The Canning Jar
No one got in Mom's way. Clothes and bedding, food and house--fresh was best--and it required work. She tackled the weekly cleaning, a white kerchief on her head, a mop or dust rag in her hand, rushing through the house, swishing in every corner, swiping every surface. Monthly, she scrubbed floors by hand, pulling the pail and her knee cushions along from the front to the back of the rooms. Yearly, she washed windows with newspaper and vinegar. She polished them inside and out until they squeaked.
We were supposed to help; we had our duties, but we grumbled: "It's not my turn." Sometimes we really got going, pushing or shoving or chasing each other around: "I did it last time." "You did not." "I did too."
If we threatened to take our battles outside, Mom shouted, "Don't you dare!
Don't you dare fight where all the world can see and hear you. You fight inside."
Not that Mom liked us kids to fight, but she was sort of resigned to it. As soon as my older brothers started to wrestle, she ran for the old frying pan, the heavy black one. Pounding on its iron bottom, she yelled at the boys, "Stop it. Stop it, I say. Right now. Stop it! I'll have to tell your father."
If the boys kept brawling, she ordered, "Girls, to your posts." My sister and I grabbed our assigned tables and lamps, protecting them, until the boys finally quit. Then, everything back to normal, we got on with our chores.
One of the jobs I didn't mind was cleaning the throw rugs. I hung them over the clotheslines and with the old, gray wirebeater whipped them soundly. I pretended they were bad guys, or a brother or sister, or even a friend who had done me wrong. Whack. Take that. Take a double whack. Make it a triple. Whack. Whack. Whack.
When I took too long with the rugs, Mom came out to help. As she beat them, the sunlight bouncing off her diamond wedding ring broke through the dust cloud billowing above her head.
The gravel roads smelled of that same mix of dust and sun when Mom loaded us all in the car and headed out into the country for fun chores. Sitting on pillows so she could see over the hood, hands gripping the wheel, back straight, she would stop suddenly, snapping the backseat riders into the upholstery, the front-seaters into the dashboard, "Quick, over by the fence." She made us pick wild asparagus growing by the side of the road.
We loved to go to the Van Nuytten farm to buy fresh eggs and chickens, loved swinging on the towering tree in front of the farmhouse. The swing, made of an old soggy mattress, could hold all seven of us and the farm kids too. We tumbled on it and giggled and pumped, our legs hanging over the edges, "Pump. Pump to Heaven. Pump. Pump to heaven." We swung to the oak's top branches. We sailed in the sky.
Below stood haystacks to climb and hide around. Once my brother Jim fell through the middle of one. We ran screaming for Mom. She and Mr. Van Nuytten found Jim with a pitchfork, but when they finally dragged him out, he couldn't breathe.
He had asthma. Mom washed his face and held his hands, all the time talking to him softly, "Breathe, Jimmy, breathe. That's it. Just relax. You'll be all right." As soon as Jim's face changed from blue to white, and Mom's worry lines smoothed to smiles, we hurried off to play.
There were cats and kittens and dogs and puppies and chickens to tease. We tore into their coops scaring them with sticks; they squawked and jumped and tried to fly, fluttering feathers all around.
Mom crated some home. In our backyard, she stretched their necks across the stained wood stump and lifted the sharp hatchet. With their blood still dripping on the grass, she plunged them into a vat of boiling water and presented them to us.
We plucked off their wet, stinky feathers. Mom finished off the massacre by setting a rolled newspaper on fire to singe the pin feathers. Ugh. The smell. "Hold your noses, kids." She hated the smell of it as much as we did, but she liked freezing extra chickens and fixing one, very fresh, for supper that night.
In June or early July, we took a trip to a strawberry patch outside of town. Mom picked fast, three boxes to our one, then she doubled back to our rows and whispered, "Eat as many as you want; they're free while you pick. Eat. Eat them now." We ate, and ate, and rode home from those trips more sick than tired.
She planted two packages of every vegetable seed. We kids had to hoe, weed, water, and harvest. We hated it. Mom loved the dirt, "Isn't it wonderful, the smell and feel?" Under her spade, in her hand, she didn't care if it was dry dust or wet globs. Wearing her straw, wide-brimmed hat, her apron with the deep front pockets filled with either seeds or their fruits, she complained about not having enough time outdoors, "The inside work keeps me too busy."
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.
"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 in Community Connections, Gypsy Cab and Sidewalks, poems in 100 Words, Fauquier Poetry Journal and Lake Region Review. She has written an historical booklet, The Story of Hammer 1923-1998.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.