By Sarah Baughman
At first it was perfect: my aproned son standing next to me, fingers blue-stained and busy, crushing blueberries in a pan while I measured sugar and lemon.
For days, ever since the first blueberries started to pop, he’d been asking for this: “I want to can blueberries for the winter. When will we can blueberries from the winter?” He stole that line straight from Blueberries for Sal, and I fell for it. Hard.
Yes, I promised, we’ll can blueberries for the winter. We’ll make blueberry jam, which you spread on toast all year long and wear on your face long after breakfast is done unless I take a hot washcloth to your lips, yes, we’ll can blueberries.
It’s going to be fine, I told myself. Pioneer women must have done this all the time. No need to stay up until 2:00 a.m. making jam while the boy and his baby sister sleep just because you’re worried they’ll mess it up—start crying, for example, just as you have to, have to, stir the vat of boiling, popping jam for exactly one minute; tug on your leg just as you bend to lift hot jars out of hotter water. No. It’s going to be fine.
I put him in charge of smashing berries, which I figured he’d like because it involved smashing, and he stood on the chair and used a potato masher to drum out rhythms on those berries. I saw him reaching down and sneaking bites in between, but I didn’t say anything except “those sure taste sweet, huh?”
As he worked, the layers of berries bled into mush and he helped me measure them into my pot and stir. Next came the pectin. I let him dip the tablespoon measure into the jar, once, twice—”now stop,” I said. “Mama needs to get something; don’t touch that ’til I get back.”
I went to the stove I can’t remember for what, a ladle or maybe an extra wooden spoon, and when I turned around, there he was, pouring pectin into the pot, and I didn’t even think before I screamed; maybe if I’d actually thought about it I wouldn’t have done it, or would have at least toned it down. But this was not thought, there was no rational progression, no deeper purpose, there was just me screaming, quickly hoarse: “No!! No, No, NO!!! Stop doing that!” And then—worst of all—”You’re ruining it!!“
There was a moment during the screaming when I realized I regretted everything even as it flew out of my mouth, when I realized that no matter how much money I’d spent on that flat of blueberries and no matter how many fewer jars of jam we might have in February because of this, none of it really mattered, not really. But by the time that shame set in of course he was already crying, and the worst kind too, red-faced, choking, and running to his father.
I stood in the kitchen, shaking with shame and wondering why I couldn’t do like the pioneer women did and manage it all: making jam with a four-year-old, how hard could it be? Even the mom in Blueberries for Sal just stands there happily filling jars while little Sal unobtrusively strings canning bands along her arm.
My husband cradled my son but I heard him saying: “Honey, you didn’t listen to mama. She told you not to touch that and you did. What do you think you should say to mama?”
The words grated though, because I felt already that I’d made a grave mistake. I wanted so much for my children to feel comfortable with activities I enjoyed, and I tended to aim for a default relaxed attitude though it often went against my somewhat obsessive nature. I let them scatter sunflower seeds at random in the garden, gave only gentle correction and a kiss when the toddler walked through a freshly planted bed, handed them brushes and pitchforks when we went to care for the neighbors’ horses, stayed silent when flour snowed all over the counter while we baked bread. But somehow, that jam—
“Listen,” my husband said, when my son’s crying began to subside. “I don’t actually think you really did anything wrong. Kids need to know when they’ve really crossed a line. He needs to know that if he does something you tell him not to do, it disrupts things. You don’t need to hide the fact that he might have ruined ten jars of jam.”
“I was too angry though,” I said. I could feel myself still trembling with leftover adrenaline and regret. “Now he’s going to hate canning forever. He’s probably not ready for it; I never should have gotten him involved.”
“No. It’s not too late to make it right,” my husband said. “My dad always yelled at me for this kind of stuff and yeah, I felt like I couldn’t do anything right, but I think the thing was, he never gave me a chance at a do-over. What you need to do is let him make the next batch with you.”
My son was just sniffling now. OK, I thought. We can probably scrape enough berries together for a half a batch. I turned back to the table and realized I’d added sugar all at once instead of cooking and timing it first—my own dumb mistake. Sheepish, I ladled a few eyeballed teaspoonfuls of pectin out of the mix and put the whole pot on the stove, heated it to boiling, stirred absentmindedly, sure it wouldn’t set.
But it did. For whatever reason, in the exact amount of time it usually took when every step was done right, the jam jelled beautifully, and I spooned it into hot jars and set them in the canner, let it start rattling and shaking with heat.
I turned to my son and opened my arms. He ran into them, but started crying all over again. “Hey buddy,” I said. “I love you. I’m really sorry I yelled. Can you help me make more jam though? We need it for the winter. I could use a helper.”
He nodded, soaking my shirt with snot and salt tears.
“What do you say to mama?” my husband prompted.
“Sorry about the jam, Mama,” he whimpered.
“You know what?” I asked. “I made a mistake too. I put all the sugar in before I was supposed to. Isn’t that crazy?” He smiled a little. “The jam still tastes good, but you’d better help me,” I said, “make sure I don’t do that again.” Then I got a laugh.
Helping my son back into his chair, handing him a potato masher and a tablespoon, letting him sneak handfuls of berries—that felt OK. Great, actually. And our last batch was perfect.
Sarah Baughman lives in Vermont with her family and blogs at http://serbaughman.wordpress.com. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, the Matador Network, Compose Journal, A River and Sound Review, and other publications.
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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