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For the first time since before the pandemic, I meet a friend for brunch. I furtively text “en route,” knowing I would be late again. It’s a running joke. My friends are used to meeting me at “ish” time, 12ish, 7ish, whatever. They are very patient with my pathological tardiness, but to be fair, I always reward them with jam.
This time, it’s strawberry-rhubarb and blackberry-gin. “My mom’s rhubarb,” I tell him. “Oh, your mom’s,” my friend emphasizes the last word. He hugs me again.
I can’t remember the first time I made jam, but it was at least 30 years ago.
That long-ago spring, with two small kids in tow, as my husband and I unpacked and set up in our new house, the tree in front bloomed overnight. Later on, we were delighted to find the blankets of flowers had turned into crab apples. A gift! Waste not, want not, my mother had always told me.
That autumn, I stood in the overgrown grass and plucked off the apples, which by then had turned a gorgeous crimson, kissed by the late September sun. There were a lot of apples. For the first time, I borrowed my grandmother’s blue-speckled canner and splurged on a flat of jars. I started with crab-apple jelly. Then apple butter. Then applesauce. I felt oddly accomplished when I heard the little “pop” of the canning lids settling into the cooling jars. Good, I thought, this will last the winter.
For years, I repeated this back-to-school ritual. As the kids settled into lessons and music and dance and sports, I picked crab apples, and I made a lot of jelly. And apple butter. And applesauce. I gave it all, or nearly all, away.
Later on, I added other jellies and jams to my repertoire. Some years, I did up pickles and beets. At Christmas time, antipasto. But the favourite is always crab-apple jelly, which I have perfected to a crystalline, stained-glass ruby red. Not cloudy. Not runny. Perfectly wobbly. Just like grandma used to make, my friends tell me.
It’s a quirky, old-time hobby. Almost no one I know makes jam, but it keeps my friends happy, anticipating, so I keep making it. And I give it all, or nearly all, away. After my mother died, it finally occurred to me that all that jam and jelly making was important to me, too.
Her death was sudden. A blood clot, then she’s gone. It was the first of September. The summer had been hot, but not too hot. The crab apples were still green, fat from the late August rains. On the day of the funeral, it was unusually cold and then it began to snow. A freak snowstorm descended: full-on, blowing, whiteout snow. Heavy and wet, the crab-apple tree was still fully leafed-out and laden with fruit. The branches snapped and broke with the weight of the snow. It was as if the rage and sorrow I felt turned into weather. It was awful. The tree was broken, and so was I. And so I hibernated. I grieved. I did not make jelly. I did not make jam.
When the pandemic hit, I grieved anew. It felt like another death. Life as we know it is suddenly snatched away. Kids, far away, can’t come home. Work turns virtual and we are cut off from our colleagues. We can’t see our friends. Even grocery stores are daunting.
With reports of an impending lockdown, I drove to my mother’s small Prairie hometown. I visited her grave and stopped at a nearby marker dedicated to the memory of those who perished in the influenza pandemic between 1916 and 1926. Ten years, a pandemic! Ten years! I can’t bear the thought. I think of my grandmother, who lost two babies in one year back then. And yet, she lived. More children arrived, including my mother. Life went on. Life goes on. And so, defiant, I resume making jam.
Citrus fruits, the first gift of winter, provide lemon curd, then, marmalade. A stroke of luck brings Seville oranges to my local market. For many years, I could not find them. Somehow 2020 brings me Seville oranges, not from Spain, but California. They will have to do. I look but cannot find my mother’s recipe for Seville orange marmalade. The Internet recipe will have to do. I make the marmalade. It is spectacular.
Next is strawberry jam, then raspberry, then rhubarb, with or without the strawberry. The vibrant scarlet hues of these fruits evoke a never-forgotten trip to Paris in springtime, where the menu of our Left Bank bistro was entirely devoted to les fruits rouges. Incroyable!
Blackberries begin to feature prominently in late spring and early summer. In the first pandemic midsummer, I decide we all deserve boozy jam, so I experiment, pairing fruit with gin, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, even rum. For the big kids only. This year’s blackberry-gin is sensational; nuanced, complex. A big kids’ treat. No one says no to these jars.
July is cherry month, also the month when my daughter was born. I smile, remembering how I stood sideways next to the cherry bins in the supermarket, far too pregnant to reach the cherries any other way. It’s her favourite, not surprisingly.
July and August bring the stone fruits: pear, peach, apricot, plum. The recipe for peach-pear jam was handed down to me, along with one for rose petal jelly, from a beloved friend’s mom, no longer with us. “Use fragrant roses” I read, trying to decipher the spidery handwritten notes.
“Remember to leave ½ cup chopped petals for the tops of the jars” texts my friend.
When we talk about where to find the most fragrant roses, we pause. I know my friend misses her mom more than she can say. I do too.
This year, I make the rose petal jelly myself for the first time. It’s not as good as Vera’s. How could it be? My mom, always approving, would have loved it anyway. I make a second batch with roses from my son-in-law’s childhood garden down the road, hoping it will cheer us up, distract us all from missing the now-adult kids too much.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic wanes, the crab apples grow and ripen on the tree outside the front window. The house, aging, like us, needs a renovation. Perhaps we do too, but this September, we will start the jam cycle again. When the crab apples are ripe and beautifully red, I will again stand in the overgrown grass and pluck off the apples. And when I hear the lids “popping” on the cooling jars, I will feel as accomplished as I did on the first try. Then, I’ll give it all, or nearly all, away. Life goes on.
Michelle Christopher lives in Calgary.
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