Tuesday, May 20, 2008


While in New York, Roger and I were talking and the topic of homemade pickles came up. Roger puts up his own pickles. If there is one thing I love, it’s pickles. Homemade pickles are even better. Strange as it may sound they are very evocative.

My grandmother used to put up pickles every year. She grew her own dill and tended cucumbers, picked green tomatoes at the end of the season to turn into green tomato relish so they wouldn't got to waste and made bread and butter pickles out of the overripe giant cucumbers that had gone yellow in the garden. Dill pickles, sour pickles, relish, piccalilli, pickled green tomatoes, green tomato relish, mustard pickles,I am not sure I can even remember all the varieties of good things she would make.

Canning time was always a busy time. In our house it was my mother rushing about, shouting us kids out of the house, to get us “out from under my feet”.

But when Grandma was “putting up for the winter” it was days of activity. At grandma’s it was different though from my mothers kitchen. Grandma bustled, but it was the busyness of a woman who had grown up on a farm where there was always too much work and too few hands even with 10 children to take care of chores.

Grandma was one of those women, who seem to be disappearing, who cooked by feel. She was a wonderful cook. Measuring ingredients using her hands. “You use a bit of shortening the size of an egg…” was one of her instructions for making her molasses cookies. The best molasses cookies I have ever had in my life. My older brother and I still talk about them wistfully. It was the same when she was preserving, her hands the measuring devices for the spices and herbs. An old mug used for measuring liquids, pauses in thought as she went through some mental rolodex till she pulled up the proportion of brown sugar needed to go into a specific relish.

I do not particularly remember being of much service beyond sitting at the big, round, old fashioned, oak table, keeping grandma company. I am sure I must have been put into service harvesting and helping to wash the vegetables and fruit but what I remember was sitting at that table, enveloped by the good smells. What I remember are the stories.

I think back on those long afternoons. For some reason they are always full of bright blue skies and warm autumn air with just the tang of the coming cold. Light autumn winds that would make the leaves dance by the window and the branches of the butternut tree outside the kitchen sway.

And there was grandma. I can see her before me now, in that kitchen. Her sensible gray pageboy cut hair. The Dr. Scholl’s black lace up shoes, like those the nuns wore. Her softly faded cotton dresses and pinafores and the kind expression behind the cats eye glasses. All the while in constant motion.

Grandma’s movements were economical. If grandma bustled, it was with practiced confident movement, so unlike my own mothers hurried and tense industry.

Grandma would settle into a rhythm and then the stories would flow out, as vegetables were prepared and jars were sterilized in the big black, speckled, enamel canner on the stove steaming away.

Quite often the stories would begin, “Andy and Polie and I” as she would talk about her favorite brothers Andy and Napoleon. They were wonderful stories about a time that seem so innocent now, taking place in turn of the century rural Vermont. She would tell me about the first time that as a group, she and her brothers and sisters had seen the breathtaking sight of a motorcar. The first time she ever saw an airplane. Summers spent running off leaving chores undone. Punishments meted out by my stern great-grandmother and the forgiveness generously given by her father of whom she was the apple of his eye. These stories always had an unreal aspect to them. It was impossible for me to picture my grandmother as a child, much less her sober brother Andy as a rambunctious boy or my ne’er do well Uncle Polie as anything other than the fiddle playing drunkard of the family.

I didn’t recognize at the time what a pretty woman my grandmother was. Perhaps because she always dressed so simply in the style of a country woman. I had seen pictures of her when she was young woman before she married. She was quite beautiful. This came through in the stilted studio photos, when having your picture taken was still a serious business. The props and the stiff posture didn’t disguise the soft dark beauty, but seemed to bring it forward. The conventions of pre World War I style framed her in a way that left behind an image held in time, like an insect in amber.

Now as an adult, I can see the laughing running child she must have been, bent on mischief with her brothers.

She seemed so old then, but now I know she was only in her early 60’s. An age that today does not seem so great but to a child was beyond ancient.

Perhaps also, it was because all of the things I took for granted were not common place in her youth. Electricity, central heat, telephones were all still marvels to her. I remember that one of her peculiarities was her phone manner. She would hold the phone away from her, as though it might bite her, and speak loudly in the direction of the receiver. So, even when store bought pickles and preserves were commonplace, this woman still went on, making these things herself. Part of it must have been thrift. Grandma had only her social security to live on. But I think the larger part was simply that it was what you did. You put things up, you grew your own food. The simple house, furnished with old slightly shabby but well cared for furniture. The welcoming smell of the place that was peculiar to that house. I have never been in another house that had that smell. Something of fresh linen and baking. This was simply the way Grandma had always done things and the way she always would as long as she was able.

So, the prospect of a jar of pickles that someone took the time and made the effort to make themselves brings it all back. That modest little house with the warm welcoming kitchen, perhaps the only place in my childhood where I ever felt loved and valued and welcome.