Growing up, my favorite holidays were Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was probably because of the once-a-year delights — pumpkin pie with whipped cream in November, while December brought a long list of favorites from peanut brittle to my father’s spiced eggnog. 

Pamela Tinnin column photo

Pamela Tinnin

Every family I knew had their own specialities. In our family one of my favorites were the surprisingly healthy fruit balls Mom made. Surprising because I liked them better than sugary fudge or decorated sugar cookies. They appeared every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next, I never saw a recipe for fruit balls. As long as I could remember, a day or so before the holiday, my mother stuffed a box of raisins, a package of figs, another of apricots and the last package of dates into a heavy duty hand-cranked food grinder. The sticky mass squiggled out, filled a large mixing bowl and left her hands covered with sweet little globs.

She mixed the ground fruits well, using her fingers almost as if kneading bread. Into the mix she also added a cup or more of chopped walnuts and a cup or more of shredded coconut, rolling the mixture out to walnut-sized balls. They could be rolled in coconut, walnuts or powdered sugar. My favorite was coconut.

On Christmas Eve my father always brought home a whole coconut. The coconut involved a special ritual. Dad would take us out on the back porch or if it was raining, we’d perch on the stools near his garage workbench. First he used a nut pick to dig a hole through one of the dark indentations on the coconut shells. 

Carefully he passed the coconut to my sister Jane, the oldest. We solemnly took turns tilting the coconut to our lips and sipping the watery milk. Last of all, my dad would finish the mild tasting liquid. With a tack hammer, Dad tapped the coconut shell until it cracked. With his pocketknife he cut a piece of the white meat for each of us.

After we grew up and had families of our own, I’m not sure why we didn’t continue the coconut or fruit ball traditions. Except for those times when we made it back home for the holidays, they weren’t part of our celebrations. Later as my parents grew older, our holidays became simpler and one by one most of our childhood treats disappeared from the menu.

Like the coconuts and fruit balls, we remembered the big events in our lives by the small things that were part of them. In 1970 when I was a young mother of two, my sisters, our husbands and kids all gathered with my parents for Thanksgiving. Our brother was serving with the Army in Vietnam, but there at the holiday table, he was still very much with us.

Like always, Dad carved the turkey. He insisted on giving my 2-year-old son an enormous turkey leg, the same way he did when my brother Joe had been that age. When Dad got to the wishbone, he carefully cut it free and set it aside. Later he would choose someone to try to wrest the biggest piece from him. 

That Thanksgiving, he chose me. My open opposition to the war had created a painful wall between us, so when Dad held out the greasy bone, it took me by surprise. In those days he usually offered it to one of the kids, but there he stood, hand extended. 

I pulled against his own pull. When the bone began to slip from my fingers, Dad made a sharp motion and deliberately snapped his piece short, leaving me holding the long end, winning the prize to make a wish. Dad nodded at me and smiled. At 24, I was a long way from believing in childhood magic. Even so I closed my eyes and wished as hard as I could that the war would end and my brother and all the soldiers could come home at last. 

Pamela Tinnin writes from her ranch on Pine Mountain. She can be reached atpamelatinnin@yahoo.com.

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