When I was a kid, I spent a lot of my summer break in the prairies with my family. My mother would carefully orchestrate my time so that I spent a fair chunk of time at summer camp north of Toronto (stories for another day), and another significant portion with family. I was generally sent to Saskatoon, and I was picked up and driven out to spend time with my Grandma and Grandpa, and then driven on (or placed on a bus – once) to visiting a few of my aunts and uncles and cousins. I guess it eliminated the need for my mother to put me in daycare, but more importantly it gave me the opportunity to spend time outside of my neighbourhood and outside of the city.
I often traveled by myself from Toronto to Saskatoon. I mean, it’s not like my mom pinned $20 to my chest and wished me the best of luck. I was always under the constant supervision of a flight attendant, who received me into her (always a her) care, and who walked me off the plane and directly to the outstretched arms of family. Saskatoon airport was quite small and I remember one year deciding that I didn’t need to wait for the flight attendant to walk me safely downstairs to meet my aunt and grandma, so I got off the plane by myself and headed along the hallway and down the escalator to pick up my suitcase. What I don’t remember is the frantic look on the face of the flight attendant who came racing downstairs looking for me, but I was reminded for years after that there was one. In my mind, it was no big deal. Doesn’t every 9 year old fly halfway across the country by themselves every summer?
I imagined my mother spending her summer pining away for her only child, crying herself to sleep every night. Parents, that’s what you do when you have time away from your children, right?
I have a number of very happy memories of those summers. Summer camp was great and all, but I’m much more likely to wax poetic about my time in Saskatchewan. I remember catching frogs for my grandfather so that we could use them to bait the fishing lines. He kept them in a hand made terrarium out behind the garage until it was time to head to the lake. I remember when Grandma would send me out into her garden to pick raspberries with an ice cream pail hooked onto a belt around my waist. I’d bring in my haul and she would sort the berries, picking out the largest and prettiest for my Grandpa to top his ice cream with. I remember swimming in lakes with my cousins, knee boarding, campfires, ATV rides, pick up trucks, chopping wood, and picking saskatoon berries. I remember watching my grandmother bake cinnamon buns. I remember the smell of burning sugar when I was allowed to help make jam. I remember upsetting half the town when I swooped in and won at Bingo in the seniors centre one night.
It was a different world than my life at home. Comfortable and foreign at the same time. As an only child, it seemed strange that there were all sorts of people who looked like me, who had the same eyes or nose (even if I was the only one to have a dark tan and a head full of curls). It was a novelty to pile so many people into a van or truck or camper to head off to the lake. At home it was just mom and me, with plenty of distance between us. Out there it was rooms with bunk beds. And it didn’t matter if I was leaving from Grandma and Grandpa’s, or from one of my Aunts’ places to fly home to Toronto, I was always allowed (instructed?) to pack some jam, or peaches, or pickles to bring home to my mother. Fish and sausage were carefully wrapped in newspaper and stuffed into corners of my luggage (or if we were lucky, packed into a box all by themselves). While it didn’t seem unusual at the time, I’ve come to realize the effort that went into making all that food, and the generosity of those gifts. At the time I only knew that Grandma’s raspberry preserves were my favourite, that “the twins” always had baking in their freezer, and that Aunty Joan would find you some sausage if you asked nicely. And while I knew it was something special back then, it seems even more generous to think of it now. My thanks were always met with an explanation of ” ‘Lisha, you’re family”.
A few years ago I jumped into part of my family’s tradition. Not the part about taking in small children for weeks at a time. Rather, I put up shelves in a corner of the basement, and invested heavily in mason jar futures.
Every year this undertaking grows. Recipes, once googled and printed, annotated in excruciating detail, now become notes jotted in margins. Too many green beans? You can pickle that! Clementines on sale? Marmalade! Dill pickles by the bushel. Beets stain everything not red but a beautiful fuchsia, and when run through a meat slicer, they create a most gruesome murder scene. Big jobs get the help of friends who share in the work for a share of the spoils, and rumors of canning have neighbours sending messages asking for a jar or 2.
People say it’s a dying art. In an age of the supermarket, the farmers market, and even the craft fair, truly knowing someone who still does these things by hand is a novelty. I assure you that there are no cutesy labels in my basement, only sharpie marker notes scrawled on snap lids. I have no real idea how much it costs me to put food in jars for later, but I’ll bet it’s no cheaper than grabbing a tin or a jar off the grocery store shelf. All I know is that when fruit or veg are on the counter, threatening to turn brown before their time, my first thought is put a pot of water on to boil and head to the basement to find a bunch of empty jars.
The other day I heard myself offering a friend the opportunity to raid the pantry before she went home. Now if only I had a terrarium for frogs.