mamaw’s masons

Late last week, I made it through the last box of my grandmother’s mason jars. My grandmother was many things, including a devoted steward of the garden she grew each year. Not one for wasting or wanting, my grandmother canned with commitment, preserving precious things for her household and others. Each spring, summer, and fall, my grandmother shipped home-canned goods to wherever my family happened to be living. I remember my mother’s excitement when these boxes arrived, each packed as carefully as the jars containing pickled beets and okra, stewed tomatoes, relishes, and jellies.

I inherited a glorious assortment of my grandmother’s jars several years ago. It remains my joy – and my journey – to keep becoming the kind of person that grows the kinds of things that warrant preservation. My grandmother’s jars are perfectly and differently sized to serve up our favorites. The thick-walled pint jars are the glasses we refill several times each meal. The tall, narrow jars are just right for the okra we forget to pick before it overgrows. The gallon-sized are perfect for the peaches we pickle for the holidays. I am mindful that size and shape are material to what each jar can – and cannot – hold. In my daily quest for the just enough, sufficiency shows up in a metric measured by the headspace required for things like air and water, heat and pressure. Even so, I sometimes overfill jars beyond their capacity. What does the promise of more than and too much sound like? It is a crack I can hear as the bottom falls out. If only we could hold in our hands other things we stress and strain to the point of breaking. If only we would.

This batch of jars came my way earlier this summer after my parents made a trek to rural northeast Arkansas where they cleaned out the last storage unit holding remnants of my grandparent’s lives. The boxes sat under my carport until I had time to honor the depths of so much emptiness. Some homecomings are piecemeal and this final stash from my grandmother’s kitchen has been taking up more than space alone; it has been calling for communion. Over the course of a few weeks, I carried box after box to the kitchen counter where each jar made its way into the sink. Once there, this simple liturgy felt right: pick up. handle with care. wash. rinse. repeat. As dirt and dust swirled down the drain, elements returned to their own. The heft and hope and holiness and humanity of these jars – in these jars – was and is both work and witness. Returned to their shiny clean glory, these jars are returning for me still. Together, we are putting up (with) a birthright that is both fertile ground and glass refracting.

I love these jars that line almost every shelf in our home. They remind me of things made for filling up and sharing, washing out and repurposing. Even as these jars call to mind what it means to use and re-use, to be used and used up, they aren’t the only things speaking. Now that each box is empty, I find my gaze shifting from content to container and back again. There is always more to notice, and I am mesmerized by my grandmother’s handwriting scrawled across boxes and the occasional lid that was left behind. The notes I can make out catalog a careful process that began by planting living things to harvest. If these jars are teaching process and patience, these boxes carry stories, too, including those about the many childhood meals supplemented by the work of my grandmother’s hands. One small box that once held pint-sized mason jars keeps coming for me. It’s similar to several others I have already recycled. This one, though, has the mailing label my grandmother wrote out to the Cincinnati address where my family was living the year I was born.

I don’t know what matters more: that my grandmother grew and processed and canned and shipped the vegetables that nourished my mother through her pregnancy, or that this box keeps making its way home, full of emptied jars that are living proof of what it takes to feed one another. This label that shows the distance love keeps traveling to grow a family? It is testimony to fruits of all kinds of spirits. Some inheritances beg questions. Others show up as practices of being and knowing and believing and becoming. Who am I? Someone who prays with and over and through jars that preach a gospel of the sustainable and all-sufficient.

One day, these newest companions will make their way back to the kitchen counter where they will be sterilized, packed, and submitted to all kinds of pressure. For now, they watch and wait for their season. Until then, I join them in the work of sacred accompaniment. It remains unclear who is accompanying whom, but the jars keep showing up. As do I. As does my grandmother. May we keep listening for the gifts we are born to share with one another. I pray these jars hold just enough – for you and for me.