The war of the jars

It was a hot summer day. I was just a child, sweating in a hot kitchen while my mother cooked tomatoes on the stove.

The phone rang once, twice, and on and on.

“Do not answer it,” Mom warned. “Not until we are done and I know how many sealed.”

Eventually the phone stopped ringing and I pictured my frustrated Grandma Onie hanging up on the other end.

We knew it was her calling.

We knew she would soon be looking across the valley, from her hill to ours, to see if there was any productive activity taking place.

We knew she could see the pickup in the yard and she knew we were home.

And we knew she’d call back later.

In the late summer months, every day was the same.

Get up early, get in the garden, pick as much as possible, start cleaning and cutting and get that stuff canned. Along the way would come calls from Onie to see if we were staying busy . . . and at the end of the day, she would grill young me about how many quarts and/or pints we had finished.

On these days, Onie would typically call about four times – but it was only on the fourth ring that she would get a response from me.

Mom always made me wait until she knew how many had successfully been achieved before allowing me to tell her mother-in-law the totals.

We laughingly called it “the war of the jars.”

I grew up knowing that Mom always thought she had to appear busy at all times (and she was) and had to achieve as much as possible in a day (and she did) in order to please Grandma.

Meanwhile, Grandma was in her own garden and kitchen, doing the exact same things we were. The trick was to be the one with the most at the end of the day.

Those two women would try to outdo the other. I think Grandma wanted to prove to Mom that she could still compete and Mom wanted to prove that she could work her butt off.

And somehow, I always got caught in the crossfire.

If Mom wanted to get 30 quarts of canned tomatoes in the cellar by nightfall, I needed to be her sous chef. I was the extra set of hands that really made it all possible.

Although I was young, I was well trained. My master chef taught me the tricks to picking and prepping . . . and the art of entertaining five million children in the yard while she activated the horrific pressure canner inside.

If Grandma wanted to get 10 quarts of canned tomatoes in her basement by nightfall, I needed to pick the majority and wash her jars the night before.

So they had me running back and forth, across the pasture. I was picking and washing, picking and washing.

And of course, manning the telephone.

The telephone work was the hardest. I had been trained, like a CIA agent, by my mother to only pick up on the fourth call and to try to resist Grandma’s directional questioning. She taught me to give away a little information, so as to not tip off the competitor – but to hold just enough back to keep a perceived power in the home camp.

Onie had a way of artfully asking me seemingly frivolous questions that would still subject me to subtle interrogation.

“What are you guys doing today?” Onie would ask.

“Tell her we are just doing some yard work,” Mom would instructionally whisper.

“What kind of work?” Onie would sweetly ask.

“Tell her you picked some tomatoes,” Mom would tell me in near-sign language.

“How many tomatoes?” Onie would inquire.

“Tell her just a few and then we’ll surprise her with our number tonight,” Mom would whisper.

“I’ll call back,” Onie would say. “And can you wash some jars for me later?”

While these two women tried to be the canning champion of the day, I ran my little legs off trying to help the other win this stupid war of the jars.

When night fell, the phone would ring again.

“We canned 30 quarts of tomatoes today,” I would finally tell my inquisitive grandmother.

“No, 32,” my now out loud-speaking mother would correct me as she packed the cooled jars into boxes for the transport.

“Oh, 32,” I would say.

“Really! Sometimes it seems like more than it is. Are you sure?” asked a doubting Onie.

“Yep, I’m counting the tops right now,” I’d respond.

“And they all sealed?” Onie would ask at miraculously nearly the same exact moment my mother would respond, “And yes, they all sealed.”

It was a silly, ridiculous competition in which I had become the pawn.

They battled through green beans and tomatoes, pickles and plums, stew meat and horseradish, sauerkraut and jelly.

I don’t remember anyone conceding defeat to the other, but I also don’t remember either of them getting a trophy at the end of the season, declaring someone the champion in the war of the jars.

But I do remember having a lot of special alone time with those two unique women . . . and that we sure ate well all winter.






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