Preserving the bounty of Vashon: Canning as therapy

My husband died three weeks ago, and I poured my grief into the stockpot.

My husband died three weeks ago, and I poured my grief into the stockpot.

It required time spent in gardens and orchards, in the soft rain of the early morning and the warmth of the late afternoon sun — digging in the rich dark soil of this earth that my husband loved so much, letting the loamy dirt cover my knees, my hands, lodge beneath my nails, streak my damp face.

I wanted to lie down and sink into the earth, to let my body dissolve into the garden, my pieces and parts providing nourishment for the soil, as he had hoped to do, had the cancer not taken him away from me, on the other side of the country.

I sat weeping amongst the tomato vines drooping with fruit, the sharp scent of their leaves lighting up an olfactory nerve that produced a moving picture show in my mind of other times spent in the garden together, of digging and planting, summer and laughter and raspberry vines and plans for the future.

I could hear him, singing on the porch with his guitar, see him coming through the forest in his old denim jacket, carrying a long-handled apple picker and a backpack loaded with fruit.

We hadn’t planted much of a garden this year — our time had been spent finishing and moving into the house we had been building, and then with doctors and treatments and surgeries, searching for the cure that would tragically, ultimately only be found in death.

So there was not much for me to harvest from my own garden, save for some tiny sweet red onions that I put in too late and pulled up too early, in the loss of awareness about timing and schedules that happens while supporting a loved one with a terminal illness.

But this is Vashon — a place unlike any other on earth — and there is a river of kindness and generosity that flows in abundance from one end of the island to the other, winding its way through forest and field, into coves and harbors, to farms and orchards, and out to Maury and the Sound.

Caring friends and neighbors, with the innate understanding that arises from being in relationship with another farmer-at-heart, showed their love and support by offering me opportunities to come to their farms and into their gardens — to be with the tomatoes and beets, their dogs and chickens and goats, flowers and herbs and onions, picking and pulling and feeding and digging.

I fed ducks and chickens and walked away with fresh eggs, played with their dogs and left with my arms full of flowers. I helped take down tomato vines and make cider and came home with bags of apples and boxes of tomatoes, with hot peppers and plums, tomatillos and grapes — and something to do.

I spent hours alone in the kitchen making simple decisions:

How many jars? How much sugar? Garlic with the tomatoes or not?

Coming up with new flavor combinations — hibiscus habanero jelly, green tomato and tomatillo salsa, boneless blackberry jam with rosemary.

I kept busy doing things I have experience with – cooking and creating and preserving food for my family and my tribe… moving my body in the familiar dance of the kitchen, letting my mind rest on the here and now of the stove and the stirring.

In between batches were more difficult decisions, ones I have no experience making nor thought I would need to make until much later in life, if ever.

The kitchen brought me back to what I know. It grounded me and allowed me to be part of the cycle of life in a familiar and productive way.

I’ve processed and canned over 25 cases of beautiful farm produce since Scott passed – single ingredient offerings when I just needed to move and not to think, more complex recipes when my mind needed something to do – jams and jellies, sauces and soups… pickles and preserves and butters and homemade bread to sop up the last bit of whatever was left in the pot, because while I can’t think of making a meal for myself, I can process enough food in my large stockpot for the end of the world as we know it.

For the end of my world as I knew it.

Everything was seasoned with love and grief, anger and frustration, gratitude, and the salt from my tears.

The stove is quiet this morning, and although I’ve welcomed the steam heat from the hot water canner on these chilly mornings,

I’m winding down now, moving into another phase of the grieving process.

I’m making “harvest packages” for the dear ones, near and far, who have sustained me during this time when the kitchen and the stockpot were not enough. It brings me small moments of joy to imagine them opening the boxes of homemade goodness, or finding a jar of jewel-colored jelly left on their desk at work. And in these times of chaos and confusion, of individual and global grief and tragedy, when “happiness” no longer seems like an overarching and attainable goal, I’ll take small moments of gratitude and joy.

Those I can create, for myself, and hopefully for others.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

In gratitude to all those who rose up to offer sustenance to me and my husband during this past extraordinary year, and to my mother, who taught me to garden, to preserve food, and how to deal with grief.

Allyson Hopkins is a licensed mind-body therapist and avid gardener who lives by the Slow Food philosophy of “Good, Clean and Fair Food for Everyone.” She lives on Maury Island.

The photo for this commentary shows Scott Durkee along with Allyson. Durkee, a frequent contributor to The Beachcomber, died Oct. 8, at the age of 65. A column from Durkee reflecting on the end of his life ran in the Sept. 21 edition of The Beachcomber.