I was partially adopted. I doubt many people realize that about me. It’s not a tragic story; upon discovering I was being given away, the father stepped in and took me to raise on his own. This was highly unusual “back in the day,” and probably accounts for a good bit of my skewed outlook on life. We were a pair for several years before he found someone to add to the mix. The woman he ended up marrying grew up in Iowa and vowed to escape at the first opportunity, so it was a compatible match: he procured a replacement mother to raise me while she, in turn, got a golden ticket out of the Midwest to explore the world. Given the situation, I didn’t have much in terms of a family tree. My father’s family was long gone, himself orphaned at an early age and raised by his sister before joining the merchant marines and the war effort. As for my mother, to this day I know nothing of the woman who was set to give me away, not even her name. The adoption, however, did bring with it a set of half-relatives and foreign family traditions.
My newly adopted grandparents were Iowa farmers and, as long as we lived in Nebraska, were the destination of weekly Sunday visits. I was only 4 or 5, but I remember very vivid images of our journeys to the farm: the cloverleaf turn on the highway that signified our arrival into Iowa and the approach to their farm; amazingly tall cornfields which blocked the view for miles as we drove on impossibly flat roads; the white farmhouse and grandpa’s old pickup truck parked by the barn; the cutting garden full of zinneas, shasta daisies, snapdragons, hollyhocks and other “grandma” flowers; the cats that roamed the farm and ate their little y-shaped cat food on the stoop outside the back screen door. I remember my grandpa, who wore suspenders and was gruff on the outside but kinda soft on the inside and sometimes gave me rides on his tractor; but for memories of love, mostly I remember my grandmother. She outlived just about everyone, no doubt due to her years of farm life and the no-nonsense way she took charge of the kitchen, her house, and her life. I remember tagging along when my grandmother would walk over to church to meet her quilting group, and I would sit and play dolls while the women worked on blocking their latest project. I think of my cousins and extended half-relations gathering in kitchens to prepare meals while the “menfolk” disappeared elsewhere to do “menfolk” things. I’m the first to admit I’ll never be a small town girl, but these memories I have from years past (dear god, can it really be decades??) are tinged with wistful longings of belonging.
My grandmother canned. I didn’t get to participate in the process, but I remember jars upon jars that were “put up” on the wooden shelves in the cellar, and would appear in the kitchen to be used to prepare the big meal of the day. When we went visiting to other houses and cousins and the women were in the kitchen, there were always jars of preserves and canned goods around, or partially used jars of pickles in the icebox. At our house in Nebraska, we froze fruits–strawberries, peaches, raspberries, cherries. We’d pick fresh fruits at local farms, and then we’d freeze them for later use. My favorites were the strawberries we used for strawberry shortcake. But we never canned. I don’t think my mother enjoyed canning, and was always anxious to put her past far, far behind her. Put simply, farms = canning. It was old fashioned, Iowa was old fashioned, and we didn’t do old-fashioned. Funny the things we remember.
Fast forward through many countries, many cities, many houses, many years, to my life now in central Pennsylvania. I don’t have many family traditions that I’ve brought through the years, preferring instead to create our own. With the addition of this year’s garden, however, canning has become a necessity if I want to use all the bounty that has exploded in the past several weeks. Thanks to friends, I’ve learned the basics of canning and the generosity of the spirit of canning itself. It seems that canning lends itself to the act of giving. We give instruction to newcomers as we teach about canning. We give jars of pickles and sauce and beets to others whom we wish to show appreciation. Experienced canners give newbies jars, seals and lids from their collection, they give recipes handed down in their own families, they even give their kitchen space and wisdom from years of experience. And when you’re ready to take that fledgling leap on your own, you feel as though you’ve entered a new realm, found a new community with which to bond, adopting a new folksonomy that slowly becomes second nature as you gain experience of your own.
I find the practice of canning curiously comforting. The feeling of satisfaction upon seeing rows of jars cooling with contents packed firmly in place, to be had for later. The relief of getting over the hurdles of a new process and fear of the unknown. This afternoon, as I finished canning on my own for the first time (w00t!), I sat down to document the steps I’d taken and recipes I’d used for this latest batch of canning, and I had an epiphany. I realized that, while I might have traveled around the world and lived in exotic and not-so-exotic locales, like Dorothy, I’ve apparently landed just this side of Iowa. Every week, I join my friends and work on our latest knitting projects. I regularly get together with friends to preserve the bounty from our backyard gardens, and my kids wander through the kitchen to see the day’s accomplishments. As I learn, I teach my own kids so they learn. Intentional or not, it seems we are bound to prove the age old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Social media has really helped put this process within easy reach of today’s busy households. Food bloggers share amazing recipes, twitterstreams are full of urls for tips and pointers, and youtube is always available for easy viewing of demonstrations and techniques. I find it ironic that, while we move faster and faster into the future, our social network reminds us that there are traditions and practices from the past of which we shouldn’t lose sight. Our culture might have substituted an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the more nuclear family, but it seems social media and technology have provided us with the tools to create our own extended family of community and support.
It’s what we do when we find something that will enrich our souls, expand our horizons, and add value to our lives.