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.