I’ve been telling people I went home this weekend, which means I went to my grandmother’s house in Oklahoma, where I have been spending Christmases and occasional summer visits for as long as I have been alive. It was a bittersweet weekend: we got together to celebrate my dad’s birthday, but also to spend time with my grandmother, his mother, who is convalescing in a nursing home after having a fairly bad stroke. She is 91. Nursing homes are depressing places and she is fiercely loved. We are all doing our best.
But I was thinking about my mother a lot this weekend too, my mother who muscled her way into this side of my family as a stranger, but became beloved. It would have been her 69th birthday last week, a startling thought. My mother who has been dead for sixteen years and ten months; I have now been without her longer than I was with her. My mother who taught me how to can peaches.
Here is how you can peaches. You heat a big pan of water to boiling, and find a slotted spoon. You fill a bowl with ice water. You dunk the peaches in the boiling water for maybe thirty seconds, maybe a minute; then you scoop them out with the spoon and you plunge them in the ice water. You put your hands in the bowl, shock of the cold on your fingers, steam from the boiling pot fogging up your glasses. You then massage the peaches, ever so gently, and off come their skins like magic. You put them naked into another bowl and your partner in canning takes the knife to them, slippery hands making halves or slices, while you go back to dunking. You joke, you laugh. You heat up the canner, place the peaches inside clean jars, add syrup or juice or water and put them in the canner til the lids pop. You wipe your hands on a towel over and over until it is soaking wet and you get peach juice all over your arms, sneaking a perfect slice into your mouth while you wait for the water to heat back up again, wiping sweat off your forehead because this is the high summer and there are fans and flies and a sultry southern afternoon outside. It seems, at the time of canning, that there are infinite peaches: that the bushel or two bushels or three that you have in your kitchen will never end.
The peaches do end, of course, like everything else in this world, and finally everything is still, and you are hot, exhausted, satiated. And in the depths of winter you spoon up summer onto your ice cream, your oatmeal, and you taste what it means to care enough about someone else that they canned peaches for you.
I did not can peaches this weekend, but I made a cobbler for the family, and the first part is the same. Skin the peaches, slice the peaches. It is possible that I hadn’t done it for twenty years. I didn’t have to think about it. A body memory, taught to me by my mother, hung onto in the part of your cells that doesn’t regenerate; the part that holds memory close. Slip the skins, slice the sweet flesh. My mother’s mother was canning peaches the day she gave birth to my mom, or so the family stories go.
My family is tight and has grown tighter over the years, or perhaps I am just getting older. We sing when we’re together, we sing and we laugh and we have small rituals and shared stories. We feel lucky to know each other.
I will never know what my mother would make of my life. I do things she did not. I travel to places she never went, live someplace that she did not know, have the kind of office job that she rejected, have built my life around a technology that did not exist when she died. But nonetheless I learned everything important from her: about love, about families and their difficulties, about the ways that we show these feelings through food. About peaches, and their thin juice on your chin, on a summer’s evening.