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The Virtue of Jam

May 17, 2010

Every morning I shuffle across the road stirring the dust and pea gravel into a thundercloud to see if the blackberries are ripe.  I pinch them between my thumb and finger til the warm juice bleeds out carving a violet valley into the palm of my fat dirty hand.  I shouldn’t squeeze them so hard because they aren’t too pretty after they’ve been popped, but I just can’t help myself.  Day after day, they’re not quite ripe so I resort to twirling and blowing in the middle of my storm, lips pushed out like the fat white cloud in story books, sending caramel colored specks of dirt rising in ribbons of sunlight.  I am a mighty wind — a mighty wind with crucified purple palms and no blackberries.

No blackberries again means no blackberry jam and for me that just won’t do.  There must be jam.  There must be jam for toast and biscuits and crackers and sandwiches.  There must be jam to put in the baskets for the church shut-ins and the hard-of-hearing Purple Hearts and the criss-cross, pin-curled beauty shop ladies.  There’s a world of people out there counting on us while we twist our hems waiting on the sun and the earth to get their work done and this year they are tarrying too long.  I know patience ought to be a lady’s virtue, but it turns out that we were both born without even a spoonful.

We’ve got everything ready and stacked on the table waiting.  Rings and seals and jars and a brand new silver pot big enough to hold even me.  There’s a big basket inside that holds the jars or pulls up beans or corn that’s been blanched and needs to be thrown right in the ice bath. That pot is her pride and joy and she accidentally shows it to everybody that comes through the door.  She’s served more ice tea in that kitchen this month than in the whole time I’ve known her.  Her friends are right nosy about it, too.  They ask all the questions about where and when and they ponder how much longer it will take all that extra water to boil and how much current it’s going to eat up; don’t want that light bill getting too high.

Miss Dorothy already put up her blueberries.  I like the way she does it, too, with leftover jars, some round, some tall, and a paraffin wax seal.  She saves all kinds of hem tape and pieces of ribbon and yarn to stick in the wax so it’s easy to pull out and jam licked off the wax tastes a lot better than jam licked off metal. When she lines them up on the sideboard, her blueberry jams look like little pots of winter wildflowers, all kinds of colors and shapes peeking out through the snow, even though winter is a long way off from the smothering blueberry season. Miss Dorothy even said she got so hot while her berries were stewing that she stripped right down to her underwear in front of the stove.  She said that she was wringing wet, sweat falling off her curly black hair onto her arms like April rain, and that it took her three days to cool back down.

I really did see Miss Dorothy in her underwear one time when she was trying on one of my grandmother’s church dresses to wear to a funeral even though she’s a good foot taller.  That’s when I decided that the main difference in colored folks and white folks was which way the bellybutton poked.  Mine poked in like every other bellybutton I’d ever seen, but hers poked out.  I know it’s not true, now, because I asked Miss Dorothy about it one time while my grandmother tried to cut my tongue out with her sharp gray eyes from her rockeing chair.  Sometimes a question sticks with you so long that you just have to ask it before it chews your ear off, even if it doesn’t seem like the polite thing to do.

She just belly laughed, threw herself back against the porch steps and said, “Lawsy, little girl, I reckon you’re right. It is a good way to tell us apart, but it ain’t the real truth.  Anybody might have the Inny and anybody might have the Outy.  Don’t matter much either because we all the children of the same God.  We all the same just like berries are all berries, even though some are red or blue or black or pink. Only matters that they firm and ripe, that they got a full heart when you pick ‘em.  Pick ‘em too quick and they ain’t sweet.  Leave ‘em too long and they go to the bad.  We all just berries in the jam, little girl.  Some of us need a cup of extra sugar and some of us need to be thrown to the crows.”

So I just swirl around and spin the earth in the air with my mighty wind pretending I’ve got the grace of patience and the good sense of wise women, knowing that tomorrow me and the blackberries will have hearts overflowing.

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