Every family has its personal fables, oft-repeated chronicles of big achievements and, more commonly, painful humiliations starring siblings and grandparents, cousins and children. Like madeleines to Proust, sensory reminders call them back: Richard still has tine-marks on the back of his hand from the time he tried to take food off his brother's plate. Sue, who spilled the chicken soup in the backseat of the car on the way to Grandma's, gets mentioned every time a family member smells rotten food or buys a new car (the stink never came out of the broth-soaked Volvo and it had to be sold).
By the way, names have been changed. You don't see me airing family laundry. Do you?
In my family, every holiday season brought out "The Fruitcake Story," in which I was the star. Year after year, the world "fruitcake" could not even be spoken around the holiday table without knowing glances escalating into howls of laughter. And then someone would, redundantly and unnecessarily, repeat the saga. I would try to deflect: "Oh, everyone's heard that one! Let's talk about the time Paul..." But then Paul would jump in and continue the tale.
In "The Fruitcake Story" I am perpetually a toddler, optimistic, easily bamboozled and highly motivated by food, three traits I still have. That's the defining mark of a family saga: the main characters invariably show early signs of the adults they come to be. The best stories become shorthand for their subjects' most dependable qualities.
My father was usually the ringleader of "The Fruitcake Story," the one who brought it up and made sure the details were right. In fact, I sometimes suspected that my father only wanted to have more children after me so he could regale them with the story. Since he died 12 years ago, I'm not sure I've heard it brought up even once. I don't go back east for the holidays any more, so the word "fruitcake" generally doesn't come up. We're too busy talking about "The Amazon Wish List."
OK, by now you must be wondering: What's the story? Well, it really wasn't made to be told in the first person, since like most of these fables it's not something to brag about. However, in the interest of full blogging disclosure I will do my best.
I was probably two years old. It was December, and holiday preparations were in full swing. Fruitcake was already on display in the kitchen, and I was fascinated by it. Two of my favorite things, fruit and cake, in one package! What a brilliant concept! I could see cherries and raisins...I was enthralled.
My father decided to use the fruitcake as an incentive for me to make the final leap in my toilet-training. I had already achieved, shall we say, Goal #1, but was having some difficulty with Goal #2. My parents were looking for an answer, and since Everyone Poops had not yet been published, they had to come up with their own ideas. Fruitcake was held out as a reward. All I had to do was one little, well, poop in the toilet and fruitcake would be mine.
Who knows how long it took--the way the story dragged out it was days of disappointment and grunting as I kept my eye on the prize and my butt on the toilet. Finally, about 15 minutes into the storytelling, I made a raisin of my own and went running down the hall, training pants flapping, demanding my reward.
Of course the punchline was that I took one bite of that bourbon-soaked, nut-filled hockey puck, spit it right out and burst into tears. Whenever I wonder about any issues I have with food, I think of that story and it all makes perfect sense. Every year at the holidays I miss my dad, but I don't miss "The Fruitcake Story."