KITCHEN CON­DUC­TOR

Southern Living (USA) - - Southern Living - BY CARO­LINE RAN­DALL WIL­LIAMS

In my fa­vorite baby pic­ture of my­self, I am in the arms of my great-grand­mother. When my par­ents brought me home from the hos­pi­tal, they took me to her house in Nashville. So many pre­cious mem­o­ries are there, but the ones of Al­berta Bon­temps’ Christ­mases are still best and bright­est in my mind. I look back and see my­self in her home, in a holly berry dress and red coat, or eat­ing her home­made cakes.

Christ­mas is a time for food and songs, gifts and gift giv­ing. A time for adult sac­ri­fice and child­hood dream mak­ing. The hol­i­day is also, ac­cord­ing to my great-grand­mother, a birth­day party. “We’re cel­e­brat­ing Je­sus be­ing born,” she would re­mind us. She was right. And so, in ad­di­tion to ev­ery other per­fectly com­posed dish, there would be a cen­ter­piece cake in honor of the birth­day boy that was made with all her love and all her im­pres­sive skill.

So it should come as no sur­prise that my mother called our res­i­dent hol­i­day cake baker when, at 14 years old, I un­ex­pect­edly (and in­con­ve­niently) vol­un­teered my­self to make dessert for my youth group’s Christ­mas potluck.

I don’t know why we didn’t just pick up some­thing from the lo­cal bak­ery or mar­ket, see­ing as I’d given the adults in charge of me such short no­tice. What­ever the case, I found my­self back in my first home with Al­berta Bon­temps, bak­ing our first cake to­gether in De­cem­ber of 2001.

She was de­pen­dent on a walker by then but still all the way there. She pushed her way into the kitchen (I went ahead of her, at her bid­ding) and sat down on the walker’s gray seat. Then, like the vir­tu­oso con­duc­tor I’d al­ways heard she was, she directed me through

her kitchen. She wrought a sym­phony with­out play­ing a sin­gle note her­self. It was as if I had dis­solved and was sim­ply an ex­ten­sion of her—her hands, her eyes, her legs.

As I get older, my kitchen be­comes more and more tidy. I think I can trace this im­pulse di­rectly back to bak­ing that Christ­mas fruit­cake with my great-grand­mother.

“The sec­ond left jar. One hand­ful,” she’d say. “The third shelf of the cabi­net on the right. Open that bag, and get a half a cup of wal­nuts.” She knew ex­actly where ev­ery­thing was. She could tell me pre­cisely how to get the in­gre­di­ents and mea­sure­ments right with­out lift­ing a fin­ger. Her iron fist in its vel­vet glove, wield­ing her great-grand­daugh­ter like the hap­pi­est, most will­ing kitchen in­stru­ment ever to grace her pol­ished coun­ter­tops.

Now, I’m not a se­ri­ous fruit­cake eater, but I don’t think the type of cake was re­ally the point. Whether it was lay­ered choco­late or pound cake or an­gel food, it was the spirit in which it was made that I carry with me— Al­berta’s par­tic­u­lar brand of hol­i­day feel­ing.

I never had the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss faith with her be­fore she passed away. But it seems to me that Grandma’s “birth­day cake for baby Je­sus” was about un­der­scor­ing the sweet hu­man­ity of faith. Je­sus was some­one’s child, some­one wholly hu­man and uniquely pre­cious to his par­tic­u­lar par­ents just for be­ing newly alive and in his mother’s warm arms.

The big­ger pic­ture of Christ­mas—what the hol­i­day means spir­i­tu­ally—is for all of us who claim the hol­i­day’s faith. The fa­mil­iar ges­tures, or­na­ments, dishes, and ri­tu­als are all re­minders of the gift of grace that the Son of God brought to the world. But the birth­day cake, that was for Mary’s lit­tle boy, a liv­ing, breath­ing in­fant in his mother’s arms. It was and is an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the im­me­di­ate hu­man­ity of that mo­ment.

When Grandma baked a birth­day cake at Christ­mas, she was re­mind­ing us of the mir­a­cle that be­ing hu­man can bring in the mo­ment of the hol­i­day and in ev­ery mo­ment be­fore and af­ter too.

A cher­ished fam­ily photo of the au­thorbe­ing held by her great-grand­mother Al­berta Bon­temps

Wil­liams all dressed up for Christ­mas and a spe­cial birth­day

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