By Antonia Malchik
An hour into my peach canning session on a hot August afternoon, I’ve peeled five batches of fruit. I’ve long since ceased to think about how the ripe, sinful flesh, blush-colored and naked, always brings to mind Georgia O’Keeffe paintings and sex. Instead I hustle, doubtfully eyeing the diminishing, discounted box of orchard-run peaches, the ones that have fallen off the trees and bruised. I picked them up three days ago at a farm five miles away. Some are already growing mold. The waste angers me as I cut away bruises and green fuzz, sometimes throwing away most of a peach, but I haven’t had time to get to them. The wedges pile up in the pot, splashing into squeezed lemon and leaking peach juice. Even as I pick up the pace, I try to remember that I’ve chosen this time-consuming and unnecessary hobby, that it’s a process to enjoy. I move the knife too quickly against the naked peach in my palm and it slips close to my thumb.
Water spits constantly onto the hissing gas burners. I’m working alone, lifting peaches from a boiling pot into an ice bath. The skins slip off peach-flesh—dusky, firm, and slick. The peaches are freestone variety, chosen for their rich flavor and the ease with which the flesh falls off the pit. They boil for a scant thirty seconds to release the skin, no more than six at a time in the pot because that’s the most I can dip in and out before the fruit begins to cook.
Upstairs, the baby wakes up crying. I brush sweat-soaked hair out of my face. His nap lasted thirty minutes less than usual. I’ll have to wrap up early. The baby’s fingers are too eager and his curiosity too persistent to allow him near an activity that requires scorching hot burners and my full attention. I’ll be lucky to finish this half after he goes to bed tonight.
The last six whole peaches come out of the pot. I slough the skins off as fast as possible, turn off the boiling water, put the gigantic pot of skinned, sliced fruit on a back burner; contemplate washing up the bowl full of shed skin and pits, the knife and cutting board, the lemon juicer, the thick puddles on the counter splashing silently onto the floor, before everything turns sticky and mixes with cat fur.
Through the baby monitor, my son’s crying increases in intensity and violence over the rattling of his crib bars against the drywall. I stop wiping the counter and try not to begrudge his theft of my time alone. But the resentment comes anyway: Get me. The fuck. Out of here.
* * *
Everything about canning season, including the crying from upstairs, reminds me of my son’s birth. My first attempts at this old-fashioned practice took place a week either side of his delivery, seven weeks early. Bored with pregnancy and summer heat, my husband and I played at freezing peaches in sugar syrup on one oppressive Wednesday in August. We made jokes about the pornography of the fruit and covered the kitchen with juice and sugar. The next Sunday we bought a box of tomatoes, thinking to cook them down and likewise install them in freezer bags. By then I was, unknowingly, already sinking under the effects of HELLP Syndrome, a rare, often fatal pregnancy illness. Complaining of stomach pain, I put off the tomato project and went to bed. I thought I had a mild case of food poisoning. By Wednesday, my liver was failing. The obstetrician performed a Caesarian while I was unconscious. I met my son thirty hours later, after the machines in Intensive Care stopped monitoring my breathing.
The next Wednesday, my son was still lying in Neonatal Intensive Care with the other tiny, sick premature babies. The doctor had called at seven a.m. to warn us they’d found a second air bubble next to his lungs and might have to move him to a tertiary care center two hours away. I can’t leave him, I kept saying to the nurse, who’d heard the same from countless discharged mothers and would continue hearing it long after my child was strong and growing. I kept putting off withdrawing the tip of my thumb from his miniscule fist, the only part of him we were allowed to touch until they removed the chest tubes and oxygen sniffer. I spent the drive home twisted in tears. I didn’t want to stop crying, thinking somehow it kept me connected to him, forty-five minutes away.
Nine o’clock at night my husband found me blanching tomatoes in the kitchen, stripping their torn skins.
“You should be resting,” he said.
“I need this.” I fished six tomatoes out with the slotted spoon and tried not to cry. The incision from the C-section ached; my feet ached; my head ached. But the movement from box to pot to icy bath to bowl, knowing I was making something without having to eat any of it, kept the tears at bay. “I need to do something real,” I said.
Splash, roll, split went the tomatoes. Their skins didn’t slide off like the peaches’ did. I had to peel them, papery on top with a squishy underbelly dripping watered-down red.
* * *
I’m descended on both sides from families in which competence is the predominant religion: the ability to make things, fix things, grow things. The knowledge that you could scratch out a life far from the conveniences of modernity. For my paternal and maternal grandparents, food was simply about survival. But more than that, its production and preservation defined the value of a woman. My Russian grandmother kept my father and his siblings alive during World War II by digging potato beds and scouring the woods for mushrooms after working double shifts managing the metallurgical lab at the weapons factory. On my mother’s side, my forefathers went West to Montana, where the women, no matter how soft they’d begun, grew hands puckered and hard from the sweltering woodstove, the endless kneading of bread, the maintenance of the vast pickling crock, the coaxing of vegetables from the water-starved soil of Eastern Montana, the drying and preserving and pickling that ensured—they hoped—a winter free of hunger.
The summer my little sister was born, another August, my mother sweated, short and swollen, over a stove bubbling with jars of beans drowned in vinegar. Dilled pickled beans became her signature side dish. In later years, every time a jar was opened she restrained my sisters and me from eating the entire thing at one sitting, and we would negotiate over the chunks of pickled garlic on the bottom.
I was four that summer. My mother grew her own beans, and I marched colanders full of them from the garden to the quart jars waiting in ranks on the counter. The jars lay on their sides, each dosed with feathery dill leaves, cloves of garlic, dill seed, and crushed red peppers. They waited to be packed with beans and filled with vinegar.
In many families, this would be a story about the harmony of the kitchen, mother passing down to her daughter the practices of her pioneer grandmother. But it isn’t. My mother didn’t want me kicking my heels on the alderwood kitchen stool, didn’t want me snapping the tops off the beans with eager, sloppy fingers. She didn’t want me there at all.
“Sweetheart.” Snap, snap, snap went the beans. She worked fast over the chipped enameled colander, her huge belly pushing her well back from the sink. A light-blue kerchief kept her blond hair out of her face. “Go outside and play.” Stuff, stuff, stuff went the straight beans tighter and tighter into the jars. The rogue skinny curled ones landed on top, once she’d set each jar upright again.
I studied the orange diamonds worked into the ugly brown kitchen carpet. I didn’t want to go play. I wanted to help. But my mother’s explosive temper was formidable. Her statements were not requests or suggestions; discipline was another thing she had brought from frontier farm life: brisk and painful. I slid off the stool and went out to the garden with my toy tin bowls, where I pretended to make a soup of Jerusalem artichokes and red currants.
The dilled beans joined the rows of jams and jellies and crocks of melon balls in liquor already established in the cool earthen root cellar below the back porch. After my little sister was born, my mother was happy to let me help change diapers, but shooed me away from the bubbling in the kitchen, where she was squishing bitter chokecherries for jelly into a conical metal sieve.
It would be easy to say that my mother practiced and maintained her frontier-woman, pioneer-wife skills because she loved them, the rhythm and movement of the seasons and the process itself. Part of that is true. Canning was also the only way she could escape from motherhood and still keep a fingertip in the creative life she passionately wanted. She chafed at being a mother of small children. More than anything, she wanted to spend her time writing stories, a dream she put off until my sisters and I were grown.
Raised to believe that the only time well spent is spent producing something or fixing something, she could not bring herself to throw her children on neighbors, friends, or her own parents so that she could write. Who would have understood, then, in that small Montana wheat-ranching town, where everyone was poor and few women worked outside the home and the only daycare was a bedraggled part-time place run by the local Kiwanis in the basement of a church?
Canning was the only household activity that was marginally creative and belonged solely to her. She did not want help. On the contrary, she wanted her husband and daughters far away for long days so she could devote her energy to an act that would for a time both soothe her artistic urges and satisfy the expectations of her competent, long-dead grandmother.
Mostly, she pickled beans.
* * *
My son, the baby upstairs, is almost a year old now. A month of hell followed his birth, a month of breathing and heart monitors, a month of chest tubes and oxygen. We almost lost him twice. I love him with a fierce possessiveness I never thought myself capable of. Whenever he gets sick, I vividly imagine losing him, and I hold him tight and cry like an idiot.
We brought him home from the hospital when he was four weeks old, scraping the five-pound mark—lighter than the smallest of our four cats, barely the size of a bag of sugar—and still three weeks to go until his official due date. We’d been turned inside out through that month, our priorities shaken out and stomped on. The freelance copy editing career I’d planned on returning to seemed pointless beside his need for me, and mine for him. I couldn’t imagine ever being tired of his presence.
He cried for months. He nursed every hour and a half around the clock. He slept flat out on my chest every night until he was four months old. Each morning I woke up, back aching, to remember I would not have a minute to myself for at least thirteen more hours. I woke up to resent the life I now had, to resent the baby whose life I, an atheist, had prayed for. On the days when he cried the most, when neither the breast nor swaddling nor pacifier nor his bouncy chair could soothe him, the mother I dreaded becoming seemed dangerously close. The kind of mother I’d grown up with: angry, impatient, unhappy, frantic to have a day alone.
I envisioned terrible things that I don’t want to admit to, screaming back at him being the least awful. One day my arms, meant only for motherly comfort, felt weak after a desire for violence surged through them, and I laid him gently down in his crib, shut the door on his cries, went to the garage, and shrieked at the top of my lungs until I grew hoarse. Then I sat there among the dirty garage smells, trying to work out if I still existed, under the exhaustion and frustration and constant nursing.
I had never envisioned being a full-time, stay-at-home mother, yet there I was with a high-needs child I couldn’t imagine abandoning to daycare but one I couldn’t continue sacrificing every moment to. If I kept trying to devote myself—myself—to him, one of us would get hurt. I foundered, fumbling in the dark, looking for a way back to the person I used to be. Before marriage, before mortgage, before who I was became defined by the small, delightful, draining individual whose life I was responsible for.
Every now and then my father used to take my two sisters and me out for the day so my mother could write. We’d go fishing or run errands. When we came home, there’d be hot jars of peach chutney or dilled beans resting on the counter, but rarely did any writing get done. It’s a hard thing to battle those demons every day, the ones that tell you that putting pen to paper without knowing what will come of it is pointless or worthless. To do it occasionally is almost impossible.
It’s hard to admit how many years I’ve spent trying not to be like my mother, trying not to let an urge to create pickle in frustration. After I had a child, it was hard to find out that, I, like my own mother, felt I had to purchase the right to create by doing something useful. Much as I enjoyed the canning itself, I wanted the approval of my dead ancestors. And I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I could give my grandmothers and great-grandmothers a bright quart jar of peaches I’d put up and an essay I’d published, I know which one they’d be proud of.
When I started to can peaches and tomatoes, I was grabbing at anything that would restore a sense of self as someone other than a nursing, soothing, rocking mother. A hobby I could pick up the instant my son went to sleep.
It was surprising to discover I liked it. Now, when I turn down a social invitation in late August because I’ve got a box of tomatoes to put up, I do it because for the last two months I’ve been looking forward to skinning and bottling those just-ripened San Marzano tomatoes. The sight of those jars standing in ranks in our cool basement is immensely satisfying. It makes me feel … well, competent. And achieving those jars—the canning process itself—has a soothing rhythm that quiets all the tense, trivial thoughts I tend to obsess over during the day.
I know that my passion for canning is often a stand-in for something more. Sometimes I’m sweating over a boiling pot of blueberry-lime jam because I badly want to be sitting somewhere else with a notebook in hand. I’m reminded of my mother then. The difference is, I can change that feeling, acknowledge that there doesn’t have to be one predominant self—whether mother, writer, or competent frontier-woman—to feel whole. Canning, which began as an escape, has simply become part of the ebb and flow of who I am.
* * *
I put a lid over the stockpot of peaches, switch off the baby monitor. The kitchen is awash in canning detritus: a pot of cooling sugar syrup, three sticky knives, a dripping cutting board, the wide-mouth funnel and jar lifter, the dishwasher full of clean, hot quart Mason jars, the flies around the bowl of skin and pits, fruit flies still feasting on the box of uncut fruit. Peach juice everyfuckingwhere. I wash my hands and forearms where the fruit dripped. I step barefoot into an unseen puddle and wash that, too. Then I take a deep breath and look around the kitchen, preparing to shift mentally, if regretfully, from the time that is mine to the time that is ours.
Up in his bedroom, my son is facing away from me, and my heart turns over as I see how big he’s gotten, how vigorously he’s using the lungs that began life so tentatively. I pick him up and hold him against me until he snuffles and his crying slows. This year he might be able to eat those canned peaches. I won’t. All I need is to skin them, pack them in jars, dance through the kitchen, making my own little thing, over and over and over.
My mother’s lesson is now a lifeline: It’s the sealing in of self, hoping to get reacquainted with me later, when the diapers are done and the school bus has stopped coming by and rides aren’t needed to sports events or music lessons. When everyone can wipe his or her own bottom. When the babies are finally in college, on their own, busy with jobs and lives. Then, maybe, I can pop open the sealed lid of that jar and taste the self again.
Author’s Note: This is written with gratitude to my mother, for being who she is, and a request for the dilled beans recipe, please.
My older sister commented that this essay made her sad because my life with young children sounded so insufficiently rewarding. This got us discussing women (like me) who struggle with their sense of self after having children, and those (like her) who are generally happy with the balance they achieve, and why. When she said of herself, “[Maybe] it’s natural for me to err on the side of self-indulgence,” I thought her word choice said mountains about how easily mothers still judge themselves for meeting their own needs.
Our son is now three. Our daughter was born a year ago. She was nine days late, and we spent those tedious nights making more than a hundred jars of jam. We still have most of them.
Antonia Malchik’s essays have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Walrus, and the Jabberwock Review, among many other publications, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in upstate New York and can be reached through antoniamalchik.com.
Brain, Child (Summer 2011)