Illustration by Rachael Davis.
Glass jars of home-canned tomatoes fill the cupboard over my refrigerator, ’50s icons in a 21st century kitchen. If I could, I would pull one down, unscrew the gold metal band and pop off the lid underneath to release the fresh aroma of tomato. It would be a reminder of summer’s abundance, a buoy against the ice and snow covering the ground and the downward slide of the thermometer. But I have moved out of the house while my husband and I sort our belongings. I saw no room in transient living for fragile, glass jars.
I almost skipped canning this year. The end of tomato season appeared unhurried on the horizon when tomatoes first arrived at the farmer’s market in July. And then I was lying in bed on an October Saturday, ticking off fall chores: change the storm windows, put the garden to bed, give the compost one final turn. I turned to Chris.
“We won’t miss canned tomatoes, will we?”
“It’ll be worth it in January,” he said. “I’ll work in the garden while you can the tomatoes. We’ll do the windows tomorrow.”
We drove to the market and wandered up and down rows of covered stalls in the YWCA parking lot. Bushels of canning tomatoes sat on the ground at every stand, their skins pocked by small scars and bruises. But their scent was fresh, and the autumn air was sharp and brisk. The growing length of the sun’s shadows enticed us to grab as much produce as we could. At home, vegetables flowed across the kitchen and spilled onto the floor: peppers for roasting, Roma tomatoes for drying, winter squash stacked in a corner and the canning tomatoes waiting on the floor.
The enamel canning pot dwarfed the stove and a smaller pot of boiling water beside it. I dropped several tomatoes into the smaller pot and watched as bubbles rose up out of their scars. Fishing them out with a slotted spoon, I slipped them into a bowl of ice water, shocking the tomatoes so that a gentle squeeze slid their deep red flesh out from under their skins. Juice ran down my fingers and dripped across the counter, and the pile of naked tomatoes grew.
I started canning the year Chris and I moved into our first apartment. At the time I worked as a camp director four hours north in Ely, Minnesota every summer. On days off, I borrowed the neighbor’s chocolate lab and wandered through red and white pines over glacier-carved bedrock. I picked wild berries as we went: June strawberries in the sandy soils along the road, July raspberries in a sunny patch where trees had collapsed during a storm, and August blueberries nestled between lichen on top of a rocky hill overlooking the lake. While I filled my buckets, the dog ate blueberries right off the bush. I returned to our two-room cabin with too many berries to eat. Before long the freezer was full, and it became clear the berries would never survive the drive back to the Cities in September. I borrowed canning equipment from my neighbor and learned to make jam. The cabin windows grew dense with steam while I stirred and sampled the oozing, bubbling, sugary liquids, and by the time I was done, I had over a dozen jars.
When we returned to the city, I looked around our stale apartment—built to resemble a ski chalet too far from anybody’s slopes, with faux wood paneling and white carpet—and wondered if I could live without walks through the woods. How could I rejoice in sidewalks and asphalt? Images of the root cellar in my parents’ basement, lined with jars of home-canned peaches, tomatoes, and apricots, flashed into my mind. I remembered standing in my mother’s kitchen as a young girl, watching as she carefully lowered packed jars of tomatoes into an enamel pot of boiling water, knowing they would return to the kitchen in winter as stewed tomatoes, ruining a perfectly good plate of homemade macaroni and cheese. But I had since developed a taste for tomatoes. Maybe canning was just what I needed.
This year, the enamel pot came to a boil in the tiny kitchen of our one-and-half story bungalow. Empty jars floated and bumped into each other in the surge of the water as I waited for them to become sterile, peering through the steam on the windows at Chris ripping tendrils of runaway strawberries out of the garden. He yanked with the vibrant energy we’d both had in June, when we’d confined the strawberries to one small patch so they wouldn’t take over the basil or the potatoes. It was our first summer together since we bought the house three years earlier; Chris had finally quit working at camp and joined me in the city full time. We had already started counseling, but it felt hopeful to dig in the dirt together.
I pulled a jar from the boiling water and set it on the counter, where it steamed and dried instantly. I measured a teaspoon of salt and lemon juice into the jar, and its heat released their acrid smell, an odor I have come to recognize as the arrival of fall. I quartered a skinned tomato from the pile on the cutting board and slipped the pieces into the jar, gently mashing them down to release air pockets. Amber tomato juice spilled over the sides of the jar and onto the counter. Six more jars to fill, then back into the water bath for forty-five minutes to seal the lids. Noon had come and gone, and there would be at least two more batches. Tomato pulp and seeds dotted the floor, tomato juice had dried to the counter. The weekend was already spent, and I would barely leave the kitchen.
Every year, as soon as Chris headed north in May, some part of the house demanded attention: the bathtub clogged, the garage got tagged with graffiti, or it rained so much that the lawn sprouted up like a jungle. Two passes with the reel mower resulted in nothing more than a lawn with a bad haircut.
“You just have to keep the grass short, then a reel mower works fine,” Chris told me over the phone.
“So you don’t think mowing the lawn three times a week sounds like too much?” He didn’t respond the way I wanted him to, by saying he would come home to visit more often, to mow the lawn or pick out a new mower with me.
“We’re wasting our summers. We’re young. We should be spending them on the road somewhere, traveling, doing things.”
Chris’ answer was always the same: “Next summer.”
I hung up the phone, stepped out onto the back stoop and looked over at the retired neighbor’s perfectly-manicured grass to the dandelions growing up around our compost and the long strands of grass at the base of the crab apple tree. I sighed and let my gaze wander to the vegetable garden. A small purple flower on the dark green potato plant caught my eye; it hadn’t been there the day before. And a tiny green tomato had popped up during the night, too. I rooted through the garden with the same sense of suspense I felt opening the weekly delivery of produce from the farm share I joined. What new food would I find? Over the summer, I learned that the fennel that looked like fat celery could be roasted to mute its licorice flavor, eggplant grilled in olive oil kept it from turning into a mushy mass of slime, and kale was perfect sautéed in garlic. Only okra left me bewildered.
Every time I ate, I savored the knowledge that the basil came from the backyard, the corn had come from the farm an hour away, and the bread from the farmer’s market. Each bite felt like a thread that connected me to another person or part of nature, and I grew a new sense of home. But there was one part I didn’t like: sitting down to eat at an empty table. In Chris’ absence, I made pesto, blanched green beans and oven-dried tomatoes. I slid them into the freezer so I could carry that sense of place into winter, when I could extend that thread to my husband and enfold him in the web of connections I had found.
When I lined the jars up on the counter in front of the window, sunlight streamed through the window and lit their amber juices like jewels. If all had gone well, I would begin to hear the soft pop of first one jar and then another as a vacuum formed inside, the button center of the metal lid sucking down tight as the seal formed. The sound had become a sound of satisfaction, and this year, a sound of hope. Maybe they could become more than a buoy against the fading temperatures; maybe this year they could provide a buoy for me.
My energy was fading. I had stopped tending the strawberries. Using up the food from the farm share felt like a chore. I mowed the lawn only once, in spite of the new electric mower. We had discussed my growing weariness in counseling. Had started talking about building dreams that grew beyond the edge of the yard, about actually taking the next summer off and letting someone else mow the lawn. There was still hope that in January Chris might pull a jar down from the cupboard, his pent-up energy from a day in the office spilling out into the kitchen as he bounced around making chili. We might talk about our days and wonder what to do with the coming weekend, make plans for the summer. The thread between us could hold strong.
As the seals started popping, Chris came inside and put his arms around me. “Fun!” he said, looking at the jars. We stood that way for a moment, and then he went back outside.
I hauled the enamel pot off of the stove, propped it on the edge of the kitchen sink and poured out the tarnished, pale brown water. Flecks of swirling tomato pulp streamed into the sink as steam rose up from its surface. I turned my cheek from the heat, glad that my work was done. Of the seventeen glass jars, three failed to seal. I placed them in the refrigerator, wondering what had been different about those three in particular. What had caused them to fail.
Chris stood by the stove putting leftovers into a Tupperware. It was early December, and the leaded panes of the storm window behind him and the early descent of night obscured the view of the yard. I sat, silent, at the table. Our dream of an Alaskan canoe trip, one we had actually started planning, had just been snuffed over a dinner out of a box. We were rushing to eat before a holiday party, and the words had come out of his mouth with a strong dose of disbelief, like I was crazy for thinking it could still happen: “There’s no way we’re going on a canoe trip this summer. Not with the basement renovation.”
He snapped the lid on the Tupperware and put it into the fridge. “This is life. A house and a mortgage. We can’t do it all.” I knew what he really meant. I had heard his implication the week before, from Chris and the therapist, at our final counseling session: it was time to grow up. To be content with what I had.
His logic was sound. A simple repair job had turned the basement into a major renovation. But we had never talked about it as an either-or, and I thought the basement could wait. I had inhaled sharply when the words flew out of his mouth, ready to argue. But then I thought of all the times I’d heard ‘next summer’ or ‘it just isn’t good timing,’ how we kept putting off all the dreams that mattered most to me. I knew with a sharp and painful certainty that it would always be this way. I could argue now and push for this dream, but only if I was ready to keep doing it, every year, for every dream after that. We would always be waiting, he and I. Like I had waited for him to want to come home during the summer and he now waited for me to be content. We would always be waiting to want the same thing.
It is January now. I go from work to my parents and their kitchen. I think of the tomatoes collecting dust in their cupboard and of Chris living in a house too big for one person; I hope he is taking the time to eat. I mourn the loss of those January dinners, just as I mourn the loss of my tomatoes. My parents have asked: “Why don’t you bring them here? Cook with them in our kitchen?” And I could. Instead of wondering if the future will include a place for canning, instead of debating whether preserving tomatoes is worth the effort for a pot of soup for one, I could uncoil the thread to my parents. And maybe bringing those tomatoes out of the cupboard would remind me of summer and the renewal that comes to those who have the patience to see the long winter through.
But to go back to the house that stopped feeling like mine the moment I left, to pull down the jars and pack them in a box. . . . I would feel no sense of delight. I would not think of one last stroll through the market. I would stand on a stool, hold a jar absentmindedly over the refrigerator and look out the kitchen window at the snow-covered yard. I would remember my husband clearing the garden while I covered the windows in steam, and I would marvel at how decisively the threads between us had broken.
Sometimes, the process of preserving does not work. Sometimes, the seals don’t form.
Alissa Johnson is an editor at the Crested Butte News and an award winning writer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Dirt Rag Magazine, and Mountain Gazette among other publications, and she’s a regular contributor to Wilderness News. Her writing has won awards from FundsforWriters and the Colorado Press Association. She holds an MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from Western Connecticut State University (WCSU) and has taught at WCSU and Western State Colorado University. She founded WritingStrides to help other writers find their voice and create meaningful stories.