No tears yet. I was grieving abnormally, apparently. I had no tears for my grandmother who passed away peacefully one month, two days, four hours ago.
The stamp, the photo, and the jam jar were part of my research. A paper I was preparing on the History of Sicilian Women. The stamp, the photo, and the jam jar were also part of my grandmother’s history. She claimed she knew the woman who inspired the stamp. She claimed she played with Rosalia’s second cousin. I could have called the paper: The History of my Sicilian Grandmother. Or, I could have called it: The Art of Preservation. The stamp, kept in an acid-free album, showed a Sicilian woman during the orange harvest. A child who died in 1920, preserved with an embalming formula. The Sleeping Beauty of Palermo. And that jar which grandmother never wanted to use. Jar 26. When we made orange jam, she would take out twenty-five jars. The 26th stayed at the back of her 1950s vintage kitchen cabinet in pastel green. The formula: 50% oranges. 50% sugar. 100% heart.
The jar became the subject and the object.
“The jar is like the evil eye, Julia!”
“Then throw it away, Nonna.”
She wouldn’t say more. Some things had to be preserved in a hermetic container to seal wh—ingredients. Questions unanswered. What I didn’t know made Nonna incomplete.
I turned the rotary dial of her pastel green phone to discover more. I waited until she was in her Sicilian-inspired garden full of lemons, figs, pomegranates, and prickly pear trees 15,000 km from Sicily. Someone said hello, and I slammed the receiver. Only Nonna could open that jar full of secrets.
Making and preserving orange jam is like going to the hairdresser. Intimate details, rants, gripes, ideas for jam jar covers can become topics of conversation. Making jam can make an incomplete picture, complete.
The crate of oranges had arrived on that scorching day of mid-January. The sharp blades ready. The bowl for the pips, the shiny reddish-brown pot, the wooden spoon and a three-kilogram packet of white sugar were ready to concoct. The ingredients, the tools, and I were about to hear the answers to what, where, and why.
When the shape of orange flesh changed from round to quarters, Nonna stopped talking. It was a defining moment because she was never at a loss for words. The pips formed a heap in a bowl from Taormina. The quarters reached the top of a bowl from Messina. The jars sterilized the night before looked like mirrors, which reflected grandmother about to transmit history to granddaughter. The brilliance of the copper pot waited for the oranges, sugar, and wooden spoon, but she couldn’t connect the two kitchen objects and the two ingredients. I didn’t know then what I know now that the disconnection, fragmented memories were the beginning of many others. What the jar sealed needed to be released so the past could live on.
While Nonna’s body was still, I connected the kitchen objects and the ingredients. I poured, added, and stirred. Nonna broke her stillness, pulled the metal handle of her 1950 pastel green cupboard and took jar number 26 out. While I made an orange river of sweetness, Nonna held the jar like there was no tomorrow and spoke. Sweetness mingled with her bitter words. I could hear the words but also watched them turn into Will-o'-Wisps that danced hypnotically out of the jar and into my memory where I would preserve them.
“He was from Tunisia,” grandmother said in Sicilian. “I saw him at the port and I knew I would sin. I hid the crucifix between my breasts.”
I added the sugar and spilled some on the table. She didn’t notice.
“We used to meet at the Castello di Poggio Diana and then he pulled me away where we made love and more.”
It was becoming deliciously thick. The jars watching me from the bench, waiting to be filled to the rim.
“Your great-grandfather and great-grandmother had other plans, and Imed was not in those plans. I wrapped my hands around that jar when they forbid me to see him again. My hands sealed that jar when they said I would have to live with an aunt in a faraway place over the hill for nine months. My hands held that jar when he sneaked into the house to tell me his staying would only cause heartbreak. The jar was on the table when he left forever. The jar was on the shelf when blood trickled between my legs.”
I realized I had made the jam on my own for the first time, and Nonna didn’t reproach me for the mess.
Two months after her open casket revealed her beauty for the last time, I thought about embalmment and food preservation. I wanted to preserve her, to keep her so close to me. I understood how Rosalia Lombardo’s father must have felt. My fists clenched at the thought that I had no power over this—something the accusers, I mean the mourners, failed to see. But I had power over food preservation.
The ingredients: oranges, sugar, one lemon (Nonna would have disagreed about the lemon) and tears. I sterilized the jars, including jar number 26. Jar number 26 would have multiple histories, not just one.
Isabelle B.L. is a teacher and translator currently living in New Caledonia. She has published a novel inspired by the life of a New Caledonian politician. Her work can be found in the Birth Lifespan Vol. 1 and Growing Up Lifespan Vol. 2 anthologies for Pure Slush Books, Flash Fiction Magazine, A Story in 100 Words, Visual Verse, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her work is forthcoming in Five Minutes, Splintered Disorder Press, Drunk Monkeys, and Kitchen Sink Magazine.