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Divinity

My grandmother died this afternoon. It was a mercy. She was in her late 80s, and had been in a nursing home suffering from dementia and other ailments for years. I went to see her yesterday for what I knew would be the last time. She was in a coma. There was nothing to say except prayers. The time I saw her before that was in the hospital a couple of months ago, when we didn’t think she was going to make it. She wasn’t sure who I was, but she begged me to take her back home to Starhill. She said she would rather go to Hell than back to that nursing home.

The home was not a bad place. She just was tired of being there. I don’t blame her.

My grandmother — she was my mom’s mom — was not particularly close to Ruthie and me. It was a complicated family story, and a sad one. But neither was there any hostility. I was cleaning the church in Starhill when Mama called me from the nursing home in an eastern suburb of Baton Rouge with the news. I prayed for my grandmother, and finished my work. There will be a baby boy’s baptism tomorrow in Starhill, and I’m standing godfather. Life moves on.

Driving home from church, I passed by the Starhill Cemetery, where my grandmother will be laid to rest next week, next to my grandfather and her daughter, my Aunt Julia, who died of cancer at age 42, just like my sister did. My grandmother — Uncle Jimmy’s sister [1] — was a plain country lady who had a hard life. Burying a daughter was the worst of it, no doubt, but not the whole of it.

When I was a kid, the only reason why we would come down Audubon Lane is to go visit her and my grandfather. Not too many people lived on Audubon Lane in those days. That has changed a lot in 50 years. Now I’m one of the people who live along Audubon Lane. The house where my grandparents made their home has been swallowed up by trees. Life moves on.

Driving up Audubon Lane this afternoon, praying for my grandmother’s soul, and thinking about my happiest memory of her, I remembered her divinity. Have you ever heard of divinity? Here’s a recipe. [2] It’s a traditional Southern candy made from sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, pecans, and egg whites. If fudge were made out of clouds, it would be divinity. I can’t remember the last time I had it. Does anybody make divinity anymore?

My grandmother made it from time to time when I was little. I can remember sitting on a stool in her kitchen once when I was very small, maybe five years old, watching her dropping the hot, sticky nuggets of divinity onto wax paper spread out on the table. Before long they would be cool enough to eat. Nothing else tasted like divinity. It was so pillowy and sweet. Back then, I was too little to know what the word “divinity” meant; to my ears, it sounded magical. It was what that impossibly delicious candy Mawmaw made was called. Divinity was the candy, and the candy was divinity, and Mawmaw made it, nobody else.

Divinity.

Divinity is traditionally snow white (see the photo above), but my grandmother sometimes added a little food coloring to her batches, which made them turn out in bright pastels. Decades later, when I first saw Wayne Thiebaud’s gorgeous paintings of cakes, pies, and meringues [3], I was instantly captivated by them, for reasons I have never been able to explain. Today I learned why. They reminded me of Mawmaw’s divinity.

I remember where I was the first time I saw her pastel divinity. She brought it over to our house in a repurposed fruitcake tin, lined with wax paper. She knew Ruthie and I loved divinity. When I opened the tin, instead of the usual white candy, there they were, pink, pale green, sky blue, lemon yellow. It was breathtaking, as if someone had given us a box full of colored Christmas tree lights that you could eat, and that tasted sweet in a way that nothing else tasted sweet. If you drank a sip of Coke after eating a piece of divinity, it foamed up in your mouth (the egg whites), and nothing else did that but divinity.

The next time Mawmaw made her pastel divinity, I was sitting on that stool, watching her push chunks of wet divinity off of one spoon onto another, onto the wax paper. By the time she finished, she had covered half the dining table with rows and rows of pastel divinity candies, cooling into stiff peaks and whorls, mesmerizing a little boy with their colors, their shapes, the harmonies and lines, and the promise that if put one in my mouth, the taste would infuse me with the same bright candied pleasure. They were just like a Wayne Thiebaud painting, I now realize, but you could eat them, and they were created not by a famous artist, but by my grandmother, a simple country lady who had a hard life. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that she made beautiful candy that no one else made, and that as a little boy, this candy made me as happy as anything else did.

The kitchen where she produced these nuggets of pure joy disappeared into the woods a long time ago. And now she is gone too, delivered at last from her many agonies, gone home, finally, like she wanted.

Helen Fletcher Howard died today. Once upon a time she colored my world with divinity.

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79 Comments (Open | Close)

79 Comments To "Divinity"

#1 Comment By grumpy realist On June 19, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

Beautiful and touching piece of writing, Rod. Thank you, and may she rest in peace.

(Can anyone tell me the difference between nougat and divinity? I remember making a batch of nougat once strictly according to directions and after getting the little bars into a tin they all slumped over each other and melded together into a sticky mess.)

[NFR: I think the difference must be that nougat is sticky. Divinity is not sticky. Come to think of it, divinity is like a cross between nougat and a meringue. — RD]

#2 Comment By Annemarie On June 19, 2016 @ 12:53 pm

My grandma died last week. My grandma didn’t make divinity, but your writing about the memory of watching her do something so simple yet so beautiful reminded me of my Grammie. Thank God for the ordinary people that make our lives extraordinary. We will light a candle for your grandmother’s soul in church.

[NFR: Thank you. I was just thinking about you yesterday, remembering our conversation at the festival in Clear Creek. It was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. May the memory of your Grammie be eternal. — RD]

#3 Comment By TZX4 On June 19, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

Interesting essay, Rod.
After losing my Mom at 93 last November after a 5 day deathbed vigil, due to dementia and other ailments, well, I can’t quite spell it out, but my emotions flowered while reading the passage about the candy. I suspect it is a metaphor for all things sweet about your lost grandma, and applies to my reality as well.

#4 Comment By TZX4 On June 19, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

I forgot to say thank you and offer you solidarity in your grief.

#5 Comment By Ms On June 19, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

What a lovely memory. May the angels greet her.

#6 Comment By WillW On June 19, 2016 @ 1:57 pm

Responding to the linked Uncle Jimmy article, I’m in Taco Bell in a Tennessee town nobody has ever heard of. There’s a man here who has on a clean white Oxford shirt under what are almost certainly his clean good “Sunday overalls.” As the empire crashes and burns, there may actually be hope for us in the provinces. I pray so.

#7 Comment By Sam M On June 19, 2016 @ 2:43 pm

Condolences to you and yours.

Interesting to wonder which little things we do will stick with those we love. It’s usually not the grand gestures.

#8 Comment By DredNicolson On June 19, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

My condolences.

Divinity is notoriously hard to make. To get the light cloudy texture that’s the candy’s hallmark, you need to hit just the right amounts of heating and beating. Too much heat will scorch the egg whites–too much beating will release all the trapped air and flatten the texture. The climate of the kitchen affects the outcome also; high humidity will raise the water content of the mixture and spoil the whole enterprise.

Getting it right is more art than science, taking patience, experience, and a willingness to fail (and eat divinity-turned-fudge) many times. Things that the Millennial generation have in very short supply, it seems.

#9 Comment By Caroline Walker On June 19, 2016 @ 4:00 pm

May she rest in peace. Oh that we could visit again a world in which Divinity arrives in a repurposed fruitcake tin.
My Dad died a month ago. Last week while going through his closet with Mom, a memory briefly enveloped me like one of Proust’s Madeleines. I remember visiting Dad’s office…I must have been very small because he picked me up. I remember the smell of wet wool on his shoulder, from his suit. That smell washed over me in his closet.

#10 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On June 19, 2016 @ 4:57 pm

May her memory be eternal. Such grace to hear your story and to read all the other ones you’ve prompted.

We will all be praying together.

#11 Comment By David J. White On June 19, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

My condolences on the passing of your grandmother. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. I remembered her at Mass today, as well as my father and yours on this Father’s Day.

My grandmother (not Southern at all) made something that sounds similar, but not as sweet. She made them around Christmas, as one of her variety of Christmas cookies. She called them Angel Kisses. They involved egg whites whipped into a meringue, plus sugar and, I think, chopped walnuts rather than pecans, then lightly sprinkled with colored sugar. I don’t recall that she ever used food coloring to make them in different colors. My mother continued to make them in later years. I have the recipe (along with all of her and my mother’s other Christmas cookie recipes) around here somewhere.

I remember one day when my sister and I were young — this would have been around 1968 or so — we went and picked currants at place my grandparents knew, and then my grandmother made currant jelly. She hadn’t done it in years, apparently, but she decided that she wanted her grandchildren to have a memory of her making jelly. We still remember it. It was the first time I’d ever heard of currants. 😉

#12 Comment By Adamant On June 19, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

Very sorry for your loss Rod. Losing grandparents is truly a loss of a link to a world different from our own, and we’re the poorer for it, even as the memories are cherished.

#13 Comment By The Sicilian Woman On June 19, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

I’ve had commercially-made divinity and it was good, though I’d love to try some that’s been homemade. I’ve heard that it’s difficult to make, and success depends on humidity and such.

Thanks to you and MikeCA, my sweet tooth has been mobilized. 😉

My sympathy, Rod. May your Mawmaw rest in peace.

#14 Comment By Deb C On June 19, 2016 @ 6:19 pm

My condolences on the loss of your grandmother. I’m glad she was in your life for such a long time. I’m glad she had a grandson who could write such a lovely tribute on her passing.

My Aunt Mildred in Mississippi made divinity completely worthy of the name. It was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted. She was a simple country woman, but she was a divinity genius. When we recall the aunts, we always recall her divinity. Funny how things like that work.

[NFR: I think part of it must be that nothing else tastes quite like divinity. It’s the texture, don’t you think? The lighter than air quality, like a meringue, but it’s not a meringue. It’s way better. Anyway, I have no idea that a Mississippi woman named Mildred could make some very fine divinity. — RD

#15 Comment By Missh On June 19, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

What a beautiful essay. My sympathies to your family for your loss.

#16 Comment By DancerGirl On June 19, 2016 @ 9:11 pm

My condolences to you and your family. This was a really beautiful piece of writing, and a lovely way to honor her.

#17 Comment By VikingLS On June 19, 2016 @ 10:42 pm

May her memory be eternal!

My mom makes something like divinity, but doesn’t call it that. I am going to have to ask her to show me how it’s done.

Nice post

#18 Comment By Blake Blount On June 19, 2016 @ 11:35 pm

I’m sorry for the death of your grandmother, Mr. Dreher. I pray the Holy Spirit comforts you and your family.

Your mentioning of divinity brought back memories of my great-grandparents. I’ve been blessed to know three of them, which doesn’t seem as common these days. The last two to die, my mother’s paternal grandparents, were excellent makers of that wonderful, white fluff. They were also good, godly folks who embodied the very best of the South: kindhearted, hardworking, and hospitable to the core. Their family, their church, and their neighbors were marked by Christ living through them. At least, they left a mark on this young college kid.

Thank you for your writing. Thank you for stirring up these thoughts and memories. Thank you for defending “bohemian” conservatism and the values that make such memories possible. I greatly appreciate it.

#19 Comment By Moone Boy On June 20, 2016 @ 5:58 am

Thank you for sharing these beautiful memories.

I really don’t remember my own grandparents (just maybe: a dim memory of one gran playing with her dentures to amuse me…)

However: I know the stories – & I know my parents better because of that.

It was one reason I felt a sense of increasing urgency about kids myself: so that they and their grandparents could know each other.

It’s kind of wonderful how even 2nd hand small stories can imbue history with a sense of real, too.

My oldest aunt may she RIP, born the year before the foundation of my country’s state, once relayed a small memory to me: as a small child (one of her earliest memories) watching her grandfather, with a big long white beard, eating and relishing a bowl of golden grits. He would have been born a generation from – but within living memory of – the Great Hunger (the Famine).

Hang on to those beautiful little memories, and keep passing them on.

God Bless.

#20 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On June 20, 2016 @ 8:45 am

I’m sorry for the loss of your grandmother, Rod.

May the Lord have mercy on her and welcome her into His heavenly kingdom, where tears and sorrow are no more.

#21 Comment By Joan On June 20, 2016 @ 9:30 am

My deepest condolences and a pox on you for waking up my sugar cravings.

#22 Comment By Eliana On June 20, 2016 @ 10:41 am

Your grandmother’s divinity was a work of art.

It has always been this way: the world full of unsung people in unsung places who express their love and devotion, their creativity and sense of wonder, through such ordinary and marvelous acts.

May her memory always be a blessing for you and all who loved her.

#23 Comment By Jeremy Hickerson On June 20, 2016 @ 11:34 am

Great post, Rod

#24 Comment By Chuck On June 20, 2016 @ 3:59 pm

You did it again Dreher: you made this would be southern-stoic military vet go all misty-eyed.

#25 Comment By William S On June 20, 2016 @ 6:46 pm

My grandfather in Iowa used to make divinity. Except he used black walnuts.

May she rest in peace.

#26 Comment By (((Darth Thulhu))) On June 20, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

May God guide and illumine her in all the worlds to come.

#27 Comment By (((Darth Thulhu))) On June 20, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

Rod wrote:

My grandmother — she was my mom’s mom — was not particularly close to Ruthie and me. It was a complicated family story, and a sad one.

Always unfortunate to hear. The blessings shared in the passing of your father were quite beautiful, and it is sad to hear that similar blessings were not equally available in the passing of your grandmother.

May the love that was there resonate and grow with time.

#28 Comment By (((Darth Thulhu))) On June 20, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

As for the divinity, one of my mother’s greatest regrets was never learning to make divinity as well as her mother had.

When her mother died shortly after my birth, she and her father soon had a permanent falling out. My father not being a fan of it meant that there was thus not much occasion for her to make it, and she was quite clear that she didn’t make it as well as her mother had, and thus she almost never made it. (Instead, we got pies and cookies. Lots and lots of pies and cookies.)

I’m glad that your grandmother was able to give you and your sister such a beautiful blessing with such practiced ease.

#29 Comment By texasaggiemom On July 4, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

Beautiful tribute, Rod. My grandmother made divinity, too, and I haven’t thought about it in years. Might have to try it so that my children can at least know what it is and I can share that memory with them.