The Last Fruitcake
Thanksgiving 1969 was destined to be a memorable one. Our country had reached the moon in July, my favorite brother had married in August, and though my dad had been in the hospital with pneumonia the week before the holiday, he’d been released on Monday. All six of my brothers and sisters, for the first time in years, would be home. My mother was elated.
At five a.m., the stuffed turkey had gone into the oven and coffee and rolls set out. It was cold that morning with snow in the forecast. The men and boys of the family traditionally put on their hunting coats and oiled their rifles to spend the early Thanksgiving morning traipsing in the woods. It was a small house, and Mom needed them out from underfoot.
Instead of joining the boys, Dad decided he was tired, and went back to my parents’ bedroom to lie down for a while.
By six a.m., the house smelled of comfort, coffee, and sage. The women of the family, including my new sister-in-law, my younger sisters, and me, at fourteen, stayed to put the over-the-top meal together. Even Grandma was due to come help, though she’d bring her yeast breads from her own kitchen.
At six-thirty, I got out of bed and dressed. The snow had started outside, and the kitchen emanated a warmth that was more appealing to me than sleeping in. My bedroom was catty-cornered across the hall from my parent’s, and as I left my room, I tiptoed. We weren’t a door closing family, and I could see my dad was still in bed. I didn’t want to wake him; his temper was nothing to begin a holiday with.
By seven, Mom was ready to work on the Fruit Cake. It wasn’t really fruit cake, but a kid-friendly version that we made every year.
Fall holidays call for spices, but Thanksgiving is busy enough. Start your alternative fruit cake with a boxed mix for Spice Cake. It doesn’t matter the brand. Mix according to directions, but add raisins, applesauce, and extra cinnamon to the batter. Toss in a teaspoon of good vanilla to take away that prepackaged flavor. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes in two nine-inch rounds. It’s ready when it springs to the touch. Cool completely.
While the cake baked, we visited with my new sister-in-law, who had lived a block away and graduated with my brother. They weren’t high school sweethearts–his nickname for her was Egghead, but they found each other after she finished college. We were good friends, and I’d been in her wedding.
When the cake is cool, assemble the décor. Dates, pecans, cashews—any nuts you like. Maraschino cherries, raisins, dried cranberries, and any other dried fruits or nuts you have available and enjoy. Do not use that awful citron stuff that makes regular fruitcake taste so bad. No liquor either!
I put the nuts, raisins, cherries and dates out in small dishes. My little sisters wanted to help, and there was no reason they couldn’t do the decorating. First, we had to frost the cake.
1 c packed brown sugar
½ c butter
⅓ c evaporated milk
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
Heat brown sugar, butter, and milk to boiling in two-quart saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Boil and stir for two minutes. Remove from heat, cool until slightly thickened, stirring occasionally, about ten minutes. Gradually stir in confectioner’s sugar with spoon. If necessary, stir in 1-3 tsp. water until frosting is smooth and spreadable.
8:45 Mom spread a thick layer of caramel frosting between the two cooled layers of spice cake, because it had to be done quickly. This frosting is sticky by design but will harden as it cools. When she finished, it was our job to cover the entire cake with the dried fruits and nuts we’d assembled.
Mom left us to the work. “Don’t leave any frosting showing,” she said. “it’s almost 9 o’clock. Time for your dad to get up. The house will be full of people by 11.”
She headed to their bedroom. The three of us dipped into the fruits and nuts, alternately placing and sampling. My favorites were the maraschino cherries, their sticky syrup melting on my tongue, the fruit yielding its candied texture when I bit down. Heaven. My sisters argued over the pecans and cashews.
Then we heard Mom scream.
Then saw her frantic run back to the kitchen, eyes wild.
Finally, “I can’t wake Daddy up.”
After that, the day melted into chaos and terror. Someone called the farm where the boys were hunting, to get them home. Someone called the ambulance. I clutched my sisters close; they had no idea what death meant. I really didn’t want them to see. I didn’t want to see.
The house filled with people. EMT’s, the coroner, Grandma and Grandpa, aunts, uncles. The boys found their way home, and if they’d bagged any game, they left it at the farm. The guns were cleaned and locked away. I don’t think any of them hunted again. I’m sure they never did on Thanksgiving.
As for that dinner, there were plenty of people around to finish the preparations, and even more around to eat it. The relatives tried to get Mom to eat, but I only remember her face drooping under the weight of what she faced going forward. She got old that day.
I began this piece as a bit of CNF for a memoir class and realized when writing it that not only had my mother grown old on the day described, I left childhood as well. The cake was something for the children, created by a mother who knew that children often feel set aside when it comes to holiday preparations. It was the time of being seen and not heard, but the world was awakening, and so was I. With my father’s death, the rest of my life began—I’m not sure people usually get such a definitive marker of that transition. The memory here felt –distant. G
Georgiana Nelsen was a poor, smart kid who had no real ambition beyond writing stories and baking perfect cookies, until good teachers pushed her to apply for scholarships and go to college. A college advisor explained that writers were too plentiful, and cookies were out of fashion. Since so many ambitious bright women had paved the way, she should go to law school. So, she did. After decades of practicing business law, she returned to words, and now bakes perfect cookies for her grandchildren. She writes all lengths of fiction. Her current projects include a Southern Gothic Novel-in-Flash and a contemporary thriller. Her fiction has appeared in Tiferet Journal, Bending Genres, Cheap Pop, Ellipsis Zine, the National Flash Flood, and others. Her work was longlisted in the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019 and the Bath Flash Fiction Award in 2021