I have been here before. The place where the squirrel-mind takes over.
Where nuts must be gathered from beneath the neighbor’s walnut tree, husked, scrubbed and frozen.
Unclaimed apples must be claimed.
Sacks of onions, heavy in their red mesh, must be hung in the garage.
Sweet Meat squashes pale blue — striped Delicata, brilliant Turkish Turbans — all piled on their wire racks in a dry cool closet with good air circulation.
I want everything safely gathered in this year.
Early this week I was seized with a need to find more peaches.
I’d already bottled my two boxes of Elbertas, soft and rosy orbs brought in on the Fruit Truck two weeks ago. Once done up in clean glass bottles, they looked a paltry kind of sunshine, not nearly enough for the winter ahead.
It’s a month or more past the usual season, but someone had said they’d gotten peaches on the island this past weekend.
And so, in that window between ferrying Young to his school and getting myself to my own, I set out to find them.
I know my way to all the farms, because I’ve been here before in this place. Though it’s been awhile.
Not just this physical place, this island, this farm where the wide, low peach trees I once picked from — when my daughters still had to reach up to hold my hand — are already empty for the year.
A flatbed trailer now blocks the road to the peach orchard. On it, gourds jumble beneath the peach trees’ point-tipped leaves.
I have come back to an inner place, also. Where the ambition to fill every empty jar seems sensible and within reach.
Maybe it is the economy. Or the uncertain and unsettled state of the nations.
Or the lingering summer that has extended the season long enough for me to wake up to second and third thoughts, with time to get everyone off to school, even myself — time to get medical trips caught up on for Grandma, time to clean out the downstairs pantry closet with its shelves and shelves of empty glass bottles.
“We don’t usually have peaches so late,” said Farmer Don — which is what he calls himself, and why not? — slicing an O’Henry open to give me a taste at my third stop. “But these are from Yakima Valley. And they have a good taste. Slip skin, freestone. The skin’s a little ugly but you peel that anyway.”
I went off to my class with three 26 lb. boxes of fruit in the back.
And the next morning awoke before dawn to a kitchen I’d laid out the night before — thick rag-towels on the counters, a bucket to catch the skins and pits, big black boiler filled with water, teakettle the same, a pan for the hot sugar syrup, a pan for blanching the peaches, a tub of water for cooling the peaches back down.
It was like coming home. Coming home to a part of myself I’d thought I didn’t need anymore.
Maybe it is just that I have a kitchen again after a year or more without. Maybe it’s just I had underestimated my domestic powers until they were curtailed.
But now my powers are restored: with extra pull-out cutting boards everywhere and the end of an echoing hallway recast as a much-needed pantry. (Thank you, my darling Fritz.)
I will not consider that the providence of my current season may be a desire to preserve also what was sweet and nourishing to me about my years at home with young children. My years householding, home-steadying.
See, I am resisting the symbolism.
I am not saying how I’m standing not at the end of my years of raising children, but near it. I haven’t said that I’ve crossed over into an unincorporated wild space between Mommyville and the town of What Comes After — but if I did, I’d have to say t’s not so bad here.
(Someone please take this message back to the Emma J who mourned here before.
Let her know, the sun shines up ahead. Even the rain is exciting.
Tell her there is no need after all to make a franchise of her grief and set up stations for sorrow at each child’s departure. That what she was grieving was the change, which is not at all the same as loss.)
I am standing in a new place, which is also an old familiar place. A new day, which is not a stranger to other days I’ve chosen to build my life up from.
A day I begin standing at the counter, slipping the skin from blanched peaches, settling the halves into their bottles.
A day I end pouring hot sweetened syrup over the tightly packed fruit, easing air bubbles out with a long thin plastic spatula.
Waiting for one batch of seven full bottles to come out of their boiling-water bath so that the next seven can go in.
Until the last batch.
When I stand, in a quiet kitchen, eyeing the empty boxes, the pans of cooling water, the last steam from the big black pot, the serried bottles of summer sweetness.
Preserving it all.
Which has been — always — a preservation of more than fruit.