Sixteen years ago, I made my first batch of grape jam.
It was September and I was home instead of away at school. The Connecticut sun was bright and full, the sky gleamed a brilliant blue and the hues of red and orange and yellow in the tops of the trees seemed otherworldly. But I was sad, and there’s nothing worse than a beautiful, sunny day when you’re sad.
I wanted rain and clouds and thunder.
I’d just been dumped, and my life was in the throes of change. I went outside to pick my parents’ grapes as a diversion from the heavy sadness I felt that squeezed every breath I took. I just saw those grapes and didn’t want them to go to waste.
I didn’t know anything about canning. I didn’t know that grapes aren’t usually ready for harvesting until the first freeze of the season, well after September. I didn’t care. I picked the grapes and threw them into some boiling water, and I started to feel better. I put the pulp and the peels and the seeds into a sieve and I felt like I could escape from the pressure I felt in my heart. I put it all into another pot with some sugar and some gelatin and I started to feel empowered.
I didn’t have any fancy equipment, I just had some empty jars lying around, and I worked all day to fill those little jars. I felt so proud. My dad was proud, too. You would have thought I hung the moon with those little jam jars, he was so thrilled.
Fast forward seven years, and another beautiful autumn was on display. The Utah sky was blue, the air was warm and the leaves fluttered like gossamer wings as they drifted to the ground. My broken heart was mended. I was married, finished with school, and I had a brand-new baby girl who filled my heart with joy.
My dear friend with an equally new baby had a peach tree in her back yard, and we couldn’t stand to see the fruit go to waste. We spent days talking, laughing and doing our best to preserve the moment. We shocked the peaches and peeled the skins. We took out the pits and carefully stacked the sticky halves on top of each other in large glass jars while the sugar-water syrup boiled. The jars looked like a work of art when we were finished.
Again, a feeling of satisfaction filled my heart. It just seemed right that I should do such a domestic thing, now that I was a mother. I wanted to discover the secrets of the generation of homemakers who baked homemade bread and wiped their children’s tears in their hoop skirts and heels. I wanted to pull a casserole out of the oven with my red lipstick on and love it.
It surprised me. I’d always thought about my career, not casseroles, and for a time, I felt like being a professional and being a homemaker were mutually exclusive. That’s why I was so drawn to study my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born. She was a woman who cooked and cleaned. She was a woman who made candy at Christmas and took notes in her cookbook. She sewed and studied recipes — but she also studied anatomy and psychology. As a nurse, she knew how to heal, and when she was 55, in 1966, she expanded her academic background by earning her master’s degree in counseling.
Her home was a place where her endeavors took flight. It was a place where divinity sat on the same counters as her work. There was no mutual exclusivity.
This year, I appreciated the sun as I picked our harvest of tomatoes and peppers. I chopped up the vegetables, added in jalapenos, garlic and lime juice, and I canned salsa for the first time. It is a lengthy process, and it takes time that I don’t often have. As the last of the tomatoes fell from the stalk this year, I felt a little sad. This year’s harvest is over — but did I do enough?
We’ll see how long my 20 jars of salsa will last. Until then, I’m going to preserve every moment.