So this week has been the week that everything seemed to get ready at the same time.
First, there were those wonderful Delaware limas that needed picking. I picked a five gallon bucket to overflowing and brought them in on Tuesday morning. Our Girl Nettie started in on shelling them as soon as she got home from center, and finished them before she went to bed. I got them blanched and packaged. Four wonderful bags in the freezer. So, so happy.
On the days preceding this, Certain Man was mentioning the fact that the tomatoes really needed picking and that someone should do something with them. So Middle Daughter picked them all and brought them in. There were some peppers and some onions, too, so they all went into a pot along with some celery and fresh basil and stewed for an afternoon. The tomatoes from our garden this year are so good. The 14 pints of tomato soup that I canned will be good eating this winter and it looks nice on the shelf of our “dungeon.”
And then there was the mention, also, about the grapes on the arbor that divides our side yard. I would stop and check them now and then, but realized that if we wanted to maximize our yield, we needed to move on it. So Wednesday morning, Carson and Nevin came with their strong arms, sharp eyes and youthful energy and harvested our concord grapes. Youngest Daughter supervised the operation and they finished in good time. Whew! Was I ever unprepared for how many grapes we were going to have!
I looked at their harvest and worried about my stamina and my ability to ever get this done. There were two 5-gallon buckets and nine 10-quart buckets, plus a 6-quart ice cream pail. I looked at those beautiful grapes and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. I have two wonderful steamers that produce concentrated grape juice for canning, but the thing is, I don’t like to steam the stems with the grapes. There are various arguments as to whether or not it is necessary to strip the grapes, and my instruction book even says that it is unnecessary. Well, I am here to tell you that if you really can’t tell the difference, you probably have a mouth that can’t tell the difference between canned tuna and fresh crab. Or fresh squeezed orange juice and Tang. Or a chocolate bar from Dollar General and Ghirardelli’s own. The flavor is definitely different, and I’m always disappointed in the color/cloudiness when I don’t take the extra time to strip the fruit from the stem.
But that meant that every single grape had to be manually pulled from the stem. And these grapes were picked in August, in Delaware, from a mostly undisturbed arbor. There were crawly beasties in unexpected places. Click bugs. Stink bugs. Centipede-looking little bugs with pinchers at both ends. SPIDERS. And though I knew that help from the daughters of Certain Man would be given if I asked, I also knew the magnitude of their other responsibilities and also the drama that would accompany such an endeavor.
“Probably,” I reasoned with myself, “I would be better off seeking help from the same stalwart young bloods who assisted with the picking of the grapes. I think they would be amicable company, unafraid of the beasties and able helpers.” So I texted their Mama and asked about the possibility. She was glad to glad to have them assist, and they seemed willing, and so it was set. I stripped twenty pounds off the first night and did two steam kettle loads. That took ten pounds and left ten more pounds for the next morning. I wanted to be ready!
My steamers take about five pounds per load and after an hour or so of steaming, produces about two and a half quarts, more or less, of the highly concentrated purple liquid. It is the purest, finest concentrate with no additives, no sprays. And even though it is hard work, it surely is worth it. However, I found that one person, working alone with the responsibility of filling the jars, keeping them and the lids hot until filling, dumping the pulp after the steaming, refilling the steamer, checking the water levels in the steamers, etc., just couldn’t keep up with the stripping process as well. I went to bed very thankful for the promise of helping hands in the morning.
Thursday morning dawned bright and clear. My helpers arrived, eager and willing and we set to it. The steamers ran non-stop. The bugs were abundant, and Carson and Nevin were delighted with the supply. They kept a cup of hot water by their chairs and plopped the hapless victims into the stew whenever they discovered one — which seemed like it was every two minutes. The grapes came off the stems and were put into the collection containers with unmitigated enthusiasm. I remembered that these boys were sports enthusiasts, and this particular job lent itself well to exercising their basketball skills. The targets were usually right on, but sometimes missed, and the kitchen floor became hazardous to traverse. Conversation was interesting, but when Middle Daughter came for a bit to lend them a hand, tell stories and discuss important issues, I realized that this 61 year old Auntie doesn’t really have the energy and enthusiasm that sustains young men in arduous jobs. Deborah certainly was timely in her help, and much was accomplished by noontime. We were well ahead of the steamers, and the grape-stripping process was to the half-way point.
Then Youngest Daughter took a break from studying for her GRE exam, and took the boys for lunch. They brought their Chick-Fil-A bags home and took a much deserved “eat and refuel for the fray” break. When their hour was over, they went back to work. The afternoon moved right along, and along about 3:30, they pulled the last grape from their designated buckets and their Mama came and fetched them home again.
A large cup with a vast array of dead bugs sat on the table and made me smile. The difference between these boys and my girls continually amuses me. Where there had been chasing after bugs and exclaiming over sizes and determining the pedigrees of the spiders, ALL. DAY. LONG., there would have been great protests, probably shrieks, maybe even tears, and definitely shudders, over the wild life populating the picked grapes. After the boys left, Youngest Daughter pulled up a chair to help finish the remaining small bucket of grapes and bravely stuck to it until the last grape was ready for the steamer. Her Daddy got home from work just before we finished that task and looked with interest upon the scene.
I smiled at him over the bent head of Youngest Daughter. “Sweetheart, what you are seeing here is sacrificial love in its purest form,” I told him. He looked at me with that look of bemusement that I love so much.
“What do you mean?” he asked, fully knowing, but wanting to see her reaction.
“She’s right,” said Youngest Daughter, grimly. “That’s the only reason I would ever do this! I really cannot stand these bugs! They’re hateful!”
He teased her a bit, but we knew she was trying hard to be brave. A most unfortunate situation in Thailand where she awoke to find tiny spiders, just hatched, crawling all over her, has left her with a severe case of panic when it comes to the bugs and spiders of any time and any place. But she did persevere to the end and helped a bit around the kitchen before returning to her books. Deborah had gone to work at this juncture, and Daniel went to chore. I quickly made supper and kept the steamer going. It was close to midnight when Youngest Daughter took the last buckets of pulp and stems to the composter and I finished washing the last bucket, steamer pan and accessory, wiped out the sink and surveyed the final yield. About 45 quarts of juice sat on the cupboard, all sealed. How beautiful it was!
How staggeringly tired I was!!!
The next morning, the same helping hands — Carson, Nevin and Youngest Daughter, took off the rings, wiped the jars down and carried them to the basement. When I got home from getting a tire repaired on the mini-van, the cupboard was clear, wiped off and there was no trace of the arduous work of the previous day. I was still aching from the marathon of the day before, but I had to see these jars on the shelf. So I betook myself to the dungeon and surveyed the work of the morning.
Oh, those wonderful Helping Hands — Of Middle Daughter, Youngest Daughter, Carson and Nevin. I was very satisfied with this result, quite delighted with what had been accomplished, but quite depleted in every way when that day was over. It was very apparent that I would never have made it by myself. No matter how good my intentions, how solid my martyrdom, how determined my self-sufficient heart. I thought again about families, about the extra people that have come into my life that have none of my genes and chromosomes (as in Carson and Nevin) and those that do (As in Beebs and Rach — who, incidentally, are Middle Daughter and Youngest Daughter, respectively).
. . . and my humble heart gives grateful praise.