Making jam in June: It is a metaphor for living life

June, with graduations and weddings and the garden’s demand for attention, is the calendar’s metaphor for a homemade jar of jam. You take the barely ripe fruits of your labors, give them a grand push of formality, endure the heat of an impossible schedule and an expensive, dizzying list of to-do’s and cross your fingers the finished product achieves a “successful set.”

  • Friday, June 20, 2008 6:31pm
  • Opinion

June, with graduations and weddings and the garden’s demand for attention, is the calendar’s metaphor for a homemade jar of jam. You take the barely ripe fruits of your labors, give them a grand push of formality, endure the heat of an impossible schedule and an expensive, dizzying list of to-do’s and cross your fingers the finished product achieves a “successful set.”

June is also the month when actual jam making begins in earnest. My rhubarb is six feet high and begging to become rhubarb preserves (as well as pies and crisps). The gooseberries are fat, and by the end of the month it will be their turn to grace the bubbling pot. Strawberries (from sunnier climes, not here) will start arriving in shameless flats, offering another way to capture magic in a jar. Jam season is upon us, a season of commencements and commitments in its own right. I love jam and all its beautiful possibilities.

The jam and jelly directions inside the MCP Pectin box, in big capital letters under “important tips for success,” state: ALTERING RECIPES or INGREDIENTS COULD CAUSE A SET FAILURE. My mom, who has produced more than 15,000 jars of preserves over the last 60 years, follows the directions and resolutely admonishes me to NEVER DOUBLE THE RECIPE. I know these jam-making people are experienced, and their “tips” and “rules” have stood the test of time and kitchen. But the rebel in me bristles at those rules.

I admit it’s an uneasy rebellion, pulled between impatience with old-fashioned authority and memories of occasionally bitter consequences for breaking the rules. Two hours is a big commitment to something as risky as a doubled jam recipe or an ill-advised consortium of ingredients. Unless you can get away with giving your friends countless jars of “ice cream topping” (my mom’s euphemism for a jam failure) or you’re a trust fund baby with no fear of the cost of sugar, you want your jam-making efforts to produce, in the end, successfully set jam.

And yet … where is that magic line between the rules that matter and the rules that are just begging to be broken — or at least bent to the point of giving way to better ways of life? I look at that “don’t double the recipe” rule and ask, “Who has time in this busy world to make two batches?”

I can’t imagine the Smuckers Co. has 1,600 little jam-making stations at its factory, cranking out single six-pint recipes one at a time. What’s their secret? If not some unsavory additive, it has to be clever multiplication. And how about a little sage in that blackberry jam? Just because Mrs. M.C.P. didn’t have an imagination or an herb garden doesn’t mean it wouldn’t elevate your jam from dutiful obligation to preserves fit for the queen if you tossed in a handful of fresh chopped sage or a bag of walnuts or a quarter cup of toasted sesame seeds. After all, Fortnum and Mason — the royal jam-makers themselves — know the reward for throwing rose petals into the jam: Jam Knighthood.

The intersection of rules and new generations is the place where jam becomes metaphor for the traditions of June.

As we watch our children march down aisles of one event or another, becoming citizens of a complicated world or partners within a complicated arrangement, a much trickier culture of governance congeals around those new phases of their lives. They’re “old enough” to leap into the bubbling pots of the professional world, of choosing a life partner, of baby-making, of drinking in bars, of holding a gun in service of their country. The message that they’re “ripe” gives the kids license to embrace these adult pursuits.

The best part, to their minds, is that their parents are no longer in the daily picture nagging them with the rules of childhood — pick up your clothes, clean your room, come home by midnight, don’t say the “F” word. But the price of their admission to the adult arcade is the larger world’s rules, rules that can have unforgiving consequences. This is the part too many people end up learning the hard way.

My son has bristled against rules his whole life. His critical thinking will serve him well one day, but in recent years the bitter consequence of his declarations of independence from his parents and the big world’s rules has been working lots of overtime, paying for big fat speeding tickets (because one of our rules has always been that we would never underwrite such luxuries for our kids). He maintains he should have the right to drive his car as fast as he likes, as long as it’s only his life at risk, since he’s now a contributing member of society, and that speed limits are bogus meddling by the ridiculous establishment.

I view that thinking as Garth’s way of doubling a very dangerous jam recipe. Most of the time he gets away with it; occasionally he gets caught, and then he’s kicking himself because he has invested his time and money in a whole lot of worthless ice cream topping. I see those fines as a blessing and pray my son will mature into embracing more safely enjoyable ways to arrive at his desired destination, at no cost beyond the price of the conveyance.

In the meantime, I’m torn between constant worrying and admiration for his larger impatience with the status quo, which makes me feel complicit in his scofflaw thinking. I know that if he survives his own penchant for bending the rules of the road, he will one day be someone who makes positive changes in the world.

Our daughter Mackenzie is in the middle of preparations for her summer wedding, and as I seal one invitation after another, I think about the rules she’s about to encounter as a married woman.

The stated rules of commitment when my mom got married were, among others, “love, honor and obey.” My generation bristled at that last part, and by the time we marched down an aisle (or stood before a judge), my sisters and I were signing on to rules like, “love, honor and demand mutual respect and parity for domestic services about to be rendered.” To us now, the best marriage rules are the ones our parents honed over 60 years, which boil down to simple mutual respect and flat out crazy boutcha’ affection for one another.

I don’t know what Mac’s marriage rules will be, though given her capably independent nature and long history of riding horses, I imagine she’s prepared for a reasonable process of give and take and looks forward to promising her beloved that she will love him and stand by his side through thick and thin.

Whatever formal shape those rules take, she’ll still probably find them tricky, because wedding rules are like poetry written with a thin little stick in the sand on a romantic sunny day. You can see the words clearly when they’re first inscribed, and their warmth and dimensional beauty blaze into a heart that is already full to bursting with joyful intent. But with each new wave of life and each new storm and each new set of tromping feet, the crisp profile of those words eventually fades.

If you don’t transcribe the joyful intent of those rules again and again, in new places throughout the marriage — on a napkin the day your spouse takes you to dinner and tells you he’s lost his job; on the wet cement the day you pour the foundation on the big remodel; on the back of the birth certificate the day your first (and second and third) child is born; on the inside of the class reunion program, where you’ve seen your old boyfriend for the first time in 20 years and he’s rich and single and handsome and your groom is as familiar as a ratty old bathrobe — those wedding day rules can get murky, and the once “successful set” can melt into a runny mess.

The traditional events of June take our kids into the parts of adulthood few ever anticipate. Figuring out which rules are the ones that can be bent and which ones preserve a rich, fulfilling existence is the first sign of a successful set on this jam we call life. A runny pot of strawberry preserves — that’s a disappointment, an ice cream topping. But a cavalier approach to the rules of living in the adult world — the rules of the road, the rules of a committed relationship — brings with it collateral consequences that far eclipse disappointment.

A mangled car with a deceased 20-something trapped in the driver’s seat; a house full of broken-hearted children whose parents only half-heartedly invested themselves in the hot, sticky business of making a lifelong commitment — those are not ice cream toppings. Those are a tragic waste of beautiful possibilities.

I will make many batches of jam this summer. I’ll probably double the recipe a few times and dream up ways to mess with the ingredients. I’ll think about our children, jumping headfirst into the bubbling cauldron of adult life. With every stir of the spoon, I’ll hope for a successful set — for us all.

Rebecca Wittman is an Island writer, who makes jam and award-winning pies.


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