I anticipated the first hard frost here like an innocent youngster anticipates a chance meeting with their first crush, not really knowing the depths of what it meant or what it would bring. I was simply excited. I thought it would mean that Winter actually was on her way instead of just threatening to be, that our town would quiet down and the berries would sweeten up and off I could go to harvest them, a small feat which I’ve always turned into something larger and one which I’ve always set myself up to fail at.
You see, one of my own little personal Julia recipes calls for:
a bit of a procrastination
with a dash of self-doubt
mixed with a large serving of an uncanny expectation to do things right the first time.
(There are many more uplifting recipes, of course, but I might as well be honest about the collection).
This here concoction has set me up for failure more times than I can count but it has also done something worse: it has set me up to do nothing at all.
And so, this year I promised it would be different. I watched the weather and waited and when the first hard frost hit, I promised that out I would go to reap the benefits of the fruit sweetened overnight by the harsh conditions. Harvest and enjoy instead of again missing them. But like a first crush, I didn’t think about what else the first hard frost would bring. I was just excited.
And then I awoke, to the first hard frost. We’d had a frost a couple of weeks before and the buzz over thermometer temperatures had spun through town.
“I had 25 when I woke up this morning.”
“25! I had 29. Wow.”
Fall is coming.
And then she did. She blew right into the valley, down the 60 miles of dirt road and into our backyard (and presumably into many of back and front and side to side yards of others). And I awoke and immediately realized the fault in my young crush desires.
Because the first hard frost meant something I didn’t anticipate:
While the berries may have sweetened, most of my plants, the plants I had grown for months, some from seeds started in April, were now dead.
Before and after.
The plants that I have spent more time than ever before loving and trimming and thanking as I picked them and placed them about the house or into our food. The flowers that have brought me such joy when I return home to their shiny faces.
The plants that I have too slowly been harvesting because although I was anticipating her arrival, I hadn’t hurried enough for Fall’s approach or realized the (now obvious) tenacity with which she would arrive. It was a juxtaposition of wills and wishes that ended in an equation I didn’t quite add up.
Some plants survived and I immediately made a mental checklist of all of the preserving that I needed to do. Preservation? Canning? This, like berry picking and processing, is a major mental block of mine. My girlfriend had visited from California and the one thing she wanted to do in Alaska? Teach me to make fermented foods. I couldn’t bring myself to do it consistently on my own and so, we whipped up an entire batch, 12 quarts of beautiful sauerkraut adorned even with local juniper berries we’d harvested on a hike. It was glorious. And then, as fate would have it, The Chief and I promptly left in a state of emergency with Cinda and returned a week later without her to a house full of spoiled kraut. My first endeavor.
So yes, I have a bit of a block about it.
But this was the year to change that and now, it is time to get a move on. Perhaps this is where the procrastination part of my recipe, paired with a serious deadline from nature will come into play and our shelves will be lined with krauts and kimchi and pickles to boot from cucumbers and cabbages and berries harvested.
I tried to revive the plants that didn’t survive the night but their shriveled leaves and broken cells were far past repair. I tidied them as best I could and then went to chop some wood to try to overcome the persistent cold that had settled into the house with the frost. I returned inside to see The Chief making pancakes.
Pancakes, people. Pancakes.
In case you don’t know, Pancake is my middle name (well, second middle name: Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page) and the last few months have been utterly devoid of the fluffy fantasy that is eating pancakes.
And so, one would think I would be overjoyed, for the only thing better than eating pancakes is eating pancakes you didn’t have to make yourself.
But instead of the elation that follows the presentation of a present as perfect as pancakes made by the man you love just for you, what followed were tears.
Big rolling alligator tears, slip-sliding down my cheeks and chin and down onto my robe (it was Sunday afterall) that soon slipped and slid down onto The Chief’s robe as he held me in our kitchen, pancakes pancake-ing in the cast iron next to us.
I had spent the morning in and out of sleep, waking to my worst memories of Cinda, of the moments when she was in so much pain that the only words that describe the sound she would make is a bone-chilling scream. I was preyed upon by the memories of the hope we had repeatedly being crushed by the weight of obscenely unlucky circumstance. I was paralyzed remembering watching her try to walk and not be able to, trying to move and howling in agony. It haunts me though I try to shove it away. And so I had tried to shove it away this morning, the morning of my highly anticipated first frost, but when I walked outside and saw all of the beauty of my favorite distractions gone, I lost all ability to shove the haunting away.
The plants and flowers I grew had two purposes:
One: Joy. They made me happy. They greeted me as Cinda would have when I came home and made coming home to The Quiet a little easier.
Two: Food. They provided sustenance and flair to our kitchen. Fresh food that we didn’t have to buy. Fresh food I could be proud of.
But when Cinda died, they served another purpose.
Three: Ritual. Every day or so, I would walk to Cinda’s grave to add to and take away from the bouquet of home-grown flowers that I’ve kept for her since the day we put her in the ground. As I walked out into the frosted landscape to see them all shriveled and dead it hit me: we are moving into the next season without her. She truly is gone.
Recently someone asked me how it is that I decide upon what to write about each week. I told her my favorite image of myself writing: an idea comes when it decides it’s ready and then I circle around the idea like a dog trying to get comfortable enough to lay down. I circle it and circle it until it feels just right and then…I sit down and write it just like a dog finally settles in and stays put for hours, so do I. But recently, the only thing I’ve been able to circle around is Cinda and for the first time ever, I’ve not allowed myself to write about what it is that comes up for me. I’ve censored myself. And so last week, with the censorship in progress for fear of becoming a broken record even I don’t want to hear, I instead wrote nothing.
The thing is, writing is how I move through and eventually forward. I tried to censor my feelings during the first hard frost morning and out they came anyway and so, if I want to continue writing, there she will be, as she always was. I can’t censor her out.
And today, I miss her, more than usual and it won’t let me go. It’s what’s on my mind, it’s what I’m circling around. It’s the idea that won’t let up until I release it.
And trust me, I know I have it good. I know that, in fact, I have it great. I have a beautiful house in the middle of the woods in which I awake daily to a wonderful, handsome man who loves me deeply. We have loving friends and family and all that we need. I know we have it great. But just like I told my girlfriend who is going through her own feelings of loss now, it doesn’t matter what you have, you can still be sad.
It’s hard to take one’s own advice.
A death or a loss doesn’t just occur and end in that same instant. It is the shape that keeps shifting and just when you feel a grip, it slithers through.
And so today, I allowed myself to write about her because I want to move through remembering the pain and to remembering my baby, as she was, fuzzy eared and smiling, watching over me, ready to set me straight, ready to love me in even my worst moments. She was my starting point, my anchor and she’s gone.
And so, I will take a walk without her as I have done more times than I ever hope for in this past month and despite my personal procrastination recipe, I will go out and pick berries. I will harvest the fruits of my anticipation. The fruits that were only brought on by conditions too harsh for delicate life. The harshness that makes them sweet.
I hope that in turn, that this harshness too makes me sweeter.
Thank you to the seasons for your abrupt displays, for your jarring leaps into the next step, whatever that may be. Alaska, you shake me, you tumble and break me but thank you for extending a hand to help me back up again.
Goodbye Summer, The Summer of the Dogs, you were a tenacious beat I couldn’t always dance to.
Onward, towards Fall.
Onward towards Winter.
But right now, onward towards berries.
**Update: I did, in fact, harvest berries and I did, in fact, take a very much-needed walk. But I didn’t walk alone. Our neighbors’ dog Benny joined along and even warned me off of a seemingly impending bear encounter and by the end of our walk, we had two more pups in tow and a hat full of berries to share (processing to come. Probably).
Thank you to the dogs and people of our town. Your company means more to me than you can know.
So…what are your favorite canning, preserving, pickling, etc. recipes?
Please, do tell…