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There's a little bit of fruitcake left in everyone of us

If my mother had been born in Hollywood, she could have easily been a movie star. I could picture her as a teenager with her long black hair dancing around her shoulders and her long legs dangling as she swayed to some 1949 hit as she sat on a stool in some corner malt shop. I could see her playfully nursing some chocolate shake as a movie producer spotted her across the room and noticed her potential to be a star.

Instead, she was born in St. Vincent’s, St. Mary’s Bay where she was sent out at fourteen years old to a family in St. John’s to become their maid. She never talked much about the experience but every now and again she would drop a story about how hard it was to wash the clothes for five children in the old wringer washer machine and how the Lye soap burned her hands.

Her life was far from that of a Hollywood actress. She didn’t smoke or drink, and she seemed to exist solely on tea and toast. She survived an abusive marriage and was left with ten children to care for. Her family told her, ‘You made your bed, now lay in it.’ There were no reinforcements coming to help. She put her shoulder to the grindstone and pushed. With the help of the Roman Catholic Church, she was able to buy a four story, hundred-year-old house on Freshwater Road.

The top flat was filled to the rafters with boarders. We referred to them as ‘Mom’s stray cats.’ She took in anyone with a hard-luck story. It paid the bills and solving their problems became her nightly chore. She did not believe that there were throw away people. When ever she spotted someone who was down on their luck, she would stop to talk to them much to our great embarrassment. She would say, “They weren’t born that way. Somebody did something that made them turn out like that.”

Everyone with a sob story knew they could get a hot meal, a cup of tea and a bed for the night at Mrs. Cleary’s Boarding House. She never charged for tea or food and there was always a pot of something on her oil stove and the kettle boiled.

I remember one Christmas Eve in particular, a huge Newfoundland storm had closed the city. The snow on the roads was up to my knees. A city bus was tearing its guts out trying to get up Freshwater Road, but it hit a white out by Cook Street and grinded to a halt. Mom and I watched from the living room window. The bus driver and several passengers got off and made attempts to push and pull to no avail. Only a tow truck would be able to move it.

My mother watched from the front door and waved to the driver to come over. Which was an amazing thing. My mother had anxiety and panic attacks long before they were in vogue and hardly left the house. She seemed to get over her shyness whenever she spotted someone in need.

The driver came over and asked to use the phone. She invited him in and then invited the whole bus load of people in. About twenty or so people of all ages piled into our hallway. Boots and coats were stacked up everywhere.

They were in luck.

You can smell my mother’s kitchen from the front doorstep and probably well down the road. Especially if she was baking. Which she had spent days doing.

The strangers piled in to the kitchen wherever they could fit. My mother line up cups and saucers and a box of Tetley Tea (she saved the Red Rose for the boarders). She took the top off a pot of pea soup simmering on the stove and dealt out a spoon and bowl to each person.

She was like an orchestra conductor waving her arms around, giving directions, finding places to sit, directing people to the bathroom. Our kitchen had turned into Grand Central Station.

Her kitchen itself was nothing special. Handmade wooden cabinets lined the walls with laminate countertops, floral canvas covered the floor, and it had one wide window that looked out on a small muddy yard and into the neighbour’s kitchen. There was an antique wooden table in the center that had come from ‘up home.’ She reached in under the table and pulled out the two leaves that were tucked into secret pockets underneath and only extended for occasions or company. Six wooden well-worn captains’ chairs surrounded it. A small sideboard lovingly displayed her blue and white Willow dishes that were also only used for occasions or company. She opened the doors to it and pulled out her finest for these Christmas strangers.

She had cut the pine wainscotting around the kitchen walls herself on the back doorstep that past summer and bought the striped wallpaper above it from Templeman’s on Water Street. I was with her when she bought it and for some reason, she was quite proud of where it came from. She told everyone who admired it that it ‘came from Templeman’s on Water Street,’ with a slight old fashioned Newfoundland pre-confederation British accent.

She had stayed up one night a few weeks before Christmas baking fruitcakes. Although I never understood why because I don’t think anyone of us liked fruitcake.

If I did not get in the way, she would let me stay up late to watch and learn, even though I had no interest and just wanted to stay up late to spend time with her. At this point in our lives, it was only myself, my mother, two brothers and a fourth floor full of boarders. Everyone else had married or just moved away.

She would say things like, ‘A fruitcake should be rich and moist. It should be so heavy so you can barely lift it off the table.” All good advice that I would not need for another fifty years.

“If the fruitcake is not heavy people will know you skimped on the ingredients.” It was her way of saying; they’ll know we are poor.

It took hours to make these cakes. I did not mind because she would let me have tea and gingerbread cookies while I watched. She would turn the radio up and hum along to the Christmas carols telling me stories about Christmas back in St. Vincent’s when she was my age. She always talked about her childhood with such fond memories especially when she referred to her father, whom she adored.

I would watch her knead the dough on top of our old wooden kitchen table with the wobbly leg and they would begin a dance that turned into this thick dark brown concoction that drooped into well greased medal pans.

“People think that because the ingredients are dried, it doesn’t matter how old they are.” She leaned across the table and lowered her voice, “Sharon next door is using left over dried fruit from last year. You’ll tell the difference.”

I doubt if I could, even today.

“This one’s for Aunt Vera, she loves a little extra dried fruit in hers,” and she would take a handful of coloured, candied fruit and swirl it around in the batter. “Aunt Liz likes hers traditional. Nothing extra and nothing new.”

Every cake had a name attached to it.

The oven in our old oil stove could heat the whole kitchen when she opened the door. She took the damper hook off a nail on the wall and checked to make sure it was good and lit. Then announced, “It’s ready.” The cakes would be neatly piled into the oven and within minutes it seemed like the whole street smelled like dried fruit and spices. Or as she would say, “It smells like Christmas.”

It would be well after midnight when she finally took them out of the oven but that would not be the end of it. Just the beginning. Making fruit cakes would be a week-long project. Once they cooled, she would wrap them in parchment paper and root out the bottle of rum she had hid in the back of the cleaning closet in the hallway. Then douse the cakes with it.

I hated the stark smell of the alcohol and how it stung my nostrils or burned a hole in my stomach when I tasted the cake. “The rum preserves the cake,” she would tell me, “The ingredients cost a lot of money and you can’t let the cake go bad. The rum will keep it fresh for years.”

Years later I used her recipe for the first time. It took me nine hours to make the cake. The ingredients alone cost almost two hundred dollars. After it cooled, I wrapped it as she taught me and poured a whole bottle of rum over it, much to my husband’s great annoyance.

No one ate it. It became a centerpiece over Christmas and a paperweight after the decorations were put away. I kept it on the countertop just to see how long it would last. When we came back from Florida that May, my husband demanded that I throw it out.

It was hard to let it go.

“Are they ready?” I would ask her as soon as I threw my bookbag in the front hall.

“Yes,” she finally said. She would carefully pull the parchment paper off and place them on a silver tinfoil covered carboard disk. Each cut perfectly for each cake. “It can’t just taste right. It must look good too.”

She would decorate each one with green peppermint leaves, and candied cherries, which I would sneak a taste of every time she looked away. “No one will eat the cake if it doesn’t look good.”

She would lift each cake with both hands and let me slip the cellophane wrapping underneath. Then she would gather it all up and tie it together with a big Christmas bow.

Each cake would be proudly displayed on the countertop with the name of the receiver attached to it. A light and a dark cake would be displayed on matching glass cake platters and only cut when people were coming. It would be cut into small pieces and placed next to the blue and white Willow dishes.

The bus driver asked her about the ‘lovely fruit cakes’ on the counter. She happily sliced it up and dealt it out to everyone along with their tea. It was an impromptu Christmas party that went on for hours. Eventually the tow truck showed up along with another bus and the people put on their boots and coats and left leaving behind well wishes and promises to drop in another time. A few did drop back gifts of candy and cookies and other treats.

My mother accepted her lot in life and carried on as her generation does. Never making a fuss about anything.

Every Christmas she happily and loving made her fruitcakes just as every day she collected the lost souls in the neighbourhood. Never judging just ‘living like Jesus’ she would say.

Looking back, I think the fruitcakes were the only thing in her life that she truly controlled.

To this day when I run into people who knew her, they rave about her fruitcakes. At her funeral an elderly woman took me by the elbow and said, “Your mother made the best fruitcakes.”

In reflection, I think everyone who lived in Mrs. Cleary’s Boarding House was a fruitcake. The nuts, the glazed cherries, the dried prunes, the chopped dates the dark and golden raisins, the currents and yes there is a difference between raisins and currents.

All mixed together lovingly, nurtured, cared for, made presentable. So, no one would judge them wrongly. So, no one would think they were poor.

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