OAKLAND -- In the early part of summer, when the apricots come to the orchards up by the Sacramento River delta, I make jam. That is a nice plain way to say it, I make jam, but of course it is a larger business than that and began to sag with the trappings of parable even before the night of the awful thing. Working woman, circa 1987, two small children, edges frayed: My dining room chairs may collapse without warning and my son may wonder loudly in public about what an iron is used for, but once a year the weather warms and I get my canning kettle and I spend all weekend chopping and stirring and singing to very loud Huey Lewis tapes, and I make jam.
I started making jam because my friend Carol came over one day with some chutney she had made. It was incandescent chutney, and in fact had already won first prize at that year's county fair, but what really bowled me over was the fact that it came in little jars, and Carol had put it there. Someone I knew, another newspaper writer, a woman whose chairs had not in fact collapsed but looked as though they might someday -- such a person was actually "putting up," as the more relentlessly domestic of the cookbooks described it.
I set the chutney jars on the shelf, and they gleamed. When sun hit the kitchen a kind of rich rose light filled the jars and you could see the curve of things inside, small pepper strips and chunks of peach. I began to covet these jars. I wanted rows of them. I wanted to look up when it was raining, one of those dead chilled February days, and see entire shelves filled end to end with fruit the color of stained glass, and I wanted also to know that I had put it there.
Groping, I suppose it was. We're trying to feel our way around here, make small decisions in the modern age. You hold your breath and leap into the grand ones -- I will quit the job, I will place the baby in day care, I will petition for part-time status and thus remove myself from consideration for promotion -- and then from the side come these sneak attacks full of loaded little messages about women and men.
Laundry features heavily in all of this, and flower gardens, and drapery colors. Word is passed, grimly, about the public defender and mother of two whose entire freezer is stacked with labeled plastic canisters containing nutritionally balanced home-cooked meals. One year I baked whole-wheat bread every few weeks, which of course is the female equivalent of setting out after supper to dig eight-foot trenches across the back forty. I keep reading about people who have transcended this sort of thing without actually cross-dressing, but I haven't met any yet, and anyhow I like homemade jam.
You can put a ribbon on it and give it to your great-aunt for Christmas.
So I learned how to can. There wasn't a lot to it, especially if you stayed away from things like corned beef, which requires vigilance so as not to develop botulism and kill you. The first year I used a cooking pot, and the second year I went out and bought a black canning kettle with metal dividers to keep the jars apart while the water boiled around them. There were tongs involved and special funnels and Mason jars with flowers on the lids. One of my son's storybooks ends with a lyric picture of the mommy canning blueberries with her daughter; sometimes I felt like that, and sometimes I felt like a mad inventor waving hot tongs over the steam.
I was very happy. I made chutneys out of mangoes, and preserves out of apricots, and one month I got carried away and canned a lot of orange-tomato barbecue sauce. We began driving to the orchards in the summer, because the taste of the tree apricots was enough to make us weep, and we could spend most of a day scrambling up giant ladders in the heat and then driving home with dirt all over our clothes and great open boxes of apricots weighing down the back end of the car.
Thus it was that I pulled into our driveway two weeks ago in a van containing two adults, three children, seven sandy beach towels, six peanut butter sandwich crusts, eight empty Sprite cans and 185 pounds of apricots. Nobody was exactly sure how the apricots had come to weigh twice as much as all the children put together; the sky was blue and the trees were heavy with fruit and somehow we just kept climbing up those ladders and then climbing down when the apricots began to spill over the bucket edges.
It is probably worth noting that my husband, whose own sensible early-warning system might have saved us, had missed this apricot run. What we had instead was two women of the present era, each fixing one eye on the children and the other on the apricots that we were going to chop and cook and can and label before we were due at work Monday morning.
"I don't know," my friend said, looking dubious. We were standing at the apricot scale. The woman behind the scale kept merrily adding up figures in little columns, and when she was done we heaved the 185 pounds of apricots into the van and went home to divide it into 92.5 pounds each, which is still, I have to tell you, a very very large amount of apricots.
At 8 the next morning, the fruit and I were in full battle. Apricot boxes commanded crucial positions across the kitchen linoleum, which was already beginning to smack ominously underfoot, since my 15-month-old daughter had begun removing apricots one by one and then investigating how thoroughly they would squish after she had taken the first bite.
They squished pretty well, as it turned out, but I was unrattled. I sliced. I measured. Small piles of pits began to mount here and there, like spent shells. I have one principal preserves recipe, settled on after several seasons' experimentation; the recipe is printed in a cookbook that says in large alarming print, "DO NOT TRY TO DOUBLE BATCHES," and although it never says what will happen if you do, I had always figured it must be something fierce, involving genetic damage or the county fire department, so I didn't.
Instead I pulled out every pot we own, including the bent aluminum one that cost $3.99 and usually holds the sandbox toys, and I stood there stirring and sweating and timing boiling apricots until the entire kitchen had begun to look like a research facility at MIT. There were rows and rows of cooling apricots, all of them laid out in foil trays that ran the length of the kitchen counters, and I took it all in and wondered whether someone ought to come and photograph me, in the fashion of a sport fisherman posed beside his marlin.
I had to buy more Mason jars, but the momentum was unstoppable. Out came the canning kettle, the tongs, the sterilized lids. Children wandered in and were hustled away. Night was falling, my husband had settled into something swell on the television; I didn't care. I was canning. I was "putting up." Jar after jar slid into the kettle and came out again, each one shining in a kind of soft topaz, and as the line of bright small pots grew longer I could hardly wait to put them on the shelves, the very visible shelves, the shelves that were fixed to the wall to hold cookbooks and the kind of vases you only own because people gave them to you at your wedding so you would stop putting the daisies into apple juice bottles. One shelf on the top was narrower than the others, and I had put it there to hold the jam jars, so that was what I did now, insufferable with delight.
The jars were not even dry yet, but I wanted them up. I wanted it done.
There was so much jam that the shelf could hardly hold it all. I made a double row and stacked the jars, one on top of the other.
Then I stood back, and looked at the top shelf jam, and did a little dance.
Then I turned my back.
And then the shelves fell.
All of them. All the shelves. I once had to cover the eruption of Mount St. Helens, but this noise was worse; this was the noise of wooden shelves and ceramic salad bowls and 500-page cookbooks and the tortilla press and the porcelain jug and the vase with radishes painted on the sides, all crashing to the floor under the great and terrible weight of four dozen jars of homemade apricot preserves.
It was an amazing noise.
It went on for a very long time.
When the noise stopped, I looked at the kitchen floor. My husband, who had covered the entire distance from the living room sofa to the kitchen in one leap, looked at the kitchen floor and then looked at me. My 5-year-old son was looking at me too, since he had never before seen a grownup crying and kicking the walls, and my husband instantly steered both of us into the dining room. "I'll take care of it," he said.
After a time I came back to help, but I saw the broken radish vase and started to cry again. My husband had assumed the manner of a paramedic and suggested politely that I go somewhere else; late that night, after he had carted out the shards and mopped the floor with lemon-scented ammonia, he told me some of the jam jars were still intact.
"If you hadn't been here," I said, "I would have taken the children and checked into a hotel."
"I know," he said. I looked out the window for a while, thinking about the fragility of some arrangements and the ferocious strength of others, and we slept.