Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

Bette Ellen’s Christmas Fudge

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 14 oz. Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup walnut halves
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

  • Line an 8 or 9-inch pan with foil or waxed paper.
  • Combine chocolate chips with sweetened condensed milk in a medium, heavy duty sauce pan.
  • Warm over lowest possible heat, stirring constantly until smooth.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Stir in nuts and vanilla extract.
  • Spread evenly into prepared baking pan.
  • Refrigerate for two hours or until firm. (Overnight works best).
  • Lift from pan.
  • Remove foil/wax paper.
  • Cut into perfect squares.

Some notes: 

I cut each chocolate square precisely — no errant rectangles! — and think of how I want to find you on the front porch of your girlhood home on South Sanborn in Mitchell, or in the sepia eyes of your grandfather, who built that house and carved its staircase by hand. But I haven’t made it out to South Dakota yet. It seems so far to go, and I am afraid of what I might find, and what it means to accept you as part of me. Instead, I look for you in Nestle chocolate chips melding with Eagle brand condensed milk on my stove, as if I’m working a conjuring spell. If only I could get the recipe right, I might resurrect you. If only I could find the metaphor in the melting.

But what I’m trying to say is less about food as a window to memory, and more about the irony of what I’m doing before I fold in walnuts and a dash of vanilla. We didn’t really know each other, you and I. I can never say my grandmother stood with me beside a stove and said, “Here’s how you make fudge.” Not that this labor should have been your job. And yet I want so badly for an alternate narrative of our family to exist. I can’t stop my heart from wanting what it wants, my embarrassing hunger for clichés

So forgive me if I don’t yet have the perfect word for what I’m doing in my kitchen this morning, not so much cooking as stirring the pot.

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The kitchen counter where my grandmother Bette (pictured on this mug) would have made her beloved fudge. Grateful to her daughter Monica for allowing me to take this photo and sharing stories of her mother, so I might know her now.

The Darkest Time of Year

I never liked Thanksgiving. One year when I was home from college, my mother humored my holiday angst. She made salmon and lentil soup because I didn’t eat red meat or poultry. Then she let me stay home from a family gathering. I told her I hated celebrating the European colonization of the United States, that it felt like celebrating Hitler’s election to chancellor. When I shared this information with her, she sat us both down on the white couch in her living room. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “The holidays are about family and for being grateful for what you have.”

A year later, we celebrated her last Thanksgiving, although we didn’t know it at the time. This was the first and only time I ever cooked with her during a holiday. I don’t remember everything we made, just how comforted I felt to be with her in the kitchen. How safe and peaceful I felt beside her. I wish I could say I savored the moment, that I felt grateful. But, I didn’t know she was dying then. I was only 20. I thought assembling a salad from a bag mix, then adding raisins and chopped apples, was a high culinary achievement. The moments that passed between us are only special in retrospect.

Since her death, I have wanted to avoid Thanksgiving altogether. I have spent it abroad. I have spent it alone. I have spent it playing Monopoly and eating Thai food with my husband. I have spent it hiking in Shenandoah National Park with our two dogs. In this way, I may be dishonoring my mother’s legacy, since I often choose to retreat from family and tradition. But family gatherings stress me out because I focus on what is missing, on her absence. It’s easier for me to do my own thing, then to embrace other people’s expectations of what the holidays should be. I’m happier this way. I am more honest about myself.

This year was harder than I expected. I agreed to participate in a traditional gathering at my aunt’s house because I am grateful for her. She’s had a rough year. I wanted to support her. I texted my father on Thanksgiving to wish him a happy holiday. He called me a few seconds later and talked at length about everything going wrong in his life. He never asked, “How are you?” He never asked, “What must it be like for you to celebrate holidays without your mother?”

My mother raised me. After she left him, he beat her in front of my sister and me. For many years, she was my only parent. Despite our past, I love my father dearly, primally. Relationships are complex webs. He has worked hard on himself. He is not the person he used to be. I know these past few weeks have been horrible for him. But I have felt triggered by my father during this election. He supported Donald Trump, which makes me feel unsafe, and brings back memories of past abuse. On Thursday, I also felt abandoned and irritated by his lack of empathy. I talked to my husband about it, then I made mushrooms and polenta and drove to my aunt’s house. I spent most of Thanksgiving holed up in a bedroom with my sister, who needed to nurse her infant son, also known as My Precious. Still, my bad mood lingered over the weekend. I do not begrudge anyone their holiday cheer. Right now, I’m focusing on getting through the holidays.

That said, I seek comfort during this darkest time of my year by remembering my mother’s emphasis on gratitude. This is how I lift myself out of sadness. This is how I honor her. I have tried keeping gratitude journals, but I always forget to write in them. (There is still a gratitude journal from 2009 sitting on my night table). So I pause each day to consider something for which I feel grateful. Some days, I have to dig deep. On these days, I am grateful for working radiators and leftovers in the fridge. Other days, I am grateful to live within driving distance of my sister and best friend, who have seen me through the worst of my grief. This weekend, I felt grateful for Carl. We spent all of Friday watching “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” and he knows the show better than any of my friends’ husbands. He even predicted the ending, which I didn’t like. Still, I am grateful for a husband who can spend 20 minutes discussing why my dream ending is more feminist than the actual ending.

I am also grateful to have found a doctor who identified the underlying hormonal imbalances causing my Hashimoto’s. I’m grateful for his hope that I will be able to conceive and sustain a pregnancy after one year of treatment. Always, I am grateful for my niece and nephews, who continue my mother’s legacy in ways she never imagined. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been her daughter.