Once again the yellow primrose is blooming madly in a small corner of the garden that I can see from my back window. It never disappoints, not since it was given to me in 1960 by my new next door neighbor when we moved to Oneonta. My friend, Nan Moorby, no longer lives in Oneonta. We lost touch a few years ago, but the primrose goes on, blooming right through June every year, always modestly reminding me of its beginnings in my possession. Plants are like that, providing a link in the chain of our life experience. The primrose was there one May when I brought Betsy home from he hospital; It was blooming when David graduated from high school, when Mother broke her hip, when she died and then Harry, past all the marriages and divorces, babies, and honors. Always this connection with friendship which holds together the substance of my life.
Some plants hold these memories longer than others. I think, though I’m not exactly sure for instance when somebody might have planted the currant bush that sits on the path of the second terrace, but I believe, and belief is often a satisfactory substitute for reality, that the bush was panted in the 1949 by the wife of a former music teacher here at the college. I don’t remember her name, but it is a peasant reminder f daily life before technology took over the task of household management. I can’t remember the woman’s name. She and her husband built this small house themselves after the war, and they took special care of the music room, a small room but elegantly paneled in a dark wood. I mention the elegance only to suggest the importance music held in the household, (He was head of the music department, played the piano) while the tiny kitchen was impossible to work in. Often they had friends in for an evening when the professor played the piano and guests sang. During the course of the evening I am sure one of the treats would be cookies filled with Mrs. (who?) currant jelly.
(In those days there could be plenty of hard-drinking, but the end of the evening was always signaled by coffee and dessert)
Mrs Who? got plenty of credit for these treats of hers that got their start in her garden, but at that time it was only the piano playing that achieved the real status among the guests who counted–the men. My own husband was often annoyed by the mess in the kitchen when I made jelly and jam but the preservation of these fresh local foods was simply a matter of Doesn’t Everybody? Jelly was the easiest. The cook simply put a lot of fruit in a pot with a little bit of water to get the cooking started. When the color of the fruit had been bled out of it was time to strain. Strained fruit went into the mulch pile and juice was strained in a jelly bag to eliminate all fiber. The trick was in the following guidance: Put 1/4 cup of alcohol (in my case Harry’s bourbon which I stole) in a cup and add one to two tsps of fruit juice. Stir. If there is sufficient pectin in the juice, it will need a certain amount of sugar to be determined by the lumping of clear pectin in the juice. It all depends–a hundred tiny lumps? one big lump? Correctly done you ned never add any pectin. Otherwise you will have to cut up an apple and reboil. With each new task the process becomes more mysterious. The fruit juice must come to a boil, boil up to the top of the pan, boil down and suddenly without any warning, must when tested in a spoon, turn onto slippery spoon full that slips whole back into the pot. Pour immediately into the jelly glasses. Do not delay!
It is this sort of job that involves women in things of the spirit, and it is this sort of thing I think about whenever I carefully work my way past the stickery currant bush along the path. A few years ago I gave a cutting of Mother’s Elephant Ear to my friend Bette. My mother brought it with her to my house in her old age. It has a different set of memories than other plants and at Bette’s house it will have a whole new set of memories attached. I got notice this morning that Bette’s husband Dave is facing his losing battle with cancer. I hope Bette still has the plant.