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A Case for Preserving
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots
"How do you do it with four children?"
My usual answer is “I don’t” or, “I do 25% of what working parents of fewer children do.” On the mother spectrum of Mama June to Michelle Obama, I know where I fall.
My kids start their school days with peanut butter crusted in mouth corners and I start my work day with peanut butter stains in my crotch. My three-year-old has likely seen everything the Marvel Universe has on offer. I’ve had dinner guests show up and I’ve forgotten I invited them. I’m a maximalist, if not clutter-enthusiast, not just able to ignore but ignorant of the chaos and the noise around me.
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And Optimization—the hard-nosed god of my generation—can stick it, as far as I’m concerned.
While my children’s survival hinges on the fact that I married impossibly well for my defects, I do have a few mothering strengths. I may have been handing out melatonin gummies on the redeye back to London last night, but we have returned home to blackberry season. My time to parentally shine.
I love foraging with my kids which, I think, puts me in a category of nature-enthusiast moms hovering somewhere above the x-axis, if still in the negative, among those plot points who may ignore sons punching each other but are learning scientific bird names as they do so.
And nothing, nothing makes me feel more like I belong in the good mom-set than canning. There’s something about a jar of opalescence on my counter that makes me feel like a higher order human. Routine in the 70’s, but now an Instagram badge of honor.
We make rose hip syrup in autumn—a single rose hip has the Vitamin C equivalent of 20 oranges!—it goes on yogurt, porridge, pancakes, in shot glasses. The sweaty smell of elderflower in spring time will make its way into my gin and tonic, my children’s mocktails. And right now, it is time to make blackberry jam.
Home in London after six weeks, we spent this afternoon as bears do in bushes. We gobbled and gathered for jam, our arms battle-scarred by thorns, nettles, explosive juice.
This evening, as I’m writing this essay, I have no one to talk to but my children, bumbling in and out from the back garden, like pollen-drunk bees. We are unslept, deranged, unfit for company outside each other. But I need to talk this out, so I ask them what canning and preserving mean to them.
My second son says, “when you preserve, it makes you feel like there’s more of it.” He continues, “it’s like a gift from my former self.” When my first son sees the working title of this piece, he asks, “are you writing about actual canning and preserving or the preservation of memories?” Which allows me my turn.
My earliest memory of preserves is visiting my mom’s friend and fellow gardener, Reverend Silas B. Trueheart. As his name portends, he was the human being we should all hope to be: full of love, nursing humans and plants alike. His back garden was bursting with well-loved hydrangea bushes and inside his sister, Blanche, was ill, dying. He nursed her to the end.
Blanche, prone in the dark on a couch, waited for us. On the floor in front of her sat a black kettle and two dollar bills. She’d reach down, hand like a crinkled map, and push the bills toward my brother and me “one for little sugar man and one for little sugar pie.”
Dollars clutched, we’d follow Silas to the cellar door for snacking. The dust hung in shafts of light like fairy powder. On the shelves along the stairs were row upon row of jams, pickled watermelon rinds, spiced peaches glittering like wrinkled gems. A lesson in inversions, those stairs were a descent into life.
When I’m feeling particularly alive and obnoxious, I’ll quote lines of Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” to my kids while we’re foraging. Heaney’s poem takes a turn from nostalgic abundance to inevitable loss. He ends his poem:
Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.
Canning has felt like an answer to Heaney’s lament, the perpetual hope and inevitable disappointment of season spoils. Maybe there’s a sweetness in the definitive ending, which promises another beginning. But for now, I like to know that one season can slip into the next through pectin and mason jars.
Two days ago and one day before we said goodbye to them, a flush of peaches came to its end in my parents’ orchard. My mother spent the summer canning peach jam and sauce and baking crumbles and pies; my dad made peach daiquiris and smoothies. The neighbors came to pick. Boughs broke under the weight of so many peaches. Squirrels, peaches in mouths, hurtled through trees like comets. We were all sick with peaches.
Still, when she visits this autumn, when we have forgotten our great glut of peaches, when the days are shorter and colder, my mother will have bubble wrapped jars of peaches in her suitcase. Gifts from our summer together.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard1
After I asked my children the question about preserves, my eldest turned the question on me, as any pre-adolescent should: “and what do preserves mean to you, mom?”
“Possibility,” I said.
“From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee