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Grandma's Fruit Cake

A wise old woman in the desert who had no religious beliefs

Plate with slice of fruit cake and a fork, on wooden table, with white china vase of dahlias, dill seed head and cosmos, with ornament of a blackbird.
Fresh fruit cake, flowers and blackbird at Evergreen.

When I was eleven years old, Grandma came on a journey with us across the Australian desert. To pay her way she made a fruit cake, stowed it in her bag, and brought it out at key moments during the trip.

Grandma scared me a little.

She was my mother’s mother, but they were so dissimilar I sometimes wondered if it was a lie. Grandma smoked rollies, dyed her very short hair black, had legs like sticks, and wore bright red lipstick so that her teacups and cigarette butts were always smudged with red as if she’d kissed them repeatedly.

Mum was a lady. She never swore, never smoked, her legs were shapely, her face was free of make-up and her long hair was a natural soft brown, curled into a meek bun at the back of her head.

Mum believed in God. Grandma didn’t. She said God was “a lot of nonsense!”.

Despite this, Grandma didn’t want to be left behind when our family drove right across the bottom of Australia, from Perth on the west coast to the Blue Mountains on the east coast, to keep a religious festival with a group my family thought at the time were God’s Chosen People.

It included crossing the Nullabor Plain, a place with no trees and very little water. The government had erected water tanks along the route to ensure we didn’t die of thirst, but they hadn’t yet found the funds to seal the road. So, for a couple of days, we bumped along miles of pale-yellow gravel littered with potholes in our little blue Austin A40, which rattled and squeaked alarmingly.

One day out of the whole trip remains a bright memory, and Grandma’s fruit cake was the star.

It was what the church we belonged to called the Day of Atonement. On this special annual holy day we weren’t to eat or drink anything from one sunset to the next sunset, twenty-four hours of physical deprivation to enable us to draw closer to God.

We camped at a water tank just off the road and prepared to endure a day of hunger, thirst, heat, and flies. Grandma was cross because I and my two sisters weren’t eating or drinking for such a long time. I heard her arguing with Mum behind the tent, but Mum and God won. So, Grandma sat on her own in the paltry shade of a mulga bush, sipping tea and consuming toast with thickly spread jam and butter.

The long day dragged on. We were in the tent listening to Dad read from the Bible where it said we’d be cut off from among God’s people if we disobeyed Him, when we heard a truck in the distance. I expected it to thunder past in a cloud of dust, but the driver pulled into our camping spot. While Mum put the Bibles away, Dad went out to say hello, shake his hand and invite him into the tent, the least one would do in this isolated setting.

Grandma brightened perceptively, put the kettle on the campfire, and collected cups for everyone. Then she got out her tin of fruit cake, cut slices, and arranged them on a plate. Mum put all the cups away except two, one for Grandma and one for the driver. Dad frowned at us girls as we eyed the cake, but we weren’t tempted. We didn’t want to be cut off from God’s people because of a piece of cake.

The truck driver talked and ate and drank energetically. He took great bites into the fruit cake with big yellow teeth and told Grandma she was an excellent cook. I didn’t need him to tell me what a wonderful cake it was. Grandma soaked the fruit in rum for a couple of days before adding it to the mixture. The currants and sultanas sat plump and juicy within each slice he consumed.

He finally left us, his wheels generating another cumulous cloud of dust, and the afternoon limped on. I thought this day would be the first day that the sun wouldn’t go down since God had created it and set the world spinning around it. But it finally disappeared below the fiery horizon, and we sipped water while Mum heated baked beans and boiled potatoes on the campfire.

We all sat outside in the cool of the evening and ate in silence, savouring each mouthful. Afterwards, Grandma got out her fruit cake again and we each had a slice. Taking a bite of it felt like a privilege. I looked up at the night sky as countless stars came out, packed closer together than the sultanas and currants in her fruit cake.

Sepia-coloured photo of a woman about sixty with a slight smile, short black hair, wearing a short-sleeved flowery print dress. In a garden, with old wooden house partly visible.
My Grandma, who made a fruit cake and brought it along to share during our trip across the Australian desert when I was a girl.

Living Without Religious Beliefs

I now know that what we were doing in the desert was a lot of nonsense, just like Grandma said it was.

I’ve learned to let go of limiting religious beliefs and no longer try to obey an invisible power in the heavens who supposedly commands me to fast or keep certain days of the year holy. Like Grandma was all those years ago, I’m wary of nonsense. Grandma didn’t need religious beliefs to make her a decent human being, and neither do I.

I sometimes make fruit cake, and as I do I remember a wise and generous old woman in the desert who just came along for the ride, bringing along in her bag something that she had made and wanted to share.

Although I’m in my very late sixties, my smoking, swearing, fruit-cake-making, lipstick-wearing Grandma is still one of my heroes.

With love, Marlane

Do you have religious beliefs that you now question?

Are your beliefs worth keeping?

One way to find out is to go to my site: where you can enter your email to download my free PDF, “Are Your Beliefs Worth Keeping?”

You’ll be glad you did!

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