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The sweet hereafter

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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After his father died last December, my husband came home with several jars of canned sweetness: raspberry jam, grape jelly, peach preserves. Remnants of his father's last season of canning, the little glass pots contained familiar tastes that my husband wanted to savor one last time.

My father-in-law always preserved the same fruits in the same way: freshly picked from his back yard, then packed into jars under a thick layer of paraffin wax. The wax would ooze down the outsides of the jars before hardening into firm white beads. When you unscrewed the lid of a fresh jar, you had to wriggle a knife blade in between the glass wall and the wax disk, trying to pop out the disk without chipping the wax or flinging jam onto the countertop.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Grape jelly and peach jam from my father-in-law's last season of canning."] 

I usually failed spectacularly at both, scattering bits of wax across the top layer of jam and sloshing drops of jam around the kitchen. But the fruity goo underneath was always worth it, if a bit too sweet for my taste.

He liked to preserve more than just fruit, my father-in-law. When I dared to suggest that he ditch the messy, difficult paraffin process in favor of simple water-bath canning, he brushed me off. Paraffin was what he'd always used. Paraffin was Yankee tradition. And paraffin was perfectly safe, despite what the latest science might claim about its efficacy as a sealing agent. He himself had never gotten sick from the jams he made with paraffin seals. Why change now?

In his defense, my father-in-law was no Luddite. Sure, he may have vacuumed his house with a 1960s-vintage canister vacuum that roared like Sputnik, but the heavy machine did a great job. His 1930s-era refrigerator was tiny, its little built-in freezer incapable of keeping ice cream firm, but it suited his spartan shopping habits: a little cheese here, a canister of Quaker Oats there. And the ancient gas stove that you had to light by hand? Well, it sure got a kettle of water from cold to boiling faster than any modern, "automatic" appliance.

Granted, he made few concessions to conventional wisdom. His claw-foot bathtubs were beautiful, yes, but house guests hoping for a shower were out of luck. His woodstove, made from sea-green soapstone, was cozy and sleek, but it required constant maintenance: log splitting, woodbox stacking, fire tending. He did things his way, and in his house, you did things his way, too.

He and I were not exactly simpatico. I found him loud, foul-mouthed, judgmental, and temperamental, not to mention recklessly dismissive of anyone — including close family members — who displeased him. But plenty of other people found him witty, charming, genuine, and even grandly romantic, as evinced by the steady procession of family, friends, and former girlfriends who stopped by during his last weeks of life, bringing tureens of soup and loaves of bread. 

He couldn't eat these offerings — he was too ill with cancer — but his sons and their wives could, and so could the visitors who came, patted his shoulders while he slept, and then sat around the dining-room table, eating and drinking and talking about a life almost over.

My father-in-law was a tough guy. He wanted to be Jack London, to live a bold, macho life and then write about it. He had grown up on a New England farm, doing the grimy work of raising chickens and chopping wood. He joined the Army during the Korean War and was stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to surf on wooden longboards. He dug ditches for PG&E in California before deciding that he wanted to become an anthropologist, whereupon he became a specialist in the native peoples of the Yucatán and, later, a college professor. He liked to wear his hair long and pierced his ears numerous times; if asked, he'd say that each hole was for one of the great loves of his life.

"My father used to always say to us, 'The three things I love the most in life are sex, ice cream, and then you two boys,'" my husband likes to say. I know it's supposed to be a joke, but it makes me uncomfortable. Sex? I doubt most people really want to know, on a conversational level, how much their parents enjoy sex. Ice cream? Yes, it's delicious, but isn't it belittling to your sons to value a scoop of melting sugary cream over them?

Of course, the joke is that the sons really did come first. And in the end, when he could no longer savor sex or even ice cream, his sons were all my father-in-law had, two boys faithfully tending to his every need morning and night. 

They loved him, despite his unpredictable personality. They were willing to put up with messiness and difficulty and struggle, in order to reach the reward of a laugh or a hug. Maybe that laugh was occasionally too loud, or the hug too painfully strong. Maybe they, like me, find their father's jam too sweet, a fruity treat that's often frustratingly inaccessible. But that's who he was, and what everything in his life was like. 

And I, digging into his last jars of jam, can understand a little of what they saw in him: a man who, despite prickly packaging and domineering intensity, was capable of nurturing, preserving, and sharing the wealth of his life with others.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

reference-image, l