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.


  1. Beautiful memoir. I wish I could say I like one thing about fruit cake.

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