When I was 7 or 8 I went blackberry picking with some neighbours. We had a great time, reaching round thorny brambles to pull the juicy berries from their hedgerows. I remember proudly presenting my mum with a large ice cream tub of berries at the end of the day; Mum knew just what to do with them, make jam. I was amazed but simultaneously accepting, as my own little bean is with me, of my parent’s ability to know everything about everything. That’s certainly how it seemed to me.
I think then that my adult obsession with jam making is no coincidence. I was raised by parents who had grown up with growers and preservers. My mum told me stories of sitting with her grandmother preparing fruit for jams and pies, back in a time when making the most of the harvest was essential to a family’s larder. When we had an allotment in England I made jams from blackcurrants, raspberries and rhubarb we grew ourselves. I also made a shimmering pink gooseberry jam from donated fruit and still feel a little sad that they don’t grow in jamming quantities here. Luckily there are many other things that do!
My cupboard is already stocked with a large batch of strawberry jam, sweet and runny on morning toast. I am planning many other types of jam this year; aside from the essential raspberry I am also going to try my hand at plum, peach and apricot. These are new fruits to me so I am excited to try them. The thrill brought on by rows of jewel like jars on the shelves of my pantry is a feeling I am almost addicted to. The knowledge that we are fully stocked with delectable goodies, keeps me warm and cosy as the snow falls and the wind howls outside.
I was surprised to discover, during my parents first visit to Canada, that I shared by jar obsession with my mum. She told me how much she loved seeing jars stacked up, filled to the brim with something or other. I had thought I was a lone Jarophile, but in fact this adoration was born into me, planted in my genes waiting for the right time to bloom. The jars under discussion with my mum were filled with my first batch of Canadian strawberry jam. Mum was incredibly complimentary of my efforts and I glowed under her praise as she spread the jam thickly on her morning toast. She never failed to comment, as if for the first time, on its delights. Likewise my ears never tired of hearing her words.
It occurs to me that when I preserve the fleeting present, made life in the fragile berries of summer, that I’m also preserving the past. The learning of generations is suspended within the still glass jars in my cupboard. Words of advice handed down via my mum to my ears; translated into something tangible that feeds me body and soul. I keenly remember watching her make that first batch of blackberry jam, absorbing her instructions and process; now I see that image reflected in my own children’s eyes and hope that I can live up to their admiration.
When preparing the fruit for the blackberry jam my mum gave me some advice that holds true for jam making and, I think, for life. She told me to soak the fruit, pour away the water, soak it again and pour it away again. But, she cautioned, don’t look at what you throw away, just take the fruit and move on to the next stage. Her thinking was that the berries contain all sorts of yuckiness that would put you off the jam if you knew they were there, but this didn’t stop the berries being worth eating.
Sometimes we have to throw things away and not look back. Move forward, doing our best to preserve the best of the fragile present hand in hand with the knowledge of what has gone before. Knowing that what we need will be there for us, the best of our past like a glistening berry, always ripe and ready for picking. The rest we can throw away without regret, looking forward only to the treats ahead.