If I had considered the question in advance, I would have known that cleaning out the barn would precipitate a crisis. Memories long stored away for some magical future moment when that child’s toy, that handsaw, would again be needed—did I keep them simply for the memory? Furniture—small tables, wooden chairs, an ottoman frame, an old piano bench well made of oak and in need of a few repairs—would I someday find time and reason to fix them and return them to my house?
Too good to throw away. Largely irrelevant to my current life.
Becoming relevant at some future point? Probably not.
Determination to survive in a world lost to chaos drove the accumulation of this minor hoard. It was 1975. We had small children who would need to eat and thrive even if the bomb fell. We labored to renew skills our grandparents knew by heart, certain that within our lifetimes we would have to hide in our house until the fallout settled then emerge to plow, plant, and harvest our food, breed our pigs, chickens, and goats for future generations of meat and milk. We gathered meat saws and grinders, steel axes and shovels, nails and wire.
Time marched on. The Cold War ended and fingers moved away from the annihilation button. The children are no longer dependent babies who might benefit from a collection of books on history, science, math. The goats departed in the late 80s, the garden in the early 90s, and the last of the chickens about ten years ago. The children have gone off like grown children do to find their own visions of the future.
Why do I need eight hand saws, ten hammers (of various sizes), buckets of random nails, screws, washers, bolts, and nuts? Feed scoops and cheesecloth, empty egg cartons, milk pails. What possible purpose could be met by random pieces of plywood or sheetrock, insulation, screen, tile? Why do I think that at some point I’ll make use of a decrepit power saw, drill, or grinder when, for the last twenty-five years, I have not?
I have created two piles. One is for the junkman to haul away. The other is for craigslist ads and friends who operate flea market booths. I am mildly optimistic that someone might buy the old wooden toolbox, child’s desk, or the sturdy small tables, the ten gallon pickling crock or the T-post driver. Never mind that for what I’d receive in dollars, I could restore only a fraction of this hoard.
In truth, what our energy and money bought in those early days was peace of mind. With our collection of tools, books, supplies, and know-how, we’d have a chance. Our kids would have a chance.
It served its purpose. The purpose no longer exists.
Sounds good. But what I haven’t put in either pile is the pressure canner. And the jars. Dozens and dozens of canning jars—quarts, pints, jelly jars. It’s the jars that have brought me to crisis.
When my firstborn child was two, my grandmother died. My dad’s mom, Nora. Always a country girl, Nora knew how to make soap, kill a chicken with a swing and stiff pop of its neck, and would can just about anything edible. She had jars. When they started clearing her property for the auction, I went down to Cane Hill and helped clean out her cellar. I hauled back cases of canned goods.
She had declined for a decade until her death at age 86. I wouldn’t dare eat any of the food in those jars. We had hogs and chickens at the time which allowed me to make use of Grandma’s labors. Each day I’d go out to the barn and pens and open more jars. Applesauce, whole plums, peaches, pears. Grapes and elderberries. Green beans, tomatoes, cabbage, mixed vegetables. Tallow. Jelly, jam, preserves. Juice. The critters were well fed that year.
We grew a huge garden. Neighbors had pear trees. We visited orchards and vineyards. Even with all of Grandma Nora’s jars, I sometimes ran short. My mother gave me jars. I bought jars.
In those heady days, each fall I stood in the storage closet and stared at my larder. The sight of all those jars filled me with the greatest pleasure that once again, by the labor of my hands, I had set aside enough green beans, tomatoes and sauce, peas, corn, and kraut to last a year. The jars lined up in colorful rows, golden tomato seeds swimming in crimson broth, finely shredded green cabbage fermented into tangy white kraut, wild plum jelly glowing fuscia in the dark.
Producing and preserving food challenged me like nothing I’d ever done. Even with a tractor and rototiller, even with liberal applications of goat manure and mulch, plants struggled to survive against drought, bugs, and predation. How many hours did I spend hoeing weeds or picking off potato bugs? How many hours peeling and chopping, sterilizing and packing, standing over the pressure gauge to ensure the right amount of intense heat and adequate time to prevent spoilage.
There’s a sound as jars cool, the snap of the canning lid sucking down, sealing the contents safely into the future—I loved that sound. Then it was time to use the grease pencil to write on the lid—July 1981.
Now I have all these jars. The cardboard boxes have suffered over the years. Faded brown paper hangs in shreds, the sides bow and buckle. Even if I keep the jars, I have to plow through generations of dead spiders and a healthy population of live ones to retrieve the jars from box wreckage. Why would I go to the trouble to re-package all these jars knowing that twenty years from now, it would all be to do over again? Would I be any more willing to let go of them then?
My children have no interest and no place to store jars. I wouldn’t mind storing them if my kids wanted them. But there’s no longer a tractor or rototiller. The half-acre garden has grown up in saplings and pasture grass. There are no goats to produce manure. Everything is different.
But here’s the argument. Certain things haven’t changed. We have to eat. We have the ability to grow food. With jars and a pressure canner, we could store food. Isn’t that incentive enough to save the jars?
What is my responsibility? For countless generations, as far back at least as civilization, my ancestors have planted, cultivated, harvested, and stored food. These are skills we’ve learned—how to measure the right time to plant onions or corn, what seeds to soak before pressing them into the dark earth, how to dig potatoes without piercing them. We raised our kids to know these things.
Do I simply walk away?
Why not? There are books. There are others still farming, still canning—the knowledge won’t fade simply because I relinquish my jars.
Even with the best of hoards, with all the tools and seeds saved and an endless supply of jars, at the end of the day, survival in a world gone mad would be a tenuous venture. What about grain? No bread, no pasta, no crackers. What about oil, salt, soda, sugar? We’d be dependent on venison and that requires guns and ammunition. My .22 rifle won’t bring down a deer.
At some point, even the most vehement survivalist will face what I face. How many times in your life do you restock your rations and water? How much is enough ammunition? Who are you prepared to kill to protect your hard won ark?
I’m working on a compromise with myself. Today I think I will keep a few jars as mementos of my grandmother, the tall green half gallon jars and a few of the older square-shoulder quarts. I will wash them periodically and keep them up on a shelf, decoration that tugs my heartstrings when I look up from my daily tasks. I will acknowledge the hard work and dedication that touched these jars, my hands, my mother’s hands, my grandmother’s hands.
All the grandmothers. All the jars. All the tomatoes and fine plum jam will not save the world.