by: Wes Ishmael

Hooter could hardly wait to get to Aunt Pinky's for an afternoon snack. She told him over the weekend she would be doing her Christmas baking and candy making for the next week or so. That meant all kinds of confections and delicacies for which she was legendary.

There would be divinity so fluffy and white that it would melt just by looking at it too hard; fudge rich enough to pay taxes; kolaches with fruit centers of every kind and dusted with powdered sugar; popcorn balls, sweet and large, with just a hint of salt; tins of caramel corn; enough Christmas cookies, pies and cakes to make an anvil cry uncle.

Hooter didn't have to open the door or smell the burnt sugar for his heart to drop below basement level. The windows were open and a haze of smoke hung in the air. When he did summon enough jam to open the door, he saw his aunt as he remembered during too many other holiday baking binges: collapsed in a kitchen chair, eyes glistening, fingers bandaged with remnants of a dishtowel.

She'd tried to make candy canes again.

“Not a word,” Aunt Pinky said, raising a battered and blistered hand. She blew her nose. “I'll be getting on with the rest of it, shortly. Drop by later.”

Why We Try

Candy canes were to Aunt Pinky what that giant whale was to the man in the boat. Ever since she was a girl, she had read enough candy cane recipes to make an encyclopedia blush. She'd quizzed every candy maker she knew or could find. Once, she even rang the folks at Spangler Candy Co., the commercial candy cane giant in Ohio.

Every time she tried, it was the same: a disaster of one kind or another; nothing resembling the pristine, simple, red and white, cane-shaped, peppermint sugar sticks she envisioned or could buy for not that much money.

Still, she tried, every few years, unable to give up on her quest. It was the story, Hooter supposed. It was the first he could remember, and he could still see his aunt's eyes sparkle and dance with excitement when she shared it, the same way they still did when she told the story today.

Hooter could remember his Aunt handing him and Charlie a candy cane each, candy canes that seemed about as tall as they were. “Look at it and tell me what you see.”

Hooter couldn't remember his or Charlie's replies, but never forgot what came next.

“You see how it's shaped like a cane? That reminds us of the shepherd's cane and those wise men who followed the star to the manager where Jesus was born. The white color stands for Jesus' purity, His sinless nature. The red reminds us that His love for us came at a great sacrificial cost. The way they're wrapped together reminds us that we couldn't have the one without the other. And see these three little red stripes that almost look like one big one; that reminds us of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It reminds us of the promise made and the promise made good.”

Then, as she still did today, when sharing the story, Aunt Pinky would open her dog-eared Bible.

“This is from Isaiah (9:6),” she would read. ‘For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'”

She'd ruffle the pages ahead with a sense of excitement: “This is from Micah (5:2). ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.' Those are just two of the many promises made about our Saviour in the Old Testament.”

Aunt Pinky would thumb quickly ahead: “And, from Luke (2:8-12) in the Gospels, the Good News: ‘In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all of the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

After telling them the story for the first time all those years ago, Hooter remembered how Aunt Pinky placed a loving hand on his and Charlie's cheek—soft as angel's wings he reckoned then and now—and kissed them on top of their heads.

“That's what I see when I see a candy cane,” she said.

And that's why Aunt Pinky continued her quest to create a candy cane worthy of what it represented to her.

Perfectly Imperfect

Once Aunt Pinky got over her most recent candy-cane-making fiasco, it was full steam ahead, baking, making, building, decorating, wrapping, doing and undoing.

Still, Hooter wanted her to have an extra special Christmas morning. He showed up about an hour before sunrise, even parked about a mile back and walked, hoping to sneak in undetected. He'd spent different parts of the past year tooling a new leather purse for her. When his knife went askew, a bevel came out too rough, or a stamp ate too far into the leather, or not enough, he suspected he knew how helpless his Aunt felt in trying to make the perfect candy cane.

Turned out, he opened the door just after his aunt had entered the living room. “Just the strangest feeling,” she would say later about why she woke up.

Aunt Pinky was staring at her Christmas Tree. She pointed to a specific spot.

Hanging there was the poorest excuse for a candy cane Hooter had ever seen: more red than white, more square than round, lacking symmetry throughout, barely enough curve to grasp the branch and punctuated by what appeared to be holes in the candy.

A note was tied to the candy cane by a slender, elegant red ribbon, unlike Hooter had ever seen:

“Aunt P., as you can see, after all these years, I too, struggle with these peppermint demons. All we can do is try our best…and be thankful for elves. Merry Christmas, Dear—Mrs. C.”

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