Summertime....and the living is easy...not. Not if you're a parent with kids participating in swim team, baseball, softball, basketball, swimming lessons, vacation Bible schools....and this is just the list I remember from being a mom myself. Probably not complete.
God in His heaven alone knows if hearts were changed those many weeks those many years ago. But life on earth has been richer for our family because of the great cooks who provided "treats"for the teachers and helpers during the recess breaks when the kids were playing 4 square and Red Rover outside. Many of the family favorites originated from recipes shared by the ladies of First Baptist....whether its Cream Cheese Coffeecake or Phyllis' Coffeecake, I say a thankful blessing for their talents now and back then; these baked goods have entered into family legend and, forgive me my presumption, Lord, have even provided a little foretaste of heaven for us sinners. Crafts may come and go and little children grow into teachers and leaders in their own rights, but food for the body and food for the spirit can indeed come from the same source.
In the natural progression of the season,finishing the dinner dishes and hanging wet laundry on the line sent me to the corner cabinet for a colander and empty ice cream buckets. Sure as the sun coming up, the strawberries would be ready the second week of Bible school and the first opportunity to pick them was after lunch. Warmed by the morning sun and fed by seasonal showers, the first June bearers would be plump and firm, filling the buckets quickly. By the end of the two weeks, the increasing heat would take its toll; while the last berries were exceedingly sweet, they were also soft and slightly shriveled. If June bestowed one of those two or three inch storms, or I skipped a day of picking, the toads would take their cut of the crop, just like they would later in the summer with the ripe tomatoes. Worse still was the fuzzy gray mold (botrytis) that made anyone helping in the patch drop an offending berry like it was scalding hot.
eware pan that was my chosen vessel for the making of jam. Any jam that didn't set was fair game for strawberry sundaes...but not until we were finished eating fresh ones under two scoops of vanilla! The privations of a spring of mere sandwiches were buried and forgotten under an abundance of strawberries and ice cream before bedtime...
It isn't easy to remember the June days before we potted mums; we've had fall crops to water during the summer since Lee was in high school raising asters for her FFA project. But before that, June meant endless days of mowing grass, weeding in the garden, trips to the library, a few ballgames and the periodic gatherings to pick, pit, can, freeze, or jell any number of the glorious juicy fruits with which June can abound.
I've always felt those pint and quilted half pint jars of fruit jams lining the counter seven by seven held a hidden measure of the country that bore them: some internal glow produced independently of the translucence of fruit and light. Whatever food experts say, a homemade jam has always been a creature removed from its store bought kissing cousin, long before such distinctions became something writ in stone.
Perhaps this feeling has its origin in the uncertainty associated with home made jam. The hurdles are myriad: frost, hail, fungus, slugs, toads, mold, heat, drought...and all these must be overcome before operator error is even an option! For many years, I'd follow the directions in Joy of Cooking and carefully hover over the pan of burbling berries, watching the candy thermometer with one eye, the timer with the other, and trying to pull the trigger on what constituted coating the knife or forming a sheet that released just two drops to the pull of gravity.
And the results were just what you would expect from this decision making process: sometimes the jam would form a substance the consistency of Gorilla Glue, sometimes a spoon would break before it would measure out a portion, and sometimes the ruby substance would have an inner light, like old whiskey or brandy...and pour out with the same viscosity! At this point, I would declare victory and proclaim the substance the world's most perfect.....ice cream sundae syrup.
The mysterious crabapple remains a legend in my own mind, a chimera, the like of which I don't expect to taste again on this side of heaven's river...
On a less Arthurian note, the year 1983 was the first and best year for apricots in my memory. We didn't have a tree out at the farm at that time, but the delicate and daring blooms of the aged apricot at Luretta's survived the perils of frost that soon-to-be drought year and bore a bounteous harvest of soft orange fruits. One characteristic of apricots is the narrow window between fruit on the limb and drops on the ground. That year I ran apricots through the food mill in our kitchen for days with two little girls under my feet, boiling the four cups of fruit with the four cups of sugar for the precise amount of time til the SureJell was added, boiling again until the angry foam could not be stirred down, steaming my glasses and turning my face red. For years after, the stickers I used on that jam stuck particularly well on the jars and I could reminisce as Proust did about his Madeleines. Strong is the pull of sweets on one's memory.
Some time between Father's Day and the 4th of July, the pie cherries ripen. Years past, Grandma Hurst had a large cherry tree on the north side of her driveway. Cherry picking was a family undertaking; one of the guys would bring the loader tractor down from the Corner and lift someone high into the branches to cheat the birds and pick the ripest, reddest cherries from the fragile, brittle upper reaches of the tree. Someone more athletic and daring would climb those same branches and pick cherries til their ice cream bucket was full, then hand it carefully down to the ground to be handed to Grandma Eunice and anyone else delegated to watch babies and pit fruit. Is there anything more American than a cherry pie? Don't get me wrong; apples are the most versatile and forgiving of fruits, marvelous from tree in fall til the last apple butter is consumed in spring. But cherries are ripe for Independence Day and declare their allegiance to our country with hot dogs and fireworks. And don't forget the whole mythical Father of our Country thing. In my mind, each time I stand high on a stepladder with a bucket over my arm and juice running down my arm, it is decades ago and I'm perched in the crook of an ancient cherry with kids chasing through the overgrown lilacs below at Grandma and Grandpa Hurst's.
These are the fruits of summer, past and present. How alive and vital and sensate and immediate they seem, past or present, as iconic as Easter eggs or Christmas trees but not commercial, not creatures of man's imagination. Each year we stand and harvest fruits, I am acutely aware the perfection of their amazing devising and our undeserved bounty:
"By Him the rolling seasons
In fruitful order move;
Sing to the Lord of harvest,
A joyous song of love."