Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Canning Tomatoes

In the 1970s, in those western Pennsylvania summers, my mother did a lot of canning. Though she didn't often wear dresses during those years, she did have one that she saved for the hottest days of summer. We called it her canning dress: a faded early-60s-era sleeveless sundress; navy-blue with small white spots, a close-fitting bodice and waist, and a gathered dirndl skirt. The enameled canning pot was also navy-blue with small white spots, so the canning dress took on the aura of canning uniform. I knew, when my mother came downstairs in that dress, that the kitchen would shortly be filled with steam and hot empty jars and bushels of dusty tomatoes and dishpans full of slimy scalded tomatoes and the sugary burnt smell of tomatoes boiling in the canner and rows of sticky shiny scarlet quarts clicking and popping as they cooled.

Today, on what may be Harmony's last hot summer day,  I'll be canning tomatoes. But there will be no little girls snitching can after can of Cherokee Red out of the ancient, gasping Frigidaire because their mother is too busy to notice. No Granny in her filthy housedress, sitting grandly and remotely at the kitchen table in the midst of the chaos, smoking Luckies and drinking coffee and ignoring everyone. No haymakers clumping into the kitchen at noon, sweaty and hungry and expecting sweet tea and baloney sandwiches.

It is lonely to be so peaceful. In the distance I hear a skidder groaning and ripping through someone's woodlot. A faucet drips, and a clock ticks, and no birds sing. Soon, in my canning dress--navy-blue with white spots--I will stand at the kitchen sink, scrubbing quart jars, lugging giant pots filled with water, cutting rotten spots out of the tomatoes, scalding and peeling and straining, dripping tomato blood onto the linoleum.

If Granny were here with me, right now, she would be sitting at the kitchen table in her filthy housedress, grand and remote, smoking her Luckies and drinking her coffee and ignoring me. We would aggravate each other in the way cats and people do, by always choosing to be in the way. My hands are covered in tomato. She smokes her last cigarette and shakes her empty pack at me and makes me go into town to buy her another carton. While I'm gone, the tomatoes boil over into the stove burners. When I get back she waves a hand at the mess and then slits open a fresh pack of cigarettes with her ragged thumbnail.

My granny spent her long life doing almost nothing, and she's been dead for more than a decade. But the shadow of her regal indifference lingers in my kitchen--this room she never saw, this table she never sat at. It's wrong to say that I miss her because she was never really present, though she was masterful at cluttering up a room with smoke and dirt and disdain. Yet in moments of busy loneliness, when I'm packing tomatoes into jars or lifting them out of their hissing steambath, she rises into my mind, as my mother also rises--the tight canning dress creasing across her shoulders as she pours hot water down the drain.

Yesterday, over the telephone, my mother said, "I'm going to can tomatoes today." I picture my father clumping in from the garden, sweaty and hungry, hoping for lunch. He has picked the tomatoes; most likely he'll even help process them. He cannot bear to be idle. Meanwhile, a poltergeist sits at our kitchen tables, smoking her Luckies and drinking her coffee and not giving a shit. Let the tomatoes rot on the vine.

1 comment:

Sheila said...

I love this essay!