In preparation, Granddaddy dies. Grandma slows down, shuffles more heavily through the kitchen. After a decade of waiting, youâ€™re an adult, so you and your grown-up cousins grease a nine-inch square, baking pan. Grandmaâ€™ll sit at that tiny Formica table on a wooden stool, pointing out the saucepan and the cabinet housing the vanilla, and youâ€™ll be crowded into the kitchen well enough that Ryan will finally disappear to make a mess of the pianoâ€”banging out mashed-up and accidental chordsâ€”while Kristie finds the ingredients and a measuring cup. Grandma will say you donâ€™t actually need to measure out 2.5 cups of sugar, Â¾ teaspoon of salt, and Â½ stick of butter. Sheâ€™ll show you how to estimate those measurements, as you dump the sugar, salt, and butter in the saucepan with a 5-ounce can of evaporated milk and a 7.5-ounce jar of marshmallow fluff.
Cousin Brittany stirs while the saucepan heats and the ingredients find a slow boil. But she wonâ€™t make it the full five minutes because the fluff and sugar and butter will heavily thicken the pot, and Grandma says it takes elbow grease to keep that wooden spoon going and going. So take over. You stir the final minutes, and when time is up and you drop in the 12-ounces of semisweet chocolate pieces and Â¾ teaspoon of vanilla, you realize why Grandma asked you and these cousins that are now twenty-somethings to walk down the hill of your family land, like youâ€™d done as children, to prepare her Christmas fudge.
Of course, you think of her loneliness, living alone on family land, still surrounded by her kids and grandkids but them with their busy lives and jobs in town. Their next-generation worldâ€”not tilling or turning this former farmland but wearing ties and filing papers indoors. You think of the summer days when you cousins were under her care, tearing through the woods, banging on her piano, eating from her cookie jar. But what you really mean is that the fudge thickens so stubbornly that Grandmaâ€™s arms canâ€™t have the power to combine the chocolate and fluff. You were even embarrassed to strain as you slowly turned the spoon in the sturdy stuff.
When the chocolate is fully melted and meshed, Kristie and Brittany hold the pan, Ryan has moved on to watching Judge Judy too loudly, and you pour the mixture. No nuts. Only your mama likes the nuts in it, and sheâ€™s not here to fight for them. Sheâ€™s in town working.
Once the fudge is waiting in the fridge, beginning to cool, you set the long wooden spoon in the sink to somehow find it skinnier than when you began. Did it shed a piece, a sliver? Did you work it so hard that it lost weight? You search the counters and pan for a splintered bit of spoon, but you must be imagining things. Spoons donâ€™t shrink.
The next night, Christmas Eve: the fudge is cooled and sweet and sitting on the table as people file in from the church and the corners of Fruitland to fill tiny plates and drink cider. But youâ€™re wondering why a brown chunk hovers on the solid surface of the â€œNever Fail Fudgeâ€ when you didnâ€™t add nuts. Your mamaâ€™s not that conniving. Then you see it, someone pullsâ€”what is this? A stick?â€”from the fudge, and you try to blame Ryan when Grandma raises her untoned arm in your direction, but really you know it was an unavoidable jinx to name something never-fail and pack these new Joneses fully into Grandmaâ€™s aging kitchen on the land your family seeded and stirred until it finally grew quiet.