Under the paraffin lid

DURING the last week in August I begin to look for them. I tell myself that is as far as it will go - that looking will be enough. But even then some part of me knows I will succumb. Reason tells me I am foolish - the hottest time of the year - so much effort for 10 small jars. Economically unsound. Yet, each year they call me back. And once again I prepare to pick wild grapes for jellymaking.

After a week of watching the clusters swell through their powder bloom, I squeeze and take one to my tongue. It is mostly seed, but the sweet-tart flavor stirs a remembrance, and I make a mental listing of my equipment. Where is my jelly pan? Did I have paraffin left from last season?

I choose early morning to pick while the dew is still clinging. A tall ladder boosts me high into the bosom of the tree, and I pause to look down. From this perspective, problems dim and change from red to muted green, blending with the vines. A clock with no hands measures time, and I sense the beat of my own rhythms. I lean back in the arms of a strong branch, relishing the renewal.

When, after a time, I begin to pick, a cardinal peeks from a nearby twig and gently scolds as I steal his treasure, perhaps knowing that even in my greed to find all the perfect clusters, some will dangle safely out of my reach.

The juice turns my fingers purple as I grasp and climb closer to my neighbor's perimeters, where the grapes hang heavy as jewels. A dog yips to warn of my trespass, and I call out in friendly tones to gain his trust. I am, I tell myself, an agent for Mother Nature, a mere gatherer of her bounty.

In the kitchen I fill the sink and float the grapes, picking them free of stems. They glisten like violet peas, and I plop them in my black graniteware jelly kettle. With a potato masher and a certain reverence, I crush their skins, releasing the juice to the heat of stove burner.

When they are soft, I strain them through a clean tea towel, scarred with holes and so honored for its faithfulness. I knot the towel and hook it to the door of my kitchen cabinet, leaving the mash to drip into the pan. The juice stains the towel a brilliant shade of lavender, and I ponder the idea of my own fabric company - Grape Tie-Dye, I will call it.

To the juice I add only sugar. A purist in this matter, I will let no commercial pectin taint the efforts of my natural harvest. I depend, instead, and pride myself on the skill of my picking - a blend of ripe and underripe - to assure a jellied product.

I give heat to the mixture and the bubbles roll like hot lava, steaming the kitchen air pansy purple. I am giddy with the heady smell, and I pirouette around the table, stopping now and then to skim the lacy scum from the top.

When the brew has bubbled itself down, I test a spoonful on the side of a cold dish. It forms a thick skin as it cools, and I am reassured that I haven't lost the touch. I have jelly.

With tongs I pull my assortment of small jars - mustard, baby food, pimento - from their boiling bath and juggle them like hot potatoes to the kitchen table. One by one, I fill them with the purple passion, adding only a thin skin of paraffin the first time.

For the next hour I rid the kitchen of purple, scouring purple from the floor, purple from the counters, and purple from the stove.

When I finish, I pour the final layer of paraffin and resist the temptation to arrange them into neat rows. There is risk that, in my exuberance, I might tip a glass and break the wax seal. That would be, I decide, akin to the breaking of a promise - akin to allowing the molds of distrust to invade a perfect confine.

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