Preservation

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I wouldn’t exactly call it an expertise because I see it more as an obligation. It’s something I’m drawn to and I’m not sure why. It started with an invitation from a co-worker to make strawberry freezer jam. We used our hands to mash the strawberries and mix in the sugar granules. Though the berries had been thawed, my hands burned from the cold. The next year I tried on my own. This time I made raspberry freezer jam from the bushes in our yard. The twenty pints didn’t even make it past September thanks to my father’s sweet tooth.

In early autumn of the same year I decided I would branch out and pickle jalapeños. I’d accidently planted three too many plants and I had buckets of peppers. My family could only scarf down so many cream-cheese-stuffed-peppers and I didn’t want to waste my garden’s produce. I pickled the whole house with my sugar-vinegar mixture cooking on the stovetop.  Like a machine, I sliced hundreds of peppers, placed them on the grill to cook, and blanched them in the pickling juices. I learned only after that I should have worn gloves.

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This year I moved on to more extensive preservation projects—12 types of jams, 4 kinds of marmalade, twenty-four quarts of home-made spaghetti sauce, and more peppers. This does not include the homemade pesto sauce which is pre-measured and frozen into 2 tablespoon individual packets, and many more cans of tomatoes. I’m not entirely sure why I feel obligated to spend ten hours over a pot of boiling vinegar and burning my fingers on the hot cans.  Something about the sporadic pops in the next room hours after while I rest on the couch tells me it’s worth it.

Living Memorials

 

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My grandmother has miniature memorials surrounding her house. Various plants mark the land like tombstones. The small plots are marked by lilies—Tiger and African, a Magnolia tree, a few Bleeding Hearts, hens and chickens spread throughout, and one Champagne rose bush gone wild. Each plant has been lifted off a funeral floral arrangement or bluntly dug up from a family member’s yard and delicately planted in her flower beds. She has named them according to family members who have passed before her, and she knows exactly the location of each along with the date of her loved one’s passing. While fighting back the relentless weeds or trimming her rose bushes, she speaks to them. She calls them by name and refers to them as if the humans they signify were as alive as the plants which represent them.

Her first was the Champagne rose bush which she dug up from the family farm after the land was split up amongst the boys and sold off. Next, was Grandpa Perkins’s African Lilly which emerges from its bulb every spring and finally blooms in late July. Then there were the chickens and hens from Grandma Hansen’s house on Sylvester Street that were broken up and transplanted against the well house. The longest traveler of them all was Sharon’s orange lily. My grandmother snatched up shortly after it emerged from the ground in early spring. She dug up the bulb, planted it in a Dixie cup, and smuggled it on the plane ride from St. Louis, Missouri all the way to Pasco, Washington. One of the last plants she calls by name are the bleeding hearts; they were not stolen or borrowed, they were bought, and she planted while my grandfather watched. It was the last time he was able to set foot on his lawn. Now when she looks under the pine tree out front, where only bleeding hearts and weeds will grow, she thinks of him.

Two years following my grandfather’s death she desperately wanted to sell her house. She had it in her mind that if she moved she would be able to shake the empty feeling my grandfather left behind. I don’t think she remembered how she had already welcomed him and all the others to live alongside her. With frantic pleas I begged her to keep the house. I selfishly wanted her to live there forever so I could always have a place to return to; I wanted a place where my grandfather would always be. Being cremated, he does not have anything marking his short presence in this world—no plaque or tombstone, just a bleeding heart and my grandmother who has marked it with her mind.

She had one interested buyer. Shortly after seeing the house they signed the papers and told my grandmother she had exactly two months to pack her things and leave. My mother told me after the fact, and she mentioned the short amount of time my grandma had left to move. I had figured the last time I had visited her would be my last time I would step foot in that house. I thought from then on that I would forever be considered an outsider when driving down her street. Never again would I swim in the pool that my six year old self drove a four-wheeler into; never again would I stare into the fire pit my grandfather built; and never again would I work alongside my grandmother, listening to the muffled conversations she had with her flowers.

The time came when she had only two weeks left before she had to move, She stood inside a house full of moving boxes and no place to move them. As she was searching for her new forever home she got a call. It was the realtor and the sale had fallen through. Being a car saleswoman for the past twenty years, my grandmother is used to sales falling through. She has lost sales for many reasons; maybe it is because the customer found a better deal at the competitors, or because no bank in town will loan $20,000 to somebody without credit and a hundred dollar down payment, or perhaps they just simply change their mind. But the loss of this sale changed the course of her life.

At first she was livid. She had spent so much time packing. She had envisioned herself somewhere else. She was set on leaving her grief to live eternally within 2820 W. Pearl Street. But then she began to slowly unpack, taking out only the necessities and returning them to their proper shelves. Eventually, she told my mom that she couldn’t really see herself living in a condo without a yard, or in a neighborhood where only a small patch of grass separated her from her neighbors. Instead, she began to make small changes throughout the house; she painted the living room and kitchen. She changed out the carpets and bought new windows. And finally, when she had come to accept my grandfather’s departure, she bought a miniature magnolia tree with a gift certificate she got at his funeral. The tree came to the middle of her 5 foot frame and it had only three leaves, but she planted anyway, certain it would grow. She watered it daily to deepen its root system, and today it stands taller than she. Last summer when she witnessed the magnolia’s first bloom, she thought of my grandfather.