The Color Purple and Mary’s Birthday

Photography © by Sarah Reinhard

Photography © by Sarah Reinhard

A few years ago, when we made grape jelly, I took quite a few pictures. I wanted to capture it in a way that, I was afraid, words wouldn’t. I wanted to be able to look back and recall the way her hands looked, the stories my father-in-law told me about his boyhood, the enthusiasm (however short-lived) my daughter had for helping. I wanted pictures to jog my memory of that hot smell as the grapes simmer, as the juice cooks, as the jelly is done.

The pictures also remind me of the first time I helped. I was seven months pregnant and the heat was getting to me. Though my mother-in-law had air conditioning, making grape jelly is a hot process, and it involves being on your feet and moving fast – a combination that my pregnant body protested.

“Go sit down!” my mother-in-law frequently told me, and I told her I would sit in a minute. I wanted to HELP! I wanted to be a part of the action! I wanted grape jelly!

The year before that, she made grape jelly for the first time in years. I’ve never been a big fan of grape jelly – I’m more of a strawberry jam kind of gal. But when I saw my husband’s rapture as he cracked open that jar of homemade grape jelly, I grew curious. He does not, after all, like things that aren’t good. (No, really, he doesn’t. He’s as reliable as a young child.) So I took a taste.

It was like no other grape jelly I had ever eaten. It tasted like…grapes. No, not the processed jars of purple jelly you find in the stores – REAL grapes, fresh from the vine, hot from your hands.

When grape season rolled around the following year, I made sure my mother-in-law knew that I wanted to know the technique, so that I can pass it along to my children and so that we can enjoy homemade grape jelly for years to come.

That year, amid the steam and sugar, she said, “You know, someday, your children will smell this and think of these days of us making grape jelly together.”

The year I took all the pictures (two years after that first time), as I helped and documented and pondered, I also found myself praying. Making grape jelly is a hopping process, but it’s also full of standing around – stirring, mashing, stirring, waiting, stirring, straining, stirring, milling.

In that standing around, as my mind wandered here and there, I would slip in a Hail Mary here and there. I was praying for my husband, for my daughters, for my moms, for my sister and sisters-in-law, for my friends.

It just seemed to fit right in. There we were, laboring in a process that many would shun as being too hard and too time-consuming. The kitchen and our hands were stained purple before the two days were over. At least two pillowcases were sacrificed to make sure the straining was done the right way.

It seems appropriate that the labor that went into the jars of jelly that I share with the people I love involved the intercession of the Blessed Mother. Though she can’t be seen in the pictures, I think she was there —and is there — over my shoulder, as I stirred.

Today, as I reflect on the nativity of Mary, I can’t help but think about how ordinary grape jelly is…until you make it. Maybe Mary was ordinary to everyone around her…until you got to know her. Maybe the Blessed Mother shares my delight in the ordinary, in the simple, in the world around me, full of children and loved ones, gradual beginnings and frequent failures, struggles and triumphs.


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