Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Add two cups sugar to two cups fresh blackberries. Stir over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes. Cool.

So I did. I stood at the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring, watching the bumpy black berries soften and burst, coloring the sugar the shade of a deep bruise. As the juice ran and turned the sugar into syrup the stirring got smoother and a little monotonous.

It is highly likely that I could have left the jam for a moment or two – to answer the phone or move wet clothes from the washer to the dryer or check the score of the Braves game – without making any difference in the finished product, but there was something about the directness and simplicity of the instructions that called me to diligence. I would, as directed, stir for 15 to 20 minutes.

The rhythm of the stirring and the observation of the near-alchemy that was taking place before my eyes coaxed me into thinking about a lot of things. I thought about how much easier it would have been to simply buy blackberry jam (a thought I quickly dismissed by remembering the difference between Mama's creamed corn and that produced by the Green Giant).

I thought about the array of scratches all over my arms and legs resulting from my blackberry foraging. I thought about how accomplished I would feel once the jam had been spooned into the tiny Ball jars with the fruit-embellished lids. And I thought about the friends and family with whom I would share.

I watched my wrist rotate with the turn of the spatula, watched the tornado-like swirling in the bottom of the pot, watched the liquid slosh up in broad waves like purple ric-rac. And, staring into the soon-to-be jam, the thoughts turned to images.

I saw Mama standing at the counter slicing up cucumbers that would become pickles. I heard the whistle and jingle of the pressure cooker and the rip of corn shucks being stripped from their ears. I smelled the greenness of beans just snapped. I felt under my thumbnails the tenderness of an afternoon's pea-shelling.

And there I was, 10 years old and not-so-quietly stewing over what I saw as an imposition on my summer. Sitting under a tree in a folding aluminum lawn chair, balancing in my lap a blue plastic hospital pan, running my fingers through shell after shell of peas and listening to Mama and Grannie and an assemblage of aunts and cousins talk about people whose names I did not recognize, but who, I was assured, were kin to me.

I wanted to be inside, stretched out on my bed with the window fan blowing straight into my face, a Nancy Drew book in my hands. It was in that world, the world of daring adventures and unsolved mysteries, that I belonged. Not in the one where ordinary people did ordinary things. Shelling peas and picking off peanuts would not get me closer to the exotic life that I was certain was meant to be mine.

The timer on the stove went off and ended my reverie. The 15 minutes was up. I turned off the stove and moved the pot to another burner for the last step of the process: Cool.

Remembering the frustration of those sweltering summer days, it occurred to me that making my self has been a little like making blackberry jam. At ten, I was a combination of wildness and sweetness and life would have to do quite a bit of heating and stirring before the two things melded into something that was worth sharing, something that would keep.

So, I think I've come to turns with the idea that I'm never going to catch a nefarious criminal on a dude ranch or discover a hidden staircase, receive a mysterious letter or find a message in a hollow oak. That's just as well. I don't think Nancy Drew ever had time to make blackberry jam.

Copyright 2008

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