Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Fruitcake

"A hungry stomach cannot hear."  --Jean De La Fontaine

The Fruitcake
The noble cake filled with fruit has a special place in my memory. It has a spot of such honor that I hold this humble, and often maligned, item of food in high esteem. The stories of the cake that is sent from family to family each year because it is unappreciated and thought worthless as a gift do not cause me to smile. I frown at the notion that a blessing such as this should be looked upon with such disdain as a nuisance. For it was a fruitcake that saw me through a lean November day when I was but a young married parson.
            Fruitcake humbles me. It reminds me of my pride and of my imagined sniveling self-sufficiency. The sniveling isn't imagined, but the self-sufficiency is. I had it in my mind that I was a man able to meet the needs of myself and my family. To be in such a financial strain at such an early age was probably the normal course for other young men. But I had been taught that once one departs his father's house, he is not to return except to visit.
At the time I was living some distance from those who had provided free room and board for all of my early years. I could not simply jump in the car and head for the nearest relative. That would have required gas, and money for gas I did not have, for I had no money for food. The bills had been paid, but cupboard and refrigerator were as poverty stricken as I had ever seen them. Yep, I was too proud to ask for a handout.
            There were two gallons of milk in the icebox. And the only bit of food in the house except for a box of noodles was a fruitcake we had shoved toward the back of one of the cabinets. We had almost forgotten about it. Someone had bequeathed it as a present. It looked extremely familiar. Was that the same fruitcake we gave to my in-laws two Christmases ago? Surely not. My checkbook barely had enough balance to pay for the service charge. It would be five more days 'til payday.
            The thought of fruitcake rarely entered my head. When I did think of it, bad memories flooded my mind. As a lad of three or four I had eaten too much fruitcake at aunt Benna's house and ended up with a terrible tummy ache. I sacrificed all that cake and my dinner to the great water bowl in the bathroom. For the rest of the day I was various shades of purple and green. From that day forward I was unable to entertain the thought of fruitcake. The very sight of it put me in a hostile mood. If someone close to me was eating fruitcake, I had to dismiss myself. Memories have a way of prejudicing us forever, especially bad memories.
You can imagine my consternation when I found that large, and heavy, fully wrapped fruitcake sitting there quietly in my kitchen cabinet waiting to be discovered. My dear wife was the one who took it out of its hiding place. I could barely bring myself to look at the thing. It had been in a beautiful tin. We had used the tin for storing some crayons for the boys. There the cake sat on the kitchen table all wrapped in red foil with a cellophane top so someone could see some of the fake fruit oozing out of it. Shudder. The very idea of eating some of that cake brought back all the stomach-churning memories of my boyhood ordeal at aunt Benna's. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't.
            My wife opened the wrapper and took our bread-slicing knife to it. She had no aversion to fruitcake. Neither did Matthew or Mark. They sat transfixed in their little bathrobes as each slice was made. With a glass of milk beside them, my beloved sons devoured their slices of cake and begged for more.
            "This is really good, Daddy," Matthew announced. "You ought to have some."
            "No thanks, son," I replied. "You boys can have my share."
            After my wife cut two more slices for the boys, she served herself a piece. I looked away. She began to eat with the words, "I hate to have this in front of you. It doesn't seem right."
            "That's okay," I explained. "I'm really not all that hungry."
            I lied. Why do people do that? Why do Christians do that? Why do preachers of the marvelous gospel of grace do that? It's because we are stupid and
weak and don't want to admit the truth. How would it look if I said, "I'm a total wimp. I'll not bring myself to eat something that I have decided in my mind is so thoroughly disgusting." Besides, to me fruitcake has always been sort of like eating hash. I never eat hash away from home because I don't know what's in it. And I never eat hash at home because I know what's in it.
            I went to bed early that evening after drinking a large glass of water. I dreamed about cake. German chocolate cake. Mississippi mud cake. My favorite was angel food with banana icing. I even dreamed of vanilla cake with coconut icing and bits of pineapple all over it. My dream was so realistic that when I awakened my mouth was watering.
            I glanced at the clock. It was only 3:30. in the morning. I looked outside. Snow was falling gently on the yard and trees. I tried to go back to sleep. Couldn't. So I got up, put on my slippers and robe and meandered through the house. I went to the bookshelf, but my feet really wanted to go to the kitchen. I guess the idea of vanilla cake with frosting and pineapple sort of opened my mind a bit. "Even if they were little pineapple candies instead of the real thing, at least it might taste like pineapple," I spoke to myself out loud.
            A moment later I found myself sitting at the kitchen table about to do the unthinkable. I had the knife in my hand and the rest of the cake unwrapped ready to slice. I promised myself I'd never eat another piece of fruitcake as long as I lived. There I was about to break my vow. I was glad nobody was there to witness such lack of self-control. I sliced a very thin piece of cake. A glass of milk was handy to wash down the awful stuff. Shiver. I bit into the cake without saying a prayer of thanksgiving.
            God must not have been pleased with me that moment in time. Perhaps he was teaching me a lesson my thick skull had resisted in times past. That first bite seemed almost tasteless in retrospect. I suppose it should have tasted like all the best food I had ever eaten since I was so ravenous. It was that second bite that captured my heart and soul. Rather than gulping it down like I had the first bite, I chewed it for the longest time, savoring the nuances of mingled flavors. I drank several swallows of milk and then took a third bite. Ahhhh! It was even better than the second. A smile came across my face. It was then I said a prayer to God and asked him to forgive me for my stubbornness and thanklessness.
            As I was about to take the last bite of that first slice of cake, I sensed a presence. When I turned around to look, there stood little Matthew. He was about the same age I was when I had my terrible fruitcake experience.
            "It's good, just like I said, hungh, Daddy?" he encouraged.
            "Yes it is, Matt! It's very good."
            "Can I have another piece with you, Daddy?" Matthew asked.
            "You sure can," I beamed.
            I cut two more slices; mine was a bit thicker this time. Even so, Matthew didn't complain that his piece was smaller. We had a good time of it there in the kitchen, just the two of us. I almost forgot I was broke. Matthew was oblivious to such financial concerns. One thing I knew for sure at that moment in time with
my beloved boy beside me---I was rich in the kind of wealth that has nothing to do with ownership of land, bloated bank accounts, and diversified stocks.
            You might not believe this, for I find it absolutely astonishing myself. The very next day in the mail a royalty check arrived I had forgotten. It was more than a week's pay. Soon after that some of the sisters from church came by the house and gave us a pounding. If you don't know what a pounding is, I'm about to tell you.
            The women had intended to have that surprise immediately upon our arriving to work with the church. But they had been busy and got behind on their good intentions. So, even though it was delayed a few months, they finally had gotten together with all those who were in cahoots with them and delivered to our door 25 grocery sacks full of all kinds of food. Peanut butter. Bread. Spaghetti. Canned fruits and vegetables. Even junk food. Potato chips and dip. Pretzels. A bag of candy for the three boys: Matthew, Mark and me. We had never had so much food in our kitchen cabinets. Oh, yes. That's what a pounding is. Pounds and pounds of food given to someone who is loved. Oh, my!
            You're really not going to believe this! Guess what was sitting on top of the groceries in the last bag we brought into the house? It was one of those long rectangular shaped Claxton fruitcakes. Matthew spied it first. "Look, Daddy! Another fruitcake!" Does God have a sense of humor? Surely so.
            I admit it. I love fruitcake. If you're engaged in sending those dear fruitcake presents along to somebody else, include me on your mailing list. They will cease their circular journeys at my kitchen table. For fruitcake reminds me of so many things that even preachers can forget. Fruitcake reminds me of the giver of all such delightful gifts. Fruitcake reminds me of how subtly pride can get a strangle hold on someone. Fruitcake reminds me of simple pleasures.
            I'd love to relive that moment during an early winter morning with my four-year-old and nothing to eat but a slice of cake and a glass of milk. Fruitcake also reminds me never to give up when times are tough. My Father promised me that he would not allow his children to go begging for bread. And sure enough, young Goad didn't beg.
            Thanksgiving is now a matter of thanksliving with the Goads. And from that chilly early morning on, whenever I am served a piece of fruitcake, I always remember to say my prayer of thanks before taking that first bite.
            Behold, the fruitcake.

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