My mother’s parents worked a long time, with great sacrifice, to achieve the American Dream.
They were German immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island in 1921. For thirty years, they worked in difficult, dangerous jobs in clothing factories. Grandpa, who had been trained as a mason, also took brick-laying jobs including the building of towering smoke stacks in New York and Chicago.
Finally, they saved enough money to buy their own little slice of Heaven: a 29-acre fruit farm in the Hudson Valley region of New York State. Pears, apples, grapes, corn, squash, green beans, strawberries – you name it, they grew it. Plus, they had a sizeable henhouse and a barn, complete with a barn cat that Grandma spoiled with the gift of a saucer of cream each morning.
Grandpa made his own wine and spent a lot of time fussing (and mumbling in German) in his small hillside vineyard. Yet, looking back, I believe his favorite part of the farm was where he kept bees. During my childhood, I don’t think I had any honey except Grandpa’s. To this day, I have never found honey exactly like his.
Grandpa’s honey was administered as a tonic of sorts. When I was naughty, sick, or had the hiccups, a spoonful of Grandpa’s honey was prescribed to improve the situation. When I first heard the song, “A Spoonful of Honey Makes the Medicine Go Down,” I knew exactly what it meant.
Honey on toast was more common than jam at our family breakfast table. When we moved to South Carolina in 1965, when I was in first grade, Grandpa shipped his honey to us.
But by the early 1970s, Grandpa was ailing, and when we visited we found parts of the farm looked disheveled. He still maintained the beehives, although the amount of honey had begun to dwindle.
On the last day of December, 1973, Grandpa passed away. Soon afterward, the farm was sold, and Grandma lived only another year and a half after Grandpa.
By the summer of 1975, when Grandma died, we had four jars of honey left in our pantry. My mother is not, generally speaking, a sentimental person but she was saddened as the number of jars went from four to three, three to two, and two to one. She didn’t say it, but I knew it was like saying goodbye to her father – or a part of him – all over again.
As we neared the bottom of the final jar, we became a little obsessed with trying to stretch out the contents as long as possible. We competed in our attempts to smear the thinnest possible layer on a piece of toast.
Then came the day when we were literally scraping bottom.
Mom stared at the jar for a long time. “Well,” I remember her saying finally, “we can’t let it go to waste. He wouldn’t have liked that.”
And so – with no more agonizing – she ate the last little bit.
Believe me when I tell you, this was a sad moment in our lives.
For the next thirty years, the last honey jar sat empty on a shelf in the laundry room of my parents’ house. I think Mom thought she might actually use it for something else. But I noticed it stayed empty. It was never moved; whenever I did a load of laundry I was eyeball-to-eyeball with it.
Finally, my parents sold their house and downsized to an apartment. Among the items that needed to find a new home – either to be claimed by a member of the younger generation, tossed, or donated to the Salvation Army – was the humble honey jar.
I knew I wanted it. I didn’t want to take any chances that it would be lost in the chaos, so it was one of the first items that came home with me.
What does one do with a banged up-looking honey jar? It looked a little shabby next to a crystal vase that was a wedding present, but I placed it on our rustic brick mantelpiece just the same.
Then I got this idea in my head that it looked a little lonely there, so I re-purposed one of Grandma’s old canning jars that I’d been using as a pencil holder in my home office. I set Grandma’s canning jar next to Grandpa’s honey jar.
It still didn’t look right to me. My husband was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me as I fussed over the fact that the jars were empty. Finally, I filled them with my favorite sea shells which I’d collected on various beaches – Florida, Virginia Beach, Atlantic City – when I was a child.
The two jars, shells and all, would probably be worth a total of about seventy-five cents at a rummage sale. And yet they have great value and meaning. All in all, I think they are a pretty good way to remember my maternal grandparents, the love they shared with us, and the lives they lived.