A few Sundays ago my husband returned home from church to find me leaning against the kitchen counter, sobbing over four quart jars of pickles.
“What’s wrong?” he said, alarmed. He rushed over to the stove and peered critically inside the massive, speckled black pot that was still steaming. “Did you burn yourself?”
I had made the pickles (cucumbers and okra) myself, my first attempt at canning. The idea to try it out had been percolating for a while. I’d grown up watching my grandmothers can vegetables from their garden each summer, boiling their Ball jars, standing over their pressure cookers, and carrying the filled jars to store on cool, dark shelves.
I long considered it one of those curious things that grandmothers did, like how my father’s mother, Gennie Vee, cleaned her false teeth overnight in a cup of bubbling water, or how my mother’s mother, Wanda, soaked her artificial flowers in the bathroom sink with a little dish soap. Or how they both preferred to keep Fig Newtons in their kitchens instead of real cookies.
I thought that maybe my grandmothers were simply continuing a ritual they’d begun a long time ago, before grocery stores were invented.
On a recent trip home to Tennessee, I stopped to pick up a quart of Wanda’s canned tomatoes to use in a vegetable soup for Gennie Vee, who had recently returned home after a hospital stay. For years she has suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, but in the past few months her health has taken a steep decline.
“I could use the canned kind,” I told Wanda, “but that’s not what she’d want. It doesn’t taste the same at all.” She handed me two jars instead of one.
I stayed in Tennessee for two weeks and made my ailing grandmother — who retains a healthy appetite — many meals, trying to remember her favorite foods and how she likes them prepared. Although the fibrosis makes breathing, and thus talking, difficult, as I sat with her in the evenings I asked questions about the recipes for poke salad and her from-scratch biscuits. Afraid these would be our last conversations, I asked her other questions, too, like the names of all my grandfather’s twelve brothers and sisters, and the names of all of her own. I asked her to tell me again how old she was when her family moved from North Carolina to Tennessee. I asked her to confirm that, yes, she was fourteen when she married my grandfather.
All that I knew about her seemed dwarfed by all that I did not, and the grief of what I would lose when she died — not only the grandmother I knew, but the grandmother I didn’t — was crushing. It seemed beyond unfair that all she knew and remembered and was would disappear with her body, and there was no way I could take it from her and keep it with me.
When I arrived home to Philadelphia, I began to read about canning. I learned that only low-acid foods need to be canned in a pressure cooker. Others, like tomatoes, can simply be boiled in a hot bath canner, which is a pot large enough to fully submerge the jars in water on a wire rack. Other tools, like a funnel and special set of tongs that can lift the jars by the neck, make the process easier. I purchased the last canning set in stock at Target and carried it home, awkwardly but proudly, on the bus.
I decided to make pickles because my grandmothers both made them, and cucumbers and okra were on sale at the farmer’s market. I bought the vegetables on a Saturday, and the next morning gave my husband a kiss as he left for church and I began my preparations.
I wanted to do it alone. I lit the candles in the kitchen and turned on some music. Today, this would be the way I talked to God, and what I wanted to talk about was my grandmothers, and the way I wanted to talk about them was by doing something with my hands that their hands had done time and again.
It wasn’t easy. I had trouble carrying the pot to the stove because it was so heavy with water. It took an hour on the highest heat for the water to begin to boil. My jars were the wrong size for the recipe I was using. They were new, so they had to be sterilized before they were filled. I burned my hand lowering them into the water. I ran out of cider vinegar and wasn’t sure if it was okay to use white instead. I was also unsure about the amount of headspace (the room between the top of the liquid and the lip of the jar).
The process took hours and produced only four jars of pickles, which finally I set on the counter. The paraffin seal on the lids should have melted in the water, and I listened for the “pop” that was supposed to occur as the jars cooled and a vacuum was created in the jar. Without the pop, the jars wouldn’t be properly sealed and could not safely be stored in a cupboard.
I turned off the music. I waited and listened. There was no pop. That’s when I started crying and my husband came home and found me.
“I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea,” I told him through tears. “It’s completely impractical. I’ve spent all this time and money on something we could’ve easily bought at the store. I thought it would help me feel connected to them, like I was carrying on a tradition, but I only feel stupid.”
I explained that of course it wasn’t only the technical knowledge of knowing how to can that I was worried about losing. Or knowledge of our family history, or memories of my parents when they were children. What I was most scared of losing, I told him, was the existence of a person who loved me unconditionally. Who had loved me from before I was born. Who had known me all my life. When my grandmothers died, where would that love go? Would it simply cease to exist?
He put his hands on my shoulders and made me look up at him. I was worried he would say something trite about how my grandmothers would never die as long as I remembered them, but he didn’t.
“That love will not disappear,” he said, “because it has taught you how to love. The experience of being loved like you have been loved makes you able to love others the way you do.”
This seemed right, and true. I had been obsessing over the particulars of knowledge — details that I couldn’t hang on to, or might never know in the first place. But the truth is that what is most valuable about my grandmothers and what they have given me is much more complex than that. It’s a recipe that cannot be written down. It’s a skill that cannot be taught in steps. It’s actually not a skill at all — it’s a capacity. For love.
My husband returned the water to a boil while I cleaned myself up, and we returned the jars to the pot. After removing them we stood in the kitchen together, listening. And this time, they popped.
Dyana Herron is a graduate of Seattle Pacific University's MFA in Creative Writing. She teaches writing at Eastern University and The King's College, and is a regular contributor to Image Journal's Good Letters blog at Patheos.com. Originally from Southeast Tennessee, she now lives in Philadelphia.