Grandma's harvest of memories

The weather has gone chilly early this year, served up with lashings of wind and rain. I sense what is just around the corner, and I'm stocking up on flour and sugar again.

It is autumn, and there are things to be done.

This feeling always comes to me with the cold weather. It comes from somewhere deep in my roots, born out of my farming legacy and a grandmother who always had too much to do around harvest time.

To be truthful, I don't remember anything about the harvests at my grandparents' farm. By the time I was around, my grandfather had already retired, sold the farm, moved out of the valley, off the land, and into a neighborhood. The move changed my grandfather's life drastically. Instead of tending crops, he tended tulips; instead of building fences, he built sleds and rocking horses for his grandchildren.

Grandma, though, went on pretty much the same as ever. She cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, and ironed. In the fall, when the time was right, she headed out to the U-Pick-It and got a year's worth of beans, tomatoes, and corn. She kept an eye out at the local produce stand, too, and made sure she was the first one there when the good fruit came in.

She'd bring peaches, pears, and apples home by the bushelful. And just as she'd always done through all the autumns of her life, she canned and baked for weeks on end, filling up the pantry and the old ice chest for the year. She really didn't need all that food anymore; but then again, something in her nature told her that she couldn't make it through the winter without it.

I got to know all about stocking up for the winter as a child, when my mother, my sister, and I lived with my grandparents while my father did two tours of duty in Vietnam. I learned that the onset of cold weather and a bustle in the kitchen are kindred things: When one happens, so does the other.

As soon as the leaves began to fall, I knew it was time for me to get busy snapping beans into a bowl almost as big as I was, while pots full of gooey jam blubbed reassuringly on the stove. It was the time of the sweet, cinnamony flavor of Grandma's homemade applesauce and the time of my favorite thing in all the world - pies.

I loved to watch Grandma as she rolled out the crusts, mixed up the fruit fillings in her biggest bowl, and baked pies two-by-two in the oven until the kitchen smelled how I imagined kitchens in heaven must smell. The pies would cool on the windowsill before Grandma wrapped them in plastic wrap, labeled them, and piled them waist-deep in the ice chest out back in the garden shed.

The legacy of all this remains with me, even now, when I am nearly old enough to have grandchildren myself. As the cold sets in, I linger in the kitchen, making excuses to bake, putter, and just spend time there.

I end up making piles of cookies, mountains of cakes and pies, and loaf after loaf of bread. I make so many, in fact, that my husband complains that I'm making him fat and my teenage sons grow indifferent to anything homemade.

In spite of all my efforts, I have never felt quite satisfied with myself - except once. That was 12 years ago, but I can still picture my grandmother that day, carrying crates of peaches, kitchen utensils, jars, lids, and extra pots and pans into my kitchen.

I remember how she came through the door and quickly shifted and settled into the unfamiliar space to make it a place she could work in. Then she donned her pink apron, rolled up her shirt sleeves, and "got to it," as she always said.

That day, she showed me her artistry: how to boil the jars - just so - to sterilize them; how to drop the peaches into scalding water followed quickly by cold water so that the skins slid off easily; how to split the fruit down the middle with a paring knife and extract the "almond." ("Almond" is Grandma's word for the hard seed in the middle. I like it. It's so much nicer than "pit," so much more peachy.)

She taught me how to stack the peach halves, so that they lapped neatly over each other and nestled down tightly in the jars; how to ladle the sugar water - not too sweet - over the peaches, leaving just enough room in the top of the jar so there was space for the vacuum to form. She taught me how to wipe down the rims, screw on the lids, and boil every jar in the big pot; and how to check the lids afterward, to make sure the seal had set.

My grandmother helped, coaxed, and encouraged me as she moved around the kitchen with her unique walk - a bouncy heel-toe skip that made her seem far younger than she was. I remember her nimble fingers, her soft words, and the love that seemed to go into the four-dozen jars along with the golden fruit.

I remember well how much work it was: hard work, but good work. Mostly, though, I remember looking up and seeing her smiling at me as I gradually learned how to "get to it." "Chip off the old block," she called me, and I was satisfied - with the work and the words.

Those peaches didn't quite last the winter. In fact, I think they were gone within a month. I baked pies and cobblers with them, my boys ate them at every meal, and friends bribed me with gifts in exchange for them. They were that good. Not like store-bought canned peaches at all.

I moved away the following summer. Across the country first, and then across the ocean. I haven't canned peaches since. I'm not sure I would remember how to do it. But I remember how it felt.

When the cold weather comes swirling down the chimneys and I find myself pacing back and forth in front of the stove, I know exactly what it is. It is a longing for the harvest to come in, for something I've never really known but always sensed - a longing for something I caught a glimpse of, a dozen years ago.

Circumstances may separate us, but only in a physical sense. Sometimes, even now, I imagine my grandmother coming down my walkway with a pressure cooker in her arms and a pink apron thrown over her shoulder, and I know that life doesn't separate us at all. Not in a way that matters. It only brings us longer and better and more beautiful memories. And, come autumn, the sense of something still needing to be done.

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