I stand before an array of gurgling and spitting pots loaded with this summer’s bounty – tomatoes in one, peaches in another, and pickled cucumbers already in jars.
My mom lies stretched in her white cotton nightgown on my black leather couch across the room and studies me as if for one of her oil paintings. Only her piercing blue eyes hint at the vibrancy her entire being once embodied. Purple bruises stain her arms.
Pablo, her sixteen-year-old Bichon, is draped across her legs and snores a bass beat to the frantic bubbling of boiling sugar and macerated peaches.
We sat together in the hospital just two days ago, watching liters of blood the color of black cherries and platelets the color of cantaloupe feed into her withered arm through a tube.
Her devotion to the canvas, pigment, and palette is now utterly consumed by her need for the next transfusion. I resent the empty promise of each bag, their ruddy lives so quickly spent, only to leave my mom starving once again for a future that is not hers to have.
I lean in over one of the steaming pots, close my eyelids, and inhale the tendrils of scent.
I am fourteen years old and in Montauk. My mom and I arrive home with our baskets and bellies full of freshly picked blueberries and beach plums. She and I set about making jam. We bow our heads together over a hard-cover recipe book that belonged to my mom’s mother and try to decipher instructions through a generation of spilled berry juice. Later we will seal our jars with a layer of melted wax.
“Doing alright, Mom?” She gives me half a nod and shifts her gaze to the freshly labeled mason jars stacking up on the wooden chest not far from the couch.
I carry a tinkling tray of translucent ramekins filled with samples to the coffee table and kneel beside her.
“I need you,” I tell her.
I lift one and then another tiny spoon of cooked tomato to her mouth. “Do you think the roasted or blanched tomatoes will be better for a winter stew?” My heart pangs as I ask about the future.
My mom plays along. She tastes the rosy fruit with pale lips and a tentative tongue, then responds with a shrug.
“And what do you think of the cardamom in this peach jam?”
She opens her mouth and accepts my sweet amber offering.
“Lovely,” she musters.
I return to the stove, lift the next set of jars out of the hot water bath and place them on a waiting dishtowel. A couple of lids respond with a pop pop, testimony that the pressure has changed, and the summery contents are sealed safely within.
The next day, I hear her tell her oncologist she is ready to quit the transfusions. She tells him she heard a voice tell her You have seen so much life. It’s okay to let go now.
More than a year later, it’s snowy and cold, and I crave toast with butter and jam. I grab a jar from the shelf, break the seal, and inhale the floral peach and cardamom spice. I consume it with my nose, eyes, and mouth. Then it is gone.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Rebecca Siegel