Down East 2013 ©
By Shonna Milliken Humphrey
There is a black-and-white photo of my grandmother taken in the mid-1940s. In what I imagine to be an Aroostook County carnival souvenir, she is perched on a crescent wooden moon against a backdrop of paper stars. Her dress hitches slightly at her knees, and her dark lipstick highlights a provocative grin. Not long after the photo was taken, my grandmother would birth the first of nine children.
She raised most of her nine kids as a single mom, a hospital cafeteria worker in the strict and unforgiving confines of Houlton — my tiny, northern Maine hometown. “She did the best she could” is what my mother, Betty, says when I ask, unwilling to discuss details.
My mother, in stoic rural family tradition, would never admit that she misses her. Betty would not say those words, but during my visit to Houlton soon after my grandmother’s death, she asked if I had ever tasted crab apple pickles. I said no, and Betty led me into her basement.
The bare light bulb threw shadows on the wooden shelves, but I saw row upon row of Bell jars. The jars, all sizes, were a rainbow of mustard, beet, bread and butter, cold packed, dill, relish, and garlic pickles. The shelves represented spring and summer evenings of planting, weeding, and harvesting, and then many more Saturdays of standing in the kitchen, washing, slicing, boiling, and packing. Each metal sealing cap was dated in black marker.
My mother pulled a pint jar from the middle shelf.
Crab apples are tiny apples, an inch or two in diameter and usually too bitter or sour to eat straight. Some people make pies from crab apples, but it is a disproportionate amount of work to peel the tiny fruit. They grow on thick patches of trees, and as a child, I hoarded wormy piles to chuck. I ran into my grandmother’s house, desperate for a hiding place after pelting unsuspecting uncles and cousins.
During these moments of chase, my grandmother drank her daily sombrero — Allen’s coffee brandy and milk over ice. She sent me to the corner liquor store to buy a fifth and a carton of Salem Ultra Lights as soon as I was old enough to count change. When I returned from the store, I stayed quiet on the couch while she watched her afternoon soap operas. When she spoke, I learned phrases like “king shit of turd island” and my favorite, “honky-tonk whore.” In a town of plain women, she sparkled.
I miss her.
I can say those words, and I wanted to say them to my mother as I followed her back up the basement stairs, being careful not to trip on the large canning pot and tongs.
In the kitchen Betty pried open the seal with a spoon, and the air released a pop. The jar was filled with pinkish red liquid and packed tight with the miniature apples, peels, and stems intact. The smell of cloves came out first, and then the vinegar. Betty held the jar toward me, and I plucked a stem. It tasted sweet, but also unexpectedly sour. Apple-y, but pickle-y. I ate two or three little bites and then licked the core.
When I finished, Betty said, “Mum used to make these when I was little.”
I nodded, observing how nice it was that my grandmother used to make special pickles for her, but Betty quickly corrected me. “No, she never made them for me. I just remember her making them.”
I let the meaning of her clarification settle in, as my mother — one of those nine siblings being raised by a single mom on a cafeteria worker’s salary — looked in the direction of that black-and-white carnival photo. She looked in the photo’s direction, and it was a little moment, this moment in the kitchen with the jar of crab apple pickles between us and my grandmother’s recent death so heavy on both our minds.
In any other kitchen, it might have been heartbreaking. But there’s no room to be heartbroken in the physical space of a northern Maine kitchen. My mother, happy that I liked the pickles, filled a paper sack with jars.
“These are for you,” she said, and I felt the impact of her words.
She could not say she missed her, but she could offer her own daughter a dozen jars. She could pack those crab apple pickles and say they were, specifically, for me.