Fruitcake

Turman Capote and I have a shared history.  We had loving spinster aunts as partners in fruitcake preparation.  When I taught a high-school course called the American Short Story, students’ reactions to the old-fogey ways Capote related in his A Christmas Memory were not ones of delight.  But I was thrilled to revisit my childhood.

It’s the time of year when I buy things at the grocery store that I would normally never allow past my lips.  Some candied fruit (I don’t even want to know how that is accomplished), a lot of sugar, butter, nuts, disposable baking pans.

This is a result of a lifelong habit of eating fruitcake at Christmastime.  My mother baked the dark fruitcakes for as long as I can remember.  She chopped all the fruit by hand, added nuts that either my grandmother or my Daddy had picked out of the shells, and that I had picked up from underneath the trees at home, and filled the house with a delightful smell including vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Mama made these cakes and gave them to family and friends.  Her gifts were generous, a full recipe baked in a tube cake pan.  They were huge!  Every year the search was on to find a store selling the round tins which would hold these 5-lb treasures.

Once I was grown, I became a recipient of the heavy gift in the tin.  Mama would always have ours ready to take home at Thanksgiving and we would savor the treat throughout the holidays.

Jim found a way to improve on Mama’s recipe.  We would remove her foil or waxed paper wrapping, substituting cheesecloth.  The cheesecloth would soak up the brandy Jim added and make the cake more moist.  Yes, that’s it, moist.  Once when Mama came to visit us at Christmas, I served dessert.  She remarked, “This is GOOD fruitcake.  Who made it?”  “I made it?  Are you sure?”  “Well, I don’t know.  This tastes much better than the one at my house.”  We never confessed the alteration.

Mama gave a cake to anyone who she thought would like them.  Only when I started following in her footsteps did I realize what a gift a fruitcake was.  The time, and expense, to bake these was no small matter.  A few years ago, a cousin said, “You know your Mama always made me a dark fruitcake at Christmas.  I always took it.  But I couldn’t stand those things.”  She lowers her voice when she uttered the words “dark fruitcake,” as it she were speaking of something evil.  Now that I think about it, I bet Mama realized Charlotte was unappreciative, but she was one of those people who would have been hurt had Mama not given her one.

I’ve found some shortcuts to Mama’s process.  I sometime buy nuts already shelled, and bake the concoction in small foil pans.  Once the cakes are cooled, they are ready to wrap for presentation to appreciative friends.  I know fruitcakes are the punch lines for many jokes, and I know we are all more conscious of our diets these days, but most reactions I get to the fruitcakes I share are of the “oh, I love this – it takes me back to Christmas of my childhood” type.  And when I take a plate of sliced fruitcake to social gatherings this time of year, it’s always emptied.

If your mouth is watering for a trip down memory lane, here is Mama’s recipe.

  • Mama’s Stirring Fruitcake
  • 1 lb candied cherries
  • ½ lb candied pineapple (white)
  • ½ lb candied pineapple (green)
  • 3 pts shelled nuts, coarsely chopped
  • ¼ lb raisins (⅔ cup)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ lb butter
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla flavoring
  • 2 teaspoons almond flavoring
  • 2 teaspoons cake spices
  • Cream butter and sugar, add eggs one at the time and beat well.  Add flour and spices and beat well.  Add fruit and nuts.  Pour into a large greased pan and place in 375 degree oven (note that she found 300 degrees in her oven to be better).  After baking 15 minutes, stir.  Do this a total of 3 times.  After 3rd time, pack in tube cake pan and bake 15 minutes longer.  Let stand in pan for 15 minutes before turning out.

My recipe notes:

I reduce the nuts to about 4 cups.

“cake spices” seem to be unavailable these days, so I use: 1 t. allspice, ½ t. nutmeg, and ½ t. cinnamon

I sometimes use 3” x 5” loaf pans to give as gifts.  This recipe fills five of those.  The plate pictured above the recipe shows one of those small loaf pans sliced.  So the whole recipe is five of those!

Note:  An internet search will yield numerous links to Truman Capote’s story, analyses of that work, and even audio files for your seasonal listening.  It’s worth the time.

Goats

Pa, he bought him a great big billy goat

Ma, she washed most every day

Hung her clothes out on the line

And that old goat, he’d come that way.

My Daddy didn’t sing a lot, but this song was one of his favorites.  I can hear his gravelly voice belting it out now, often at my request or a plea from any of his grandchildren.  I don’t recall my mother or my sister requesting it – it wasn’t refined enough for them.  Especially the part when the goat belched up that red flannel shirt and he flagged down that durned old freight.

The musical interlude might be followed by the story of Daddy’s experience with goat farming, or rather the decision to end that venture.  Something about a goat and a pond and repeated disciplinary action leaving the goat wet and calmer while Daddy was exhausted.

So fond memories might explain why I like to see goats in a pasture, have taken lots of photos of goats, and why they end up in quilts.

goat-challengeThe guild’s quilt challenge for 2013 required us to use small bits of fabric from Tess’s stash.  The Challenge Queen does this occasionally; requiring the use of what some might think of as uglies.  That certainly was the case for my envelope.  Yuck.  A red and black color combination was given to me, a calico and something else, 2” squares of each.  I tried several things that didn’t make my heart sing, but at some point  I remembered a pattern from Country Threads featuring pieced goats.

I found an assortment of farm and goat looking fabric, pieced three blocks, added a title, and used the ugly fabric as a couple of their kerchiefs.  The piece finishes at 24″ x 18″ and was freemotion quilted using cotton batting and cotton threads.

goat-showA well-dressed goat appears in 52 Tuesdays, too.  One of our visits to the Georgia National Fair in 2015 included attending a goat show.  I was intrigued by the goats awaiting their competition.  After being bathed, blown dry, and powdered, they were often wearing jackets so they stayed clean and sawdust free until their competition.  One wearing a leopard skin coat caught my eye and became the image for that week in the journal quilt.

And, once a goat appeared on the label of one of my quilts, Hartwell Commons.

The photo of the live goat, not in cloth (yet) was taken at the Jimmy Carter Boyhood Home national historic site near Plains, Ga.

Spinster Sisters

spinster-sistersNeither of them ever married.  This photo was taken sometime around 1912.  They were 18 and 15 at the time.  Within ten years, their mother would be confined to a wheelchair, their older sister would die in childbirth, leaving two young daughters to their care.

The family was rich in acreage, but World War I and the  boll weevil meant cash was in short supply, and these two women contributed financially to the household.

The older of the two earned teaching credentials, sometimes living with families in distant communities (ten miles from home) and sending money home.  The younger ran the household as the orphaned nieces and younger sister grew up.

They saw women get the right to vote, lived through the Great Depression, and World War II.  There were adventures, too:  travel with an eccentric millionaire, letters from faraway lands, and a barnstorming adventure.  Charles Lindberg did fly in Georgia, was he the pilot?

spinster-sisters-olderDuring WWII, the teacher was offered “script” as her paycheck (a promise for money from the state someday), so she traveled further to work in a naval ordinance plant.  The younger worked as a switchboard operator and in so doing, connected many families to news of their beloved ones.  She was the first in town to get the word that the war was over, running down the stairs of the downtown office to spread the news.

As they laid their parents to rest and saw their young charges grow up and establish lives of their own, they continued to hold their shares of the land together, hiring others to farm the land while they moved to town.  They lived together until the death of the younger from breast cancer at age 49.  A few years later, the older would face the same diagnosis, but her treatment would be successful.  She would live her life productively until the age of 91.

These women were a big part of my childhood.  From them I learned that life is to be lived fully and to be enjoyed on a daily basis.  It may be hard to meet responsibilities in front of you, but complaints don’t help; just get the job done with a smile on your face.

Because of them, I am not surprised to read the ‘revelation’ that spinster does not have to be a derogatory term.  In the later Middle Ages, the term spinster was first used.  Then, it denoted a person who spins yarn and therefore has a marketable skill.   Memories of these sisters convey the modern interpretation of” a woman who can live independently and doesn’t need a man to be happy.”

spinster-sisters-backDetails of quilt:  A vintage photo (circa 1912) of two unmarried sisters was printed on a remnant of a vintage linen tablecloth.  Hand-guided, free-motion machine quilting was used to add detail, lace collars and beading were added with hand stitching.  The linen background for the photo was attached to a vintage linen log cabin quilt made from silk.  A vintage cotton doily was used for the label.

Hand stitching on the piece was completed while demonstrating work at the Georgia National Fair.  The quilt finishes at 16” x 20”.

Backroads

country storeHow long has it been since you saw a young lad execute a backflip from a wooden platform into the river below?

My answer to that question is “a few hours.”

On a day trip to Warm Springs, we took a route we’d not followed before.  All routes there are backroads, but most are some we’ve traveled many times.  A new path holds wonder.  With a favorite remark my driver likes to make, “this time and one more will make twice I’ve been on this road,” we were off on a new adventure.

Taking grandsons on a historic field trip, we saw numerous churches and cemeteries, a small community populated with an old store, schoolhouse, and church, all white buildings wearing red roofs.  We found two small towns filled with antique shops, a delightful restaurant with homemade bread, hamburgers topped with pimento cheese, and met a Corgi named Macon.

At the Little White House museum, I learned more about barkcloth than I ever realized I didn’t know.  Someone gave FDR a gift of beautiful yardage of tapa, and the story led me to new details about one of my favorite fabrics.  Who knew I would learn fabric history on this adventure?

It was on the way home that we saw him.  As we crossed a bridge over the Flint River, we saw the jump.  We were too high to see how cleanly he made his entrance into the water.

It doesn’t matter.  He had all afternoon to perfect his form.

We had had our moment.  A glimpse, memories triggered, stories to share.  Time travel.

Porch Swings

porch swingWhen I was a little girl, I loved to take a book and an old quilt and head for the swing in our backyard.  While there, I traveled to faraway lands and met some interesting characters.  Though there were plenty of interesting characters in Sycamore, the people I met in the pages of library books took me on journeys through forests, big cities, and westward. (I’m remembering, Girl of the Limberlost, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Jubilee Trail, all books I read several times over).

When I heard Meryl Streep deliver the line, “I’ve been a mental traveler,” in her role as Isak Dinesen in Out of Africa, I identified completely.  I devoured so many library books, especially in the summer reading program, that I worried about what I would do when I had read all the books.  My husband and children were amused by this revelation until they saw the tiny building that had housed my childhood world of literature.

Now I no longer fear reading all the books.  I fear not having time to read all the wonderful stories I want to read.  I fear not remembering which titles I have read.  I fear wasting time reading bad writing.

I do appreciate instant access to, if not all the books, many more books than I can read, in the palm of my hand.  Yes, I love my shelves of books, I love visiting the public library (I spent some time there yesterday) but I also love reading on my iPad.  I can browse new titles, read reviews, perhaps check out the author’s website, and download sample pages or an entire book without ever leaving home.

Sunday afternoon was cool enough to spend quite a while in the swing.  With the overhead fan adding to the natural breeze, and the sound of the sprinkler and the occasional bird calling in the background, I was transported to dreamland.  I was reading, then dozing.  But in the half-here/half-there consciousness for which Sunday afternoons are famous, I realized that I was living a dream.  In a swing.  On my front porch.  On a summer afternoon.  With a breeze, a book, and a lawn sprinkler.

Simple pleasures are the best.

Dimestore

Sandy1969

Lee Smith is one of my favorite Southern writers.  I just bought her memoir and can’t wait to start reading it.  I love her writing, I love memoirs, I love the South.  So I know it will be a treasured experience to read her story.  More than that, the title suggests that I might identify with some of her experiences.

My first job as a teenager was in a dimestore.  Oh, I had earned money at home for various special chores.  Like Truman Capote, I picked up pecans in the fall of the year. (Some grammarians would rather read that I gathered pecans, but that’s not what we said in Sycamore. Furthermore, as you read it, think pea-cans, to get the sound of the word right in your mind.)  If you’ve ever read his “A Christmas Memory,” you can get an idea of the experience of fruitcake baking that took place at our house.  I even had a spinster aunt to guide me as Capote did.

And, there was a day picking cotton (probably a couple of hours) at Uncle Hal’s field, and a day in the tobacco barn (also Uncle Hal’s).  My Daddy had given up farming for building by the time I was born, but he realized the experience of field labor would be soon forgotten and that I should have those memories.  He was right on both counts.  Of course.

Oh, my job at the dimestore.

The year I turned fifteen, I was eligible to get a work permit and get a job.  My mother took me to the school superintendent’s office to complete the appropriate paperwork.  I recall Mr. Royal counseling me that, “this should not interfere with your schoolwork, of course.”  Well, of course; it wouldn’t.  I was the class nerd before nerd was a word.  Nothing came before my schoolwork.

But now I was legal.  On Saturdays, I reported to Elrod’s Five and Dime on Main Street in Ashburn.  I guess I worked from 9:00 until 5:00, I don’t recall the exact hours.  I do recall the pay.  It was $5.00 and change.  Literally.  Cash.  In a small manila envelope.

There were three of us teenagers working; the manager, and another adult full-time employee.  Carl lifted all the heavy boxes, swept the oiled wood floors with sweeping compound, and helped with serving customers.  Carolyn and I offered assistance to customers, kept shelves filled with reserves from beneath the old wooden counters, and watched for shoplifters.

Saturday was a busy day; there wasn’t much time for small talk,  But, in the quiet times, I learned to bond with co-workers.  We did not know each other so had nothing in common other than this experience.  We learned from our customers, too.  A wide range of society came through those doors, and the dimestore sold everything from toys to tools.  There were clothing items for children and underwear for adults.  The first time a customer asked for “step-ins,”  I replied that we didn’t carry those.  Carolyn had to translate for me.  Oh.  I taught her the difference in a wrench and screwdriver.

We sold bulk candy, learning to scoop from the bins and weigh on a scale now sold in antique stores.  We mixed the sticky syrup that went into making “slushies” when they were new.  Dare I say that we did not wash our hands frequently, and there were no plastic gloves?  It was a simpler time.

We wrapped Christmas packages with the stern manager watching over our shoulder to ensure that the paper didn’t overlap too much and that we didn’t use too much scotch tape.  The paper was quite thin, and tearing it was wasteful, too, so we learned to be fast and careful and frugal.  There were no boxes or gift bags, so some oddly shaped packages required some creative thinking. The paper curling ribbon was final flourish.  Today, even though I have wired ribbon on hand to decorate my packages, I keep some paper curling ribbon on hand.

I worked at Elrod’s on Saturdays, some weekdays in the summer, and during Christmas holidays for the last three years of high school.  In the last year, the business relocated to a more modern building.  I guess it was more comfortable; being air-conditioned and having slick tile floors.  But it never seemed the same.  The old building, the theatre next door, and the railroad track across the street were all part of the ambiance.  That theatre sold the world’s greatest french fries.  To this day, if I am served extraordinarily good, greasy, salty fries made from freshly sliced potatoes, I remember the ones Carl would go get for all of us at mealtime.

Now I guess it’s time to travel down Lee Smith’s memory lane with her Dimestore.

Photo:  If Carl, Carolyn, and I were working teens these days, we would have numerous group selfies, I’m sure.  But the best I can do here is a blurry scanned image of myself during those years.  Yes, I made the dress.

Street Photography

street photo TEGWatching some YouTube videos on the art of photography led me down a rabbit hole.  I’ve fallen into the world of street photography, past and present.

My photographer husband and I started out looking at videos on focusing technique with various cameras and lenses.  We viewed first one, then the other online tutorial with a master, and ended up exploring a lot of street photography.  Wikipedia confirmed my notion that today’s street photographer makes art using his camera lens to capture images of life.  People going about their daily lives, or a combination of line and light,  might be all it takes to record a thought-provoking image that transforms the viewer.

But I recalled evidence of street photography of a different sort in our drawers and boxes of old photos.  Every family probably can find images like these I’ve included of family and friends. Black and white images printed on heavyweight professional paper; all of ours measure 4” x 6”.

street photo with dogIn the 1930’s, ‘40’s and maybe into the ’50’s, studio photographers could be found snapping photos of people on city streets.  I wondered if there was some forerunner of Polaroids that allowed instant printing of the image, but a bit of research said that was not the case.  These photographers were sometimes hired by big department stores, but more often were from local portrait studios.  The candids were taken and a business card was given to the subject. The hope was that a visit to the studio to collect the photo would result in more portrait appointments.

street photo Jim & ConnorI am thoroughly intrigued by the notion of both kinds of street photography.  Just what I need; another hobby.  But, the memories of the old images we have led to the discovery of some newer ones we have made already and I’m already incorporating one into an art quilt.  Oh, my, what have I started?

Photos:  black and white images are Jim’s Dad, Edwin Gilreath in Atlanta, and family friends somewhere I don’t know.  The color image is one I shot of two guys on their way to watch a bicycle race in downtown Macon, GA, in 2006.

Father’s Day Singing

Mama Daddy & me 1952My Daddy was a church-going man; an old-line, foot-washing Primitive Baptist.  Most Sundays (and some Saturdays) were spent going to one of the churches in our regular rotation.  Each church held services only one weekend per month, having a service and conference on Saturday, just worship on Sunday.

The third Sunday of the month was not the weekend for “his” church, the one where he was a member and church clerk, so we often visited different churches on that weekend.  Sometimes on the third Sunday in June, Father’s Day, we would go to Damascus Methodist Church in the community where locals would gather for a gospel sing.  Gospel groups from all around the area would come and sing.  There would be a mix of congregational singing, too.

It was always a memorable day with friends and relatives and friends of friends and friends of relatives coming in and out and visiting and listening to great harmony.  It was especially joyous for me and my mother if the Oakes Family came to sing.  L.A. Oakes was Mama’s first cousin.  He and his wife sang beautifully and were joined by other strong voices over the years.  It was always a thrill to hear them and to visit with them.  And to tell people, “I’m related to them.”

Some of these groups were accompanied on a piano, but never any other instrument.  And some of them sang a cappella.  We were accustomed to that.  Primitive Baptists do not use musical instruments in their song service, so the pure harmony of humble voices sounds more heavenly to me than any other.  Nonetheless, a good gospel quartet with an ivory-pounding accompanist thrilled me, too.

I miss being with my Daddy on Father’s Day and every day, for that matter.  I know the image our culture has portrayed of Heaven includes harps.  But for the corner of Heaven where my parents are now, I hope there is some good, soul-stirring, a cappella harmony being lifted today.

Mother’s Day Memories

Cleo 1951On this Hallmark day when so many people feel guilty if they don’t visit their mothers, or buy them flowers, or take them out to eat with 40,000 of their closest friends waiting in line to eat at a restaurant, I’m thinking of calmer Mother’s Days.

When I was growing up, we observed the holiday with a gift for the Mothers in our lives.  Sometimes, I bought my mother something. My Daddy would take me shopping to select something for her.  I cringe when I remember some of the choices I made – but she displayed the horrible treasure anyway.  And, I still have a ragged sheet of paper on which I wrote her a poem.  I think I was about ten years old at the time.  I recall hiding in the closet to secretly write it when I was supposed to be vacuuming the house.  She scolded me for dawdling at my task, but all was forgiven when she read the poem on Sunday morning.  I found it in her belongings after her death 46 years later and it’s tattered state leads me to believe she read it and reread it a few times.

We always wore corsages to church on Mother’s Day.  The only time I recall Mama spending money at the florist was for a funeral, or for Mother’s Day.  Mama wore a white corsage (because her mother was dead, she explained; none of this “passed away” language at our house) and I wore a red carnation.  We always bought an orchid for Aunt Nellie (the spinster great-aunt who lived next door and who had “raised” Mama after she was orphaned at the age of four.  “Orphaned” was Mama’s word, too.)  I was a bit perplexed because the orchid wasn’t exactly white, but in Mama’s world, it worked.  Since Aunt Nellie attended a different church from ours, we made a visit to her house on that Sunday morning to pin on her corsage before her departure.

When Granny (my paternal grandmother, Ollie Jane) lived with us, she wore a white corsage to church, too.  Now that I think of this, I realize how important that corsage was to my mother – and I wonder, did I take care of that EVERY year after I left home?  I know I did if I was there to visit and go to church with them on that day, and I do recall phoning the florist in our hometown and having a corsage delivered some years.  I hope I didn’t forget any time, but I know if I did, I was forgiven.

There were occasions when I couldn’t get home for Mother’s Day.  I remember Mama saying, “It doesn’t matter to me.  Any day you come visit can be Mother’s Day.  It doesn’t have to be when everyone else thinks it is.”  I still felt guilty about it, though.

Now that I’m a mother, I do understand.  Sometimes other things come up.  The last thing I want my children to feel on Mother’s Day (or any day) is guilt if they have lives to live.  I know they love me.  And, any day they visit is Mother’s Day to me!

The photo is of my mother in 1951, the year I was born.  The photo was taken by her father, a professional portrait photographer, and was hand tinted by her sister.