By: Jeanne Cameron
It’s 8:00 am on a Saturday morning. Tedeschi Trucks rumble from the blue-tooth speaker. Rich sweet and savory scents drift from the kitchen – aromatic manifestations of my husband John’s freshly picked garden bounty:
Juliette and Sun Gold tomatoes;
basil, oregano, and Italian parsley;
sweet banana, Hungarian Hotwax, and King-of-the-North peppers;
carrots and green onions;
blueberries and raspberries.
The scent of John’s sauce, sweetened with carrot.
The tang of his raspberry-blueberry jam, an experiment.
The molasses/brown sugar/spicy brown mustard fusion of baked beans, cooking all day, for a budding tradition called Pork Fest.
Outside, in a metal contraption with the racist name Big Chief, there’s 18 pounds of bacon and several logs of pepperoni.
Inside, the dishwasher – filled with mason jars – hums, steam seeping out the seams.
My own contribution to all this activity? I did a lot of tasting and took a few pictures.
And hours later, when sauce is canned,
and the jam is canned,
and the beans are thick and the pork is smoked,
there’s the blueberry-rhubarb pie I requested.
The day of my mother’s funeral, her dear friend Martha stayed back to care for our 3-year-old, Nick. While we were at the church, Martha baked me a strawberry-rhubarb pie – my very favorite kind of pie. Whenever I came home to visit in the summer my mother always made one. Tart and juicy. Flaky crusts involving a dance between a Pyrex quart-sized measuring cup half filled with water and roundish plops of Crisco she dropped from a spoon. Flour added by sight and feel. The process looked more intuitive than scientific; graceful, even.
Martha’s pie, of course, couldn’t compare. The filling too sweet, the crust too heavy. It’s been over 26 years since the day we buried my mother, but I remember feeling two emotions at once: gratitude for Martha’s kindness and such a raw and tender longing for another of my mother’s pies.
John’s pies are a bit too dry for my liking, and his crusts come out of the freezer. But damn, he’s got the tart factor down.
My husband is never idle. At the end of most days, he can recite an impressive list of his accomplishments. He approaches every task with focus and a plan. The things he loves – skiing, sailing, gardening, teaching. The things he thinks he should do – changing oil and waxing cars, installing sheetrock and wiring rooms. And he’s even that way with the one thing he truly hates to do – snaking a sewer pipe.
Two rules seem to drive his activity: 1) Never pay someone else to do something you can do better yourself, and 2) There’s no sense doing a job unless you’re going to do it right.
I love my husband.
And he can be a tough act to follow.
My mother’s first husband, my father, could do all sorts of traditional male handy work. He could plumb and wire and his carpentry skills were quite fine. He was also a hopeless drunk, and the unpredictable was the only thing my mother could count on. Toward the end of their marriage, she was doing most of his work running their small dairy farm, as well as her own, working as a hairdresser between milkings. Still, she might have stayed with him her whole life, but then she had me, and 18 months later she asked him to leave, sold the farm, and moved the two of us into a two-room building on Main Street. She did hair in the front and we lived in the back.
The first time I brought John home, he insisted on cleaning up after the dinner my mother had made. I imagine it was macaroni and cheese, my favorite, because she had not yet discovered that her roast beef made John as happy as anything he’d ever tasted. In later years, I’d have to share the honor of favorite dinner with him.
On this night, I sat with her at the kitchen table, observing her observing John. She couldn’t quite quiet her impulse to jump up and shoo him away from the sink. This just wasn’t work a man should be doing, she thought. Determining finally that he was competent, she settled down and leaned in close to whisper, “He’s just as good as a woman.”
My mother married her second husband when I was just shy of five. He had a living wage job at the state highway department, which he showed up for every day. He also took overtime whenever there was a snowstorm. And he didn’t drink. He was a man of no real passion except for baseball, his default mood easy, consistent. He could stop a toilet from running, mow a lawn, and set the garbage to the curb, but that was where his handiness ended. I never saw him do a bit of “women’s work,” even after he had retired and my mother was still working. This bothered me a whole lot more than it bothered her. She believed – at heart – that faithfulness, a steady income, and a calm disposition were all a woman could rightly expect of a man. She did, however, find exasperating his habit of watching her do women’s work while offering continuous commentary about how she might do it better.
After the birth of our first child, my mother came to lend a hand for a week. Because John was already out of school for the summer and had been going hard on fatherhood for a couple of weeks, there was little for my mother to do. I nursed Nick and John changed most of his shitty diapers. With good humor, actually. I think he was proud of all that poop. Nick was a colicky baby, and John experimented until he discovered a remedy. He’d put our wailing infant in a front pack and do a Grateful Dead-like dance to the playground nearby. Once there, they’d swing. At 4:00 am or 2:00 in the afternoon. Whenever Nick was full and clean and still unhappy.
By now, my mother had known John for five years and all of the women’s work he engaged in no longer had the power to startle her. Still, she couldn’t help herself – “As good as a woman,” she’d say each time he quieted our baby.
My husband nursed a herniated disk in his back for decades, the consequence of a high school football injury. Then, on a day in April seven years ago, the disk ruptured. John’s always had an insanely high tolerance for pain, but this pain was of an entirely different sort. Yet, he continued to work in his second-grade classroom until the end of June, in spite of a deep well of accumulated sick time – “I can’t abandon my kids,” he’d grimace.
John’s done his best to pass his skill set and his work ethic on to our children. For years while they were both living at home, one Saturday every November and another every April were devoted to tire rotation, family style. By the time the tradition died, we were servicing four cars. Nick and I hated it from the beginning, and we were miserable helpers. Truth be told, our biannual tire rotation was just one of the many times I left my husband to do the unpopular parenting alone. A year or so ago, my daughter proffered an unwelcome truth – “Nick and I are closer to you mom,” she said, “but dad’s hard-ass approach serves us better.”
In spite of the countless ways I’ve failed to support him, I see my husband in both our children. Our son cares for developmentally disabled adults. The work is hard and the pay stinks, but he loves the job. Like his dad, he goes to work even when he’s sick because “no one else can get Mary to take a shower” and the sub “won’t make sure Lee gets to church” and, and, and…. A couple of days ago his boss told him he needed to draw on his own deep well of sick time and take the weekend off.
Paige calls me when she breaks up with a boyfriend. She calls her father when she forgets how long and at what temperature to bake shrimp. And while she loved the rose-gold Swarovski necklace I recently bought her, it’s the tool box her father made her from Real Deal Dollar Store purchases that she uses more often. Oh, and if you ever get a blow-out, hope Paige is in a car behind you. She’s the only one who wasn’t whining during those biannual tire rotations. Perhaps, someday, her future father-in-law will think she’s as good as a man?
Like most of us, my mother was a bundle of contradictions. She spent her life in deference to men and in their service. But it was the women in her life, like her dear friend Martha, she counted on to get shit done. John was the exception. A few days before she died, she said, “I don’t worry about you. You married into a good family.” My mother did love my husband’s family, but what she really meant is that I married a man as good as a woman.
My husband is now retired and I’m still working. He does all the cooking and I always clean up. This was our routine long before he retired, but his dinners are more inventive these days. He continues, also, to do all the maintenance and handy work my mother wished her husbands would do.
As for me? Well, I write. I teach. I hike. I go to 12-step meetings. I take pictures, like the ones you scrolled through above.
And I consider myself very lucky.
A couple of weeks ago, John and I were remembering my mothers’ bread and butter pickles. He asked me to find the recipe so he could give them a try. Here it is:
10 medium cucumbers 5 tsp. canning salt
8 c. sugar 4 c. vinegar
2 Tbs. mixed spices
Place cucumbers in a crock or enamel pan with a lid.
Cover with fresh boiling water and let sit, each morning for 4 days.
On the 5th day, drain and slice into 1/2” pieces.
Heat sugar, spices, salt & vinegar to boiling and pour over cucumbers.
On the 6th and 7th days, drain solution into a pan, reheat to boiling and pour over cucumbers.
On 8th day, put cucumbers in jars, cover with boiling solution and seal.
Put in boiling water bath for 20 minutes.