Grandmothers, Canned Goods, and Natsukashi

On a recent Sunday morning, I heard Greg Brown on the radio, singing his wonderful song called “Canned Goods.” It’s full of references to a grandmother who lovingly put up summer bounty in Ball canning jars (or Hellman’s or Smucker’s…), providing a tantalizing taste of a luscious treat long after the seasons changed.

Whenever I hear that song, it reminds me of my grandmothers, and how neither one of them ever did anything like that. Granted, one lived in a tiny Detroit apartment and never seemed to have much inclination toward that sort of kitchen magic. The other one lived in an apartment in San Francisco, and while she was affectionate and fun to be around, I don’t recall her lining the basement shelves with jars of peaches, pickles, or tomatoes. I know where she bought her dill pickles, and I visited the bakery she liked where we picked up poppy seed cakes for her and my grandfather, but I just don’t remember her skill at the stove in her tiny kitchen. She was pretty good at cards, though, and set us kids up with TV trays in front of the soaps so we could play solitaire, or a game she called “Oh, Hell.” Not your typical grandmother at all.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have the kind of grandmother who wore an apron and loved to be surrounded by her doting grandchildren as she rolled dough or spooned delicious jam into a waiting line of jars. My friend Sara told me once about a word in Japanese that translates into “a longing for an idealized past.” It carries a deep, emotional meaning that goes beyond the commercialization of “retro” furnishings that look like things you might have seen in houses a century ago: new things made to look old that hark back to a past we are too young to have experienced firsthand. It’s this longing–natsukashi–that underscores the way I feel about having missed out on the idealized, and maybe overly romanticized, grandmother experience. I wish someone had put summer in a jar for me and taught me how to do it. I felt affection from my grandmothers, but not doted on. Isn’t that what grandmothers are supposed to do? Dote?

The truth is I won’t be that canning kind of grandmother either. I’ll do other stuff, like leading my grandchildren to the blueberry bushes in the backyard when the summer crop is at its peak and the bushes are heavy with fruit. I can share in the delight of eating them right away–no jars for us! And as the kids grow older, I’m sure we’ll do some baking together and savor some warm cookies right out of the oven. I’ve got kid-size aprons and a step stool ready for some occasion to use them. Maybe we can create some memories without jars as part of the equation.

There’s no point looking back at what did or didn’t happen in my grandmothers’ kitchens. Just sometimes, I wish I had shelves full of those delicious memories to savor whenever I want.

I can dream along with Greg Brown, though. His grandma put it all in jars.

6 Responses to Grandmothers, Canned Goods, and Natsukashi

  1. jan mariolle says:

    I Love This Piece And Feel charmed By The Grandmothers You Did Have.However, I Also Undwrstand The Longing…So Well Said.

  2. Mine didn’t bake or can, but she did cook great Italian food. I don’t have kids but like to think I’d be the kind of Grandma that I am an aunt–like Auntie Mame–in charge of exposing my nephew to places and ideas he’d never encounter otherwise. We each have our place, right? And what a pretty grandma you are! Great to spend so much time with you, and especially while you wore your flower crown! Like I said, a different kind of grandma.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Thanks, Carol. And I wish I could’ve been that kind of aunt to someone. It was great fun spending time with you too! Looking forward to more good times in the future.

  3. Lori Hernandez says:

    I have so many wonderful memories of my Grandma…She loved to see us being silly and especially enjoyed watching us dance..she won dance marathons in the 1920s.Cooking for us was her pleasure as was taking us on shopping excursions. We were so fortunate to have her with us through the birth and younger years of our own children. Her comments about people and situations were just the funniest ever. She was very hard of hearing from a early even as small children we helped her communicate with the world…we were happy to help out…in fact I remember as a small child using a box and one of her old hearing aid cords to make my own hearing aid ! My brother and I were fasenated with her hearing apparatus. This of course was before the ones that fit in your ear..My Grandmother (Nanny as we and everyone young and old called her)worked until she was in her late seventies as a drapery maker..but when we came to visit her she dropped everything to talk and play with us. Luckily for her and us the roadways and freeways were not too busy back in the 50s and 60s because ” The little old lady of Pasadena” had nothing on her.. Holy Cow she drove fast and enjoyed passing people. At one time we lived about 15 miles from each other. My first born was an infant at the time. She would call to see if we were home and by the time I hung up and changed a diaper she was pulling into my driveway…guess the police didnt patrol the back roads..she had to be pushing 80 mph !!! Well thats my Nanny…she passed 17 years ago and I think of her so often and how much joy and love she brought into my life. Feel so lucky to have had her with me for so long. I espeically think of her when with my own Grandchildren. And now I know the joy that lite up her eyes..

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