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Like most children who grew up small Kentucky towns, my earliest holiday memories are of family, presents and lots of good food. My mother and both grandmothers were great cooks and meals around the big dining room table were part of our family’s holiday tradition.
But, in particular, there was something special about the fruit salad.
To a 6-year-old, it was simply the largest bowl of fruit in the world, overflowing with harvest from such exotic lands as South America, Africa and even California. It was a succulent masterpiece and it was created each year by my Grandfather Ely as his contribution to our annual Christmas feast.
As the oldest grandchild, I was the first to be invited into one of the most hallowed places of the holiday season – my Grandmother Ely’s kitchen – to witness firsthand the preparation of the much-anticipated dish. It was there, amidst the aroma of turkey roasting, fresh blackberry cobbler cooling and sweet potatoes simmering in butter and brown sugar that all the ingredients were brought together.
I still can see my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table, carefully cutting red and yellow apples, ripe bananas, juicy oranges, tart grapefruit and fresh, sweet pineapples. Freshly cracked pecans, cherries, white grapes, an assortment of berries, plump dates and his own special ingredients also were prepared. Then, he carefully mixed everything together until it was pronounced finished and ready to eat.
While he peeled, cut and mixed the fresh fruit, he and I would ponder over things that mattered to grandfathers and their grandsons – baseball, bicycles and girls. He also would reminisce about his own childhood in the country, tell funny stories about family members and always remind me about why we celebrated Christmas.
One holiday season, early in my teenage years, I found it less interesting to join him at the kitchen table. Of course, my grandfather continued his labor of love with my younger sister or cousins occupying the chair of honor beside him. He passed away in 1970 and, while the family dinners continued, his traditional gift to us became a treasured memory.
As the years passed, I graduated from high school, completed college and graduate school, got married and had children of my own. Together, we established our own family traditions.
But each holiday season, I always remember my grandfather’s Christmas fruit salad.
For several years, I talked about it with my wife and children and they encouraged me to recreate it for them. Naturally, there never was a written recipe and my efforts always fell short of expectations.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather and his fruit salad. Once, it occurred to me that while everyone enjoyed eating it, I never saw my grandfather dish out a single bowlful for himself.
The reason was simple enough. You see, he was diabetic. I guess that fruit salad, with all its sweet, delicious goodies, was just not on his restricted diet.
Another time, I realized I really missed my grandfather more than I did his fruit salad. His holiday gift to his family had been a wonderfully delicious concoction; his gift to me during all those holidays had been much more.
My wife reminds me that an enduring lesson of the Christmas fruit salad is that family and family traditions, are what really matter in our lives. The memories they create help keep our loved ones alive in our hearts and minds long after they are gone and help bring them to life for the younger generations. As always, she’s right.
Recently, I shared memories of the Christmas fruit salad with a friend of mine. This wise man noted my grandfather’s fruit salad was much like our community: made up of many different ingredients, each from a different place and with its own, distinctive flavor. Mixed together, the individual ingredients complement each other and become part of something very special.
I really liked that. My grandfather would have liked that, too. So, I’ve added it to my story for all of us to think about.
This holiday season, as you spend time and exchange gifts with family and friends, our family hopes your celebrations will become joyful new traditions for you and yours. And we hope that you will take time to remember and celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, the most wonderful gift of all.
Ron Harrell is chief institutional advancement officer at Elizabethtown Communityand Technical College.