Brian McGrory

This tradition takes the cake

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / December 22, 2010

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Ah, December, that special time of year filled with festive family traditions involving gingerbread houses and Christmas carols and, in the case of Jeanne Callinan and Joan Flaherty, a 23-year-old fruitcake that refuses to die.

This particular tradition began around the time that poor Aunt Peggy’s life ended. You see, someone sent the family a mail-order fruitcake every Christmas, and Aunt Peggy was the only member of the extended clan who willingly — actually, happily — ate it.

So 23 years ago, Peggy in a better place, Joan Flaherty wrapped it up and gave it to her daughter, Jeanne. The following December, Jeanne was pulling out the Christmas decorations in her new apartment and found the fruitcake, sealed in its original box, stored among the ornaments and lights.

What to do, what to do? Her new husband, Charlie, clever, cheap, or both, proposed giving it back to her mother for Christmas, so they put it in an old stereo box and presented it on Christmas morning. “I don’t know how many pounds it was, but it was a weapon,’’ Jeanne said.

As Joan tore off the wrapping, tears of joy welled in her eyes — her only daughter, spending scarce savings on a new sound system for her mother. She would enjoy it every day and treasure it forever.

Then she reached into the box and pulled out the fruitcake. “She looked at me and said, ‘You [noun that can’t be used here],’ ’’ Jeanne recalled. It was war, and it would go on as long as they did.

Back and forth it’s gone for nearly a quarter of a century, through recessions and expansions, births and deaths, the constant being the same Butterfield Farms fruitcake (yes, the company still exists; no they didn’t respond to an inquiry on whether they found this amusing) that defines the expression that it is better to give than receive.

Mother and daughter had to get creative in the presentation, because neither would willingly accept it back. There was the year that Jeanne convinced radio personality Hank Morse at WROR-FM to knock on her mother’s door and say she won a Loren and Wally contest. When Joan delightedly sifted through the package of T-shirts, CDs, and dashboard statues, she pulled out the fruitcake and cussed. “Ah yes, Joan Flaherty and the fruitcake,’’ Morse said yesterday.

Then there was the year that Joan brought the cake, still in its sealed box, to the local Star Market and asked the baker if he’d cover it with foil and frosting and disguise it as a Christmas cake. “They put a Santa Claus and a sleigh on it,’’ Joan said yesterday. When Jeanne cut into it at her open house, the knife nearly broke in pieces, everyone yelling, ‘Gotcha!’ ’’

Funny part is, the two could not be closer. Joan was a single mother who raised Jeanne, an only child, on what the daughter described as a “wing and a prayer,’’ working 43 years at the telephone company and taking second jobs at night to get her through Emerson College.

These days, Joan, a crafty 73, lives in a newly renovated apartment in Jeanne’s Medford house, where doting son-in-law Charlie wanted to hide the fruitcake between the studs in her bedroom wall.

“She is the best mom in the world,’’ Jeanne said.

But such feelings never get in the way of the mission. The fruitcake has been disguised in the bottom of a Christmas bouquet. It’s been stashed inside a gift popcorn tin. One December, Joan, a cancer survivor, was surrounded during a checkup by oncologists and nurses who said they wanted to present a gift for being so upbeat with other patients. Yes, the fruitcake.

Yesterday morning, Joan won the “Volunteer Usher Raffle’’ at the Stoneham Theatre. Friends gathered around her as she opened the gorgeous box and pushed aside the festive tissue to find, well, the 23-year-old Butterfield Farms fruitcake that is now hers for the year.

“I’ve already got a plan for next Christmas,’’ Joan said.

Of course she does. What are holidays without traditions?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at