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Soft As A Grape

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. Dale_Grapes.jpg
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:

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. That’s a wonderful story, Carole. What a great and lasting tribute to your mother-in-law. She sounds like a neat woman — how lucky you are to have such nice memories and a way to keep them alive with every harvest.

  2. Aw, sweet! I’ve never attempted jelly (the cooking part doesn’t worry me, but the canning frankly scares me). Also, I chuckled at your post title–it’s also the name of one of my Mom’s favorite stores on Martha’s Vineyard. Caught my eye right away!

  3. Oh, now, you KNEW how that story would get to me! I just love it. Love Dale’s picture with the grapes! It also reminds me of a sour grapes story, but I digress….:-)

    Will *I* get to taste some of that lovely jelly?

  4. This is a lovely piece, Carole. It is good you are writing it down now so that the next generation can know too. I loved the photo of your jelly and flowers!

  5. Very nice. This fall I’ve had my mom teaching me these things too, and it’s a great opportunity for her to reminisce about things her own mom used to do–like canning beans in the oven!! Dangerous to say the least.

    I haven’t put it on my page yet, but I’ve got 14 pints of grape juice on the basement shelves as of last Friday. My parents always left it pulpy so we don’t strain it, but I’m on the prowl for my own jelly bag so I can make some jelly with it later in the year.

    Everybody loves grape jelly!

  6. I know exactly how you feel. I make strawberry-rhubarb jam and tomato juice every year for those same reasons….


  7. Carole, thank you for coming over to wish me a Happy Birthday, and allowing me the great pleasure and honor to read your wonderful tribute. I am glad you were able to have such a mentor in your life. Pass along to your husband the story that my grapes are getting foxes drunk this year, as I don’t have the time to tend to them, but looked out the window in the middle of the night last night to see the foxes running back and forth amidst the vines.

  8. What a lovely tribute :o)

    I can jam and pickles every year in memory of my Grandmother. Every year when my kitchen wreaks of cider vinegar (and my SO walks around sniffing and saying ‘mmmm…Easter’) I remember my childhood, walking into her house and getting hit with a wall of smells whenever she was canning. Brings it all right back ;o)

  9. That is a lovely story.
    Don’t you love the smell of boiling grape jelly?
    My mother and I used to make grape jelly with the grapes growing in our back yard. I jus tloved stirring the giant pot of boiling purple. It smelled so good and tasted even better:-)
    Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

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