Abuela bought them, the strawberries, plump , sweet, spotted, ripe for tasting from the roadside market- the one with the burlap heaven flapping in the humid air, on a day that smelled of smoke and incense.
I wanted to eat them, but she slapped my hands away.
The strawberries hadn’t traveled far- torn up from a fallowing field idling in stillness two acres back.
My abuela could not speak English, so she motioned for the man to put them in the four quart sized paper bags split over four cardboard cartons she had brought along.
She gave him four bills, the ones that she knew had that bearded civil war president on it. The one that freed the slaves. She never carried the ones with the southern racist president with the whipped back white hair and the disdainful face. Abuela was part Seminole. Her grandfather was always reciting horrifying Trail of Tears stories to her. She would never give that “hijo de puta” the honor of her touch. She would never grant that man the equality she was denied.
The summer air made the drive back in that ancient American made Spirit of hers, all rusty hood and side panels, an oven that not even the mild air conditioned breeze could dampen. Swearing, she drove faster than her heart and mind usually allowed, fearing that her precious cache of false fruit would spoil before she could preserve them.
“No toques,” she said, every time the smell and taste of them in my imagination caused my tiny hands to stray to the cartons. Their rounded edges, their glistening yellow seeds, were reflecting strawberry auras inside the Spirit. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
When I awoke, we where home.
Abuela had just finished separating the green, the ripe and the in between strawberries; cutting off their green tops; halving them lengthwise and then cutting them across in quick certain dices. A sack of opened sugar stood nearby, along with four halved lemons, an oversized mortar and pestle and a cuatro of large mason jars . Four pans were gently warming on the stove.
The varied aroma of strawberries drifted around the house. The alchemy that was my Abuela’s jam was about to begin.
Reserving the best of each type for a special preserve to present to Padre Tomas on Sunday, Abuela mashed each in the mortar and pestle.
One by one, in magical amounts that she only knew, she added the crushed berries and sugar into each of the cauldrons. She squeezed the lemons over each pot in the inscribed amount, taking care to catch the seeds in her free hand.
The sugar started to dissolve, meshing with the simmering strawberries flesh into a red holy mess. She raised the heat, and when the brew started boiling, Abuela started a prayer, one that sounded like an incantation.
Señor Dios, Padre celestial: Bendícenos y bendice estos tus dones, que de tu gran bondad recibimos. Por Jesucristo, nuestro Señor. Amén. (English translation: Lord God, Celestial Father. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.)
She recited the prayer at least twenty times, each repetition a rosary bead being chanted off. When she thought that the lord was pleased, she stopped and turned off the stove.
Abuela ladled a scant teaspoon brought up from the bottom of the cauldron, away from the foam on top, onto a small plate adorned with the Madonna and Child she always kept near the stove, her sacred spoon rest. It was there to always make sure that Jesus got a taste of everything she made. No exceptions.
After a minute the jam gelled. She was pleased. It was done.
She scooped off the foam and served it into four small bowls. She tasted each one and then passed each one to me.
The foam was ash-pink, porous and fluffy. Each was delicious with a different taste. The green strawberries tasted like caramel. The ripe ones like grape juice. The in between- pineapples, apples, every green vegetable I ever tasted, eternally sour and sweet.
The fourth, Jesus only knew. And he kept it secret.
Abuela scooped the jam into the reserved mason jars. She closed each jar with a silver thin steel lid screwed tight, and given an extra secure tug, just in case.
She then took my hands and we danced in this small house full of the aroma of strawberry heaven. I have delighted in the taste and smell of that jam ever since.