“Family comes first” was my grandmother’s favorite saying. It seemed as if she always found a moment and a reason to slip those three words into every conversation. Sometimes, she would whisper them in my ear to remind me of the noteworthiness of the sacred blood bounds that brought us close. Other times, she would say it aloud, as if it was some kind of political statement, to whoever would listen. No one ever questioned her. She had a playful way of getting away with everything, yet we knew she could outwit us all with no effort.
My grandma had been baptized under the name “Hermelinda”, but we called “Tita Meli” out of love. Her name was certainly peculiar, and we often joked it didn’t fit her at all. The name had been in my family for generations and, according to a quick Google search conducted by me at the local public library, it meant “wholly soft and tender”. The entire and universal traits every well-rounded woman must possess. But Tita Meli was an unconventional woman. Of course, she was deeply religious and learned how to do certain “womanly” tasks, as it was socially expected in the tight-knit community our town was, but she was so much more. She aspired to be involved in politics, and had an unimaginable love for public speaking. She also had a vivid imagination and constantly dreamed of magical tales that involved mythical creatures, generations of women with a gift of clairvoyance, and cursed carts that moved without any cattle pulling on them. She was also strict, and did everything meticulously. Adding to this, Tita Meli was loud, with a slightly bad temper, and valued hard work nearly as much as she valued family.
Me and my eight cousins, the only children in the family, had a special fondness for her. We loved her wrinkled skin, and her delicate laugh lines that extended around the corners of her eyes like streams of water on their way to the sea. We loved her bony fingers and the bizarre way she waved them in the air when she was speaking rapidly. We loved her tamales and her delicious olla de carne that almost instantly warmed our insides on cold nights. Our Tita Meli was the cliché wise old woman we believed could hold the answer to any secret between her starry dark eyes.
Needless to say, we visited her often. Each year, when the final school bell rang on the first warm afternoon of December, liberating us into the three-month-lasting freedom we had come to know as “Christmas break”, we raced to her house, where she had lived all her life. It was a small place, made out entirely of splintery wooden boards that seemed to be older than time itself. The house had mold in some corners and the humidity in the air unquestionably made it worse. Every wall had at least three framed pictures of different patron saints in the roman catholic faith, that Tita Meli said had guided her throughout her life. Overall, the house was full of wonders, not only for the children, but for whoever would visit. And Tita Meli knew this very well.
Every Christmas Eve, she invited the whole family for her beloved “Rezo”, a long-time tradition that involved gathering all of our 22 family members, every single uncle, aunt, great-uncle or fourth cousin, and approximately two hours of praying to God and thanking Him for our blessings.
Naturally, us kids weren't exactly thrilled at the prospect of listening to Tita Meli pray aloud for hours, with barely any bathroom breaks. But to be fair, she tried to make things entertaining. She even guided the prayer with a fun-colored rosary that she excitedly bought at a church flea market a few years back, hopefully to encourage us to pay attention and reflect on each one of the fifty-three “Hail Mary” prayers of the night. But to us at the time, regardless of the colorful rosary, listening was a dull and monotonous experience, since we barely understood a word of what was said.
Nonetheless, there was something that made those chilly December nights special, which everyone held dear to their heart; Tita Meli’s fruit cake. That mouthwatering dessert was renowned across our neighborhood, even so that, as the years went by, people from other families started showing up at Tita’s house to get a slice of the legendary cake, after the “Rezo” was over. However, preparing the delectable sweet course was an exhausting task. She had to start concocting the caramelized fruits weeks prior, and soaking them in a bitter-sweet liquor to give them a unique taste. As for the dough, each batch had to be kneaded for at least forty minutes, and then left to rest for yet another hour.
Although it took a considerable amount of effort, she did it with love. For the many, uncountable days of our toasty December, I observed Tita Meli roll out batches of dough and then knead them back into a perfectly smooth ball, over and over again. There wasn’t even a written recipe. It was almost as if her body had acquired some sort of automatic muscle memory.
In spite of the fact that I am a quite terrible cook, I always offered to assist her, but my grandmother’s pride rarely let her accept help from her loved ones. Instead, she would tell me to sit at the dining table and pay enormous attention to her every move, because one day it would be my turn to prepare the fruit cake and carry on with the tradition.
“Tradition”: a word that became so common to us during our childhood. “By keeping traditions alive, we keep the family alive” Tita Meli said with her comforting raspy voice. And so we did. Every Christmas Eve, we gathered around the minuscule dining table, to which we had to add a few extra plastic chairs because we were all too many, and devoured my grandma’s delicious fruit cake while telling the same old anecdotes we had heard a million times. It was simple, but it was family. And it was like that for many years, until she was gone.
Tita Meli died when I was nineteen years old. We did our best to give her the most beautiful service, in the same church she had attended for all of her 91 years. The whole town showed that day, and there was not one person who hadn’t developed a true love and admiration for my grandmother.
My family sat at the front benches, filling the first four rows completely. It was hard to believe that we would never get to hear her nonsensical tales again, or listen to her complain if we ever dared miss a family dinner. Oh, but it was real. Truly. So, we kept our heads down that evening, and for the weeks that came after.
That December there was something different. We decided that we should keep some distance from each other, and nobody wanted to host the “Rezo” anymore. Her death broke up the family, and I know that was the last thing she would have ever wanted, so I decided to try something. I was going to make the fruit cake. I had seen her prepare it a million times, so I was convinced I could do it.
As I walked to the store to get everything I needed, I thought of my grandmother, and how she would probably be scolding the whole family for missing a Christmas dinner. If she was there, she would have most likely pulled on our ears to make sure we all showed up.
Yet Tita Meli believed everything happened for a reason, so I kept walking firmly, with her voice stuck in my head. The grocery store in our town smelled like fresh bread and childhood memories. It instantly brought back the times where she would bring me and my cousins to pick up some ingredients, and put us all inside her shopping cart, although she very well knew it was not permitted. I tried to go back to those days and, with nothing more than intuition and the hope I had left, I started frantically grabbing items off the isles. First, the flour. I got the whole-wheat flour with the little farmer on the front, I was pretty sure I had seen it in her pantry before. Then I bought some sticks of butter, the kind that came in a yellow box, as well as “Doña María” sugar, that had caramel in it according to the bag. I didn’t have enough time to soak the delectable fruits in liquor for weeks, so I just improvised and bought already-chopped fruits, hoping it would give the same effect. Then I bought the cheapest bag of assorted nuts I could find and headed to the check out. The man who ran the small store gave me a bizarre look but didn’t ask any questions and wished me a nice day as I walked outside.
I arrived home at around 1 in the afternoon and began the process right away, even though I was starting to realize that I didn’t really know what I was doing. The ingredients seemed simple and basic, so I pictured my grandmother adding two cups of flour, one cup of sugar, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of baking soda, and tried to do the same in the largest bowl I could find. Then I grabbed my mixer and tossed in three eggs and two sticks of butter until it was creamy. As far as I knew, it was going great... until I overdid the amount of vegetable oil and the mixture looked like a frosty swamp.
Regardless, I kept going. After kneading the dough for hours, I threw the fruits in the mixture and then placed it carefully on a rectangular pan. I preheated the oven for thirty minutes and then left the cake cooking for an hour. All I could think about Tita Meli, and how happy that cake made her every year.
When it was done, I texted the whole family and begged for them to come over and try it. I was convinced it would restore our family tradition.
Only my cousins and three aunts showed up, but for a second it felt like before. Proudly, I served them each with a slice of cake, and grinned at them while they took their first bite. Then I tried some myself. It was disgustingly sweet and too dry, nothing like Tita’s original cake. My cousin Antonia was the first one to start laughing, and her high-pitched chuckle quickly spread across the room. We fed the rest of the cake to the dog, who seemed to enjoy it more than we did, and then we got some crackers from my parent’s pantry. That day, I understood why Tita always prepared that same fruit cake. It wasn’t only because it was a family favorite, but because of all the memories we had created by sharing it, all the silly anecdotes we told thousands of times, and simply being together, as family came first.