to the pans, and then came the citrus-gilded shimmering oven-breath. Warm golden fragrance.

Cooled in the brown paper, sprinkled with more Southern Comfort, the cakes were wrapped tightly and tucked away to age. When Christmas loomed near, it was brown paper off, glaze on. Candied fruit and walnuts arranged kaleidoscopically atop the cakes, then brushed with the Karo syrup glaze. Those cakes sparkled. And, when cut, they were stained glass.

I cheerfully and unapologetically picked out all the nuts and blissfully, with pure porcine abandon, glutted myself on the moistest, butteriest, fruitiest cake that ever there was.

The day came when the last fruitcake crumb was indeed the last one. Arthritis closed the kitchen. And I was forever stymied by fruitcake snarkiness.