Original Fiction by
What mattered now was using those jars one more time, to send them off full instead of thrown away empty.
W ith her coat half on—right arm pulled from its sleeve, the left one still in—Amanda saw the phalanx of jelly jars on the counter. Two thoughts crossed her mind simultaneously: first, that her mother had kept these fat-bellied remnants of an earlier time when she and her sister still lived at home; second, that her mother had climbed up a stepstool against common sense and doctor’s orders to retrieve them from a high shelf.
“Mom?” Amanda called out.
For a long moment, the quiet of the house amplified her worst fears. Then she heard the metallic tap of a cane against the hardwood floor in the dining room. Grace Caswell stepped carefully in the kitchen on quiet, rubber-soled shoes. “Oh, you’re here.”
Amanda assessed the changes in her mother over the six weeks since she’d last visited: clothes bagging a little more on her already thin frame; the bruise on the veined hand gripping the cane, the morning light hitting the rosy spots of her scalp. Eighty-two wasn’t that old, but pneumonia the previous spring had taken five years out of her.
“Good flight?” Grace asked.
“Just fine.” Amanda decided against reciting the two hours from Chicago to Boston with a toddler behind her kicking the seat and then the hour-long drive elongated by construction and a fender-bender on the shoulder. “What’s with the jars?” She pointed to the counter.
“Oh, just a little idea of mine.” Grace planted the cane and guided herself to the kitchen table. “I’ll tell you when Veronica gets here. Now, I want to hear all about Darcy and Jonathon.”
Amanda gave the latest updates about her son, now a sophomore in college, and Darcy, a high school senior. Just saying their names softened the knots inside; the kids were both good—really good.
By the time the coffeemaker stopped brewing, Veronica had arrived with a bag of cleaning supplies in one hand and a box of cider-flavored donuts in the other.
“Look at those apples,” Grace laughed.
Amanda and Veronica exchanged a puzzled glance.
“In your cheeks,” Grace continued. “Just like when you were little.”
Amanda noticed the redness of her sister’s face, appearing all the more so in contrast with her shoulder-length hair, prematurely gray. At fifty-one and older by two years, Amanda wasn’t ready to give up the trips to the salon every six weeks to keep her hair auburn.
“What are you doing with the jars?” Veronica popped the lid of the bakery box.
“She won’t tell me,” Amanda interjected, reaching for a donut.
“Don’t worry I didn’t climb up there,” Grace said. “Wouldn’t do something that foolish.”
Veronica widened her eyes in Amanda’s direction.
The two sisters had agreed that over this three-day weekend they would begin packing up the house, largely untouched since they removed their father’s things after his death five years before. Grace was near the top of a waiting list for an apartment at the assisted living complex in town, and was certain to get in to their second-choice place, which was a little farther away.
Amanda laid out her plan formulated on the plane: start with the upstairs closets and the attic; get as much packed up and hauled out as possible that weekend. Then she’d come back in another three weeks, maybe Gary could come with her. This weekend he’d had to be home; Darcy had homecoming.
Veronica munched her donut. “I’m here—I know I’ll have to get up every weekend until this is done, but I’m fine with it.”
“I can’t come every weekend,” Amanda said. “Airfares are so high all of a sudden. And, I want to see Jonathon for parents’ weekend, but I suppose I could skip that.”
Veronica licked her fingers as if she were a little girl and not a hospital administrator with a degree in public health from Harvard. “No need to skip the weekend. Chelsea will be home right after Thanksgiving. She can help me, too.”
The mention of her niece and goddaughter who was doing a semester abroad reminded Amanda of what her sister wasn’t doing—visiting Chelsea before she came back to the States. “Maybe I can come back in two weeks. We’ll see Jonathon another weekend.”
Grace spoke up. “I don’t want to do any of that.”
Veronica reached across the table and laid her hand over her bony knuckles. “Mom, we talked about this already. You can’t stay here another winter. If you got sick again or fell.”
“Yes, yes. I know.” Grace took back her hand. “But you’re both here and that doesn’t happen very often. I want to do something else this weekend. Then you can pack me up.”
“Nobody is packing you up. This house is too big and there’s so much stuff.” Amanda closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose.
“You can do what you want. I’m making apple butter.”
Amanda leaned in, not believing what she’d heard. “Making what?”
“You heard me—apple butter. And no I’m not demented.” The cane clicked loudly as Grace got up from the table and made her way to the jars. “I had Jimmy the neighbor boy get these down for me yesterday. We just have to wash and sterilize them.”
“Mom, I didn’t come all this way for apple butter,” Amanda said.
Grace turned slowly. “I would hope you came all this way for me.”
Grace leaned on the cart as they wheeled slowly through the aisles of the store. Whoever said aging was a process never made it past eighty. It started with the usual progression: hair graying, joints a little stiffer than usual on cold mornings, and flesh sagging where it once had been firm. Then the descent steepened. Her body that had once ice skated, swam, and played doubles tennis no longer moved or functioned in any recognizable way.
Her mind, though, still coaxed her into action every morning with plans and ideas that didn’t last past the first tentative step out of bed. Now she was giving in to the good sense of doctors and daughters. It was time for assisted living; she agreed with that. But she needed something to remind her that she was once the wife, the mother, the woman in charge of the house.
Yesterday afternoon, when she’d opened the cupboards, she’d seen the jelly jars on the top shelf. She hadn’t used them since her grandchildren were small, when her daughters and their families came for a long weekend. The men had watched football and she and the girls made pies and apple butter. Or maybe they’d only made pies and the apple butter was a different time. What mattered now was using those jars one more time, to send them off full instead of thrown away empty.
Amanda surveyed the bottom of the cart. “Okay, we have the spices and the vinegar and the sugar.”
Veronica picked up the five pound bag with the fluorescent yellow wrapper. ““Let’s see if they have organic raw sugar. Besides this one is too big.” She swapped it out for two pounds of free trade sugar that cost twice as much.
Last stop was produce. Amanda suggested Macintosh that were on sale. Veronica said they’d be too watery; she liked pink ladies.
“Granny smiths,” Grace announced. She picked up a bright green orb and held it to her nose.
Veronica put a cutting board on the table and handed her mother a short-handled paring knife. “Just be careful.”
“Goodness, you’d think I was a child,” Grace protested.
“You’re on Coumadin, Mom,” Veronica said. “You cut yourself and it’s serious.”
Veronica watched her mother try to cut into an apple; she didn’t have enough leverage or strength. With quick strokes, Veronica quartered the apples, but left the skin and cores. That was the secret to good apple butter, she’d learned from her mother years ago: The skin and cores released natural pectin for thickening.
Grace picked up her knife and slowly cut the apple quarters into smaller pieces, even though it wasn’t necessary.
While the apples simmered, the sisters got out the tall stepstool and emptied the top shelves of the cupboards, sorting dishes into three piles—take, donate, and discard. Amanda dumped a stack of discolored Tupperware in the recycling bin. Two casserole dishes with lids were tagged for the church kitchen. Veronica took a deviled-egg serving platter with a kitschy pattern of baby chicks.
Amanda held up an oval Christmas plate ringed with a holly motif—good bone china she could see her hand through. In her mind, her mother stood in the living room beside a Christmas tree wearing a red boat-neck sweater with pin on the shoulder, a holiday apron cinching her slim waist, holding the holly plate stacked with walnut fudge. Uncle Frank ate piece after piece. “This is divine, Gracie, just divine.
“I’d like to take this. I can bring it home in my carry-on,” Amanda said.
“Oh, good,” Grace said. “It makes me happy to think of these things in your homes.”
“I can’t take too much,” Amanda cautioned.
“Whatever you want we can ship to you,” Veronica added. “No trouble at all.”
When the apples were soft, the sisters searched the kitchen for the food mill, which Grace assured them she hadn’t thrown away. Amanda found it in the basement, coated with dust. Finally clean, the food mill was fitted over the largest mixing bowl. Veronica ladled the cooked apples, while Amanda turned the crank.
“Slowly,” Grace warned. “Don’t want to spatter yourselves.”
The apple juice ran quickly through the sieved bottom, then the paddle on the food mill pressed the pump through the holes, leaving the core and skin behind. The apple juice and pulp went back into the pot to simmer with the sugar and spice.
“I’ll stir.” Grace leaned on her cane with her left hand and reached for the wooden spoon with her right. “For old times’ sake.”
Veronica brought a tall stool from the basement and helped Grace settle herself atop it.
“I forgot about those stools,” Amanda smiled. “Do we still have Dad’s bar plaque? Remember, Ned’s Place?”
“Long gone,” Grace said. “Fell from the nail one day and broke.”
“I wish Chet and I threw parties like you and Dad,” Veronica said, and recounted her memories of a New Year’s Eve party when the adults moved the furniture, rolled up the carpet, and danced to records on the hi-fi.
“And the cousins outside with their own party, hoping nobody knew we had beer,” Amanda added. “Remember Donny brought Uncle Frank’s flask?”
Veronica made a face.
Amanda left the room quickly; her footsteps on the stairs echoed back to the kitchen. She returned with two thick photo albums. Three heads bent over the pages, laughing at unflattering hair styles, wide sideburns, plaid pants, short skirts and knobby knees.
Amanda paused at a picture of Grace in a blue dress with a sheen to the fabric, the photo tucked loosely into the album. “With your hair like that, you look like young Elizabeth Taylor.”
Grace chuckled. “No violet eyes here.”
Veronica held the photo. “I don’t think I’ve seen this one.”
“Irma sent me that the other day.” Grace picked up the wooden spoon and resumed stirring.
She’d loved that dress: silk shantung with a deep square neckline, fitted bodice and a slim skirt with a slit in the back. Ned had said she looked like an empress. They’d gone to the country club with Irma and Frank, the two couples laughing and dancing. Forty years later, it still embarrassed her to remember how Frank had too much to drink that night and tried to kiss her on the dance floor. She’d ducked out of the way before someone saw, but she always suspected that Irma had.
Irma and Ned had always been close as brother and sister. What if Irma told Ned what she saw? Then Ned would’ve wondered why she didn’t say anything to him. But she thought she did the right thing. Don’t cause trouble. Instead, she’d lived with a guilty conscience because of what her brother-in-law had done because she never spoke up.
Earlier that evening, before he started drinking Manhattans—that was always his drink—Frank had taken pictures of them. She’d framed the one he took of her and Ned, arms around each other and laughing. But she never saw the one Frank took of her by herself until Irma mailed it to her, just a few weeks ago with a short note: “Your girls might like this.”
Grace tensed her arm to stir the apples mixture all the way down to the bottom.
Had Irma kept that photo or had Frank? Grace shook her head. What difference did it make now? Frank and Irma moved to Florida twenty years ago, and now Frank was dead—gone twice as long as Ned.
If young couples knew how much they’ll grieve one day when a spouse dies, they’d never have a fight, Grace thought. Of course nobody would tell young people that. But one day she might explain to her daughters that it doesn’t matter who forgets something or doesn’t say happy birthday or won’t give a compliment. One day that person won’t be alive any more, then all those petty things will seem so stupid.
The scent of applies hung thickly in the air, and the kitchen window clouded with steam that condensed on the cold glass.
“Come February, this will be a real treat,” Grace said, admiring eleven filled and sealed jars on the counter. “Four for each of you and three for me.”
“I can’t bring them back in my carry-on. They’re more than three ounces,” Amanda said.
“I’ll mail them to you—with that Christmas plate,” Veronica said.
Grace gripped her cane and maneuvered to the table. “Plus they’ll be more stuff when we start cleaning.”
“We should start upstairs tomorrow,” Amanda offered.
“The linen closet is packed solid,” Veronica added.
“Took a lifetime to fill up this house. It’s going to take more than one weekend to empty it” Grace told them.
Amanda retrieved three teaspoons from the drawer and brought a small dish of leftover apple butter to the table. She dipped her spoon first into the apple butter, which earned its name because of the creamy consistency.
“Just the right amount of lemon,” Grace said smiling.
“I really can taste the cinnamon.” Veronica pursed her lips. “And the cloves.”
The scent of the spiced apples evoked a memory for Amanda, of standing on a stool, her mother’s apron tied under her armpits, and stirring the pot while it simmered. She was so pleased with herself for helping.
Smiling, now, she took another spoonful from the dish on the table, ignoring Veronica’s teasing about double dipping.
“It’s perfect,” Amanda said, closing her eyes. “Just as I remember it.”