I hold the 1908 Ball canning jar, the blue glass smooth against my fingertips. The Formica countertop in Mom’s kitchen produces a dull pain in my knees as I stretch over the refrigerator to capture this prize. Earlier my mother had asked me to pick something as a memento while we played cards. Perhaps she felt death was close in winter, the night too dark, the cold creepy as it swept through the windows. Now the six decks of cards lie discarded on the tabletop. We’ve completed five hands of hand and foot canasta. Mom and Dad have gone to bed while I wait for my husband to warm the car.
I discover I hold magic in my hand. The magic is held underneath the jar’s bail and wire closure like a remnant of Pandora’s Box. Because Dad wanted only these jars when my grandmother died, they take me back in time to when I saw her last. She was in her late seventies and lived in a two-story farmhouse inside the city limits of New England, North Dakota. Dad explained to that the family had done a lot of work to make the place livable, things like pouring a cement foundation and installing indoor plumbing. But what I remember best is the coal chute, probably because it was always locked shut. Located right there next to her garden, both the doors opened outward and there were rickety stairs into the cellar we never got to test. I open the jar and inhale musty air almost as if I were restoring some ancient mummy. An image appears in my mind.
Grandma walks out into a less than perfect day, not winter but a summer day long ago. Clouds hang bluish-gray with the sun blazing behind and wind building to clap the screen door closed and open. Her cotton shift is covered by an apron tied round her waist. She raises a hand up to protect her eyes from the sudden glare. Then she goes into the garden to fetch what she needs.
Tomatoes are staked up tall with swelling green fruits hanging all over and stalks still bearing yellow flowers. Corn grows quite a bit taller than the knee-high size expected in early July. Carrots are spied by their frothy heads, cukes sprawl wherever they can reach, beans twist up poles, the wispy remains of pea vines are tossed into the compost pile.
No one interrupts Grandma’s morning sprinkle of water upon greedy soil except crows and starlings. One by one, birds drop from the power lines above to peck in the dirt. When water falls near, the birds scatter en masse.
I cradle the jar in my arms. Sitting on the counter edge, legs dangling, I jump off to get my coat. A smile stretches across my face because I’m as silly as Dad. When he took the jars from Grandma’s house after she died, I thought that surely there had to be something more valuable. But the magic works inside me now, works to connect me with those ancestors who got their start in America homesteading and lost the family farm after the dust bowl years. We are still farmers at heart; the garden is the place where we establish our roots. My own garden is more a meditation on love than a chore, a secret maybe we’ve all known.
Honestly, I now taste fresh sliced cucumbers with that tart bit of vinegar and just a touch of salt as if I tasted the essence of spring. Home grown vegetables are just about the best thing you’ve ever tasted, better than a McDonald’s burger and far better than sugar. Fresh peas disappear around my house now as fast as in those days at Grandma’s.
I close the lid, careful not to damage the smooth curve of the quart top. Any break will prevent a tight seal and maybe cause the contents to go bad. I think about the things in life that go bad. Lost jobs, the stock market sinking, an headlines calling for war just like the dust bowl years my parents lived through. Back then home canning was a necessity, a garden taken into the home because the snow’s arrival was at hand.
Everything in those days was done big because the day’s chores were tied to the seasons. The half-acre garden was tilled early. Bread was started in a big dishpan with the yeast in the center and kneaded outward. Hand prints showed on your jeans afterward. The smell when the baked loaves came out heavenly.
Two huge blue kettles were used in canning, one to sterilize or seal, the other to cook down the produce – apples, tomatoes, etc. The sound of a knife chopping cha-cha-cha’s kept tune. Huge porcelain crocks were filled with sliced cabbage or whole cucumbers and salted down. Weeks later the frowsty stench – sour and rotting both, hinted at sauerkraut in the making. No problem if this meant you kept your teeth and gums and warded off hacking coughs.
I’m very pleased to take home this heirloom. I know the blue tint to the glass adds value. For one reason, it keeps the vegetables fresher. But now I think blue shows acceptance of the passage of time. The bail-wire clamp shows an investment in things of value, the best available at the time even if now they don’t seal as well as screw-on lids. An antique, this jar is one of the few connections I have to the early pioneer days when my forebears built a sod house to live in until they had saved enough money to build a ‘real’ home.
Most of all, this jar speaks to me of hope. That’s the true magic, having hope for better days and the endurance to live through the worst. So with New Year’s look at my values and goals, I decide there is nothing I want more than to have the dirt of honest work under my fingernails, the sustenance of the fruit of the land, self-reliance, and to save for tomorrow. So I could never trade this jar for cash, because I hope more to inherit its true meaning.
[Originally published in Weed’s Corner]