Friday, December 17, 2010

Irdy's Christmas Brittle

Although I have often written about my dear, late mother-in-law, Ellen, I have not written about my father-in-law, Arthur. The slight is not intentional: I never met the man during his lifetime. I knew of him - knew of him, in fact, long before I knew Ellen or even Warren - but was never introduced to him.

Warren has passed along to me some of Arthur's story. A veteran of World War II, he was one of our town's optometrists for 41 years before finally retiring when he was 80. Older than his wife by a decade, he was a quiet, no-nonsense man who early on shelved his love of drawing and art for the more practical and necessary problem of making a living: first to help out his family while growing up, then to support himself, then to support his wife and three children. A handsome man, he had a wide, bright smile in his younger days that dimmed to a muted but still pleasant hint of one as he aged.

Arthur Irvin Hyer, known in his family as "Irdy" until he enlisted in the Army, didn't have it easy growing up. The oldest son in a working class family, he worked during high school to help the household. He graduated from high school just months before the Great Depression hit, causing him to shelve his art studies and find paying jobs wherever he could. Joining the Army in the late 1930s to support himself, he was set to muster out in January 1942 before Pearl Harbor put an end to that plan. Art, as he was now known, spent the next three years in the Pacific as part of the Signal Corps of the 37th Division, taking part in the Solomon Islands campaign, until the physical and mental toll sent him stateside to recover in a military hospital in Virginia. It was there that he met a vivacious and striking Red Cross volunteer, Ellen Wilson, who was visiting recovering soldiers before she shipped to England. Four years later, after a courtship in Chicago, they were married, and two years after that, they moved to this town, establishing a practice and a family. Over fifty years later, he and Ellen died five weeks apart at home.

That's a snapshot of Art Hyer. That is the bare bones frame on which I hang whatever I have come to know about him. But there is another side to him that does not come through that lean retelling of his life and it is this: Arthur Irvin Hyer loved Christmas.

Absolutely loved it. Per Warren, Art loved the lights, the decorations, the songs, the spirit. He loved A Christmas Carol and often listened to a recorded retelling of it with Basil Rathbone playing Scrooge. I have seen family photographs and movies spanning many Christmases: there were wreaths, there were evergreen swags everywhere, including draped over paintings, there were the children, sequentially older, trooping to open their Christmas stockings.

Yes, Art Hyer loved Christmas. Our first year here, I filled a small wicker sleigh with an assortment of bulbs and set it on the chest in the front hallway, so you would see it first thing when you entered the house. Warren paused a moment and said, quietly, "Dad would have liked that."

An annual Christmas ritual in this household was the making of Hyer peanut brittle. Warren makes it yet; his brother also makes it. The recipe is set out at the end of this post, but I will tell you right now that you won't have quite the same experience, although you will have excellent brittle if you make it. It is not merely that you will lack the large waiter's tray from the Edgewater Beach Hotel on which to pour out the molten mixture for cooling - any buttered surface will do. No, you will catch a taste of a Hyer Christmas if you make this brittle, but you will miss the ineffable flavor that comes of making the brittle down through the generations, of knowing when you make it that you are carrying out traditions laid down long before your birth.  

I started this post by saying I never met Arthur Hyer during his lifetime, but that is not to say I never met him at all. Over four years after Arthur and Ellen's deaths at home - this home, after years of increasing tension and discord in this home as Warren's marriage crumbled and broke, after over two years of Warren being barred from here and kept from contact with his children, we married, moved back in, and made our first Christmas.

Warren commented often how comforting and sheltering the house was now that we were in it. I often felt the presence of Ellen as I worked in the home that she had loved and raised her family in, especially when I was baking in the kitchen. All during our first Christmas season in this home, Warren would get tears in his eyes at the restoration of peace and love.

One evening, after dusk had deepened but not yet turned to night, I stepped into the family room to retrieve something. The Christmas tree was not yet lit, but the lighted Chicago buildings that Warren placed on the window seat were. Warren was sitting in the recliner, rocking gently and looking at the lighted buildings. In the shadows, I could not see his face, but I could feel his contentment. Turning around to get the item I had come for, I asked him some small question. Warren didn't reply, so I turned back to ask him again, thinking he had not heard me.

The recliner was empty.

"Warren?" I quavered.

Warren was in another part of the house, had been in another part of the house the whole time. As I told him what had happened, I realized - we realized - who had been rocking in the recliner, enjoying the quiet and the lights and the peace.

It was Arthur, it was Irdy, come home one more time for Christmas.

Arthur Hyer's Peanut Brittle

1 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups corn syrup
1 pint (2 cups) of water
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ lb. raw peanuts (note: raw peanuts, not roasted)

Cook sugar, water and corn syrup to hard ball stage (use candy thermometer or drop small sample in cold water to test).
Add butter and peanuts.
Cook slowly, stirring often, until peanuts roast. You will smell them roasting and they will change from the pale, almost white of a raw peanut to brown.
When peanuts are roasted, add vanilla and soda, stirring in quickly.
Immediately pour mixture onto a buttered tray, spreading it out to as even a layer as possible.
Break into pieces when cool.


Arlene said...

Oh, yes... a Hyer Christmas was CHRISTMAS... When we lived just down the street, my tradition was to make doughnuts on Christmas Eve to take to the neighbors. Art and Ellen enjoyed them.

Once again, you have captured the spirit of the Hyer home that once wrapped itself around all who entered.

Art and Ellen were special people... how nice that Warren and you are once again knowing the warmth of that household.

Sharon said...

This story gave me goosebumps! What a wonderful tribute!

I felt the same way about my grandparent's home, but this past year my father sold it. I was quite saddened, because I always thought I would live there someday. It reminded me of peace and contentment too. And, by the way, peanut brittle was a big thing in my Grandfather's family..but my Great uncle had the recipe and it died with him. Thank you so much for posting yours. I will definitely try it out.

I am the working poor. said...

Beautiful story! My dad loved peanut brittle too. I must make some this year. I'll try your recipe too. :)