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Friday, November 5, 2021

The Jam Cellar, cont. (Part III)

 1928

“That was a nice little party now wasn’t it, maw?” asked Fred jovially, as he pulled the Model T into their driveway. He was in a good humor because he had bested his cousin in a highly competitive game of pinochle, and beating Cedric was a rare event among their group.

“Well, Fred,” replied Flora Belle, adding the slightest bit of emphasis to Fred’s name in vain hope that he’d someday stop calling her asinine nicknames like maw, “it certainly was lovely to catch up with all our friends, I’ll say that.”

“I certainly got the best of Cedric! Why, he was in a fine fettle – I’m not sure I’ll ever let him live that down,” bragged Fred as the car came to a neat stop exactly 8 feet from the garage, as usual, so that she could get out while he parked the car with the ridiculous compulsive precision that sent most people shrieking off into the night.

Flora replied through gritted teeth, as she opened the car door to get out. “I’m quite sure he’s forgotten about it already, dear, as it was only a card ga….EEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeck!” she screamed as she tumbled out of the car onto the hard ground. What the….what in the world had she just tripped over? Flora kicked a slippered foot out and came in contact with a hard surface. Wood. Of course.

As she lay there with her feet still entangled among the small woodpile, she wondered to herself – as she often did – if Fred were malicious or simply incompetent. Surely no one man could be that inept. And yet.

And yet.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1925 - Three years earlier

Flora Belle was puttering around in the kitchen, enjoying the blessed silence that existed only when she had the space to herself. Whenever Fred was around, his 6’2 frame loomed over her as he bumbled his way about, somehow never managing to remember where anything was. Why, if she had her druthers, he’d never even make his way into the kitchen again, and it would be HER place alone, just as he had his shed to tinker around in. Did she go gallivanting about in there? No she did NOT, thank you very much. Of course, there was the fact that the shed was boring as sin, with nothing more for entertainment than Fred’s metalworking tools, and weren’t those a snooze. Yet somehow he could go on and on about them for hours. Literally hours, as Flora recalled the time she had watched the sun go down as Fred waxed on about some thin miter saw that he had special ordered from Elmira, all the way out east. He didn’t notice that she was falling asleep on her feet after canning the damn green beans all day, because of course he didn’t. Fred never noticed anything about her or what she needed, ever.

Flora idly contemplated what else a miter saw could be used for, as she opened the cabinet to get a teacup to make herself a large cup of tea. Now, why in the world was her favorite mug on the top shelf? As she reached for it, holding on to the cabinet door for balance, she reminded herself that gritting her teeth so much couldn’t possibly be good for her. There, she almost ha….. 

“EEEEEEeeeeeeeekkkk!” Flora screamed as the entire cabinet door came loose, and she went flying backwards, smashing into a kitchen chair and crashing to the floor.

As she tried to get her bearings, Fred walked into the kitchen, having completed his regular Saturday morning errand of getting 14 oz. of hamburger meat for that night’s dinner. (“I’ll tell you, maw, you can’t ask them to give you a pound! Then you get some old package from the back. This way they have to weigh out the fresh meat exactly.” Fred was so proud of the many ways he annoyed people.)

“Mother! What in the world happened here?!” exclaimed Fred, astonished at the sight before him.

“By God, I will kill you if you call me Mother one more time,” muttered Flora Belle darkly.

“What’s that you said?” Fred asked, as he continued to stand there gaping and made no motion to help Flora up or to see if she were okay.

“NOTHING! I said nothing!” screamed Flora. “The cabinet….it just came out…..I…..this house……it’s falling apart!”

“Oh,” chuckled Fred, “By golly I guess that’s my fault. I took the door off so that I could oil the hinges since they were squeaking, and I guess I forgot to tighten it when I put it back up.”

“You…you…….I…..wha…..” Flora was so astonished, she was sputtering. “You took it OFF? Instead of just…oiling…the hinges??” 

“Well now how was I going to do that?” admonished Fred, as a stern but tolerant look settled over his face. “The oil is in a big ol’ can in the shed, it must weigh a hundred pounds! Can you see me trying to lift that can up to the hinge and getting oil all over your pretty kitchen? And in the cabinet on your little jars of jelly? Tsk tsk.”

“I DO NOT MAKE JELLY, YOU BUFFOON!!” screamed Flora, who was going to kill this man just as sure as he stood there. “NO JELLY! NEVER! EVER!”

Fred looked confused. “Then what in tarnation is that fruity stuff you mix up, mothe….”

“JAM! JAM! I ONLY MAKE JAM! MY PERFECT LITTLE ELIXIRS! OF JAM!”

“But is there really a diff…..” Fred started to get the forbidden words out but stopped abruptly as a hatchet went flying past his head and bounced off the wall. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It had to be said: she had married Fred in a fit of pique.

Oh there was nothing wrong with Fred per se; it was just that he was so damn boring. And not in the “Oh I only like bad boys!” kind of way. No, that was boring unto itself, these so-called rebels acting rude, disagreeing for the sake of it, breaking the laws, all while refusing to grow up and be a responsible citizen. No, it was more that Fred and his type were so earnest, so bland, so agreeable. SUCH rule-followers that it was ridiculous. Fred couldn’t get worked up about anything! There were so many examples.

Flora ranting about the abomination that the new neighbors from California had created from the beautiful old Granville mansion. Gold leaf! Painted beige! REMOVING THE OLD OAK TREE!

Fred’s response: “Oh it’ll be fine, Mother. It’ll give a different look to our charming little Iowa town.”

Flora ready to march on City Hall, alone if need be, upon finding out that the town planned to destroy a historic oak grove in order to put in another drive-in movie theater.

Fred: “They’re trees, they’ll grow back. That’s what they do! Progress is progress.” (That was one of Fred’s favorite sayings, and Flora often wanted to shiv him just for that inanity alone.)

Flora seeing a field of neglected and forgotten plum trees, thinking that it would be only right if she went and rescued those poor plums from their pernicious fate as fertilizer fodder, dropping to the grown as they were.

Fred: “That’s trespassing, why that for sure can’t be done! Whether they go to waste is none of our business.”

And so on. 

And yet, a year earlier, when Flora had heard that her desired beau Phillip was supposedly dating that strumpet Clarissa, and her own mother was constantly harping about her being “not married yet and what will the neighbors think and you are just too fussy for your own good Flora Belle!” and her father was mumbling about some people in the house being “long in the tooth” and “not getting any younger now are we” – well. All that….and there was Fred, mooning about as always, chatting with her parents and helping them around the house, to the point that he became “that nice young man Fred, quite a catch” in every sentence uttered.  “Now these lovely potatoes were provided by that nice young man Fred, from his own garden. He’s quite a catch, Flora Belle,” was a constant refrain at the dinner table, to the point that Flora thought she might simply go mad if she had to listen to it any longer.

She also realized that Fred was likely to be a lot more….malleable, so to speak, than someone like Phillip. Easier to cajole into doing her bidding. To get him to embrace her point of view. To wrap around her finger, if truth be told. Oh, she would make a perfect wife, there was no doubt about that. She was pretty, smart, and not afraid of hard work. But Flora also knew her “shortcomings,” if one could call them that: stubborn, mercurial, clever to a fault, slightly quick-tempered, the opposite of complacent, certain she was always right (because she generally was, quite frankly). She had no patience for fools, but while Fred was affable and a man of seemingly simple tastes, surely he wasn’t a complete idiot, was he?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

As she reached for another projectile (being a jam maker was helpful when one was looking for sharp objects to throw), Flora recalled those thoughts from a year ago when she had decided to marry Fred. Ha, who was the fool now! She should have listened to Coreen, who tried to warn her that Fred would try her very soul. If she could go back….wait, what was the knucklehead blathering on about?

“….and so it’s finally for sale! No one knows where those Californians high-tailed it off to, but I thought we might go over and have a look-see after you’re done fretting like this,” finished Fred.

“What house is for sale?” Flora asked. “I missed what you said.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” said Fred in his loping, meandering way. “See, when I was at the market picking up my 14 oz. of ground beef, I got to talking to Stan. You remember Stan, we met him that one day when we were out driving past their farmhouse on the corner with the white chicken coop that looks like a….”

“JUST TELL ME WHAT HOUSE!”

“That’s what I’m getting to, maw – the Granville house is for sale,” proclaimed Fred with a grand flourish. “That big rattling house, with plenty of room for you to can those green beans I love and even to make your little jel….” The rest of his thought was fortunately lost to time and space, as Flora Belle suddenly leapt up from the floor, tea forgotten, and grabbed Fred by the hand to drag him out the door.

The Granville house would be hers.



Friday, October 29, 2021

The Jam Cellar, cont. (Part II)

Putting aside the Kaiser Shipbuilding book and the mystery surrounding Flora Belle’s impending logpile-kindled disaster, Ava set out to explore the mansion and see what historical architectural elements remained after prior owners had imposed their grotesque sensibilities on it. She had read that the house was purchased by the dreaded Californians sometime around the 1920s, who then promptly set about ruining it by adding all sorts of modern elements. They met with “an unfortunate incident” in the late ‘20s (the details were murky on this) and no further mention was made of them in writings about the history of the mansion. Since then, the mansion had been restored to its former glory, with a gorgeous fireplace mantel with inlaid tile, original crown molding, and built-ins throughout the house. I could easily live here, thought Ava, just rattling around, playing haunting and lugubrious melodies on the piano by candlelight.

It was the door right outside the kitchen that intrigued her.  Smaller than a typical door, it was painted blue and there was some kind of pull cord attached to it. She pulled it, naturally, and heard the dulcet tone of a bell coming from beyond the door. Opening the door revealed stairs going down, and even at the top of the stairs there was that musty smell endemic to all basements. Knowing that basements and attics were generally the most intriguing areas of any old house, Ava flicked the light on and went down to see what she could find. 

Now, Ava knew she was no expert, but the first thing she noticed was that for a house this large, the basement seemed unusually… small. Then her eyes lighted upon the sole closed door off in the corner. Aha, that must be it – there was a separate part of the basement. And there was no need to guess what it was; there was a faded wooden sign conveniently hanging above the door that said “The Jam Cellar,” in quaint etched print. Jam? She had always thought about making jam, ever since she had moved to Oregon, also known as the Land of Fruit Everywhere. It all seemed so complicated though, and potentially dangerous, what with pressure canners exploding and botulism lurking around every corner. Nope, she wasn’t going to kill off an entire family of ten (it was always a family of ten meeting their demise) with tainted green beans, no sirree. They were called Green Beans of Death for a reason. Well, she called them that at least. As Ava liked to say, her mom didn’t raise many foolish children.

She thought of the cellar room in her own basement at home, though that one had been turned into a wine cellar by the previous owners, with wooden shelves and built-in climate control since it was always cool down there. Once she had tried to store squash there, as that was apparently a thing one did in Oregon, but she kind of forgot about them and didn’t really care for squash anyway, so that was a bit of a failed experiment. Another friend had suggested she make freezer jam instead, which seemed to consist of mashing up fruit, adding some sugar, and freezing it. Umm. Ava explaining that that was frozen sugared fruit and not jam didn’t endear her to the rabid contingent of Oregon freezer jam acolytes. 

With no small amount of trepidation, she opened the door. And stood there. And blinked. What the hell? This was like no jam cellar she had seen in real life, the ones that were in old farmhouses before they were torn down to make way for ugly McMansions. Those always had jars with uncertain contents, either turned dark over the decades or caked with dust or both, lingering in rooms with dirt floors and cobwebs. She had seen plenty of such cellars, because although she didn’t actually can, Ava had a fascination with the tools of the trade, so to speak: the ancient and impractical cherry pitters that looked like miniature guillotines, the old cabbage slicers that actually would slice your finger off if you weren’t careful, and of course the jars. The bale jars, the blue ones, the elusive purples and greens. She coveted the green ones in particular, and had even heard of pink and yellow jars out there somewhere, probably festering in some basement she had yet to discover. Her jar obsession was why she found herself in places like Sweet Home in scenes straight out of Deliverance. 

But, that was a story for another day.  Here, she was trying to figure out why this was NOT the typical dusty jam cellar of yore, but was more akin to walking into Willy Wonka Land. This was a carbon copy of pictures she had previously only seen in old Life magazines, with abnormally cheery women in pristine sundresses showing off their canned goods. All of which were neatly shelved and standing at attention, compelling in their uniformity. Until, that is, one realized that usually those pretty jars contained limp carrots and overly sugared jams. Or jellies. Whatever the hell the difference was. 

Ava supposed that “The Jam Cellar” was a bit of a misnomer – shouldn’t it be The Canning Cellar? The Jam and Waterlogged Vegetable Cellar? Except…..wait, was there anything down here other than jam? At first glance, there were a lot of what looked like green beans. On second glance, there was indeed a hell of a lot of green beans. Pickled? It was tough to say. She had once tried pickled green beans and they were good, but this was a LOT of jars. Other than the beans, there were smaller jars of …..jam? arranged by color, one jewel tone after another. They were remarkably bright, considering that they had been down here for decades; Ava really didn’t think that the homeowners spent their free time in between renters making endless batches of preserves. 

“Jam stays good forever, I think? I wonder if they’ll mind if I try one.” None of them had labels, so she closed her eyes, reached out, and picked one. “Okay, a dark blue one – blackberry? Black currant?” She shrugged and took the jam with her as she left the room. As she did, Ava noticed the small bell on a string over the jam cellar door – ah, that must be what the pull cord was for. Ha, maybe there was hell to pay if the man of the house came between the jam maker and her jams. Ava chuckled to herself as she turned out the lights and went back upstairs. 

As she walked out of the basement and closed the door behind her, she noticed to her left a wall of framed pictures that she had somehow overlooked previously. It looked like pictures of the Granville over the years and the people who had lived here. There were the earliest pictures of the house, looking remarkably similar but with much smaller trees on the property, and then several with whom she assumed were the Granvilles.

“They’re playing croquet! As it should be, of course, on an estate of this caliber. Let’s see, and this must be…the original elders, Timothy and Geneva Granville. Oh, she definitely wore the pants in the family. He looks henpecked. Or, what did they say back then, choleric?”

The photos were arranged in a timeline of sorts, though Ava noticed that any pictures of the house when it was unfortunately (albeit temporarily) “modernized” were conspicuously absent. 

“And rightly so,” grumbled Ava. “The nerve! I hope they were run out of town like the interlopers they were.”

One picture, brighter than the others, caught her eye. A trick of the light, perhaps, glancing off the picture of the two young women. The one on the left, a brunette with hair that looked as if she had tried to curl it but was losing the battle, looked as if she were the keeper of many secrets, including those on how to laugh at life’s vagaries. And she was laughing here, as if she and her friend were in on a great joke. Her friend, the blonde, was only slightly more subdued, as if to say “yes, she comes up with the crazy ideas, but I can’t help but go along with them.” 

Ava carefully took the picture off the wall to see if there was any information written on the back of it. A date, barely legible. “192…..twenty……something. The 1920s at least. And names……Flora Belle &…. Coreen. Wait, Flora Belle – where did I just hear that name?” Her mom did say that she had a mind like a sieve. Was it someone she had spoken to earlier today? Emailed? SHIPBUILDING, that was it! What a weird coincidence, but Flora Belle seemed like a pretty common name back in the olden days. Ava shrugged it off. “Bedtime for bonzos here – oh, I’ll email the owners first to ask them about trying the jam. Maybe I can have it for breakfast tomorrow.”


To: the Granville owners

From: Ava

"(blah blah) ….and so I was wondering if you’d mind if I tried some of the jam I found in the old jam cellar in the basement. Thanks again for everything – this place is gorgeous!”


With that, Ava headed up to bed, leaving behind the framed photo and the book with its unfinished tale. 

 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Jam Cellar

 

...or, The Emancipation of Flora Belle


Part I

“I absolutely do not need any more stuff,” muttered Avangeline to herself as she flipped through the stack of old recipe pamphlets buried in between even older crafting books. “Nothing. At. All.” 

An hour later, she stood nervously as the girl at the checkout desk for the estate sale looked through her haul. Luckily, Ava had managed to find two stray paper bags in the kitchen in which to put her armfuls of things – it had been a little precarious moving the stacks from room to room. She had no idea what the asking price for such historic materials would be. $100? $80? More? Ava was prepared to try to bargain them down to $40. 

“So they’re just old….” said the young woman, trailing off as she looked through Ava’s collection.

“Cookbooks!” Ava replied. “Umm, a couple of old cookbooks – you can see they’re kind of falling apart – and then these little pamphlets and oh, some other old books too.”

One hopeful sign was that the sale hadn’t really been organized in any particular fashion, as it was for more formal estate sales. Most rooms just had random piles of things stacked up on every surface, almost whimsically. “Let’s put all these religious tomes next to the cookbook stuff! Those church ladies are the only ones who cook these days, amirite?” Sigh. It was so hard to be a traditionalist in a modern world.

Ava was suddenly startled out of her reverie. “How about $10?” chirped the young woman in front of her, having finished her idle perusal.

“Okay!” Ava practically shouted. “Sure, that works,” she continued, more languidly, as she pulled $10 out of her wallet in record time, scooped up the bags, and started fast-walking to her car. What luck! She couldn’t believe her good fortune, for a change.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It wasn’t often that a house like the Granville mansion was available for rent, especially on a short-term basis. Ava had been looking for a place off the beaten path, in the middle of nowhere, with few distractions so that she could finally – finally! – start working on the novel she kept talking about writing.  That’s why she was now in Iowa on a rainy fall day, rattling around alone in a drafty old (but glorious!) house, currently staring at a blank screen. How to start? Ava always had ideas and thoughts and sentences tumbling over each other in her head, but as soon as she went to write them down, they disappeared

“I know,” though Ava to herself, comfortably ensconced on a couch in the parlor, near the fireplace. “I’ll write for an hour – no, half an hour – and then I’ll let myself have a muffin. Yes, a banana muffin. That’s a good muffin.”

Half an hour later she had stoked the fire, checked the weather forecast, done a few stretches, and rummaged around in a drawer for candles in case the power went out, as the wind outside picked up to an unrelenting midwestern howl. Ava also had yet to write a word, but found herself drawn to her purchases that day. 

“Fine, I’ll just take a quick look at the Kaiser Shipbuilding – Oregon scrapbook, that’s all.”

Three hours later, Ava was using the glue she had found in a cupboard to put the old pictures in place back where they belonged. It was easy enough to figure out, since the scrapbook owner had helpfully included an ordered list of the subject of each picture. “Fred D. in the shipyard.” “Assembly line of parts for the U.S.S. Fond du Lac.”

The pictures weren’t the biggest draw, however; it was the typed-up biographies that fascinated her. Yes, Fred wasn’t that interesting, but beyond him, there was scandal (!): “All of Fred’s so-called birth certificates attested to him being born in Franklinville, NY to William H. Dolton and Edna Meyer Dolton. This just ain’t so.” Hints of intrigue: “Everyone knew George would never get the commission, what a surprise when he did.” And Flora Belle! Ah, Flora Belle, born in 1906, married Fred in 1924. Ava pictured her as a saucy minx who didn’t suffer fools gladly, yet who was bound by the mores of her time to be compliant and complacent. A proper little housewife, married as she was to Fred, who seemed like somewhat of a dolt. Certainly, Flora’s bio was much more compelling than Fred of the uncertain lineage, particularly since most of his bio harped on that fact alone.

“Flora Belle wore the highest heeled shoes she could find because she was only 4’9 and Fred was 6’2. She loved to go out dancing with their friends. They went out one evening after Fred and the boys had stacked a cord of wood for the fireplace. It was stacked next to the driveway. Fred let Flora out of the car and told her he would park it and for her to go on in the……”

The page abruptly came to an end.

“Wait, where’s the rest of it?”

Ava looked through all the papers and photographs, and then checked again. And then looked at the backs of the pages. Nothing. The story of Flora Belle and the hapless Fred just left them dangling on this cliffhanger. J’accuse!

“Well, dammit,” exclaimed Ava. “How the hell can I not know what happened to Miss Flora Belle as she stepped out of the car and right into the pile of wood laid down by Fred and his merry band of idiots?” 

Who apparently shared one brain among themselves, mused Ava. And of course it wouldn’t occur to Fred to tell his pals that hey, maybe we should think about stacking the wood up against the house rather than in the middle of the yard, right by the driveway?

That moron, she thought. Just like a man.

“I guess I’ll have to assume that dear Flora, as seemed customary at the time, just picked herself up and laughed gaily as……hello?”

Ava could have sworn she had just heard something that sounded remarkably like a snort of derisive laughter. She sat perfectly still, but all was quiet except for the soothing sound of rain on the metal roof. 

“In case someone’s here I HAVE A GUN!” she yelled. True, she didn’t have it on her per se, not at the moment, but it was upstairs in her bed…..room. Oh. Ava looked up. Was that a floorboard creaking?

“If you’re up there and planning to butcher me with my own gun, you will feel my wrath!” Ava yelled again, recognizing that that made no sense whatsoever, but going with it anyway.

But there were no sounds, no floorboards creaking, no derisive snorts. Just the rain, and the stately comfort of the old mansion settling down around her for the evening. Clearly, she was being completely ridiculous, or perhaps losing her mind. Or both. 

Maybe, thought Ava, she should go exploring the house on this dark, rainy night, much as the stupid people in a slasher movie would. “Oh, let’s go ask that man with the chainsaw for directions.” Of course, she had never let the idea that she was doing something extremely foolish stop her before, so why start now?

(to be continued)