I've decided to make Meme's fudge this holiday season. She's been gone for six years in January, though dementia took her from us many years before that. Still, not a Christmas has gone by in all of my life when someone hasn't made this fudge. It's tradition, and it's important. And it just isn't Christmas without a square of this in my hands.
For as long as she was in her home, and as long as I had been alive, we travelled the few hours to Meme and Grampie's house where we'd have "Christmas Eve" and "Christmas morning" - usually, on a chosen day that wasn't actually the 24th and the 25th, but rather one that allowed for all the cousins and aunts and uncles to gather while still having our own Christmas at home. But the truth - that I don't think any of us would argue with - was that Christmas at Meme and Grampie's was the real Christmas. With a precious closet in her old farmhouse (I know how rare those closets are) stuffed to brim with christmas decorations, she'd spend all of October, November and December decorating her house. Every square inch of her house, I kid you not, the woman had calloused fingers from all the thumbtacks so that she could barely use her hands (important for a hairdresser, no?) by the time Christmas arrived. It was magical as a child, driving over the country hills that always had more snow than we did in the Southern part of the state, all of my sisters and I leaning forward and out the windows so eager to be the first to say, "I see the house!" first, and then spilling out of the car and into her house - and her arms - just as fast as we could.
The party that ensued shortly after our arrival was nothing short of grand. Lit up with decorations, good food and music, in the middle of the woods of Western Maine, the house slowly started to fill. Cousins, aunts, uncles, great uncles and aunts, cousins first and second removed and those that we always needed reminding on just how it was that we were related. Or were we? Were they just a part of the merry band of people my grandmother loved, adored, and took into her warm heart and home? There were so many of those - it was a full house. The evening party was a fancy one, a dress that we'd have chosen months earlier would be worn, with ruffle tights and patent leather shoes (and even, somehow, in the years of a shaved head with a few extra piercings and clothing that she said nothing about but that I knew she very much disliked, I'd manage to contrast it with something satin and shiny, with proper nylons of course, because bare legs would just not be proper. Just for Meme.). A fan of theatre and theatrics, and certainly a lover of a good party and show, my grandmother would gather all the children she could rope into it (which was everyone, a gentle and sneaky persuader she was) and hand out the nativity costumes she had on hand that year - sometimes blue velvet tablecloths with a whole lot of safety pins, and sometimes "real" costumes that she had borrowed from the church. She would ask all of her guests to sit as she lit the advent candles, and read from the book of Matthew. We marched into our assigned and rehearsed places in front of the tree and around the manger, where the youngest baby would be placed (or a cabbage patch doll, in a pinch). The whole thing was equally ridiculous....and beautiful. Later, with no new babies to place in the manger, and all the teenaged cousins tiring and getting just a bit embarrassed of playing Mary and Joseph in the tablecloths, she adapted the show and invited us all to play an instrument or sing, or read passages and light the candles ourselves. And so we did, squeaking out whatever carol or hymn we had learned on our new instrument, she beaming all the while. The party would resume with more merriment to follow - Aunt Cyndi playing the piano, cousins Douglas and Leanne singing beautiful and reaching all those notes that I could only dream of, but certainly tried to - right at their side - because it just felt so good to be there.
The crowd slowly left that evening, with just the immediate gaggle of cousins and aunts and uncles staying behind for our fake (but real) Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. So many traditions and memories exist from those nights and mornings. So many formative and hugely important moments that taught me everything I believe so deeply about family, love, and celebration. But I fear I'm wandering down a long rambling path this morning that might just bore you to tears (and I have wrapping to do today, and surely you do too!), so let me bring it back to the fudge. Each year, Meme made fudge - her special fudge - that appeared in everyone's stockings the following morning. She'd hide it right up until the very last second, with all of us searching for it until that moment. And then, there were threats of stealing the fudge, deals and trades made, and a whole lot of chatter about this fudge. Here's a funny thing about all of that. Meme, bless her, magical woman that she was, was no cook. Ah! But it's true, and I have to believe she'd be the first to admit it too. And that fudge - I don't even remember really liking it all that much. There! I said it. But did I fight for it and talk about it just as much as the rest? Of course. It was tradition, and oh we all loved her so (and who doesn't mind a big bite of sugar, anyway?).
Thankfully, Meme wrote down her fudge recipe, and someone has been making it every year since she stopped doing so. It's a simple one, the recipe, yet I haven't given it a try yet myself. This year, I asked my sister to send it to me. I wasn't expecting what came through by text, but there was Meme's handwriting on a piece of paper (scanned and digitally sent, of course). Handwriting. Just like the slight hint of Chanel No. 5 (or Old Spice for my Grampie), the sight of her handwritten words brought her right to me. It's amazing what that can do, isn't it? Something so evocative of someone who is no longer with us, but then suddenly is for a moment. What a gift. It helped make me feel as though she was there with me, in my kitchen for a few moments, as I wrapped her apron around my waist. The recipe is written in the same style as my mother texts (but it's true, Mom). This is not to blame on Meme's dementia, as this was written before all of that. It is simply how she wrote it. Key steps are missing. There's an extra ingredient that you're never told what to do with. And her measurements are those that only would apply to her kitchen and her own pots and pans. It was a bit of a mystery and now I see why everyone who has tried it since she passed has ended up with very different results. But I've done enough baking and cooking on my own that I was able to piece it together without too much trouble (though it required a run to the store for more sugar, because four cups of sugar in one recipe might just break a record, goodness!). We've sampled it, and I think it's pretty good. Currently, it's in the fridge, but later today I'll take it out, cut it up and wrap them into pieces for this weekend - one piece for every one of Meme's people.
You might not be surprised to know that for a few years now, I've taken over the hosting duties for this family party, the one Meme used to host. It isn't quite as grand as it used to be, and it isn't a sleepover anymore. But there will be little cousins wearing their Christmas finest in an old crooked farmhouse in Western Maine. There will be stockings, and Aunt Cyndi will play the piano as we will all do our best to reach those highest notes. There will be mimosas, just as Meme would have had. And, of course, there will be fudge.
(1979 or so. Just how I remember it - lots of running around, advent candles, patent leather, and a whole lot of love from her.)
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Friends, I wish you the merriest of moments in the days to come - full of all the sweetness and joy that comes from gathering with those you love!