Mama grinned when I brought up Daddy’s past fruit cake project to her a few days ago. She instantly recalled the many details he had described to us before, during, and after production of his masterpiece.
“My lands.” Mama said. “That fruit cake was all he talked about for a while.”
She also remembered my promise to Daddy that I would eat a piece of his fruit cake on Christmas day. The sight and smell of fruit cake are enough to make me retch, but Daddy had been so proud of his cake and so eager for me to taste it that I finally gave in and promised a Christmas day tasting. At the rate Daddy was already eating his culinary work of art, I was sure the thing would be gone by the holidays and I could then shake my head and tell him I was sorry to have missed it – while silently cheering.
When Daddy suddenly passed away a few months before Christmas, the fruit cake and all of our inside jokes associated with it were soon forgotten and replaced by the sad details of the loss. It was only a week or so ago that I remembered my insane promise to taste the awful thing and reminded Mama.
“Mama,” I began, “I know Daddy had some fruit cake left. Do you know where it is?”
“You don’t want it do you?” she asked. Her eyes widened as she looked at me and grinned just imagining my reaction to tasting the cake.
I reminded her that each time I visited them Daddy asked if I wanted a slice. He and I would joke about what I considered to be a downright awful cake. My answer to his question was always an emphatic “no” until I finally broke down and agreed to taste a piece on Christmas day. Daddy has been gone for four months now, but for what it was worth I intended to keep my promise.
Mama said what remained of the fruit cake had been put in the freezer. My sister Vicki soon presented me with a large chunk of Daddy’s masterpiece, still wrapped in wax paper and aluminum foil, and tucked inside a fruit cake tin.
My feelings were mixed. The sight of the fruit cake reminded me of the crazy conversations and silly jokes that Daddy and I shared about his making the thing. The sight of the fruit cake also struck me with shivers of disgust. But, I had promised to taste it, so taste it I would.
But maybe later…
We all knew Christmas would be odd, sad, and definitely not the same without Daddy. Unfortunately it turned out to be all of those things. Although Mama knew I was going to taste the fruit cake, I didn’t want it to become a big production so I didn’t mention it to anyone else. I would just discreetly fulfill my promise before the day was through. Admittedly, I planned to put it off as long as possible. Fruit cake is not fun.
Mama’s house filled with more and more family members as the day wore on. Periodically, she grinned and asked me, “Have a slice of fruit cake?”
“Later.” was my standard response, usually accompanied by a dry heave.
The first holiday after someone passes away is hard on any family. Each of us had to again process losing Daddy when faced with his absence. We missed the jokes he would have told, the snappy one-liners he would have had ready, and the simple sight of his empty chair was enough to upset some. In spite of the void, everyone tried to make it as normal a Christmas as possible, especially for Mama who is still struggling with major complications from her knee replacement surgery earlier this year.
I was afraid that memories stirred up by my fruit cake tasting might upset Mama, but she seemed fine. In fact, she found humor in knowing that the last thing in the world I wanted to taste, regardless of the day of the year, was fruit cake.
As the day wound down I summoned the necessary courage to remove the lid from the fruit cake tin. I began unwrapping the cake and wondered how I might be able to cut a tiny slice without actually having to look at it. The sight of those unnatural neon colored fruits was not appealing. A particularly ugly red one fell out just as I finished unwrapping.
I took a deep breath and tried to cut a paper-thin slice, not easy to do with a heavy cake chock full of bizarre fruits and too many nuts. For fear the smell alone would cause me to lose my courage, I quickly popped a piece of the cake into my mouth and chewed as rapidly as possible. Just as I finished swallowing the hateful concoction, I heard Mama call my name.
“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she asked, laughing when she saw the look on my face. She continued grinning as I washed the cake down with several gulps of water.
“I had a slice of fruit cake.” I confirmed as I exhaled and wiped the vile crumbs from my face.
I have never mixed turpentine, cake batter, and a splash of Drano together, but I believe it would taste exactly the same as fruit cake.
Daddy would have enjoyed the look of misery on my face and would have compared my rapid chewing to “a possum eating briars”. Mama got a good laugh out of the tasting in spite of the emotional reminders. I felt good that I had fulfilled my promise to Daddy and was glad that Mama had not gotten upset.
That came next.
The family made it through the day with only a few spoken comments about Daddy’s absence. Even Mama had been able to talk about him some without completely losing control – until my sister Donna gave her a gift.
A few months ago Donna asked Mama if she could take some of the flannel shirts Daddy had always worn. Donna planned to make a quilt from the material. Even though Mama knew the plan, she hadn’t expected it would be her Christmas gift.
Mama opened the box Donna handed her and saw the quilt. Naturally, she was instantly upset. It was a beautiful quilt in its own right, but as Mama examined patch after patch that came from shirts she had seen Daddy wear on a daily basis, it was more than she could handle. She cried heavily as she held the quilt, occasionally touching one patch or another and softly saying words most of us couldn’t understand.
“I love it.” Mama said through her tears, “But I can’t look at it anymore right now.”
Everyone understood and after a few silent minutes the conversations slowly began to flow again. A grandchild or two gave Mama a hug and we all continued opening presents.
I can usually manage to make Mama laugh, or at least smile, regardless of the situation. In this case I knew there was nothing I could say that would give her any relief or distraction from her upset, so I thought I’d try being practical rather than comical for a change.
“Mama, do you want some water?” I asked. “Is there anything that’ll help?”
Her eyes were still teary and her face was still red but a partial grin showed itself when she responded.
“Have a slice of fruit cake?” she said.
Stuart M. Perkins