Our children grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Even my husband and I sometimes sneak one in late at night with a glass of milk. I believe that the Earl of Sandwich himself would agree with me that the success of this universally loved concoction lies not in the brand of peanut butter used, but rather in the jelly. The right jelly delights the palate, and homemade is the only choice.
I wasn’t the jelly maker in this family. My mother-in-law was. She didn’t provide a wide range of flavors, either. It was either grape or blackberry. This limited choice was a welcome relief in the days of toddlers, siblings and puppies. When all around me other decisions and choices had to be made, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was easy. And since we liked both flavors, we usually picked whatever jar was at the front of the pantry or refrigerator.
The only contribution I made to the jelly making was to save baby food jars, which my mother-in-law would fill with the tasty gel, seal with wax and send back home with us. For the past 22 years of my married life, whenever I wanted to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for myself or my husband or one of the children, all I had to do was reach for one of those little jars of jelly. It was always there. Jelly making was just a way of life for my mother-in-law. She always did it, following the same rituals - from picking the fruit to setting the finished jelly on the homemade shelves in her little pantry off the kitchen.
My father-in-law died several years ago and this past December, my mother-in-law also passed away. Among the things in the house to be divided by her children were the remaining canned goods in the pantry. Each of her children chose from the many jars of tomato juice, green beans and jelly. When my husband brought his jars home, we carefully put them away in our pantry.
The other day I reached in there to retrieve jelly for a quick sandwich, and there it was. Sitting all alone on the far side of the shelf was a small jar of grape jelly. The lid was somewhat rusty in places. Written on it with a black marker was “GR” for grape and the year the jelly had been made.
As I picked up the jar, I suddenly realized something that I had failed to see earlier. I reopened the pantry door to be sure. Yes, this was it, this was the last jar of “Memommie jelly.” We would always have store-bought jelly, but this was the last jar we would ever have from the patient, loving hands of my mother-in-law. Although she had been gone for nearly a year, so much of her had remained with us. We hardly ever opened a jar of jelly at the breakfast table without kidding about those thousands of little jars she had filled. Our children had never known a day without their grandmother’s jelly. It seems like such a small thing, and most days it was something that was taken for granted. But today it seemed a great treasure.
Holding that last jar in my hand, my heart traveled back to meeting my mother-in-law for the first time. I could see her crying on our wedding day, and later, kissing and loving our children as if she didn’t have five other grandchildren. I could see her walking the fields of the farm, patiently waiting while others tended to the cows. I could see her walking in the woods or riding the hay wagon behind the tractor. I saw her face as it looked when we surprised her by meeting her at church. I saw her caring for a sick spouse and surrounded by loving children at the funeral.
I put the jelly back on the shelf. No longer was it just a jar of jelly. It was the end of a family tradition. I guess I believed that as long as it was there, a part of my mother-in-law would always live on.
We have many things that once belonged to my husband’s parents. There are tools, handmade sweaters and throws, and some furniture. We have hundreds of pictures and many more memories. These are the kinds of things that you expect to survive the years and to pass on to your children. But I’m just not ready to give up this last jelly jar, and all the memories its mere presence allows me to hold onto. The jar of jelly won’t keep that long. It will either have to be eaten or thrown out... but not today.
J. Canfield, M.V. Hansen, J. R. Hawthorne, M. Shimoff
Health Communications, Inc., 1996