The slice I ate I want it back
Those crumbs I swept up
I’d like my share again
I can still taste it like it was
The memory by itself is delicious
Each bite was a small miracle
Both nourishing and sweet
I wish I had saved just a little bit
I know it wasn’t a literal cake
It’s the thought that counts
Like a gift that’s not store-bought
Making it even more special
Like a dream that makes you
Want to go back to sleep
You can’t have your cake
And eat it too Momma said
I was defiant and hardheaded
And answered yes I can too
The look she gave me said boy
I hope you aren’t a fool all your life
Two Christmases ago, when my mother was dying but we did not understand that precisely yet, she charged my husband and I with driving an hour from her house into the city to deliver a box of preserves to her elderly friend. I think it was peaches and sweet pickles. It was the twenty-third of December, and it had snowed a lot the night before. We had to leave her alone for the day to accomplish the task, plus a couple of other errands. I was to purchase on my mother’s behalf a pair of ski socks for my husband, covertly, while he rented a pair of cross-country skis to use over the holiday. We would do some banking for her and stop briefly to visit some family. When we were about to load up the car and go, she said from her nest of blankets on the sofa, “I’m going to be lonely while you’re gone.” I was sympathetic but also exasperated. But you wanted us to go, I said. Yes, she said, go. And so we went.
On the way to the elderly friend’s house (where we were plied with ancient sherry and ginger ale), my husband hopped out of the car to ring the bell of a friend of a friend, a sort of colleague of his, just to say hello. When he came back to the car he was holding a foil-wrapped package. “Pauline says hi. Here’s a fruitcake,” he said.
“A fruitcake?” I asked. “Do people even make those anymore? Isn’t that something old people eat? Isn’t there a joke about there being only one fruitcake in the world that keeps getting passed around? Is this that fruitcake?”
“I kind of like it,” he confessed.
At my mother’s the next day, we held a stressful family meeting with a palliative care doctor. Plans for the future, for I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay with her indefinitely, were put into motion. She stopped being able to eat, then to sleep. In the evening, after she went to bed but before she gave herself up to insomnia, I stood in the kitchen and watched my husband eat a slice of the fruitcake. “It’s really good,” he said. “Try some.”
I’m not sure if it was the anxiety, or the fact that I was pregnant and eating everything in sight, or the fact that Pauline is an amazing cook and baker, but that fruitcake was the best thing I had ever eaten, and I am not a person who ordinarily exaggerates about food. It was substantial without being heavy, sweet without being cloying, and rich without tasting overwhelmingly of booze. If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, I thought, chewing, it would be this fruitcake. Why has it taken me so long to discover it? I ate it for sustenance, weeping for my mother, every night until it was gone.
This year, at home in my own kitchen and armed with Pauline’s recipe, I candied my own clementine peels, steeped a pot of dried fruit in five kinds of liquor, and mixed a golden, buttery batter to pour over top of the lot. Today, after the obligatory five days of ripening, I tasted the cake. It was as good as I remembered it. It’s not quite the same as the first, but this year it doesn’t have to work as hard. I don’t need it to be miraculous. A whole wedge of it will go to that sherry-tippling old lady friend of my mother’s, to friends whose whole wedding cake was a fruitcake, to select uninitiated acquaintances who are about to eat the best thing they’ve ever tasted, but who don’t know it yet.
For Poetry Wednesday.