Thursday, October 16, 2014

Scenes from Silver Creek: The Jam

Every summer the ladies of Silver Creek went into a frenzy of jam making.  I remember being roped into the berry picking as a child.  Fat bushes of blackberry and delicate beds of strawberry.  Apricots warm from the summer sun and baskets of wormy apples.  For weeks every kitchen would be too hot to enter as the heat of the day competed with the steam rising from ancient, vast stoves as to which was more uncomfortable. 

My mother, sadly, made the worst jam in town and it was always a disappointment to me to see such delicious fruit and know it would be ruined by mom’s hammer touch.  The blackberry jam would have tiny bits of branches in it that you would find, all unexpected, smeared on your January toast.  The strawberry jam would be so sweet that it was almost painful to eat.  Tasteless apple butter.  I used to love to go to the homes of my aunts and taste their wonderful jars of summer glory.  Why?  I would ask, did my mother and only my mother miss the cooking gene in the family?

But every year she would tie on her sunshine yellow apron and rope in the family to work.  The boys would haul cardboard boxes of empty jars from the basement and then be free to be free.  The girls, unfortunately, were tied by antique gender roles into washing and sterilizing jars, slicing fruit, and handing mom ingredients like surgical nurses during a fruit appendectomy. When my sisters got married and moved out it fell to me, the baby of the family, to do the work that three of us used to share.  And we did it, knowing full well that all of this sweat would result in gleaming jars of crap.

Even my father, who worshipped my mother, wasn’t up to the task of pretending her jam was anything other than awful.  He even developed a “berry allergy” that got him out of having to put the thin, purple substance that mom called grape jelly onto his morning toast.  When all of us kids tried to claim we’d inherited the same allergy, she refused to believe us.  She took me, as the smallest, and sat me on the chrome and red-leather step stool in the kitchen and force fed me spoonfuls of grape jelly then watched me like a hawk to see if I came out in a rash.  I didn’t and, to her mind, that made all of her kids immune from dad’s affliction.  To this day my brother Ronnie blames me for not being a better actress.  I tried to tell him that Katharine Hepburn couldn’t produce hives on cue, but there is no reasoning with a man who was daily forced to eat the much-feared cranberry-orange relish.

Each year at the Christmas boutique benefiting St. Edith’s, housewives all over Silver Creek would proudly produce the fruits of their summer labors for sale.  Large wicker baskets would be decorated with red and green ribbon or sprigs of fake holly and filled with homemade goods. The tables of the church hall would groan under the weight of golden loaves of pound cake and plates full of sugar-dusted cookies.  There was an unspoken competition to be first through the door and then make a beeline for Mrs. Hudson’s basket with glistening jars of strawberry jam, packets of sweet macaroons, eye-wateringly dill pickles, and a little pottery crock of clover honey. 

Unfortunately for mom, her ineptitude in the kitchen was well known and nobody ever wanted her basket.  After one year when it was the last basket left, dad took to making a great show of buying hers first “before anyone else could get their hands on it.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Scenes from Silver Creek.  The Funeral.

When Aunt Lenore finally wound down, at age 94, the whole town turned out for the funeral.  The family bought five uniforms for the high school marching band and had them lead a New Orleans style parade down Union Street from St. Edith’s church to the cemetery out behind the softball field.  It lacked some authenticity, as the band didn’t know how to play “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.”  The best we could do was “Joy to the World” (the Creedence version, not the Christmas Carol). Since Aunt Camilla was already “appalled, disgusted, and sickened” by what she called “The Spectacle,” the bullfrog was just one more detail to offend her delicate sensibilities.  She’d tried to put her dainty, size 5 foot down on the horseshoe wreath Aunt L had explicitly requested and her request to be buried in jeans and her beloved “I Love Dachshunds” sweatshirt.  We outnumbered Aunt Camilla who washed her hands of the whole thing, and did as Aunt L wanted.  (As a child I always thought Aunt Camilla must have the cleanest hands in Silver Creek as she was always washing them of something.)

The Reverend Polehouse delivered a lovely sermon about “loving thy neighbor” which, considering Aunt L’s many love affairs, seemed to be full of double entrendres that kept me just this side of giggles the entire time.  Then we all stood and sang, “There is a Green Hill” and went outside to join the parade.  All except Aunt Camilla, of course, who demanded to be driven the ¾ of a mile to the cemetery in a decent manner.  We played rock/paper/scissors to see who had to drive her.  My cousin, Daniel lost and helped Aunt Camilla into his pickup, which she regarded with horror.

After the graveside service (the solemnity of which was marred somewhat by the intrusion of a large and muddy sheepdog that came out of nowhere with a repulsive tennis ball in his mouth and a hopeful look on his face and who would not be dissuaded from bumping into us until someone, I think it was Mr. Jeevers from the hardware store, threw it for him.) we all headed to the Foreign Legion hall for casseroles and condolences and some much-needed, heavily-spiked Hawaiian Punch.

The day was hot and all the ladies were attired in light dresses.  They were so heavily talcum powdered that when they went to hug you, small clouds of white rose like tiny dust storms from their bosoms and my sedate black dress soon had a grey tinge to it. 

The men loosened their ties and took off their jackets, retreating into male groups to discuss sports and business.  Across the street, the children were terrorizing the elementary school playground, their excited shrieks accompanied by the frenzied barks of the sheepdog that had followed the procession to the hall.

Inside the hall it seemed oddly dark after the brightness of the day.  Amid the photos of old veterans shaking hands with Bob Hope there were displays of Aunt L.  Pictures of her as a child, hugging a dumb looking sheep.  As a bobbed-haired teenager with overalls and an arm slung around a girl that nobody could identify.  On her first wedding day, and all the subsequent wedding days (four in all), in dresses of varying degrees of laughability and with husband of varying degrees of suitability.  The only one any of us had ever liked was husband number three, Otto.  A man of stunning plainness who obviously worshipped Aunt L and always went around looking slightly confused that such a force of nature had chosen him.  When he died of a heart attack on an Over 40 Club bus trip to Branson, Aunt L went into the only period of depression I’d ever seen her experience.