The autumn chill bit into the house deep enough that Mimmaw threw two quilts on my bed at night. She and Papaw slept closer to the kitchen, where the heat of supper lingered a few hours more. There was nothing more reassuring than Mimmaw’s nighttime reminder that the Lord loved clean, sweet-smelling children. To go to bed without washing was bad as cursing His name, she’d say, and this close to His birthday would make it twice as bad. Besides, tomorrow was Christmas Cake day.
All night I pitched and rolled and flung the quilts, fired up with excitement one minute, cold the next. Of all the grandchildren, Papaw said I was the one that chose the best times to spend the night. He was the kindest man I ever knew, a giant of a person and gentle as a new calf. The two had already—perhaps unwittingly—shaped my notions of what goodness and love meant.
Come morning, I sprang from bed in anticipation of pancakes and a slab of honey ham that Mimmaw seared just enough to draw out the best flavors. Papaw was the first one up, though, lighting the gas heaters to back off the night chill. We settled around the table just in time to watch the sun peek through the case windows Papaw installed at the last minute when he had built the house. Even on cloudy days, the view was pleasant, something for every season: apricot and plum trees, holly bush, cape-jasmine that threw off sweet scents with the least puff, and pecan trees that offered up my favorite ingredient in Mimmaw’s Christmas Cake.
Papaw left early on his long walk to the paper mill, a metal lunchbox in hand containing leftover pork cutlets and hot water bread. I wondered if he knew when he set out that it was baking day, but secretly I wanted him to be surprised when he returned home to find the counter full of golden delights steeping in sweet spices.
Our first order of business was the cake pans stacked away in a bottom cabinet, items that saw daylight but once a year. “My special memory cabinet,” Mimmaw called it. There were other holiday-shaped items, too, but the Christmas pans meant the most, even with their nicks and streaks and baked-on age spots. “Like the twelve apostles,” Mimmaw smiled, lining them up in rows. “A special number,” she added, with a far away look. While I did not know what she meant at the time, I could tell by the way she smiled and shook her head that she was feeling warm and proud.
My first job was to smear butter evenly over each pan’s surface—not too much. Mimmaw pulled out her enormous pressure cooker—big enough for a turkey—and placed it in the center of the Formica dining table, where she would work her magic to conjure heavenly confections with my helping hands. Ingredients included sugar and salt, flour and butter, and small vials of red and brown and golden spices that charged the air with holiday spirit.
Mimmaw always started by cracking the eggs. “Three dozen this year,” she announced. “An extra three for little Lonnie’s first cake. Number twelve! Now ain’t that a blessfull number?” Mimmaw was a big believer in signs and messages. That’s the way she felt about the Christmas Cakes—each one representing hope.
Next, we added twelve sticks of butter—I was also in charge of keeping track of numbers. Once we got the eggs and butter whipped to a belching froth—done entirely by hand—it was time to add the sugars. “Brown sugar,” Mimmaw, told me, “keeps the cake good and moist. But white sugar … is strictly for sweetness.” Any way we looked at it, it took a lot more muscle to stir now than it had before.
“It’s a shame we can’t use my mix-master,” Mimmaw said, mopping her forehead, “but we’d be three days making them one by one.” She let out another giggle. “Besides, it’s like having the whole family here in my big pot for a while.” We both laughed at that. I kept seeing family faces in the batter’s sheen.
Once whipped and sweetened to a sin, the next order of business was getting the flour, soda and baking powder all double sifted and mixed into the concoction. This was the hardest part, and we each took turns beating the batter into submission with a big wooden paddle. While I stirred, Mimmaw trickled in secret amounts of vanilla and lemon zest, followed by cinnamon and other exotic spices from little vials till the aroma set my tongue on point again. This all took a while, what with stopping to sample it for imperfection.
The final ingredients were my favorites—pecan and walnuts and cherries. Before we ever broke the first egg, we had cracked and sorted nut meats into separate bowls—twelve pecans and twelve walnuts for each cake, no more, no less. The only other ingredient was the maraschino cherries which everyone loved so much. Mimmaw threw in a few extra—to grow on. Her family had been raised on Christmas Cake, and new members just took right to it. Besides, fruitcakes called for liquor and Mimmaw would never allow that past her threshold.
One last scrape around the pot and it was baking time. The twelve pans were lined up fairly volunteering to pop themselves into the oven. Mimmaw had picked out the pans carefully to fit her oven—four to a baking. Once we got the first batch all snuggled in, the remaining batter set patiently in the refrigerator for its turn. I was assigned to finger-sample occasionally to be sure it hadn’t gone flat, a job I performed with great diligence.
In the meantime, Mimmaw was free to visit with Miss Suzie on the phone and get her daily reports. I secretly imagined the woman could smell our cakes right through the receiver, before Mimmaw announced to her it was Christmas Cake day. She held her smile a long while, lost contentedly in harmless gossip. We whiled away a pleasant afternoon sniffing and sampling and plying the oven with batter yet to be magically transformed. Thoughts of Christmas filled our hearts.
When Papaw arrived, the only evidence remaining of our glorious enterprise was an assemblage of golden circles all neatly arranged, just waiting to be stored in holiday tins. Elfin-like, the pans and bowls and utensils had all been washed and dried and spirited back to their places. And there was Mimmaw, still at the stove, bringing gravy to a boil for chicken and potatoes she’d managed to prepare, along with a pot of butter beans she grew last summer. It came together effortlessly. It always did. Papaw thumped me on the head, like checking a melon ripeness, and threw me a wink.
Outside, the sky had darkened early, signs of the settling cold and the long gray days ahead. But inside, in the warmth and light of 605 McCaskle Street, the season held all the radiance and hope of a spring day. I could not—and cannot—think of a warmer moment to recall.
Dixon Hearne is a West Monroe native who now lives in Sterlington.