Preserving memories

By Alma Barkman

Fifty years ago we felt like pioneers when we moved to a suburban acreage overrun with tall, tangled weeds. Clearing our “homestead” bit by bit among hordes of mosquitoes, we never knew what we might unearth in the underbrush.

On the far side of the lot we could see a mysterious old wooden box with a slant lid, but to get to it we first had to cut a trail as far as we could go with the lawn mower, then resort to the scythe, and finally the hatchet. Before we could open the lid, the lower limbs of a gnarled old maple tree had to be pruned back. By that time it was too dark to see properly and we were too tired to care about what looked like a pile of soggy old newspapers stashed away in a weather-beaten box. Just something more to haul away, we concluded with a sigh, and went to bed.

The next morning our two preschool boys, pulling their little red wagon, followed me down the “prairie trail” grubbed out the night before. The rusty hinges on the old box creaked in protest as I raised the lid and propped it back against the trunk of the maple tree. I began to lift out the stacks of outdated newspapers and pile them in the boys’ wagon. And then I made a discovery.

The bottom half of the box was filled with old preserving jars — dozens of sealers buried underneath layers of yellowed newsprint. I couldn’t have been more pleased if I had found a pirate’s cache. Money was tight, freezer space limited and the garden growing on the virgin soil in the back yard looked promising indeed. Now I could preserve fruits and vegetables and pickles for winter use.

The boys spent a happy morning helping me haul our loot to the house in their little red wagon. That afternoon I rinsed mud and straw and cobwebs from dozens of jars, washed them in hot soapsuds and scalded them with boiling water until they were sparkling clean. The old box discovered among the weeds at the foot of the maple tree proved to be a real treasure chest. Some of the jars in it were even called Gems, and in their setting on the pantry shelf their contents soon gleamed with colour — emerald dill pickles, yellow topaz peaches and ruby red jelly.

Every autumn since then, preserving season has become a family gathering of memories. The half-gallon jars originally belonged to my mother-in-law, where they sat on sagging shelves in the basement of her big old Saskatchewan farmhouse. Every year they were emptied of canned goose meat and creamed corn and whole tomatoes to help feed a family of nine. In time they were passed on to one of her daughters, who filled them with dill pickles and sauerkraut and chicken. Now they are mine, and I use them for apple juice and B.C. plums and whole spiced crab apples. (Barkman photo)

A few of the quart jars were once my maternal grandmother’s and she filled them with the wild fruit she picked along the edge of the prairie pasture — saskatoons and highbush cranberries and wild plums — always wild plums, in rich heavy syrup the way Grandpa liked them. Then it was my mother’s turn and she filled the quart jars with chili sauce and rhubarb and canned beef. Today I am washing them in preparation for raspberries and apricots and dill pickles.

Thanks to these old sealers, every autumn I walk down memory lane and husk the corn in a homesteader’s garden in Saskatchewan or gather wild plums with Grandma on a sand knoll in Manitoba or pick saskatoons with Mom in heavy bushland . . .

Lifting another rack of jars from my blue enamel preserving kettle, I realize the sealers with glass a pale tinge of green probably date back almost a hundred years. It’s surprising how many jars have outlasted the women who toted them up and down wobbly basement steps. In my grandmother’s homestead, poplar poles crudely nailed together like a ladder provided access into the dugout cellar through a trapdoor in her back kitchen.

Although not extending down from a trap door, the stairs in my childhood home were not exceptionally sturdy either, just slab risers spiked between two planks. Sent to retrieve a sealer in the middle of winter, and armed only with a feeble flashlight, my hand sometimes groped through sticky cobwebs draped from jar to jar. I hated the feel of them. It made me think of being trapped in a haunted dungeon. The earthy smell of the potatoes in their storage bin, and the eerie flames of the wood furnace licking at the burning logs served to stoke my active imagination. I would dash up the cellar steps with my jar of preserves and bang the basement door behind me to keep any imaginary ogres at bay.

Aunt Emma’s stone basement, on the other hand, actually had an electric light bulb that hung from a twisted cord. On hot muggy days I would have been perfectly content to play in that nice cool basement, except for the fact that one or two lizards sometimes had the same idea, and I was absolutely, positively petrified of lizards. Had I ever discovered one near the fruit cupboard, I would have promptly dropped even the choicest jar of preserves and fled for my life back up those painted steps.

But now I am safely at the bottom of my own carpeted stairs. I switch on the fluorescent light and quickly line up the full jars on the pantry shelves. Our oldest grandson is coming for lunch, you see. He wants to learn how to preserve peaches and raspberries and pickles and . . .

I wonder, in time, what sort of memories these jars will evoke for him?

Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg.

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