Christmas was my dad’s favorite time of year. My first memories of the holiday are that it lasted all month, and sometimes into the new year. We’d put up the tree early in December and wait until after New Year’s to take it down. I’m sure it made my mom crazy, because in the old days we went out to cut a “real” tree, and it must have shed needles for at least three weeks.
Dad put the lights on it first thing, then we kids trimmed it with all the glitter and glitz we could find, including the many decorations from three kids in elementary school. Lastly, Mom would carefully apply the tinsel then we’d plug in the lights and admire our handiwork. After all of us kids moved out and it got harder to find nice trees close to home, the folks got an imitation tree that could be decorated in 10 minutes flat. Dad never liked it.
Presents were important, but not the end all. It was shopping for them that Dad enjoyed, and hiding them, then throwing out hints to whet our anticipation. Every time he went to town he’d bring back something hidden behind his back. By Christmas Eve we kids would have searched the house top to bottom hoping for just a little peek.
One day would be designated for our Christmas shopping and the folks would take us to town to shop for each other and maybe a school friend or two. We’d take off in different directions and studiously ignore each other as we picked out books and puzzles, games and costume jewelry and the obligatory lilac-scented toilet water. At home we ran to our rooms to wrap our finds then placed them under the tree where they were constantly shaken, pinched and squeezed as we tried to guess what treasure each package contained.
Mom and Dad collected “oddball” friends, something I didn’t recognize until I was an adult and had collected a few of my own: distant cousins, high school buddies, itinerant workers, newcomers to town (stray cats, we kids called them later). At any given time, our table was surrounded with these eccentric personalities because “where else could they go?” But most enduringly, at Christmas our table sat not only family but a couple of World War II veterans who “don’t have a family” and who for whatever reason had adopted ours, warts and all. These two were such staunch familiars that the four younger brothers and sisters thought they were members of the family, which by then of course they were.
Dad made fudge to give to everyone. Good fudge. Not the stuff you make with a jar of marshmallow goo and a couple of tablespoons of cocoa. He grated squares of bitter chocolate over mounds of sugar, added cream and cooked it slowly in a heavy cast iron Dutch oven. He stirred it constantly until it bubbled and quietly boiled, eventually reaching soft ball stage, gauged by drops of the mixture into ice cold water. Then he poured the chocolate concoction over butter and vanilla in a big bowl and waited patiently for it to cool before beating it all together.
You’d think, because I can tell you how, that I make good fudge. Wrong! My dad was a “putterer.” He could make any 10-minute job last at least half an hour an hour on a good day. It takes that kind of patience to make good fudge. And of all the aspects of my personality that I tend to blame on my dad, patience is not among them. He enjoyed showing people how to make fudge, but when they went home, he’d say “it’ll sugar on him” or “her fudge won’t get hard” because he knew people as well as he knew his job. He realized that few would take the time to produce perfect candy. That’s why he gave away pounds and pounds of it each Christmas to friends and relatives.
This is our first Christmas without Dad and his fudge. I know that sometime in the next week my sisters (all four of them) will attempt to make “Dad’s fudge” (we practically have the recipe engraved on our brains). They’ll grate the chocolate; they’ll use a clean spoon each time they stir; they’ll pour it into a bowl to cool, but somewhere in the process they’ll get distracted and one of the multitude of things that can go wrong with fudge will because THEY didn’t get the patience gene either. Each one will roll her eyes toward the ceiling and whisper under her breath “Dammit, Dad, I followed your directions.” And he will grin down, eyes twinkling and answer “Patience is a virtue, Sis, that’s how you make good fudge.”
Merry Christmas and the best for the new year.
Virginia Walters is a writer who lives in Kenai.
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