I hope you are all having a wonderful Thanksgiving! I’m in the mood to celebrate, so I’m sharing one of my favorite stories. You can call it your holiday bonus if you like.
This is a nonfiction narrative about a Thanksgiving celebration from when I was a child. “The Best Elderberry Jelly Ever” was published by The Crowder Quill in May of 2017. You can download may issues of the journal free at The Crowder Quill.
The Best Elderberry Jelly Ever
By Margarite R. Stever
“When do we leave?” I asked over and over as adrenaline shot through my little body like a bolt of lightning. The response was always somewhere between “Soon,” and “In a little while.”
I could hardly contain my excitement knowing I was going to see Grandma and Grandpa. I would not be able to sleep the night before and would basically bounce around like a monkey until we left.
My grandparents lived on a large old farm in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. They used an outhouse and made their living by milking cows. They ate eggs they gathered from their own chickens, rendered their own lard, hung their laundry outside on the clothes line, canned vegetables from their garden, heated with wood they cut themselves, and did things the old-fashioned way. Nothing was ever wasted or easy. The chickens, pigs, dogs, cows, or some other animal got the scraps, peels, cobs, and shells from our meals. Old machinery was kept for spare parts, and rain water was collected to water the garden.
My grandparents were always encouraging us to go out on the farm and forage for food, become one with nature, take the bounty that the land provided, and make ourselves useful. My mom took that to heart, and gathered buckets and buckets of elderberries every August. Grandpa told her that she was to keep what she picked, so she took them home and made jar after jar of elderberry jelly. Thanks to the elderberries, my family never ate store-bought jelly.
I remember one trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s in particular when I was four years old. It was fall and time for the family Thanksgiving celebration. We piled into Mom’s bright red 1976 Ford LTD, and drove three hours to my grandparents’ farm. The trees had changed colors, and I passed many miles just staring at the reds, yellows, and oranges that flashed before my eager eyes. The colors surrounded us like a living painting once we turned on the dirt road that led to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The road was lined with trees so thick that they blended together to form one giant canvas of color.
The dirt road was several miles long and lined with old growth trees. It was rocky, hilly, and extremely curvy. The most exciting part of the trip was crossing the creek that separated the farm house from the hayfields. There was no bridge. We actually drove our car into the creek and crossed it the way the pioneers crossed such creeks in their horse-drawn wagons.
Once we had hugged everyone, it was a tradition at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for me sit in one of the orange vinyl chairs at the yellow Formica kitchen table and drink a glass of milk fresh from the cow as soon as we arrived. Grandpa thought I needed more calcium because I was small for my age. Sometimes the milk was even still warm.
On this particular visit, I was sitting at the table drinking my milk while Mom unloaded a paper bag of food that she had brought for the celebration. Grandma had just taken a batch of biscuits out of the oven. They filled the little farm house with a heavenly biscuit aroma that makes a girl close her eyes and just inhale for a minute. Grandma spread some rich and creamy home-made butter on one of the biscuits, which immediately melted into the cloud-like fluffiness. I didn’t think it could get any better until she opened a jar of elderberry jelly and spread on a thick layer of dark purple berry goodness for me. It was so delicious! My taste buds came alive with my first sweet taste, and I said the first thing that came to my mind.
“Grandma, you make the best elderberry jelly ever!”
Grandma laughed loudly, the sound bouncing off the walls and traveling throughout the little farm house. She ran her hands down the red apron covering her ample middle, and replied, “Oh sweetie, I put a secret ingredient in all of my jelly. The secret ingredient is love.”
Grandma was in a wonderful mood for the entire day. She walked around the kitchen singing and laughing as she prepared our dinner, which made her gray curls bounce merrily around her round, weathered face. She glowed with happiness, her smile was constant, and she had a limitless supply of hugs for all of us grandchildren. We were engulfed in Grandma’s unique smell of wood smoke and Timeless perfume with each hug. It was the best Thanksgiving that I can remember from my childhood.
My mother, on the other hand, was a bit sullen during the festivities. Once we were in the car on the way home she turned around in her seat and explained that she had made the jelly, and I had watched her. She had put the jelly in the paper bag, and I had watched her. She had unpacked the paper bag including the jelly, and I had watched her. However, I gave my grandma credit for making the jelly. She didn’t understand how I could think that Grandma had anything to do with the jelly besides putting it on my biscuit.
I smiled to myself. I knew Mom had made the jelly. I just wanted to make my grandma feel special because even at such a young age that’s what I believed the holidays meant – making each other happy. Grandma always looked tired, and was often cranky. I loved her with all of my heart, and I wanted to make her smile. My mom still makes the best jelly in the world to this day, but I will never regret bringing that much happiness to my country grandma.