The Canning Jar

Ruminations on motherhood

"Europe! I hope someday you will get there, girls. It was all so beautiful, the cities as well as the little towns in the country. I saw the King and Queen of England on their official visit to France. A British newspaperman let me act as his secretary. On top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the parade passed directly beneath me." She took her hands from the jars and swung her towel in a wide arching curve. "The Queen was quite charming. She wore white lace. The visit, of course, had great political significance, cementing the alliance between these two nations."

Slowly her smile faded to a frown. "But some of the landscape still haunts me. I especially remember the French countryside, the shell craters, the dugouts, the tangled barbed wire. It still looked, twenty years after the first war, like a no-man's land. Fear of exploding shells still kept them from cultivating much of the land.

And then there was Germany. I was in Munich the day after Adolph Hitler rallied there. The papers were full of that little man shouting at mobs of people. I couldn't read German so I didn't understand."

"Sister Consuela told us about Hitler," I said.

"Well, I didn't know much about him at the time. I was aware of the Nazis‚ 'hard-heel' rule, of the 'no cosmetics' edict. There was a great deal of building in Germany and military parades were forever going by. Even little children were dressed in military uniforms."

"Were you afraid, Mom?"

"No, I just never dreamed of what was to come. Of course now I'll never forget seeing in that summer of '38 all those soldiers marching and marching through the cities."

Mom wiped away any last stickiness from the jars with a wet dishrag. "I came back on the Westernland of the Red Star Line, leaving South Hampton, England, landing in New York with seventeen dollars left in my billfold.

Enough for a telephone call to my mother--it was August second, Muzzy's birthday--and a bus trip back to St. Paul. I carried all my gifts, something for everybody, and wore the only thing I bought for myself, a floppy felt hat from Paris. Your grandma and grandpa and your dad were all waiting for me at the station. Neither expected to see the other. Your dad never even told me he was coming. He said he started out late from Marshall and drove like a madman. Muzzy and Pop were madder than heck when I drove off with him. What a trip!"

Mom told us this story while we were canning, but I already knew a lot of it. I had snooped in her top dresser drawer where she kept important papers and found, along with our report cards, the diary of her trip. Dad's letters were also in the drawer. I read them, hoping for romantic love letters. Nah!

Mom should have run off with the captain of the ship who wanted to seat her at the head table with him, or the Irish professor, or the guy from the State Department, or the American Consul to France. Dad wrote only about how hard he was working, signing off with, "Very tired, Love, Pat."

There were pictures of Mom in the drawer, posing with her boss, standing by her car, waving from the ship. Thin, without glasses, black hair bobbed, she wore high heels, silk blouses, stylish skirts and jackets. Wild hats.

It was not the way she looked working in our steamy kitchen, her sweaty face burning red, her old smocked apron stained by juices. Her hands ruined. At the beginning, when she had sterilized the glass jars, lifting them to the light looking for cracks, her white, smooth fingers ran around the rims checking for chips. By the end, her hands were blistered shiny red from the slimy, scorching fruit, her fingernails split, blunt and broken. Yet when I watched her happily canning, I could see that young, beautiful woman reflected in the jars.

 

Marge Rogers Barrett grew up in Marshall, Minnesota, one of seven children. She now lives in St. Paul with her husband and their three children. She has had prose stories published inCommunity Connections, Gypsy Cab and Sidewalks, poems in100 Words, Fauquier Poetry Journal andLake Region Review. She has written an historical booklet, The Story of Hammer 1923-1998.

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