My father and I fought over this jar. Whenever we visit my grandmother, five miles outside of Wytheville, Virginia, she sends us off with whatever canned goods she has—usually jam, preserves, or apples. This particular trip we each received a jar of grape jelly and strawberry rhubarb jam. Our dispute came down to who would get this particular jar after my grandmother pointed out that it was one of the “old jars” that had lines marking off measurements on one side.
On the lid, in lettering faded so you can barely make it out: Strawberry Preserves. And a date, I think, 5/19/10. I cannot tell if it is the handwriting of my grandmother, Charlotte Mabe. The lid and band are gold-colored stamped steel, and perfectly rusted.
The jar itself is light, but substantial. Its heft changes depending on what you put inside. It holds a pint. It is not perfectly circular. It is more of a square with rounded edges.
The glass is clear, textured in places. Raised lines and numbers indicate measurements (ounces and cups) down one side. On the other an empty oval is surrounded by fruit—apples, pears, peaches. In raised letters, the bottom reads “© AVON 1.” Ball, Kerr, these are the common ones. But jars by other makers can be found, Lamb, Avon, and even the one they are all mistaken for, Mason.
The glass is cool to the touch. But it takes on the temperature of its contents and its surroundings. My friend Steve drinks his coffee from a Mason jar. He holds it at the top to avoid burning himself.
(It is adaptable.)
The jar came to me full of strawberry rhubarb jam, its contents different than the words handwritten on the lid. It’s not my favorite. I prefer blackberry, raspberry, black raspberry or any combination of the three. But strawberry rhubarb is often what I’m offered these days, and I’ll take whatever I can get.
During a visit one summer in college, I asked my grandmother to teach me how to make jam. I was sent into the mountains behind the house to pick what berries I could find. I came back with blackberries and a few black raspberries (it was too early yet for red raspberries).
We made jam. I remember standing at the stove. I remember adding a shocking amount of sugar. But something went wrong—our jam came out a thin, dark, soupy mixture of berries and sugar.
I felt cheated.
When you get a jar of jam from Charlotte you’ll often find mold on the top when you open the lid. She and my father just take a spoon and scoop it out, and set the jar back on the table. Good as new.
This always embarrassed me. Not that there was anyone around except my family to worry about. But it made me embarrassed of my people.
(And a little queasy.)
Small, yellow flowers reside inside the jar. I acquired them on one of my wanderings last summer, my first summer in Chapel Hill. This South with hills, but no mountains, was new to me. So I did what I always do when I need to get to know a place: I went for drives. I went without a plan to see what I could see. I picked these flowers on the side of the road, in a swale on a road southwest of Chapel Hill.
I took them home and put them in a small glass Martinelli apple juice bottle. I put them in without water and placed them at the edge of my desk. As they dried they curled down around the edge of the lip. Eventually I transferred the flowers to the Mason jar to await their purpose.
Unscrewing the lid, I put my nose to the jar, and inhale deeply. It’s a strong smell. But not bad, not sickening. I do not quickly pull away, the way you might if there was a lizard inside. It smells sweet. But underneath the sweetness is a mixture of earth and decay. It smells like a wreath we had over the front door of our home in Florida when I was a child.
I open the jar and inhale the scent—trying to find the words to get the description right. The more I do this the fainter the smell becomes. The jar not only contains the thing, in this case flowers, but it holds everything they have given off over time.
(It holds time.)
These nails will be grass in their next life. I found them in the smokehouse behind Charlotte’s house. I remember as a little girl having my picture taken standing behind a deer carcass hung from the ceiling in the smokehouse. It’s where my grandfather worked and drank. Now that he’s gone, lost to cancer and cirrhosis, it’s my Uncle Pete’s domain. He uses the smokehouse as a woodworking shop. He makes flowerpots, signs like the one above his bedroom door that reads ETEP, and little pipes that he uses to smoke marijuana. Like my grandfather he uses it as a place to drink.
Pete is what you might call a hoarder. He collects things most of us would call junk. A few years ago I was snooping around and wandered into the smokehouse—amazed by the sheer amount of stuff Pete had accumulated. I found a small plastic toolbox full of rusty nails of different shapes and sizes. I snuck it back inside the house and asked my father if I could keep it. He said he didn’t think Pete would miss it.
The box now sits in my closet labeled: Rusty Nails. I pulled some of them out a couple of weeks ago when I was planning a mixed media project. A tree branch will serve as a tree, the bottom of a clear broken glass bottle as the moon or sun (I haven’t decided which yet) and the nails as grass (the heads on the ground, pointing up to the sky). I am in the process of painting the canvas, so the nails are resting in my grandmother’s jar. The flowers, stored there previously, became flowers in the planter of a rusted cat food tin. Something had to take their place.
The jar is heavier with the nails inside. The smell is still sweet, just like when the flowers were in there. But it’s deeper, more pungent. The smell doesn’t fade as fast as it did with the flowers. There’s about three-quarters cup, or six ounces, of nails in the jar.
The nails are more visible in the jar. Isolated inside the glass, they command attention. It alters their significance, making them more evident than they were in the toolbox, or lost in the smokehouse. Clearly homemade, they are struck from two metals. The body is rusty while the head is a silver color. They have been fused together and the heads have been melted every which way.
(The context changes them, too. As it must.)
I want to know what the jar smells like on its own so I wash the jar. Drying it with a towel, I carry the jar onto the front porch. I sit down in the sun and the warmth I haven’t felt for months. I take out the rag and hold the jar to my nose. It doesn’t smell like anything. I’m disappointed because part of me thought the sweetness lingered from the strawberry rhubarb jam, surviving through the flowers and rust and time. But no sweetness remains. There is nothing.
But that’s not right either. It can’t smell like nothing. But it doesn’t smell like what was before.
It smells like water.
It smells like glass.
It smells like acceptance, like it’s ready for what’s to come.
(It smells like it does not miss the past.)
As a child I dreamed of a big farmhouse with beautiful rooms upstairs. These rooms had iron bedsteads and handmade quilts. I would wake up to the smell of breakfast every morning. Outside my window stood a tree. The room was full of antiques. I dreamed a picture I once read in books.
I dreamed of a house at the end of a long dirt road, not on a busy two-lane highway. I dreamed of jam without mold. Butter that went back in the refrigerator when people were done with it instead of Blue Bonnet margarine left on the table indefinitely. I dreamed of hardwood floors instead of carpet of a different color in every room—blue, red, purple. I dreamed of plaster walls instead of wood paneling.
In college, I spent more time in Virginia, getting to know my Grandmother. I made the seven hour trip from Philadelphia whenever I could. I stopped dreaming of a rural Appalachia that didn’t exist for me, and embraced the South that was actually available to me. The mountains right behind a one-story brick building on a busy two-lane road. A house built in the seventies on land that had been in Charlotte’s family for generations. Hot milk cake, and red velvet cake, orange blossom specials, deer steak, biscuits, homemade sausage from Uncle Bill over in Fort Chiswell, cornbread and pinto beans with vinegar and onions, honey from Uncle Roy down Route 21, fried squash from the garden.
It isn’t what I wanted it to be. It isn’t out of a book. But it’s mine.