Canned Fruit

I have been sorting through old files of stuff, deciding what to throw and what to save. Occasionally I’ll come across something I forgot that I wrote and judge it worthy of resurrection. This piece was written for the final day of a women’s studies class I taught at the University of Minnesota in 1980.

My mother showed me how to cook peaches until they turned translucent. She lifted the halves out of the syrup on a spoon and held them to the light, watching for the moment when the glow seemed to come from within. Then she slipped them gently into canning jars lined up in rows, adding enough liquid to make the buoyancy levels even, although she never took them to the county fair. The seal she tested three ways:  lying awake at night listening for the reassuring pop from the kitchen, tapping the lid in the center to make sure there was no give, holding the top of the jar at eye level to see the indentation. These are the things my mother tried to teach me, that I tried not to learn.

The translucence of a peach did not satisfy my craving for light. The force of the vacuum seal that stilled growth indefinitely was too strong for my metaphoric sensibility. I would not be watered and sugared down, confined in glass, preserved until consumed. Literature corroborates my fear: Mary Coleridge’s imprisoning mirror, Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, Snow White’s glass coffin.

In our house the well pit off the basement did double duty as a fruit room. There, on pine board shelves behind recycled kitchen curtains, my mother kept the literal fruits of her labor, away from the light and the heat that might decay them. Once-growing things were stored away, suspended, awaiting times of need that came often: beans, tomatoes, strawberry jam, even sickly sweet watermelon rinds. Little was discarded. Someone should write the history of canning. Had women not perfected it, men would not need wars to kill each other off. They would die agonized, inglorious deaths from malnutrition and food spoilage. There would be no history worth recording.

After seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” I took sponge baths at the bathroom sink for months. But the shower scene was only the second greatest terror. When my mother sent me to the fruit room for tomatoes, I balked. I might meet her there, the hag who spun around at the policeman’s touch and mesmerized me with her bony grimace. As I felt for the light cord I imagined her death-cold hand groping for mine. She would get me and put me up, suspend me in sugar water, preserve me like herself in that underground dankness away from the light.

The first time I ever canned on my own, a bat flew out of the pantry and swooped across the kitchen. I worried, first, that it would defile my perfect peach sauce and second, that it would tangle itself in my hair. True to my upbringing I screamed for the resident man, but he, playing Bartok badly on the violin, had his own reasons to fear the bat’s revenge. Together, shielding our hair, we trapped her in the window, imprisoned her in glass, and ignored her flailing and screeching as best we could. The next morning, her will weakened by the light of day, she slipped meekly into a coffee can and accepted her liberation with indifference. Now, in retrospect, I understand her significance. She had come as an emissary to be present at my initiation into canning. She meant to defile my peach sauce, to dip her wings in it, reminding me that I am one of that lineage: the descendant of brewing witches, of the skeletal mother stashed in the fruit room, of my own mother lifting her peaches to the light. I wonder now what uncanny destiny led me to write my Master’s thesis on I∂un, the Nordic goddess who guards the fruits of immortality.

The strawberries and rhubarb in my garden are ready for canning, and I am ready to admit to my heritage. Rumor has it that “Cheri is getting domestic,” but the rumor lacks the subtlety of interpretation. I keep my jars in public view. My peaches glow in the sunlight. Decay, after all, is not the only possible consequence. They might ferment or crystallize. The compelling metaphor is no longer the vacuum-sealed jar, but the fruit inside, peeled and carved by women’s hands, cooked to translucence, suspended in time, stored behind old curtains in dank basements. To recover it, to claim it, I have to face the skeletal hag and brave the bat who might tangle herself in my hair, taking me for a witch. To taste the fruit, I have to break the seal.

This is my rhubarb jam. It is sour and sweet, biting and soothing. Even its colors are paradoxical: the pink taint of feminine shame on the green of spring’s promise. This is certainly a female image. Have some.

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