FARGO, N.D. — The moment from two years ago comes back to me, a moment when I hoped that the poor folks who saw me standing at the end of a grocery store aisle crying my eyes out – with a package of green candied cherries in one hand and red in the other – might rest assured that there was nothing wrong with the cherries. I wanted to thank them for not making a fuss. It would have been embarrassing if anybody had asked whether I was weeping over the price of the cherries or I was allergic to them or I’d just buckled under holiday stress.
Lucky for me, the people around me that day were good, solid, not-my-problem Americans, reluctant to get involved in something not their business. The moment I began to blubber, they headed in another direction. That gave me the opportunity to move to the freezer case, where I pretended to be torn between fish sticks and frozen meatballs while the cool air helped me compose myself.
I like red and green candied cherries. From their clear plastic containers, they radiate their own variety of Christmas spirit, the homey, delicious kind. When I’d bought them a few years earlier, I’d been on a mission for my mother, who was determined to make her legendary (at least, famous in our family) Bishop’s Bread. She needed an extra pair of hands because Parkinson’s disease made the task of cutting up ingredients and mixing them together physically impossible for her.
When cooking, our tasks were clear
We’d become a kitchen team as her disease progressed over the better part of a decade, a relationship made stronger after she moved to the nursing home. Whenever I came to town, we loaded up her walker and wheelchair, along with the appropriate doses of her many medicines, and went home for the day. Most often we did some cooking and baking. Our tasks were clear: She gave the orders and I carried them out.
For a woman who was territorial about her kitchen, depending on a helper was quite a change; however, after initial misgivings, Mom discovered she liked having a human “kitchen aid.” And most of the time, I liked being one. She knew her recipes by heart and told me exactly what I had to do.
Since I only was available three or four days a month, my dad more often was her helper. The problem was that he didn’t follow orders as well as I did, although he grew much handier in the kitchen than either Mom or I expected. (To be honest, until he retired, my dad’s only culinary feat was a perfect Tom and Jerry. As drink aficionados well know, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
There’s no in-between with a Tom and Jerry, and a bad Tom and Jerry is enough to take the “ho, ho, ho” out of Santa.) Dad’s idea of cooking and baking was puttering around and experimenting. Mom preferred accuracy. She didn’t want a quarter cup of wheat germ or a handful of raisins added to a recipe that didn’t call for them. She’d honed her recipes over the years, and she wanted things diced, sliced, measured, mixed, cut, creamed, beaten, folded and rolled to her specifications.
A drizzling of brandy
We got a good start that day, and her Bishop’s Bread was in the oven by early afternoon. She rested while the loaves baked and cooled, and then she came back to the kitchen for the finishing touch, which was to drizzle brandy over the cooled loaves. Whether she was worried I’d pour rather than drizzle or, perhaps, that I’d sip more than I drizzled, she did that part herself. And although she reiterated several times that we shouldn’t eat it the same day it’s made, Dad and I talked her into trying the freshly baked treat.
Late in the afternoon, the faint smell of baking still in the air, we made coffee, and with Christmas carols playing in the background, we enjoyed Bishop’s Bread.
In the two years between then and that particular trip to the grocery store, both my parents died. Most of the time that’s just the way it is (natural progression, cycle of life, and all that). But every once in a while, when I least expect it, something as ordinary as candied cherries still makes me cry.
A writer and columnist from Fargo, N.D., Jane Ahlin also has taught English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.