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 berries, 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.
When 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.
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.
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.