Cassandra King shares how our sweetest memories live on.

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Christmas Sweet Roll Wreath
Credit: Greg DuPree; Food Styling: Margaret Monroe Dickey; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke

Somehow, we've come to believe that all Christmas memories must be happy ones or they don't count. In my case, I can look back and say that, regardless of what else might have been going on, the magic that is Christmas made the majority of my holidays good ones. I hold recollections in my heart with joy and gratitude, as treasures to be cherished.

Yet many of them, as the years go by, remain bittersweet, despite the glow of the season. In the midst of the happy remembrances are the difficult ones, always lurking in the shadows.

I was 17 the year my paternal grandmother, whom we called Big Mama, died. Right out of central casting, she was plump with a sweet face, and her white-streaked hair was often pinned in two braids on top of her head. As the oldest granddaughter, I spent my time with her in the kitchen, learning the secrets of the unique recipes she brought from her Swiss heritage. At Christmas, though, she baked all of the requisite Southern cakes and pies.

That year, I'd learned to cook and wanted to surprise her with something different. Because my family lived close by, we always had a Christmas Eve supper of oyster stew with my grandparents. Before adjourning to the dining room, we gathered around the tree to open our presents. I couldn't wait to show off what I had made: a cinnamony sweet bread that was shaped like a wreath and had a cranberry-pecan filling.

I knew Big Mama had been sick, and I'd heard the dreaded word "cancer" whispered among the grown-ups. Such things weren't discussed then, and I was blessedly unaware of how ill she was. I'd been too excited to show her my wreath to worry, even when she appeared in her robe for the gift exchange. Afterward, Mother ushered everyone to the dining room, where my little sisters got to sit at the big table. Big Mama's chair was conspicuously empty, but Mother prepared a tray for her after the blessing was said. Despite the joyous occasion, an undeniable somberness hung over us. Laughter felt forced, and holiday greetings rang hollow. For the first time, I felt a tinge of fear.

Mother placed a bowl of oyster stew, saltine crackers, apple salad, and iced tea on a tray for me to take to Big Mama. At the door, I stopped, stricken. My grandmother sat in her rocker with gifts piled at her feet and her face buried in her hands. As soon as she heard me approach, she raised her head and quickly composed herself. "Oh, honey, that's so sweet, but I'm not hungry," she said when she saw the meal. "Just leave the tea, and I'll be fine." I tried to stay with her, but she shooed me away, insisting I go back to my supper. I couldn't eat either, and my grandfather teased that I was too old to be excited about Santa Claus.

When dinner was over, Mother got up to serve ambrosia and fruitcake. I hurried to get the Christmas wreath I'd hidden under a dishcloth. Instead of bringing it to the table, I slipped out of the kitchen with it on one of Mother's silver platters. Big Mama's face lit up when I brought it to her and uncovered it with a flourish. "Oh, my," she said with a smile. "Don't tell me you made that!" When I admitted I'd done it to surprise her, she declared it too pretty to cut and said, "But you made it to eat, so let's you and me try it."

I'm not sure if the wreath was the last thing she ate, but I imagine it was the last thing she was able to enjoy. Barely three weeks later, she left this world for the next one. It would be years before I baked that wreath again. I couldn't bear the memory of the previous time I'd made it and the underlying sorrow of my grandmother's last Christmas. One year, when my children were little, they wanted stories of my holidays growing up. I told them about the grandmother they never knew and the year I made her a special treat. "Make us one, Mommy!" they begged, and I knew the time had come. Since then, I've made it every year. I always have gratitude that, whether joyful or sad, our sweetest memories live on.

Get the recipe here