There are no recipes in this post. This is the story of something that happened to me yesterday. I hope you’ll read it to the end.
If you follow this blog, you know Dennis and I, with some help from our kids, painted the exterior of our house this fall. It’s not completely done: there’s still some trim work and fascia and posts and beams on the porches as well as the doors to finish. We were interrupted by deer season and now have to go back at the painting before the weather turns. But I also have the fall harvest of the garden to take care of, the apples, the ripening tomatoes, the potatoes which haven’t all been dug yet, and when we get our first frost, the green tomatoes and the winter squash will have to be brought in. And I’m running low on pint jars.
When we were painting the spare room side of the house, I discovered some filthy, leaf-filled boxes under the back porch. “What’s in these?” I asked Dennis. “I don’t know,” he said. “Bottles, I think.” Bottles? Why would we have boxes of bottles, and what kind of bottles, under the back porch? I pulled one box out far enough to see what was in it, being wary of spiders and other nasty critters. Not bottles, jars. Jars! Canning jars!
Now I have to backtrack a bit. I started canning with my mother when I was a kid. I canned with her until I left home, and after I got married and started my own family, I started canning again on my own. At one point, I was canning so much, Mama gave me some of her jars. With no kids left at home, she wasn’t canning as much as she once had. But when in the 90s I started traveling over 150 miles a day, two and three times a week, to classes at the University of Nevada, Reno, I stopped canning. I just couldn’t keep up with the garden, the kids, the classes, the commute, and the canning. Something had to give. It was the garden and the canning. For quite a few years, all I grew in my garden was herbs and a few tomatoes for eating fresh. Even after I finished my Master’s and started teaching, I didn’t do any canning. I was just too busy. All my jars were boxed up and stashed, I thought, in the shed.
During that period, when my kids were teenagers, we lost my beloved mother. The picture below, taken when she was in her fifties, younger than I am now, is how I remember my mama.
She’d been ill with dementia for some years before she died, and finally, she withered away. It was a very difficult time for all of us. My mama was a wonderful, loving presence in our lives, and losing her, slowly at first, then finally, was very painful. I think her loss was one thing that drew me back, gradually, to canning. Canning was a way of feeling closer to her. I started making jelly again, and pickles, and one thing led to another, until I was back in full swing after I retired a few years ago.
During my non-canning period, I remember my father asking me if I had any jars I wasn’t using. I said I did, and he could have them all, as at that time, I didn’t foresee canning in my future. He was canning a lot of salmon at that time and wanted wide-mouthed pints. I went into the old yellow shed and looked around. I found a few boxes of jars, some pints and quarts, but not nearly as many as I thought I should have. I looked and looked, enlisted Dennis’s help, and we couldn’t find any more jars. I gave Dad what I had and thought, well, I just didn’t have as many jars as I thought I had.
When I began to can again a few years ago, I had to start over collecting jars, buying them at Walmart and WinCo, looking for them at garage sales and thrift stores. I looked again in the sheds for the jars I thought I’d had years before. They weren’t there. I asked Dennis again if he’d seen them anywhere. No, he said. Well, that was that. I had to buy jars. Every year, I would run out of jars in August and have to buy more for the fall harvest. Finally, this year, a year in which a lot of travel meant I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much canning as I normally do, I didn’t run completely out of jars. But I didn’t have as many jars for the upcoming fall projects as I needed. I needed more pints for apple butter and applesauce, and more quarts for apple pie filling and tomatoes. (I have more than enough half-pint jelly jars, enough to set up shop!)
So yesterday, as I was putting cherry tomatoes in the dehydrator (more about this in another post) and thinking about the boxes of apples I still have to process, I thought I’d better wait on the apples and get those jars out from under the back porch. They were going to need a lot of cleaning before they’d be usable. But I needed jars and jars I had, dirty though they were.
Gloves on, cringing at spiders scuttling off into every direction, I pulled five boxes of jars out from under the steps. Yes, there was a milk crate with some Pepsi bottles in it. Dennis was partly right. I have no idea where those came from or why they were saved, because I don’t think they’re old enough to be worth anything, but I’ll have to check and see.
The jars were stacked several layers deep in old beer boxes and topped with layers of oak leaves and spider webs and other icky things.
I dragged each box out onto the lawn and over to a dry patch that always needs a little extra water. The hose was handy there, too. I flooded those boxes, hoping to drown all the black widows before I had to reach in and take out the jars. Ick. One by one, I pulled out the jars, filled them with water, and hosed down the outsides. They were filthy with decades of dirt. Several of them contained little dried tree frog carcasses which rehydrated into shades of their former selves after soaking in water. (Too bad my grandson, Bryce, wasn’t with me. He’d have loved that.) Big black beetles were in the jars too, and spiders, of course, dead ones with their legs all curled up around their bellies. Any live ones were long gone at this point.
After I got all the jars out of the boxes, I rinsed them well with the hose, then tipped them over to drain.
Then I got a big plastic bag from the house, and filled it with a dozen jars at time to carry back to the sink. It took many trips and several sinkfuls of hot, soapy water before I had the dishwasher full of jars. After another bath in the dishwasher, turned to the hottest setting, the jars were clean. I ran two dishwasher loads of jars.
These, surely, were the jars I’d searched for before. Why Dennis put them under the back porch and forgot about them is a mystery a long-married lady like me declines to probe. I wasn’t sure at first whether these were jars I’d bought myself years before or jars that Mama had given me, but they were jars. And I could feel Mama smiling at my shoulder.
All day, since my devotion time that morning, I’d felt Mama close to me. Some verses I’d read in my Bible that morning brought her vividly to mind. They were verses about suffering, and they’d made me think of what my son had said to my daughter not long ago, when they were talking about why their beloved grandmother had died not knowing who she was, or who we were. Joel said to Amy, “Maybe the Lord saved her from a worse death. She didn’t die in pain or shock or fear. She just slipped away.”
Everyone knows there are stages to grief. We know that it can take years to move from one stage to the next, and each of us has to move through these stages at his or her own pace, in our own time. Yesterday morning, I finally fully accepted the manner of Mama’s death. I accepted what had happened to Mama, and the Lord’s wisdom in it. When I did that, I stopped fearing that kind of death for myself. That fear has dogged me for over twenty years. And Mama was there, at my shoulder, smiling. She stayed there all day as I halved cherry tomatoes and cleaned those dirty jars. And she and her Lord reached out and touched me, tangibly.
The final tally on the jars was this: 30 wide-mouth quarts, 22 regular mouth quarts, 7 special quarts (none antique but some vintage, I believe), 9 half-pint jelly jars, 11 wide-mouth pints, 3 regular mouth pints, and several commercial jars, pickle and mayonnaise jars, which Mama used for homemade pickles and applesauce and jelly. In today’s money, that’s like sticking your hand into the pocket of your winter coat and pulling out a hundred dollar bill. But it was more than that, for among those assorted jars was one very special jar.
In one of the boxes, I found a Smuckers’ jelly jar, strawberry, with the label still intact, and on the lid was printed “Dorothy.” That was my mother’s name. It means, in either Latin or Greek, Gift of God. Her name was also marked on the label.
One of my mother’s friends had set aside and given a jar of something homemade for her, marked with her name. It was a sign and symbol of how much she was loved, and how much she loved. And it was like my mother to save that jar, for she’d find a use for it. She’d fill it with something and give it back, or give it away to someone else. Because that’s who she was. She gave it to me because she taught me to use what others would throw away.
Her life was a testament to her faith. She has never stopped giving or loving because that is her gift. Dorothy, Gift of God. I thank God for the gift of you, Mama, and for all that you taught me and gave me. You are still doing both. And I have your jar to remind me, if ever I’m tempted to forget, just what sort of life you lived, and what your life meant. Your jar is a reminder that a life lived with faith and love keeps giving, even after death in this world. That jar with your name on it will never be empty.