It had nothing to do with presents, pretty paper or a tree sparkling with lights and decorations. The thing that made the Christmas season different at Grandma’s was her business. You see, she baked cakes from scratch and sold them.
Lillie Graham was her name. She was my mother’s mother, and she was quite a lady. A southern belle to be sure, she was personable, humorous, opinionated and loveable. She had a twinkle in her eye, a quick wit and the ability to talk the bark off of a tree. She worked hard, making cakes and other goodies that were absolutely scrumptious. That was her livelihood, and I think just about everyone in Fayetteville knew her because of it.
My grandmother lived in a white house on old McPherson Church Road. My family lived behind her, down a little dirt road in the woods, our green shingle house nestled among a thick forest of pine trees. I loved walking up that two-rut path to Grandma’s. I liked being there, hearing the rain hit her tin roof and seeing old stuff like the wooden wardrobes she used instead of closets. But the best thing about her house was the way it smelled. It was a wonderland of delicious aromas, scents of cake layers and chocolate lingering long after the baking was finished.
Grandma made and sold cakes throughout the year, but at Christmas time, she made and sold a huge number of them. People bought cakes to treat visiting relatives and to give as gifts. The orders started to pile up in late November, gaining steam until no more were taken after the first week of December. Forgetful folks would still try, sometimes calling as late as Christmas Eve in hopes of getting a cake someone had forgotten to pick up. One year, a desperate woman even came in tears to my grandmother’s door on Christmas morning.
I enjoyed the hustle and bustle. So much was going on. Cake layers were in the oven, pots of icing were usually cooking on one stove and mints might be bubbling on another. Sometimes cheese biscuits were baking, too. I was always “sampling” one goody or another. One of my favorite things was to put some chocolate icing in a paper cup, sneak a handful of pecan halves and sit under a big oak tree in the back yard, eating my treasures. But I also had work to do, with my chores increasing as I grew older. Sometimes Grandma had me cracking and shelling pecans. Sometimes I made cake boxes or grated coconut (and my fingernails.) Getting the meat out of that hard shell was the worst job, though.
The two weeks before Christmas were really hectic, and my mother often helped keep orders straight. Grandma’s house only had heat in the living room and bathroom, and the small kitchen was warmed by the oven. The large kitchen, a converted back porch, was where most of the baking took place, and fans were needed to cool it. The rest of the house was like a refrigerator in the winter and was used to stack boxed cakes.
Lots of customers picked up their cakes at my grandmother’s house. There was a circle in the back, formed by shrubbery, and people could drive around, pick up their orders and leave. I ran out to the cars, asked for a name, went back in the house, found the appropriate boxes, carried them to the car and collected the money.
My grandmother’s Japanese fruit cake was very popular at the holidays. So were the coconut cake and the German chocolate. There was devil’s food, you could get yellow or white layers with either white or chocolate icing, and there was a lemon cake. She made regular and chocolate pound cakes. She made snowballs and cheese biscuits with little pecan slivers in the center, and her mints were fabulous. I loved it when Grandma added the fresh mint to the soft candy and poured it onto marble to cool.
Two wonderful ladies, Julia Torrey and Grace Snow, worked with my Grandma. They were like family. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday were baking days, and things were really hopping from 7 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening – much later the closer it got to Christmas.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, my grandmother went to the curb market. It was located on Russell Street, right across from M&O Chevrolet where Bob and Tommy McCoy sold cars. There, people bought eggs, home-made sausage and liver pudding, fresh-cut flowers, cookies, candy and other things, including my grandmother’s cakes. They also talked and laughed with friends. The curb market was a grand meeting place. I liked going there with Grandma, unloading her car and helping customers take cakes out to their cars.
My grandmother welcomed Christmas day probably more than most folks because she could rest and not mix batter or spread icing for a while. (No, we didn’t eat much cake during the holidays.) I think I helped Grandma a little, and I loved doing it. She was a joy to be around, and her house was a great place for a boy to spend time.
Especially around Christmas.