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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

My mom was forever leaving things at my house. She wasn’t forgetful; she sneakily left objects behind, like a plate her mother acquired from a friend of a friend or ratty tablecloths some great-great ancestor on her father’s side made. She thought they were heirlooms I would cherish and tucked them into a cabinet, or a drawer and I’d find them days or weeks later. I appreciated the history, but I had enough clutter in my house and didn’t need her to add to it. And I definitely didn’t need her fudge pot.

Once upon a time the pot was a shiny silver beauty – solid aluminum with a black sturdy handle and a silver hook on the end to hang it. In addition to fudge, mince beef (ground steak bought from the grocer up the street), beef stew (also from the local butcher), and my grandmother’s stovies (a Scottish potatoey, beefy soup) all flourished in that pot.

When it showed up in my kitchen however it had seen better days. A stubby piece of metal jutted out from the side, an empty hole where the black handle should be. Without the handle, it was impossible to hold, not ideal for a cooking utensil. The stubby end too small for oven mitts or potholders to grasp. Mom often set tea towels on fire, holding the lip of the pot with the towel and not noticing the ends dangling over the element until they started to smoke.

It also didn’t sit flat. The bottom, blackened from use, wobbled, and rocked when stirring the contents of the pot, if you managed to get a hold of it. And yet for some reason, it was the only pot Mom used to make her fudge.

Old fashioned, brown sugar, melt in your mouth fudge, may not seem special today when so many different flavours, like cheesecake or mint or peanut butter, can tempt your palate. Mom’s fudge was always more sugary granular than smooth and creamy. But it tasted good. Really good. And that pot had the right amount of depth for when the melting sugar magically bubbled up; her candy thermometer attached to the side and immersed in the mixture rather than against the pot.

Mom watched the pot (the only time I think she did while cooking), waiting while the temperature rose until it hit “soft ball.” Then she would drop a bit of the mixture into a cup of cold water to test that it had really formed a soft ball. The boiling fudge, when it hit the water would solidify just enough to make it resemble taffy. Truth be told, getting to eat the “soft ball” test was my favourite part – even more than the fudge itself. Once there, she’d beat it with a wooden spoon until her arm gave out and she’d finish the job with a mixer. All in the beat-up pot.

A handless pot was useless for me and took up space in my cramped kitchen. I wanted to toss it but then the sneaky sneak started making fudge at my house for her granddaughters. She turned my children into the next “soft ball” testers and fudge connoisseurs. So, the pot stayed, pushed to the bottom of the drawer and only used when Mom came to make fudge.

And then one day, she died.

Horrible, stupid, life-stealing cancer. The pandemic stopped her from being treated much less diagnosed. And suddenly she was just gone.

I took the pot out for her funeral, planning to make fudge for the few people we were allowed to have. But the fudge was horrible. I couldn’t eat it. It would not be a good memory of my mom if I told them, it was her fudge.

So, the pot went back in the drawer, at the bottom, the better, more usable pots, stacked inside.

Until the anniversary of her death and I took the pot out again.

Maybe I needed distance from the pain, the raw ache her death brought. Maybe I needed something more than memories to connect me to her on that day. But I found myself wanting to make it right, my mom’s fudge.

I wasn’t thinking about mom while I made it. I only thought about getting to the end product. Yet each step I took, I felt my mom beside me. As I stirred the cream and milk into the sugar until the gritty feeling was gone, I felt her nodding, saying, “That’s right Andrea.” As I watched the mixture boil and bubble and rise up the walls of the pot, I heard her say, “Just a little longer dear.” I could hear her reminding me not to let the candy thermometer “touch the pot.” And as I beat the mixture, I somehow just knew when it was time to pour into the pan (also sneakily left by her) to let it set.

When it was time to serve it, I held my breath hoping it was her fudge, hoping for everyone to taste it, to say, “That’s it, that’s her fudge.”

It mattered that I get it right. I’d spent the last year grieving. Chastising myself for the times I was busy with my family and not making time for her. Regretting arguments we had and harsh words that fell. Feeling I had failed her as a daughter in so many ways. But making the fudge, hearing her voice nudging me along in a gentle, encouraging way, like she had so many times in my life, I somehow knew even if I let her down, she still loved me. I finally heard her voice in my head instead of my own, all because of the fudge.

And I shouldn’t be surprised to feel her because at the end of the day, when mom poured that fudge, she really poured love. She made up fudge baggies for special neighbourhood kids on Halloween, she took fudge to her mechanic and his staff, to doctors and pharmacy assistants, she’d make a batch for her nieces and friends she had tea with, and she made it for us and then the grandkids. She never had a lot of money, but she had a lot of love. And that’s what I felt, a year after her death – her love.

Turns out I needed that fudge pot after all.

Andrea Adair-Tippins lives in Whitby, Ont.

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