The second paragraph of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” is one that I know — nearly all of us know, I guess — by heart, especially the line where “a woman with shorn white hair” is standing at the kitchen window, “wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’”
My family was never fond of fruitcake, and because alcohol was forever banned from my grandparents’ house after they found Jesus in their twenties, there was no need for us to visit the scary bootlegger Mr. HaHa Jones for a quart of fruitcake whiskey. So my grandmother never needed that much of a head start on her holiday baking.
As I recall she would really kick it into gear a couple of weeks before Christmas: actually, right about now. It seems in my memory that the kitchen windows would stay fogged for the duration — or at least, during the hours I was awake. It wasn’t until I was about the age my granddaughter is now that it started to sink in, for me, the astonishing scale of that slow explosion of time and energy that would culminate in dinnertime (meaning, lunchtime) on the big day. When I was grade-school age, I suppose I categorized her annual culinary achievement with the natural phenomena I was learning about in my science and geography books: the Wyoming geyser named Old Faithful that rocketed a hundred feet into the air, like clockwork; or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, made up of several billion little-bitty organisms who apparently got together for a meeting and agreed, “Hey, it’ll take awhile, but we can make this happen, guys!” In other words, a Natural Wonder. It was at that point, when I realized how much work she was putting in, that I decided to be less of a slacker (a term that hadn’t been invented yet) and offered to help her do some of the cooking. Not surprisingly, Grandmother said thanks but no thanks. And to her credit, gave a very honest reason: nobody could do things the way she wanted them done. (Subtext: “nobody” including Granddaddy, so it was nothing personal.) Granddaddy’s part in the annual drama was coming, though. On whatever day she decided on her Christmas cake menu, including the ones she would give to neighbors and friends, a ton of unshelled pecans and walnuts miraculously showed up in the kitchen, and Granddaddy was given the task of cracking and picking them. Each evening after supper, he’d take up his station at the couch with bowls and nut-cracking equipment spread around him, and work feverishly until bedtime or until he dozed off, whichever came first. (My offer to help crack nuts was refused because (a) I had homework to do, and (b) cracking nuts was too dangerous and I might hurt my hand. The word “over-protective” was not in common use in the 1950s, but the concept sure was.)
I wish now that I had a complete list of just one year’s Christmas menu that my grandmother cooked. I vaguely remember there were at least three kinds of meat, at least 15 casseroles and vegetable dishes (including a choice of regular dressing and oyster dressing), and so many cakes and pies (the selections changed each year, with the only constants being Red Velvet Cake, Lane Cake and ambrosia) that a whole sideboard was required just to hold the desserts.
I remember that the array of different tastes was mind-bogglingly good, and that nobody ever went away hungry or without a sack of leftovers. And the Christmas lights and sparkles at the corners of my vision made the whole experience seem more like a dream than an actual day. In retrospect, I can see now that my grandmother’s Christmas dinner extravaganzas would end up changing me, in more ways than just being less skinny after each one was over. But those changes have come hard.
My genetic makeup tells me that asking for help is a personal failing, and the only true path is to toughen up and insist on doing everything myself. Breaking that rule has been a slow process, but a fortunate one — especially since I’m now hitting the age when doing everything independently stops being an option.
My other genetic core principle says that bigger-and-better everything is the staff of life, and the best way to achieve this is to outwork and outdo everything the last generation achieved. But fortunately, the best possible object lesson against this madness was my grandmother’s perfect Christmas Day meal. I’ve never tried to top it. Or even to match it. And Lord willing, I never will.
But that doesn’t keep me from looking at the steam on the kitchen windows this time of year and thinking, somewhere down deep, “Oh my. It’s Lane Cake weather!”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His books, columns, photos and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM and is archived afterward on his website.)