Dale grew up with a grape arbor in his backyard. He has loads of stories about the grape harvest every year – including the accomplishment of stuffing 100 grapes in his mouth.
He fondly remembers grape fights and tossing grapes into the air to catch them in his mouth. He chuckles when he tells the story of tossing a handful of rocks, rather than grapes, into the air for his brother, Randy, to catch and swallow. He also remembers the year the grapes fermented on the vine and the birds all got drunk. But mostly what he remembers is drinking the grape juice and eating the grape jelly his mother made every year.
My mother-in-law, Ruthie, was what we often refer to as a “character.” She was loving and funny and silly and believed fiercely in protecting the earth. She walked to the river behind our houses every day that she could and nothing made her happier than just being outdoors. She was ahead of her time by recylcing way before anybody else did. She conserved water and resources and could squeeze the life out of a dollar like nobody I’ve ever known. Making juice and jelly from the grape arbor in her yard was something that she enjoyed. But she also saw it as a responsibility, a way of reaping the benefits of the land and feeding her family with the results.
Six years ago I asked Ruthie to teach me to make grape jelly. Now, with apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the day you make grape jelly must be hotter than the hinges of hell. So, on this particular day in September, I headed next door to make grape jelly, in the heat, with Ruthie. We laughed and we talked and we sweated and by the end of the day we had about 4 dozen jars of jelly and 4 big bottles of juice. I had learned to make the jelly and I have made it every year since. And it has always been hot and humid on the day I’ve made it.
Ruthie passed away this past winter and, while we hadn’t made jelly together in recent years due to her illness, this is still the first year I’ve done it without her being right next door. As I said to Dale while we were picking over the grapes that he and Hannah had picked the other day, I do this to honor his mother’s spirit. She taught me to do this and continuing the tradition is a way to keep her and the things that mattered to her alive – not just for the sake of her memory but for our whole family. Because, of course, the jelly will be shared with the family. And co-workers and the mailman and the neighbors, too, depending on the harvest.
Most people probably wouldn’t bother with this anymore. They’d leave the grapes for the birds or just let them rot on the vine. They are probably the same people who buy their socks at Walmart and their sweaters at L.L. Bean. Nothing wrong with that but no real sense of accomplishment. No pride in the finished product. No piece of yourself in every mouthful of juice and schmear of jelly. All of that and also the fact that nothing, but nothing (except maybe the magic of knitting) compares to starting with this:
and winding up with this: