Tomatoes, before and after (photos (c) Barbara Hamby)
Four months before my mother died, I was visiting her in Honolulu. She had quit cooking, and I worried about her getting enough vegetables in her diet. I usually spent the first few days of a visit making vats of soup and pouring the soups in individual containers for the deep freezer she had in her condo. I have a wonderful vegetarian minestrone recipe I'd started making as an undergraduate and developed over the years. I had also started making my own tomato sauce every August, and I'd brought jars to add to my mother's soup. She picked up a jar and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had made the sauce myself over two days the previous August. I ordered a box of forty tomatoes from my local organic market, and spent the first day peeling and preparing the pulp. The next day I made the sauce with basil, garlic, onions, and olive oil and canned it using a water bath.
My mother shuddered. She had grown up on a farm, and she hated everything about farm life. She couldn't wait to go away to college and then live in a city. She had worked for seven years in Washington, D.C. before she met my father and then followed him on his career in the Air Force, first to New Orleans (where I was born) and then to Washington, France, and finally to Honolulu, a city she loved above all the others she had visited. She had left the farm far behind, but she was horrified to see her daughter embrace an activity that had marred her summers as a girl.
I didn't really think much about it. So much I had done had horrified her that I was pretty used to this reaction. She was a life-long Republican and Baptist, so we didn't talk about politics or religion. She knew I was a Democrat, which was bad enough, but if she had known how far I had strayed from her Billy Graham take on the world, she would have been truly horrified. If I could have described my beliefs, I think I would have called myself an Epicurean, because I love thinking that we are made of the same matter that makes the stars. Also, I loved Epicurus saying that there was a soul but that it died with the body.
On the way to all this, I had passed through a Buddhist phase, and it was these years of meditation that helped me forge a beautiful relationship with my mother during the last 25 years of her life. She loved to fight, and I refused to do it. My brother would fight with her about politics, and I would ask him how successful he thought he would be in changing a 60-year-old woman's mind, and then a 70-year-old woman's mind, and finally an 85-year-old woman's mind. But they continued to argue, and they both seemed to enjoy it.
I think we thought that my mother would live well into her 90s, because she was so vital. When she died suddenly at 86, it was a shock. After the funeral my siblings and I cleaned out her condo, and I went back home to Tallahassee, and spent the next year writing, settling her estate, and making jam.
My mother had a great death. She was getting ready to go to work, and she lay down for a moment and had a stroke. She was still working, still driving, sharp as ever, still beautiful. We all want to go this way, but it was hard on those left behind. It was especially hard on my brother--he was her favorite because he made her laugh--but we all felt it. I thought I had asked her everything, but every day I have questions about her past and mine. My history book is gone. She never wrote anything down, and she wasn't a storyteller. Every piece of information had to be pried out of her.
This was the year I received a Guggenheim fellowship, so I was working on my project, but after the time at my desk, there were hours that loomed. I could have started drinking, but it just feels so bad the next day. What I really fell into was canning.
My mother died in August, so once the fall came around, I was back home and it was citrus season, marmalade time. I found a great book, The Blue Chair Canning Book by Rachel Saunders, and I made orange, grapefruit, lemon, kumquat, and clementine marmalades. Chilean cherries came into the market, and I made cherry jalapeno jam, cherries in red wine sauce (gorgeous decorating a coconut cake), brandied cherries, which Saunders calls Christmas in a jar. I made plum cardamom jam, strawberry chamomile jam. Like a witch, I set up my cauldrons on the stove. I had a giant copper pot that my mother-in-law, Josie Kirby, had used to make jams for years in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I was giving it another workout.
I'd go to the market a couple of times a week, and scout the fruits. I made friends with the produce guys. When I had my fruit, I'd put half-pint or pint jars in the dishwasher to sterilize them. Then I'd fill my huge immersion pot with water and turn it on. After the first few batches, you set up a rhythm. While the jars are being scalded and the immersion cauldron is heating up, I put the fruit in Josie's copper pot, and poured in the sugar, lemon juice and sometimes pectin, depending on the pH of the fruit.
I've learned a lot about pH, because I don't want to kill anyone. And I give a lot of jam away, because there's no way I could eat as much as I make. It's a sweaty business, one that requires concentration and constant stirring. You can't think about all the questions you didn't ask your mother, how she will never excoriate you again and how you'll miss that. No one will ask you about your eternal soul, which I don't think for a minute is eternal. But while I'm stirring a vat of macerated figs or white peaches and saffron or a mix peaches and blackberries, I feel a deep connection with something. Who knows what? Maybe part of the pleasure is lining up the labeled jars in my pantry, which is like lining up poems for a book or the memories of someone who loved you more than she understood you, as if understanding matters.
Favorite canning books:
The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders
Gourmet Preserves by Madelaine Bullwinkel
Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber
Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone (her recipe for cherries in wine is worth the price of the whole book)
The River Cottage Preserves Handbook by Pam Corbin
Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff
Preserving the Taste by Edon Waycott
Barbara Hamby is the author of several volumes of poetry, most recently On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (Pitt Poetry Series).She teaches creative writing in the English Department at Florida State University. Barbara will be reading at the 92nd Street Y on October 6, 2016 at 7:30 pm. Find more information here.