Postcard from Magnolia: Fruitcakes baked with sweet intentions
Seattle Times staff reporter
This is a story about love, war and fruitcake, and because it's easier to talk about, we begin with fruitcake.
Mary Williams, a retired librarian, has baked around 5,000 of them. She's been doing it for 33 years, sometimes baking as many as 500 in a single holiday season. She sells them for $10 apiece and gives the money to the children.
That's how she refers to them, "the children," as if all the world's ragged kids were in the next room. Actually, she gives the proceeds to a long list of charities for children, foremost among them the George Mueller orphanage in England and the Northwest Center for the Retarded in Seattle. Recently, she gave to a Mission of Mercy program to help the children of Afghanistan.
"I know what they're going through," she says in a lilting voice much younger than her years.
She is 85, with a shock of white hair and newly blue-green eyes after the cataracts were removed. She holds forth like an aristocrat but cackles like a teenager. She pronounces "heart" like a true Brit, as in, "I left my haaht in Bristol."
She was born in England, came to America in 1946, just after the war, and has lived in Seattle for the past four decades, in a little brick house on Magnolia. She worked in the library at Virginia Mason Medical Center for 22 years. When asked why, if she loved children so much, she never had any, she replies with a glint and a cackle:
"I never got married, and I was a good girl."
She says this is her last year to make fruitcakes. Her energy is running down. "It's the end of my project," she says.
Fruitcake is one of the most maligned foods in America. Generally, it's a mixture of fruits and nuts with just enough batter to hold them together. When wrapped in cloth or foil, saturated with liquor, such as brandy or rum, a fruitcake may be kept for months or even years.
The New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne once wrote that he inherited a fruitcake that had been in his mother's possession since 1880.
It's not a neutral food. Its heft and lumpy psychedelic presence demand a response: eat it or pitch it? Serve or use as a wheel block? In ancient times, lore has it, crusaders carried fruitcake to sustain themselves over long journeys and when necessary used it as a bludgeoning tool.
Mary has heard all the jokes.
"I promptly push the delete button," she says.
All she knows is she has many more customers than she can keep up with. Her circle of patrons began at Virginia Mason and widened by word of mouth over 33 years to the other side of the country. This year, she'll be sending cakes to Dallas, Texas, and Birmingham, Ala.
If she could, and if U.S. Customs didn't make it so hard, she'd be sending fruitcake back to the old country. The English take their fruitcake very seriously. Britain once had laws regulating the seasons in which fruitcake could be made. Debates were held over proper methods of preparation and presentation. Mary was born into this climate.
The provenance of her project to help children came into being pieces at a time, going all the way back to World War II when she was in her mid-20s and living in the English town of Cheltenham. The town endured six years of bombing by Nazi fliers. She watched in horror as children were injured and orphaned.
"When you went out, you never knew if you were coming back," she says. "My heart went out to the babies."
She says she had an abiding fondness for children even as a child. They were the best people on Earth, and they seemed to be drawn to her, too. Mary knew early that children would somehow be a big part of her life.
When she was 23, just as the war was getting under way, she met and fell in love with a young man who had the same affinity for children. His name was Phillip Ward. He was a soldier in the British army. He was, if you're inclined to believe in that kind of thing, the love of her life. They planned to marry.
One early morning in 1940, in the city of Bristol, Mary and her fiancé took a walk through a cemetery and came upon a towering statue of George Mueller, the English preacher and philanthropist who founded what would become that country's greatest network of orphanages.
At the foot of the statue, the young soldier told Mary that after they got married, they would help children, too, and they would donate time and money to Mueller's orphans.
Ward went off to war and never returned. He was listed as missing in action for four years and was presumed dead. Mary waited for him, and even now, 61 years later, hesitates to say that he's gone.
She gets quiet when the subject comes up. She'll talk about the unfathomable pains of war and the empty spaces that last forever. She'll say she knows what the children and widows of Afghanistan are going through, as can only a person who has experienced it.
With some coaxing, she'll tell you about the cemetery walk six decades ago, and the words that were spoken under the statue. And how she waited. How one year stretched to four. It would be years after the war, and after moving to America, before life got settled enough for her to start fulfilling her part of the pact.
Four years stretched to 10 and then 20 and 30, and suddenly she's standing in a tiny room in a little brick house on Magnolia, 85 years old and surveying, for the last time, row after row of candied loaves of her own concocting.
Her expression shows gladness at the end of a project, and something else, too, something we might have to live eight decades to understand.
It was all for the children, she will tell you. And like a proper Englishwoman, she will ask you to stay for a cup of Red Rose tea and a slice of some of the best psychedelic cake you'll ever taste.