DEAR HELEN, The other day Liz made bread. When I came downstairs from an afternoon's writing, there were ghostly mounds of dough draped in dish-towels, sitting on a stool near the wood stove to rise. That evening the house smelled of yeast and wood smoke.
Funny the things you look forward to. It wasn't just the thought of fresh bread for breakfast that got me out of bed before anyone else the next morning. It was also that I knew what was in the refrigerator: the jelly you sent us for Christmas.
I hadn't tried it yet. Somehow, it seemed to deserve a more worthy vehicle than store-brought bread. When I set it on the counter that morning, the eight-sided jar glowed purple like the facets of an immense gem. ``Legendairy Farm of Maine,'' you'd written on the label, ``Wild Blackberry Jelly - 1990.''
My fondness for homemade jelly goes back to my boyhood. Every autumn, my mother would plunge into jam-making with bursts of activity that shoved the rest of life into corners like furniture from a dance floor. She used Concord grapes. I can still feel the September evenings, the crickets thirring in the grass beyond the screen door, as we sat around the kitchen table peeling dusky purple grapes the size of large olives. They peeled easily. You held one between two fingers and thumb and squeezed, and the greenish fruit popped out with a kind of a ``hsthrupp!'' and slid around in the glazed mixing bowl. You put the skin in another bowl. She cooked them up separately in large kettles that seethed prodigious amounts of sweet-smelling steam. The residue she put in a gauze bag. I recall seeing it hang for days from a nail in the pantry, a basketball-sized sack of blue goo dripping slowly into a bowl.
Am I right in thinking that the goo became jam, and the drippings jelly? She made both, but it was the jam, dark and thick-textured, that I most loved. She'd pour it out into dozens of containers - specially-bought canning jars with brass-colored screw-on tops, saved-up juice tumblers that had originally come full of Kraft cheese-and-pimento spread, and anything else she had. She'd cover each one with melted paraffin. It seemed one of the wonders of science that melted wax would float on top of that semiliquid, that it would seal up tight against the edges, and that it would later come loose without leaving any bits behind or taking any jam with it. To this day, pressing open a paraffin cap, I marvel at what a well-designed world this is.
When the paraffin had set, we'd lug the jars down to the basement. There, my father had built a small room full of floor-to-ceiling shelves. A few years earlier we'd bought a massive white chest-type freezer with a chrome handle emblazoned with the maker's seal that looked like a Cadillac bumper. He built the room around that freezer: Years later, when they sold the house, the freezer had to go with it. I still remember leaning over the edge and peering into its depths, smelling the peculiar tang of cold air and pawing among bags squatted suspiciously over a layer of loose parsnips that we'd hacked from the frozen garden in November.
In those early years, the shelves had all kinds of jars on them. My mother was a serious canner, bottling up things like stewed tomatoes. I didn't give them much thought, since vegetables and I didn't see eye to eye in those days. But I never minded being sent to the basement for something, because there in the semidarkness would be those rows and rows of grape jam, ranked in perpetual readiness like toy soldiers, waiting through the ever-darkening fall for the toasts of winter. ``Grape Jam,'' they said in my mother's nearly-legible scrawl, ``1953.''
Growing up when you and I did, we've seen several of the Big Shifts everyone talks about - from radio to television, from 78s to 33s, from propellers to jets. Nobody talks much about another big one: from canned to frozen. Over the years I watched it happen, right in our basement. Gradually the freezer got fuller and the shelves emptier.
Over the years, too, my mother stopped making jam. I sometimes wonder why. It wasn't just that her helpers grew up and found other things to do: She could easily have mastered solo jam-making. Nor, I suspect, was it simply that the family exchequer improved: Nobody grows rich on the money they don't spend on store-bought confections. But if it wasn't exactly affluence that did in the jam-making, was it something that comes with it - a subtle acceptance of comfort, a softening of resolve, an almost unconscious seeking of the easier course?
As I spread your blackberry jelly on Liz's bread that morning, Robert Frost's lines came to mind:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
These days, I guess the easy road leads to the supermarket shelf. It's harder to go up the road behind your cow-barn to find the wild blackberries. Your hands get scratched. The sun beats into the dust on the back of the neck. The kitchen gets even hotter on an already warm night. The purple stains under the fingernails last for weeks.
But in the end, it makes ``all the difference.'' Don't get me wrong: I like getting Christmas gifts that people have purchased for me. But the handmade gift in the store-bought age - you don't find many these days. Which is why I thought I wouldn't just send you a thank-you card from the rack down at the drug store. I'd try to tell you why blackberry jelly still matters.
Rushworth M. Kidder