Saturday, June 18, 2011
Life and Art
Behind the kitchen in Nathalie’s house, there was a long, dark cold room. It was shadowy with cracked wavy glass windows. It smelled of earth and faintly of decaying apples, damp plaster and old wood. It was a quiet, well-ordered room and the pale light trickled in at the windows and onto the rows of glass jars. Nathalie had decided to start the cleaning out of the house in the cold room.
“He makes me so mad,” Nathalie had said to Jason after she had talked to her uncle. “As if she is a crazy old lady. He say, ‘You know Maman. Jars of pennies and rolls of string. You need to look everywhere, Nathalie. She may have keep envelopes of cash.’ But she will not leave the treasures in an envelope. Whenever she receives her pension, she goes right away to the Caisse to deposit it, to get the most interest. The jars of pennies are Joacquin’s.” She sighed heavily. “The rolls of string and the jar of plastic bread clips, these all are because she hates the waste. I remember one time, she wrote to the head of the Lafortune bakeries asking how she can return the tags to be reuse.”
Oncle Antoine had said that the brother and sisters should see anything of value in the house. But what was of value? Jason wondered, looking around the cold room. Nathalie came and stood behind him and put her arms around him.
“Mmmm,” she said. “This is the smell of home to me. But you are cold. You need more than the tee-shirt out here.”
“How do you want to do this?” He gestured helplessly.
“I have been thinking about this,” she said. “We will divide everything into three piles: the garbage, the recycle and the dividing up. When we are done, we can invite the brother and sisters – le frère et des soeurs – and they can make the final decisions.”
“Why don’t they help you?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that be easier?”
She rolled her eyes. “First of all, Maman is still in Florida so she will oppose this plan. And Antoine he works at a bank so it is impossible. Gertrude has cows so of course it is impossible.”
“But surely, it’s their mother’s things.”
“The bank, the cow and Florida prevents them from seeing their mother before she dies. My Tante Marie, she will come if we ask and Tante Isabelle will be happy to come but Maman and Oncle Antoine say she will put the treasures in her pockets.”
“Okay. You win the crazy family award. And you win about the temperature too. I’m going to get my jacket. And make some coffee. Do you want some?”
“I already make some.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss him and the noses that met were cold.
A cardboard box sat at the front of the lower shelf. Nathalie pulled it out. It was a low open-topped box filled with rows of small brown envelopes. She put it on the counter and fingered through the envelopes.
“This is Yvette’s writing,” she said. “I will look at it later. Put it with the trésors.”
“How do you know?” He was taking another stack of cardboard fruit baskets to the recycling box, which had already become a stack next to the filled recycling box. “Did your grandmère run a fruit stand or something?”
(“Please tell me,” he would say later to his mother and to Eleanor. “Tell me you don’t keep every fruit basket you ever bought.” “Think of your little cars, Jason,” his mother said. “I barely keep anything.” He remembered coming home from university to discover that his room had been turned into a sewing room, with only his bed a reminder that he had ever lived there. She had boxed up the contents of his desk but had thrown out the box of his beloved cars. “What if I have a child someday?” he had protested in response to her explanation that he was far too old for little cars. “I’ll buy your hypothetical child his own shiny new cars,” she said. “Now get off my patterns.” The only little Matchbox car he had left was one he had kept in a box of pens - the last one to arrive in his Christmas stocking, the year before his father left. He had it in Ste. Agathe with him now. Was it better to be like his mother or Nathalie’s grandmother? Surely there was a middle ground.)
There was one row of cranberry-colored jelly in jars. It was dated only two years before. He held up a jar to Nathalie. She put a hand over his mouth and started to cry. “I know something will make me cry but not what,” she said, taking the jar from him. “This is the last confiture. She and I pick the framboises together. We do it every year, even when I am living in Halifax with Steven. I remember the day we pick these framboises. It is the week before school start and it is so cold and wet but we must go anyhow or we will have none at all.”
He looked again at the date on the jars. “I was here then, trying to decide if I would stay, wondering why anyone would stay in this foggy wet place.”
“It was the morning of the garden party,” Nathalie said, looking up. “The party where I first see you. Je souviens now – I have to rush and even though it is wet, there are so many bees and I have to go back and I make my grandmother pick fast. I pick fast because it feels like a chore, like one more thing that is necessary to do. Only –“ and the tears fell in sheets down her cheeks, “ I never for one instant think it will be the last time. I think, next year it will be better. Only next year, she is gone and I don’t even think to make the confiture. I don’t even know how for to make it.” Her voice grew louder. “I forget to learn how to make jam.”
“I know how,” he said, putting his arms around her. “Eleanor showed me last summer. I’ll teach you.”
“What if it’s different?”
“It will be,” he said. “But maybe the recipe will be in that recipe book of yours. And we can experiment till we get it right. Here, sit.” He moved a box from the counter to the floor and patted the space. She sat and he went into the kitchen. He was back a minute later, carrying a spoon.
“It feels hot in there.” He held up the spoon and raised his eyebrows. She nodded. He uncapped the jar and slid out a white waxy layer.
“Paraffin,” Nathalie said.
He scooped out a spoonful and held it before Nathalie.
“Remember,” he said and she opened her mouth and shut her eyes.
“I remember,” she said, smiling at the thought and the taste. “The first day of school almost every year. I come here after school and my grandmère is making the confiture. She do the strawberry at the end of school, the ground cherries in the middle of summer, the raspberries on the first day of school and the chilli sauce before Thanksgiving. But my favourite is the framboises – the color is so brilliant and always she allow me to put the foam on a slice of bread for my snack. Joacquin he gets to lick the pot – only she says he must use a spoon, not his fingers. One time, he sticks his whole head in the pot. I eat my pain et confiture and I tell her the news at the school and she lets me pour the paraffin on the top when I am ten years old – not before.”
“Eleanor doesn’t use paraffin,” he said. “She has a canner to boil the jars.” He handed her another spoonful. “Doctor’s orders.”
“I want to save this confiture,” she said. “I don’t think the frère et des soeurs will want it. Joacquin maybe. But I want to make a little musée and inside I can put the jars of confiture.”
“I know,” he said, screwing the lid back on. “Do you want to tackle this room another day?”
She took a deep breath. “No. Your good medicine helps me very much. Or maybe it is the sucre. We can do it – but first you need to taste the confiture yourself.” She opened the jar again and dipped her finger into it, and then into his mouth.
- from The Victory Garden by Susan Fish