How a Mother Preserves Memories in Jars of Jam

Writer Sally Vargas cherishes those sometimes-hazy moments of motherhood because time can't be stopped.

Sally Vargas

Simply Recipes / Sally Vargas

“Each Peach Pear Plum
I spy Tom Thumb
Tom Thumb in the cupboard
I spy Mother Hubbard”

These are words from “Each Peach Pear Plum,” a children’s book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. It is a charming book filled with even more charming illustrations, painted in soft pastels—Tom Thumb slightly hidden in each page and English nursery rhyme characters play the leading roles. Like so many young children, my now-grown son Luke was enchanted by the rhyme and the story—he demanded I read it to him over and over again. The words have been drumming in my head, like a song that sticks and won’t go away, as I look into the rearview mirror at my life as a young mother to my then three-year-old son. 

Life back then was full, but exhausting. Even so, I somehow found a few hours every summer to make a batch of jam—the book even inspired me to make a pear, pear, and plum jam that I call Tom Thumb’s jam. It sounds counterintuitive, but after returning from the beautiful chaos of a summer vacation, nothing felt more grounding to me than making a batch of jam.

We had many berry-picking excursions back then. It was a strategy to both entertain and wear Luke out for the nap that he was beginning to resist, but that I still needed. I made buckets from quart-sized yogurt containers, with holes punched on two sides and a long string looped through them. The buckets hung around our necks, convenient for depositing the berries that didn’t go into our mouths. We kept them in the car for impromptu berry-picking stops along the road—I should have had a bumper sticker that said, “I Brake for Berry Picking.”

We enjoyed our hauls for snacks and on breakfast cereal. I made jam with some and froze whatever was left for colder days ahead, even though no one wanted to think of snow when we were in the middle of a blueberry field on a bright July day.

Those days were so full of moments-after-moments—it was hard to imagine the future. Each moment was swiftly replaced by another, and then one day I looked at my smooth-skinned baby and his legs were hairy, his voice cracked, and suddenly my squeaky, gurgly baby’s voice had turned manly. How did that happen?

The truth is, I never saw it coming. In some ways, I’m glad of it. It would have spoiled the delicious everyday adventures. “Keep me in a hazy bubble of motherhood,” I say. But despite my best efforts to savor those moments with Luke as a young child, the future arrived and my baby grew up, went to school, made his own friends, married a great girl, and has an exciting new life. I stood by and watched with pride.

"I made jam with some and froze whatever was left for colder days ahead, even though no one could see them coming in the middle of a blueberry field on a bright July day."

On a recent trip to visit that once three-year-old, who is now three times ten, in his new home in London, we sat at an outdoor pub and reminisced about his childhood. The words suddenly came to me like a sweet old song, "Each peach pear plum. I spy Tom Thumb." He still remembers the words and I can’t help but see the destined link between those British nursery rhymes of his childhood and his ease in adapting to London—circles of never-ending connections.

This year I’m going to make Tom Thumb’s jam again. The whole point of making jam is to preserve peak summer fruit so we can enjoy them later. It preserves a moment that cannot be stopped. It’s summer waning in a jar, to be spread on toast in January, while we make new plans for the year. The first bite will take us back to those warmers days picking fruit and spooning bubbling jam into jars. Just like the words drumming in my head, the beat goes on. It’s a wonderful melody worth preserving.