A Brown Paper Bag

I went for a long bike ride in the country this weekend.  23 miles on the new gift machine. Once I got over being just one measly pebble away from insane road rash and possible death, I enjoyed myself.  We got to rolling green hills and split rail fences, dogs chained to outside trees, an occasional horse, and the strawberry farms. The sweet scent and the bent backs brought my mind back to the mid-70s.

There is a brown paper bag that sits in the back of my mother’s closet. Inside are 3 pairs of shorts and 3 shirts folded and used once a year. They are our strawberry picking clothes. Mine was a halter and some version of terry cloth shorts while my brother’s were some old soccer jersey and any form of Levi’s -jeans or cords- cut off. I suppose ours changed year to year because of growth spurts but my Mother’s were always the same. A sleeveless collared, red gingham shirt, navy shorts, and white keds, the thick kind like you wear on boats. There were a few red splotches stained into the canvas and the shoes eventually turned more pink than white. I am guessing the bag is no longer there anymore but I think about it each time I bite into the first handpicked berry of the season.

I recall my grandparents, Nanon and PopPop, coming on one or two berry picking adventures but I may be confusing that with the yearly treks to the Lacoste outlet in Redding, PA. Anyway strawberry picking day always started early in the morning with a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast (“Eggs stick with you much better than cereal or pancakes” my Mother would  say, long before we thought about protein versus carbs or abhorred white flour) We would pile into the green Chevrolet station wagon and drive to a farm about an hour from our home in Alexandria. That land is probably now Potomac Mills or Tysons II or some other behemoth of retail. We would be given large cardboard trays and be directed to a row good for picking. Then we would start. We would pick and eat and eat and pick and sit in the row and complain that it was hot or tiring or boring. But for the most part we enjoyed it. And my Mom would pick. For Ever. We would not leave until the back of the giant station wagon was filled with cardboard trays bursting with red gold.

That was only the first half. Once home, the yellow french ceramic pot would come out and gallons of sugar and cutting boards and knives would clutter the counter as the process for strawberry jam would begin. On the back burner was a large white and blue pot boiling gallons of water to sterilize the lids and the jars. There were circles of paraffin wax used for sealing in boxes on the counter. Each year I would sneak one or two circles out and carve my name in using my finger nails still stained red with juice. (That never went over well with my ever frugal Yankee Mother). When making strawberry jam there is a “fruit foam” which rises to the top of the berry mess as it cooks down and thickens. It looks more like a strawberry nougat or souffle and it needs to be skimmed off so as to not cloudy the jam. It is pure heaven. We would eat it by the warm spoonful and forget we had almost been sick just 5 hours ago from eating too many berries while we picked.

Last spring I went strawberry picking with my girls. I was trying to recreate one of my favorite childhood rituals. But there was no bag of stained clothes to pull out of my closet. We drove 20 minutes down the road to a farm and each picked a bucket full of berries. I tried to teach the three girls, not to pick ones with white on them or ones too red and mooshy. We had fun and lasted about an hour, with the promise of homemade strawberry ice cream (bought at the farm stand of course) as a post-picking treat. When we got home, they were done with the strawberry thing. I attempted to make jam but nostalgia quickly went the way of my modern impatience. In several sequential phone calls to my mother, here is how it broke down:

1. Do you know how expensive Ball jars are? And I can’t even find the right size! (That is why I always ask you to save the jars from the jam I give you)

2. Do you know the recipe calls for equal parts sugar to fruit? That’s insane! (It does taste good though)

3. Do you know how hard it is to tell if the jam has thickened enough? There is no guarantee! (It is an art)

4. I don’t have time to do this canning sterilizing thing! (I guess that’s why I’m the only one who still makes jam)

5. Well next strawberry season you are going to have to come help. Most of my jam turned out wrong! (I would love to and you can always give it to friends as strawberry ice cream topping)

Sadly, I do not think my daughters will have a fondness for strawberries or the process like the one my Mother cultivated in me. They won’t have homemade prom dresses either.  The planning, the hard work, the educational aspect, the incorporating of children into daily life, the delicious treat coming out of the kitchen: so authentically my mother. What will my girls look back on and remember as something so “me” and yet so fun for them? Will it be our treks to Maine or crazy homemade birthday cakes? I hope they remember I am the ONLY mom who gets into the pool even if the water is freezing. They might be lacrosse players or pickup a new sport at age 40. They may even write. Or maybe the jam trait will skip a generation and be picked up again by my offspring. They do love to cook… I guess it doesn’t really matter what the memory is about as long as it is a strong one and good.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sue Avery on May 16, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    I just finished reading your latest post. Very touching. Beautifully written. I look so forward to reading everything you write.

    Amity’s Mom


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