ALONG WITH A KNITTED HAT, Cousin Paula sent a jar of homemade jam each Christmas. The jam was apricot, or Rangpur-lime marmalade made from fruit that grew on the trees in her California backyard; it was plum jam spiced with cinnamon and cloves, or pear steeped in vanilla; it was made from cherries she’d purchased from the market.
Each year, when my husband and I opened the box, we exclaimed in appreciation. Then we set the jars, labeled in her precise script, on a shelf in our basement and forgot about them.
Our last photo of Paula: visiting us in Minnesota, she’s standing in the doorway of our daughter’s bedroom, along with my brother-in-law Mike. A cousins’ reunion. At this point Paula thinks her cancer is in remission (it isn’t). She’s maybe sixty years old, with short, thick, white hair, wearing cargo pants and a shirt from an outdoor clothier. Brisk is how she looks. Her mother and my husband’s father were siblings, and Paula and Mike, standing there, looked so much like each of their dead parents that when I came around the corner with the camera, I was momentarily shocked.
As a young man, my husband had emulated Paula: the summer between his junior and senior years of college, he camped in National Parks all over the US while traveling on a Greyhound bus with a pass, the way she had done ten years before. During that trip, he visited her in Sacramento, where she was working as an environmental lobbyist. He wrote her after, but she never wrote back.
But then, when our daughter Anna was born seven years ago, Paula reappeared. This time we were the busy people who did not always write back, but Paula remained constant. She knitted hats for Anna, each different from the last. With the first hat, she sent a small mesh laundry bag and neatly printed instructions on how to machine-wash hand knits. Her early hats always seemed to turn our baby into food or maybe a flower. Many had pompoms. We saved them all. My favorite made Anna’s baby head look like a strawberry flecked with seeds, a green scruff of stem on top.
And then the jam, which was kind, but we only use jam for our daughter’s sandwiches, and she will only eat one particular brand of strawberry.
It isn’t that I dislike jam, but I do find it spectacular in its uselessness. When canning came back in vogue and my friends were enchanted by the idea of saving Minnesota’s summer in a jar, I balked. Jam lacks the healthfulness of actual fruit, and it’s not substantial enough to be dessert. I’m not even sure it counts as food. Jam is the lace doily of food. Louis the XIV loved jam. At the end of all his court dinners at Versailles, he served jellies and marmalades, mounded in little silver dishes and made year-round from the fruit grown in his palace’s orangeries. Just imagine some of the richest people in the world in petticoats and powdered wigs, sighing and exclaiming as they eat jelly from tiny silver spoons.
I am being unfair to history. Three centuries ago, almost no one could get fruit that did not grow near them, much less at the time of year that fruit didn’t grow. Only the very richest people could afford the large panes of glass necessary to build an orangery, a conservatory where fruit trees and summer could exist in perpetuity. Sugar was imported and cost the equivalent of fifty dollars a pound today. A little jam balanced on a spoon—sticky-sweet, concentrated, fruit out of season—would have carried an intensity and a wallop we can barely comprehend.
And really, other than fruit itself, the one ingredient you need to make jam is sugar. The necessary sugar-to-fruit ratio in jam is one to one. The scientist Marie Curie, whose cookbooks are still so radioactive that archivists keep them sealed in a lead-lined box, detailed as much in her notebooks. In the summer of 1898, when Curie first isolated the dangerously radioactive element polonium (which would eventually give her cancer), she also made a batch of gooseberry jam. The jam, she wrote, required eight pounds of fruit and eight pounds of sugar, as any jam would. It’s sugar that makes fruit gel. Sugar preserves. Sugar is an everyday miracle. It causes fruit to retain its bright color, until it is brighter than it ever was on the tree. Heat and sugar alchemize to turn a jar of jam into a glowing jewel.
Paula delighted in photos and videos and updates of our daughter, and we obliged. In return, she sent Anna dresses that were colorful but not cloying. Paula sought out skirts that would spin out into a circle as Anna twirled—that was Paula’s own ambition at Anna’s age, she said, twirling. One dress was red and kimono-inspired, another fuchsia with big turquoise flowers and a flounce. A third, a trim and tailored meadow. She turned Anna’s closet into a cornucopia of fruit and flowers.
Apricot, raspberry, lingonberry, pineapple, strawberry, grape, orange: jam is heightened fruit, idealized fruit.
Paula could also be a little difficult. She had a habit of finishing your sentences for you, inserting something you hadn’t planned to say at all; after a day or two of this, I’d stop trying to clarify what I meant and let her misconceptions stand. When she visited us, she was forever powering down our laptops and unplugging the chargers from the wall to save energy, or shrinking my T-shirts while drying them on the highest possible setting because it was fastest and would therefore use the least amount of electricity. A family legend claims that a college-aged Paula cried about air pollution as the older, WWII-era generation grilled steaks at a family reunion, nursing highballs and rolling their eyes.
A fellow environmentalist said at her funeral, “Paula pissed people off, but usually for the right reasons.” Paula knew this. Even as she lay dying, she limited the number of hours hospice would be allowed in her house. When her friends and even her doctor protested, she said, “I live alone for a reason, guys.”
Down in our basement pantry yesterday, I noticed all of Paula’s jars of jam tucked in one corner of a shelf, quietly luminous.
If you asked Anna what was the best present Paula ever sent, she would say the pop-up book of US National Parks that came at Christmas. The day we opened it, a three-year-old Anna spent hours arranging her plastic zoo animals on top of the pages, as if Paula had really sent us a series of 3-D landscapes on which we could make tableaux. It was as if all the continents were once again Pangaea, and time and space had ceased to exist. Let there be zebras near the geysers of Yellowstone! May gorillas walk the swamps of the Everglades! Blessed be the tigers of the Grand Canyon!
Now Paula’s life can be seen as a whole, its sweetness concentrated. She had recently retired from her work as a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. Deeply Catholic, she worshipped at a monastery with a small group of Benedictine monks. She was a genius of small talk, a quick thinker with a clear, precise voice: probably she was a good lobbyist.
If she had ever been in love or had a lover, none of us knew.I can’t believe this is all I know to tell. Because she did so much of the talking, I’m surprised now she told me so little.
If someone doesn’t have kids, what happens to the ancestors? Anna asks me over a bedtime snack of buttered toast.
Occasionally, I turn to the Indo-Europeans for advice, as if there’s truth to be found in language itself. Their language is the language of my deep ancestors, of so many of our common ancestors; it’s the most widely spoken language family in the world. Linguists believe the language first developed in the area of present-day Ukraine. No written record of the early language exists.
Imagine what their language sounded like, tasted like. Imagine what the ancestors said:
Go back to where so many languages begin. Go back to the steppes, the prairie north of the sea. Be one of the first people to domesticate a horse. Be a herder of cows, sheep, pigs; and a farmer, a semi-nomad in search of grasslands where your cattle can feed. Drive carts with wheels; ride horses along the river’s bank.
We have a god who lives in the sky. We have snow in which we track bears, wolves, and mice. A dog trails at our heels. We have hard bright winter stars, clustered like berries. The way we say heart is also the way we say love, leave, and I believe. We seek; occasionally, we find.
We crave sweetness and almost never find it. We migrate west from the plains into the forests. There, in the fleeting moons of summer and fall, food is plentiful. We watch the trees, learning where to find edible fruit. We wait for small, hard apples and plums to blush and grow heavy with juice. When they finally soften and purple and redden, we gorge. Other than the occasional honeycomb, wild apples are the only sweetness we taste all year. They feel like a gift from the dying earth, and we perform no labor to will them into being. They are beautiful and fragrant, there for our taking.
Then come the days uneaten fruit falls from the trees, the sweet but not unpleasant smell of decay. The bees sway over the fallen apples and suck, delirious on sugar, and the pleasure is gone for another year.
We write down nothing. We say: Bhrug-, fruit, “to use, enjoy, to harvest, a proceed.” Fruit: a result, a child. Fall, as in, “to drop from a height, fail, decay, die,” or windfall, “to find, or stumble upon.” Fruit becomes connected to the idea of bearing, to babies, who in this time and place are born of women upright and squatting, and the babies drop from the women like fruit from a tree. That’s when becoming married loss: the child is born at the moment it separates from its mother; the fruit is palmed by the woman as it is plucked from the tree. The apple is perfect at the moment it starts to rot.
When Paula’s friends asked her whether she wanted any words said at her funeral, she waved them off, saying that picking out readings is a living person’s problem. Finally she offered this from John the Evangelist: No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.
We still talk about Paula’s small kindnesses, the little gifts she sent through the mail to Anna. In fact, now that Paula is dead, I feel an intimacy with her that I previously didn’t—one of the many oddities of death—and I will never get to talk with her about it.
Soon after Paula died, we were contacted by her lawyer. She left:
1) to my husband John, a set of Victorian cut-glass liqueur and water glasses and a matching pitcher that had belonged to their grandmother;
2) to our daughter Anna, that same grandmother’s wedding ring and a lump of money so generous that I called my husband’s name, then dropped the lawyer’s letter in shock.
An aside about that cut glass. It took us over an hour to liberate each little stemmed glass from the enormous amount of packing tape, bubble wrap, and newspaper in the cardboard box. Water glass, wine glass, water, water, wine. We don’t care for fussy crystal and were certain that they would sit forever on a shelf, taking up space and gathering dust. Even that turned out to be different from what we expected.
The set looked exactly like one my husband’s father had inherited from his parents, as if my husband’s father and Paula’s mother had inherited identical portions of a single larger set. My father-in-law’s set no longer exists; it was shattered one afternoon when he was very old, when the woman who cleaned his house accidentally pulled over the hutch on which he displayed it. My father-in-law was kind to the woman, but after she left, he cried. Now, twenty years later, a nearly identical glass collection had appeared, it seemed, out of nowhere.
The crystal doesn’t have to gather dust. The jam doesn’t have to be Anna’s favorite flavor. We do have to eat the jam—unseal the jars and unstop time to say hello to Paula, wherever she may be.
Here is how I imagine it: some weekend later in fall, when the yellow leaves are falling from the ash tree outside our kitchen window, we buy a delicious loaf of bread. We slice it, toast it, and serve it with Paula’s jam. We invite our friends and neighbors, fill the fussy glasses. We didn’t say it would be potluck, but people keep showing up with food anyway: unpacking brown grocery bags, handing over covered dishes wrapped in kitchen towels. Later in the afternoon, the kitchen gets crowded with people laughing, the floor sticky where something has spilled. A glass breaks, and we reassure the breaker as we sweep up the fragments.
Our dead relatives show up. There are Paula’s parents on their first blind date on New Year’s Eve in 1945; there are my husband’s parents, the grandparents my daughter never knew, but young again, and energetic looking. And my great-grandmother, who worked in the vineyards in Alsace-Lorraine. And further back, and further back. By this time it’s dark outside, with the windows turned to mirrors, and we think we only see our own reflections. We drink to memory, love made complete and whole as we devour it.
Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas (both from Milkweed). She is an associate professor at Hamline University, where she also serves as poetry editor for Water~Stone Review.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.