With each passing season, I grow more wistful. That’s just an pretentious way to admit I miss my mom. It doesn’t take much of a catalyst; the first cool days or the start of long dark nights will do. Recently, it was the last-of-summer watermelon that made me sad. Mom loved watermelon pickles, which she called Christmas pickles: Made properly, each petite triangle is bordered by a tinge of green from the rind and a hint of red from the fruit. And if that isn’t reason enough to sing out Jingle Bells, the spices tucked into every jar are cinnamon and clove; making each bite a harbinger of Yuletide.
My mom was amazed when I showed an interest in home canning. City women, even those from Brooklyn buy their jams and jellies and although though we had German roots, our sauerkraut came in cans from the A&P. While I generously filled my mom’s fridge with dilled cucumbers, I was stingy with watermelon pickles. They’re grueling to make; peeling the tough rind, trimming the fruit, cutting, chopping and soaking are just the first steps. The process takes three days and a lot of boiling. They simply took up too much of my precious time. When she’d request them, I’d rebuff her with an eye roll and toss in, “Sure, when I win the lottery and have time on my hands, I’ll make you some.”
I’ve never won the lottery, but grew old enough to have time to spare—by then she was gone. Last June, when the fruits of summer filled my kitchen, a roly-poly emerald behemoth demanded my attention. What I didn’t give my mom in life, I could (and should) offer as an apology. Rather than use the required spice bags, I left the cloves and cinnamon sticks suspended among the icicles; producing a dreamscape in each jar. Pretty darn beautiful if I say so myself.
My friends were impressed with its appealing presentation and even more by the cool snap of crispness with a hint of sweet seasonal flavor. It was worthy of a blue ribbon and it just so happens that I live within walking distance of New York City’s oldest working farm. Queens County Farm holds it fair each fall. I know because Tricia, my beautiful and talented daughter in law enters her jams yearly and wins.
Mother-in-law tenets are both simple and strict: Keep your mouth shut and your wallet open. I try never to waiver. Any in-law foolish enough to compete with her son’s spouse can end up spending the holidays alone. I asked Tricia for her permission. My Gen-Xer daughter-in-law is less encumbered by rules—that’s why she’s a blessing. (Also, she doesn’t put up pickles or enter pickle competitions-- Isn’t she a treasure.)
That Sunday afternoon, I entered the farm’s home goods tent like a gladiator. Surely, 40 years of experience would take me right to the winners’ circle. I headed for the jars. One by one I read the blue ribbons then the red ones: None held my name. Tricia had taken first prize for her peach jam and second for her apple sauce. I texted my son the good news and wore my best smile when they arrived to take pictures.
My entry was nowhere to be seen. Loser. What other explanation could there be. I took in the fair with my children and got through dinner back at my house, but when Jim and I packed the last little one into the car, I allowed myself a sigh of defeat; loser.
Monday brought an odd phone message. “This is the Queens County Farm, would you like to pick up your ribbon or have us mail it?” What ribbon? Grudgingly, I laced up my sneakers and hit the street leading up to the farm. If I was called by mistake, at least I’d get in a healthy walk. By the time I reached the barn, I had created the probable scenario: Like Little League, the farm was bestowing a ubiquitous thanks-for-showing-up award. Soon I’d have a ribbon to prove what a loser I was. Up the barn steps, I stood silent as the lady in charge looked through a box of first place pickles for mine. “It won’t be in there.” I offered in my most helpful loser voice. “I didn’t win anything.” (Because I’m a loser). On cue, she lifted up my jar in triumph like Rafiki lifting Simba for the world to see. “Yes, you did. You took first place.”
What? I’m not a loser? I’m a winner with failing eyesight? I flew home stopping only for selfies with my blue ribbon and texts to my friends. The same me who loped along to the farm was sprinting like a gazelle on the return trip. (Because I was a winner!) I wondered what my mother would make of my vision of self that depended on others. I’d like to think she’d remind me that with or without blue ribbons, I was still me; fabulous and flawed. Labeling should only be used on jars, not people. My mother is very smart—even now.