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Chelsea O'Byrne/The Globe and Mail

Simple math – the only kind I use – tells me that during a 50-year stretch I’ve made about 500 jars of orange marmalade. This year’s recent batch boosts the total by eight. The finished product is a pretty sight, and I’ve staged my handiwork like objet d’art on the dining room table, where no dinner guests have eaten for over two years.

This annual event is one of my few traditions. I cooked up the first batch in my attic apartment the summer before my senior year at university. I’d watched my mother make raspberry jam: fruit, sugar, pectin, a block of wax for sealing the jars. Nothing to it. At the market, a produce clerk frowned at my basket of canning jars and Certo crystals. When I bagged a lemon and five navel oranges he said, “That won’t work.” Who knew only Seville oranges could handle the job? But the bitter-tart fruit with its thick puckered rind was available for just a few weeks each winter.

I was undeterred. My stint as an English major required stacks of BritLit reading, where orange marmalade appeared in fancy ceramic jam pots on m’lady’s breakfast tray, and in crystal ramekins at tea time. I was keen.

For the record: you can make okay-ish marmalade in August, with garden variety fruit, in an attic with no air conditioning, using a two-burner hotplate, a toaster oven to sterilize the jars and a metal coffee can to melt the wax for a primitive last-century sealing technique. But I don’t recommend it.

In fact, I don’t recommend making marmalade at all. There are too many finicky steps. And always during the final countdown: “Return to a hard rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. One minute. Remove from heat. Stir and skim. Seven minutes,” there’s the threat that the revolting mountain of sugar required will suddenly turn to cement or the whole mess won’t set. I’m not a purist. My recipe is a shortcut one, but it’s still a grind. Online, you can watch earnest YouTubers bagging little muslin bundles of pits and pith for an endless simmer to release natural-all-natural fruit pectin. Or just open a packet of Certo crystals like I do. Even my late-bloomer leap from sealing jars with hot wax to using metal lids doesn’t feel like a big efficiency. (It is, though.) Sometimes I can dragoon my husband John to help slice rind into matchsticks. Sometimes we team up to chop and cook the slippery remaining fruit and wash the prep bowls and sugar sticky utensils and saucepans and the gluey floor. But lately, it all seems like too much frigging work.

After making that first batch, my pioneer effort looked very convincing. I presented a jar to my landlady. “Brilliant!” she cried. She usually drank before lunch and beyond but I welcomed the compliment. Maybe all the labourious shenanigans around marmalade was simply Step 1. Step 2: it was satisfying to gift it.

A batch of preserves usually yields eight eight-ounce jars. This isn’t enough to supply John and me – and still allow for a few gifts – from winter to winter. We need two batches, a level of production that can’t be achieved in one day. Not in my kitchen. Tackling a second round usually weighs on me like a term paper. “Come on, you’re not field dressing a deer,” John says supportively.

Though we’re not fans of his-and-hers bathroom sinks, his-and-hers marmalade jars are essential to our happy marriage. Once open, John’s jar is immediately contaminated with globs of peanut butter transfer, and the lid is never screwed tight. Mine is so not that, and never will be.

In a good year, we are able to make 16 jars of orange marmalade. There’s a jar every year for my sister. Polly’s been a fan of my marmalade, and me, thankfully, since the last century. She and her husband take two days each fall to prep and cook umami-rich chili sauce. Talk about labour intensive. We swap product.

There’s marmalade for Nira. She once told me it tasted like the oranges of her childhood in Jerusalem. She was my therapist, retired now, but for me, this gift keeps us connected, and I pretend that if I needed to sit in her comfortable office again she’d still be there.

Some marmalade can’t be gifted anymore.

Leukemia defeated Mary Ann. She was a neighbour who became a friend. She pronounced scones “skhans,” and we ate lots of them slathered with butter and marmalade while we kaffeeklatsched and assessed the world. I was a kinder, funnier person when she was alive.

Both my parents are gone, too. Every jar of marmalade I gave them would trigger the story of their trip to Spain. Touring Seville, zillions of oranges had fallen from trees, littered walkways, rolled into the streets and gutters. “Oh, what you could do with all those!” my mom would exclaim. “You could start a little business!” She was proud of me.

Making marmalade is a labour of love, no matter how much I complain. The process can be almost meditative, and the house always smells like an orange grove. This year, however, for the first time, after the last metal lid sealed tight with a distinctive pop, I thought: Maybe that’s enough of that.

But this isn’t some COVID activity to start and stop, like baking bread or purging closets to spark joy. It’s a tradition that would be hard to break, a sweet connection to worlds and people that have framed my life. Without jam to store and share, I’d feel a certain loss. (Maybe you’re thinking that people have prayed for years “Merciful God, stop that woman from giving us yet another jar of her sour glop!” And thanks for keeping that thought to yourself.)

To give up cooking marmalade feels like, well, giving up. Next, I’ll stop riding my old Schwinn. Stop planting our dinky vegetable garden. I’ll let my passport lapse and give up my New Yorker subscription and martinis and flirting with my husband. Aging is a slippery slope. Too many can’t-do-it-anymores could hasten a person’s Celebration of Life.

This year yielded just a single batch of marmalade. I see our his-and-hers jars whenever I open the fridge, the slivers of fruit miraculously suspended in spreadable dark orange. I upped my game this time by adding a pinch of Allspice to the mix. John says it looks like dirt, and it does. But I like it.

Sara Clayton lives in Toronto.

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