Living in Place

January in Vermont

CannedGoodsIt’s January in Vermont.

My retired neighbors have driven south for the discomforts of perpetual summer, while my more affluent contemporaries are packing for their Caribbean vacations. I’ll miss their companionship, but I won’t miss their complaints, and if they really hate winter, they might as well leave.

I’m staying home. I love the winter – if it snows and stays cold.

It’s the thaws and gray rains that get me down. When they settle in, I go south to the cellar, where I retrieve the summer in quarts.

Just seeing the shelves laden with my jars of homegrown produce warms me as I remember boiling Jam Jarberries, scalding tomatoes, sealing peaches in hot, sterile jars. The intolerable heat of the canning kettle steams my memory as I pull a jar of strawberry preserves off the shelf.

Back upstairs, where flat light outlines my kitchen window and artic drafts chill my feet, I break the seal. Out spills the warmth of our first summer weekend when my nieces, on a visit from the city, picked berries for a lark. We picked and we gorged. We ate berries in the field, at the sink, and on pillows of cream. We ate berries for breakfast; we ate berries for lunch; we ate berries whole and we ate them slices; we ate them on waffles, in yogurt, on shortcake.

StrawberriesWhen we could eat berries no more, I turned those that remained into jam, preserving on their essence. As I hulled the fruit, I discarded all the discomforts of berry picking in June – the backache, the bug bites, the sunburns. What I spoon from the jar is a red so vivid, it brightens even a gray winter day; a flavor so sweet, it tempers the bitterness of winter’s cold; a memory so warm that it melts the gloom of a drab January.

Sometimes, strawberries alone are not comfort enough, not against continual rain or a low, gunmetal sky. I prick these dreary spells of winter with sharp pickles, whose acid brine causes even the dullest, stalest day to wake up and sing.

fire in stoveAnd on days when no amount of cord wood sacrificed to the fire can keep the spirits of mean winter at bay – on those days I open tomatoes, and instantly the wind dies away.

When I pry off the lid from a jar of tomatoes, I’m back in the garden at noon on a hot, August day. The tomatoes hang heavy, like a woman in her ninth month. Their skin is taut; their pulp ripe; their flesh warm from the sun.

No job is hotter than canning tomatoes in August, so when I remove those plump, red spheres from the jar, I’m enveloped in a steamy memory of a summer that was, a memory that melts the goblin fear of an endless gray winter. I’m reminded that even if it doesn’t snow– even if winter remains drab and dreary – summer will come again: grass will turn green, flowers will bloom, and the sky will once again be yellow and blue.

Meanwhile, it’s winter – I love winter – in Vermont.winter field






A version of this essay was broadcast on the stations of Vermont Public Radio in 1991, and appeared under the title “Canned Goods” in the January-February issue of Vermont Magazine in 1992.

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