The Canning Jar

Ruminations on motherhood

Even though we hated garden work, we liked its taste: crunchy sweet peas in their shells, raw beans, rhubarb pies and sauces, cukes vinegared to pickles, swiss chard greens steamed in the pressure cooker.

Our corn never grew well, so we carted bushel baskets home from nearby farms. Mom froze it in groups of twelve, dozens set aside, but the first twenty-four we ate right away. There was nothing as good as that first August feast, nothing else served but ears and ears of fresh corn, smothered in butter and salt.

We cleaned and measured all the vegetables into plastic bags and carried them down to the double size freezer in the basement. The butcher-wrapped meat, labeled in hand-written black ink, hamburger, steak, liver, roast--we bought a whole side of beef--and the chickens took up the left side of the freezer, vegetables and fruits the center, and on the right, set neatly in a row, large cannisters of ice cream.

I sneaked spoonfuls right out of those tall cardboard cartons, labeled like the meat in black letters: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. I hid my big serving spoon on the shelf above the freezer, behind our own ice cream maker. On special days we bought rock salt and ice, jammed it in the bucket around a custard of cream, sugar and eggs, cranked the handle of the dasher over and over and over until we had the best homemade ice cream.

But the best and worst of all was in late summer when it was hot, really hot. Our kitchen turned hot as hell. Mom bustled about, insisting, "I won't let the heat get me down." She lugged crates of fresh fruits, peaches, plums and pears into the house. She hauled up from the basement kettles, Mason jars, paraffin wax, metal lids and rings.

With a crowbar, she pried the tops off the wooden crates. "Girls, get the water boiling. Now lower the fruit into the water. Careful, don't let it splatter. Quick now, take it out, use the big ladle. You're wonderful, such good helpers."

Sometimes Mom told stories while we canned. One time, between boiling and blanching, she told us about her trip to Europe. I think about it every time I eat a bowl of plums. I remembered Mom's voice telling the story. It all blended in, the sweetness, the freshness, the bottles, the seals.

"I made that trip when I was twenty-eight years old, single and carefree. I had already bought my own car, a Model A Ford. I saved over two years for it, setting aside half my paycheck, twelve dollars and fifty cents every month. I bought it in 1933 and it cost three hundred dollars. Imagine! I scrimped some more, I think it was a thousand dollars for the trip overseas. Mr. Hall gave me a month's leave of absence from the law firm."

At the kitchen table, Mary and I were peeling the skin off the fruit, trying not to squeeze it to death. Mom could pare her plums round and whole and still concentrate on the story.

"I said good-bye to your dad. It was beginning to be serious between us."

"Did you have other boyfriends?" I asked.

"There were others, but I knew your dad was the one. A tall, handsome bachelor, new in town, starting his own business--and he was interested in me. When we first met, he said he thought I was Irish. Can you imagine--with a name like Schreiber!" She stopped skinning and smiled.

"Go on, Mom," we urged, cutting the plums into halves or quarters and dropping the pulp into the jars.

"We were getting close, but I wanted one last fling. I planned the trip with American Express. They've been around forever, but they were a lot more helpful then, even sending agents to meet me at the railroad stations and escort me to hotels."

"Did you go by train, Mom?" Mary asked. She hurried to the stove and the boiling kettles, to help stir sugar water to a syrup.

"I went by all modes of travel. In France, it was motor coaches, in Italy, old-fashioned horsedrawn carriages, canal boats in Holland, the gondola in Venice. I crossed the span from Paris to London in seventy-five minutes by airplane.

We sailed over on the oceanliner SS Gerolstein of the Arnold Bernstein Line. Left Pier D at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the seventeenth of June, 1938, and spent ten days on the water, arriving in Rottendam, Holland on June twenty-seventh. Girls, you would have loved it. Huge. Flags furling in the wind." She swung the ladle in the air.

"And fun on board--you could swim, play shuffleboard or tennis, read and lounge on the canvas deck chairs. I played bridge every morning, dined and danced late into the night. So many fascinating people to meet." Mom smiled again, lifting her head high.

By this point we had poured juice over the scalded fruit and placed the paraffin wax rings in the tops of the jars. Mom held the heated jars with a towel as she put the metal lids over the wax then screwed on the metal rings, tightly sealing the jars.

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