Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Grandmother and Demon Rum

The holiday season is approaching, and it has me thinking. This is about the time that my grandmother would make her fruitcake. She made it ahead of time, usually about six weeks, to give it time to “cure.” That fruitcake is what caused me to stop and ponder just how it is that people rationalize their behavior especially when it both defies what they generally stand for and makes little sense as well. We’ve all known people who live one way then act out of character, and we probably fit the pattern ourselves at times. I have one child that has pointed out my inconsistencies to me on more than one occasion. In fact, she delights in it.

My grandmother loved fruitcake as did many of her generation. I think it was because sweets were a luxury, and a fruitcake could be made to last for such a long time. It was economical and with a little help from John Barleycorn, could be preserved until the last crumb was consumed. Grandmother would cut her fruitcake on Christmas Eve, and the family would nibble on slices for the next few days. Grandmother, on the other hand, would indulge in this treat for the next several months. My Grandmother was raised British although she would never see England for herself. Her mother had been born on the Isle of Wight and came to America when she was in her teens. She was forever a Brit who raised her daughters as good English girls. The kind who pampered their complexions, faced crisis with a stiff upper lip and were unfailingly courteous. No matter how busy her life, my grandmother stopped at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and fixed herself a cup of tea. Since Grandmother was a devout Christian, she spent that thirty minute break in Bible study while sipping her tea as she sat in the dining room window seat. My siblings and I have discussed the fact that we were never told that that time was sacred to her. However, we all knew intuitively that blood had better be coming in spurts, a face turning blue, bones protruding from skin, or the house on fire if we needed to interrupt that time. During the winter months, Grandmother added a delicate slice of fruitcake to her tea ritual.

I have said that Grandmother was a Christian, and she was. She was a Methodist, the kind with all the letters capitalized…A METHODIST. She was Wesleyan through and through; and as such, she was a teetotaler. At least that was the impression we got from hearing her decry the evils of drink and the terrible havoc it wrecked on the loved ones of drunks. I never saw her drink a drop, not even any of the pink champagne that toasted my wedding. But come November, my grandmother sent my father to the store for a bottle of Wild Turkey, Jack Daniels or Southern Comfort as she prepared to make her fruitcake. Once all of the spicy flour had been stirred into the creamed mixture of butter, eggs, and sugar, she would add in about a fourth of a cup of whiskey and fold in pounds of flour dredged, dried fruit and chopped pecans. She baked the cake in a large tube pan in a moderately slow oven. I like to think she, at least, contemplated her next step and perhaps asked for forgiveness of the inconsistency to come. As soon as the cake had cooled, she took clean white feed-sacking, tore it into wide strips and soaked it in the whiskey. She then wound the fabric around the cake so that each surface was dampened. She then placed the cake in a tightly closed tin. Every week, she would take out the cake, unwind it, soak the cloth, and rewind it before returning it to the tin. By Christmas Eve, a person could get lightheaded just sniffing that cake as it was unwound for the first cutting. By then the bottle of whiskey was gone. It had all been absorbed.

Years later, when I was in college, young people went through a craze for folk music. During that time, I heard a parody on the old song, “Away, Away With Rum.” There was a verse that said,

“ I never eat fruitcake because it has rum,
and one little taste turns a man to a bum.
Oh, can you imagine a sadder disgrace
than a man in the gutter with crumbs on his face.”

When I first heard that, I fell down laughing and thought of my grandmother who could preach and, for the most part, live a life of absolute sobriety but, with great relish, could eat a fruitcake that had been saturated with alcohol.

What I really think is that we all compromise somewhere, and we rationalize the compromise. You can’t be a drunk if you chew up the alcohol before you swallow it. As I see it, this is a small thing. I doubt that my grandmother even gave it a thought. She certainly didn’t seem to fret over her soul on it’s account. I see her inconsistency and cherish it as a fond memory of someone who was almost but not quite perfect. I can only hope that my own inconsistencies are as small and as harmless as hers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Life's Little Embarrassing Moments

I took part in a conversation today about life’s embarrassing moments. Everyone there had one. It seems to be a universal truth that just when you think life is grand, something trips you up. People who know me, know that I have had a goodly number of literal trip-ups. I’ve been falling down as long as I have been walking. I have fallen at home walking across a perfectly level uncluttered floor; but most frequently, I fall in crowded public venues. Like the time I slipped on a grape at the supermarket and tore a ligament in my leg. Fortunately, for the crowd that gathered, I had become use to such accidents and spent my time on the floor waiting for an ambulance to cart me off for treatment in assuring the onlookers that I would, eventually, be fine. The people who should have been embarrassed then were the young Indian couple who saw me fall in an otherwise empty aisle. They came running to my aid. When I told them that I was injured and needed help, they ran through the store shouting, “Help! Help! She needs the doctor!” They caused such a commotion that the entire staff and all the customers came to gawk.

I am so well known for these incidents that I could pick up the phone right now, call almost any one of my close friends, and ask if they could guess what I just did and the answer would be, “You fell down.” While that may seem embarrassing, it is not the thing that came to mind as I tried to think of the most humiliating thing that ever happened to me. The thing that popped into my mind was not only disheartening but it lasted for a whole school year.

In a town as small as Scott, Arkansas, nothing happens that isn’t common knowledge within a few hours. When I began the fifth grade, I was looking forward to being in Miss Ellison’s class. She was young, cute in a plump sort of way, full of energy and adored kids. She had only been at the school one year prior to my being in her class, but the word was out that she was the best teacher around. I liked school and I was good at it. Aside from one ongoing difference of opinion on penmanship in the second grade, I had perfect report cards. ( I still say that teaching kids to write those big, two line high letters is ugly. So I refused. Fortunately, at the end of the year, the national penmanship test was on miniaturized lined paper. I aced it because I had been writing small all year. It probably made Mrs. Templeton choke to have to give me an “A” after all of those “C's” ) Anyway, I was ready to impress this new teacher as the star pupil.

Those of you who follow me, know that my mother died when I was very young. I was growing up in my grandmother’s home in the company of my brother, sister and father. My dad was a handsome man and knew a number of ladies who hoped that he would look their way. He was also smart as a whip, well educated, funny and fun loving. In other words, he was a good catch except for the three kids attached to his coattail wherever he went. To this point, he had not shown much interest in dating. He and my mother had been childhood sweethearts, and he grieved her loss deeply. That was before his first encounter with Miss Ellison. They hit it off right from the start. She had all the same qualities that he had, plus she wasn’t in the least intimidated by a trail of children. Just as I was taking my usual place at the head of the class, my father began to date my fifth grade teacher. From that point on, nothing I did was accepted at face value. All of my classmates decided that every “A”, every appointment to monitor, every time I was called on, was because I was the teacher’s pet. She didn’t help the matter much as she always smiled sweetly at me, or touched my shoulder as she passed my desk. That year droned on forever. I got to where I dreaded getting up on a school day. I slouched in my seat and cowered from being called to the board. At the end of the year, I raced from that room hoping to never have to live through such an experience again. For reasons unknown to me, Dad and Miss Ellison parted company after my sixth grade year and she moved on to a different school.

For years I thought that that was as bad as it could get. Then I met up with Sam and Sarah.* We lived near each other in the St. Louis area and had kids the same ages. They had boys and were into scouting. Sarah and Sam are an odd match with him being staid and humorless while she is vibrant and quirky. In fact, she is one of those people that craziness seems to follow. I don’t think I would have believed this story except I was right there when it happened.

The two of them were involved with the Boy Scouts and so was I as a den mother. Each year the big (I mean really big) United Methodist Church where we lived hosted Boy Scout Sunday by having all the area troops participate in an opening flag ceremony and awarding God and Country badges to those who had earned them. This particular Sunday, Sarah, a good Catholic, came in to sit next to me while Sam helped get the boys ready to march in. Almost as soon as she sat down, I noticed that she reeked of wood smoke. I leaned over to ask her what was going on. She explained that Sam had closed the damper on their fireplace thinking that the fire was out. I had smoldered all night filling their house with smoke. She had no choice but to wear clothes that smelled of smoke. She was confident that I smelled it only because I was so close. Sam joined us and at Sarah’s insistence I sniffed his shirt sleeve and confirmed that he, too, reeked of wood smoke.

Eleven O’clock came, the church was packed, and the choir was in place. The organist was playing the pre-service music, and we noticed that ushers were walking up and down the outside aisles, bending over registers and moving on. Five minutes passed time for the service to start, we turned around to see if something had happened to our kids who were suppose to be up the center aisle by now and leading the ceremony. Just as we looked back, a half dozen firemen in full garb came through the doors and began checking registers, especially those on our side of the church. The whole church was abuzz by this time. Then it dawned on Sarah what was happening. She left her seat and approached one of the firemen who went out to the vestibule with her. We all watched as she explained what she thought was the problem. To the whole church's amusement, she allowed the fireman to sniff her clothing then motioned to Sam to come join her. He was sniffed as well. The pastor came and sniffed them as did all the ushers. The other firemen joined in until everyone was satisfied that there was no potential fire hazard just two people who had not had anything else to wear on the day their son was to carry the flag through a huge church full of people. Sarah was sure it was the low point of her life. The rest of us just thought that it was hilarious and were grateful that it wasn’t one of us.

I have pondered this often. Humans are the only creatures who suffer embarrassment. Rude noises don’t upset those other creatures nor do bad choices. They just muster on. We, on the other hand, blush and stammer, make excuses and even blame others. I actually think that a lot of the things that should truly embarrass all of us, don’t. The only fairness about this is that, sooner or later, we all have a moment that we cringe to remember. Some are just bigger than others. While I may fall on my face, knees or butt and my dad dating my teacher was a lesson in public humiliation, I still haven’t been thought of as the reason to call out the fire brigade.

*Names changed to protect me from libelous law suits.