Off the Beaten Path: Chokecherries

Six mason jars cool on the counter. In a line, at the end of the day. The children are in bed, the house, quiet. The kitchen is steamy and ice crystals frost the corners of the windows. Now that the work is done, the only light left is the one above the stove. The jars seem to glow: red that is blue and orange, yellow, too. This jelly makes me think of wildfires.

We'd spent a summer morning picking chokecherries at my friend Phyllis's house, before the sun was high and the heat swallowed up the day. The littlest children played on the swing set; the bigger ones built elaborate castles in the sandbox. We had 8 children between us: Phyllis's 5 and my 3.

The cottonwoods shimmered in the breeze off the lake. I could hear the sounds of town: cars starting and stopping, a lawnmower. In the distance, a siren. The kids began helping us strip the berries, hanging like jewels off the stems. Phyllis's oldest girl was drawn to my nearly-full bowl. She lifted the berries into her cupped hands then let them tumble down, again and again, and I too was mesmerized, watching the redness rise and fall through the crisp morning air.

Two bucketfuls later, it was time to head home. I put my boys down for a rest in the cool shade of their room; a box fan in the window blew softly across their little bodies. It was the hottest summer on record. My husband Tom fights wild land fires in the summers, and he was gone then, and had been for 15 days.

Fifteen days was too long to be away; too long for our family to be without Daddy, as he was still called. In the last moment before sleep, our oldest son, the only child who might have outgrown the term, asked, "Let's say a prayer for Daddy?"

Tom chose wild land fire work, in part, so that he could be home most of the rest of the year. I understood this point. But it was precisely because he's the kind of dad who is usually around that we missed him so much: playing computer games with Carter, wrestling with Bennett, airplane rides for Avery. Making the peanut butter toast in the morning, the grilled cheeses at lunch. Garbage out on Tuesdays, story time every night. All the little things that you don't realize you'll miss, until they're gone.

And too, I recognize that becoming parents has required each of us to give up parts of our lives, to make adjustments. For the time Tom is away on the fire line, he is free from the daily sacrifices of parenthood. And it's one of the things from his old self that he keeps: his love of the outdoors, a love of adventure. I know what it's like to want something for yourself. Playing with words on the computer screen gives me the same feeling: This is who I was even before I became a mama. It's who I've always been.

Sometimes the days of that summer passed smoothly and quickly—the smell of sun block and catching little fish in the shallows and throwing rocks into the lake. Other times the hours hung about like the smoke in the air--stiff, stifling, making it hard to breathe. One way to manage such moments, I found, was to keep busy.

While the children slept, I soaked the chokecherries, then scooped them into the stainless steel colander in the sink to drain. Next, I put them into the big white pot I used just for jelly, then on the stovetop to simmer.

Tom was the one who convinced me I might be a good mother. My love for him showed me I could have that love again, for another: a baby. When he was gone, I felt my alone-ness completely. Without him, the weight of our lives was solidly on my shoulders: 3 children, my responsibility. What if something bad happened ? What if it happened to one of the kids?

Soon enough, I could smell burning. At first, I thought nothing of it. Whenever I imagined Tom that summer, I smelled smoke. No, it must just be the air, I reasoned; there's smoke everywhere. This is what I told myself, right up until the instant the shrill note of the smoke alarm pierced the air.

The white pot on the stove: I'd forgotten to stir it. I rushed to it, took it off the heat, but it was too late. A thick, black layer of burnt berries was stuck to the bottom.

But I couldn't bear to throw out the entire morning's work. I couldn't bear another week before Tom came home. I couldn't bear any of it. I cried a little, feeling sorry for myself and thinking I should, somehow, be able to manage things better.

I juiced the berries anyway. The liquid was clear and red and pretty: just looking at it, you wouldn't be able to tell there was anything wrong. But if you took a taste, it was there: sour and smoky. Even so, I saved the juice for winter, when I always love to cook.

The jelly is tart and sweet and makes your mouth pucker unexpectedly, "Oh!" And beneath the flavors of the sugar and the lemon zest and the hint of clove, the jelly tastes a little bitter. It's the smoke of the burnt juice reasserting itself, a reminder. Of what, I'm not yet sure.

column added on 2007-12-08 :: ::

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Jennifer Graf Groneberg

Jennifer Graf Groneberg lives and writes at the end of a twisty gravel road with her husband of fifteen years and their three sons. She maintains jennifergrafgroneberg.com, writes the blog Pinwheels, and a blog on ParentDish.

Jennifer's book Road Map to Holland about mothering her middle son Avery, a fraternal twin born with Down syndrome is due out April 2008, and is available for pre-order now.

Read more of Jennifer's Off the Beaten Path column.

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