Every family seems to have a Christmas food tradition. In my family it was my mother’s traditional holiday preparation of divinity candy. My mother reveled in the experience of painstakingly preparing the sweet white clusters and, as a small boy, I looked forward with great anticipation to sampling the finished product; and always more than once.
My mother, Mary Louise Barr, was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1924 but grew-up in the small Southwest Missouri Ozarks town of Pineville. She and her three brothers, Dallas, Herschel and Ernest Jr. were raised by their widowed mother Margret as her father, Ernest, had died when she was only seven years old. The family was poor, but then in the 1920’s and early 1930’s what family wasn’t struggling, especially in the quiet town of Pineville.
Pineville sat alongside a small river that was the source of summer fun for the town’s children. They jumped into the local swimming hole and they fished from daybreak till darkness came over the old town. The homes seemed as though they must have been there forever, and electric lights and refrigerators were scarce. Almost everyone had an ice-box and the local ice company sold blocks of the icy liquid that kept the boxes cold inside. My mother grew up like most of the town’s children, aware that a larger world lay beyond the Pineville city limits but not envious of those that lived there.
My mother was married in 1941 and, from that moment on, became known as Mary Fine. For the next forty-eight years she was called mom by Bill, Beverly and me. When the family needed money, she took jobs outside the home. During my childhood my grandmother – my mother’s mother- came to live with us. Grandma Barr, as I called her, watched the children, cooked, cleaned and did the laundry. I fondly remember her dinners of spaghetti red.
I recall the evenings when my mother came through the door after a long day of work. She was a slender woman of average height with brown hair, and most found her appearance quite pleasing. To me, she was just mom. Although she was tired, she never failed to ask about my day. Of course, I very seldom had much that was newsworthy to talk about and I regretfully never inquired about her day. I now realize I missed those never to come again opportunities to know her better. I sometimes wake up at night with lingering regrets over those moments lost, and feel a sense of shame while remembering my self-centeredness.
I did, however, listen intently when my mother once shared her motion picture experience with me. She spun a story about her role in the 1939 20th Century Fox Daryl Zanuck produced movie, “Jesse James”. The film, later to be considered a cinema classic, was filmed in the Pineville area and for months many of the local area residents worked, in some capacity, for the studio with some being cast as extras. As a young girl my mother burst into stardom when in one brief scene she moved gracefully, quickly and silently across the screen while always under the artistic and critical eye of Daryl Zanuck.
My mother garnered so much satisfaction in giving gifts. Whether it was Christmas, a birthday or maybe just no special occasion at all, she loved to see an appreciative smile when a gift was received. I never fully understood why those moments brought her such joy, but I guess we all have our own visions of what happiness is. My mother was often perceived as a serious sort but if you really knew her, you realized she was happiest when she was funny and the center of attention.
I loved my mother but never realized how much until she passed away in 1986. I suppose, as the saying goes, we never really appreciate something, or someone, until we no longer have it. I regret I didn’t know her when she was that young girl growing up in Pineville. She was a movie star and someone filled with so much excitement about her life to come. If I were granted but one wish, I would ask that I could spend a single day with that young, funny and vibrant girl who was so full of life, Mary Louise.
Oh yes, here is my mother’s recipe for divinity candy;
- 3 cups sugar
- 1⁄2 cup light corn syrup
- 2⁄3 cup water
- 2 egg whites
- 1⁄8 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- Bring sugar, corn syrup, salt and water to a boil.
- Cook to hard ball stage, (250-265°F) wiping any crystals from side of pan from time to time. This will take about 10-15 minute.
- While syrup is boiling, beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks.
- Very slowly pour a thin stream of syrup into the stiff egg whites keeping mixer at med high speed for as long as possible, reducing speed to med as mixture thickens. Add Vanilla.
- Continue beating until mixture is very thick and loses its gloss. This will take quite a while, maybe 15 minutes, so be patient. Stir in nuts with spoon. Drop spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Allow to cool completely at room temperature.