Grandpa Tom and DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale make jam
Family & Friends

Making Jam with Grandpa Tom

My dad does many things that other people think are hard.

“It’s not hard!” he often says, when referring to doing his daily exercises or keeping up with the medical literature or giving up his retirement to help raise his grandkids.

He truly believes it. I mean, if I ask him to think rationally about the time it takes to do a task, he will admit that he expends effort. But he will still claim that “it’s not hard” with a smile on his face and a ring in his voice. Sometimes he openly laughs at me if I have skepticism about the difficulty of any task.

“I know it’s a lot, being with the kids all day…” I used to say to him, in the years when he lived with us. I could see that it was pretty exhausting taking care of three little kids all day long. I saw him fall asleep on the couch in the afternoons, and yet wake up just a few minutes later to play Legos with Tommy or help Claire with her homework or make Austin a snack. I knew he was in his 70’s. I knew it wasn’t easy.

But he never let me get any further when I started to hint he might need a break. “It’s not hard,” he’d say, and then he’d often leap into a discussion about how lucky he was to spend so much time with us.

Everyone who knows my dad knows that he’s like this. They know it because they’ve watched him in the community and as a doctor and as a grandparent. But they also know because every year, many of them get his jam.

My dad is famous for his jam.

He makes dozens of quarts a year. At one point, he was making 200 quarts! These days, he’s “scaled back” to just about 150 or 160 quarts a year. It still takes him multiple days, and he still has to do it the first week of June, right when the strawberries are ripest. The weekend when he did it, “the jam weekend” is one of my fondest memories of childhood. The house always smelled so good and the music was always loud and my dad was always happy.

But since I left home, I haven’t actually seen my dad make jam in person. He sends it to me every year in the mail, but I don’t get to watch.

Until this year. This year, I came back to Oregon, and we made jam.

It’s a 3-day process, this jam making. First, we had to go out and get the strawberries, which my dad had pre-ordered because it’s 22 flats of strawberries and it takes a while to prepare. He buys from the local farmer on the edge of town. (In fact, he first started making jam in the ’80s because he saved the life of a strawberry farmer, who brought my dad strawberries afterwards. Every year after that, my dad bought strawberries from his patient’s farm. When the farm closed, they sent him to the place he goes today.) The farm where he goes is called “Grandpas” and everyone in town knows about it, so there were plenty of people just gathered around the farm stand when we showed up. What I thought would be a five-minute stop turned into an hour. Going anywhere with my dad always takes longer than you think as he knows everyone (and everyone knows him) and they all have to catch up.

Then we had to wash and stem the strawberries, and that was about the end of the first day. We had to go to bed early, because jam making starts when the sun comes up!

My dad’s jam is beloved by everyone who tries is, so I guess I always thought he had a secret. But there’s no secret. In fact, it’s just 4 ingredients: strawberries, sugar, pectin and a bit of butter (to keep down the foam). The process is also fairly straightforward, though it takes a while to get the hang of it. When we were finally in the kitchen, finally making jam, I realized how much effort it took. My dad was patient, and explained and re-explained the directions as we made each batch. Eventually, by mid-morning, we got into a rhythm.

“See?” he said to me, “it’s not hard!”

That, of course, is a lie. It is hard. I mean, we were making dozens of jars of jam! My feet hurt and my arms kept getting burned by little flecks of boiling hot jam and I was sweating from leaning over the stove. Every once in a while, my dad would disappear and I’d see him leaning over a chair or lying on the couch. “Just giving my back a break,” he’d say, and then add, “I’m fine.”

But minutes later, he’d pop back in the kitchen and we’d keep going. We worked for almost 12 hours that first day, and another 8 hours the next day. It was exhausting.

It was also a ton of fun.

It was fun because life with my dad is fun, because we played loud music from the 70’s as we talked about everything in our lives. We pondered philosophical topics and I listened to him talk about Texas football for a good 20 minutes at one point. When I screwed up some part of the jam he’d shout, “no big deal!” and then smile at me so I’d know it was no big deal.

Partway through, we were talking about the hours and effort that it took to make the jam. “Well,” he said, “I couldn’t have done this without you!”

I gave him a skeptical look. Maybe true, but likely not.

It was a funny thing for him to say, as I used to say it to him all the time when he lived with me. “Honestly,” I’d say, after he went grocery shopping and picked up all three kids and washed the bath towels, “I couldn’t do this without you!”

He’d always try and tell me that I could totally do it without him. And likely, that was true. I could have done it on my own. It was possible.

But parenting and making jam? Both of these things were so much better when we did them together.

Eventually, we finished the jam. 159 jars, some of which he will deliver in person, some of which he will send in the mail. After we finished, we had to spend hours scraping bits of jam off every surface of the kitchen, and at least one of my shirts was totally ruined. My feet hurt. I was exhausted.

But really, he was right. With him, it’s not hard.