Home Made

John Landis Mason invented the Mason Jar on November 30, 1858. In 1884, Ball Corporation began manufacturing glass home-canning jars, the product that established Ball as a household name and licensed Mason’s design.

I didn’t grow up in a household where we canned fruits and vegetables. Living in the suburbs, our garden only had a few tomato plants, a few green vegetables and the occasional zucchini plant. It was our small version of a Victory Garden but it never produced much more than we could eat that summer.

However, my Dad’s sister and her family always had a huge garden and they canned as much as possible. Back during the late 50’s and on into the 60s, I remember visiting the cousins “on the ranch”  and helping pick blackberries, cherries, apples, and a variety of smaller vegetables that they would preserve. I have great memories of helping cook apples for apple butter, making watermelon pickles, and helping prepare the jars and lids for canning. It was a lot of work and the large country kitchen was full of small helpers, my cousins and I each with an assigned task.

I think it was that sense of sharing in a generations-old activity that encouraged me to try canning with my granddaughter. 

What is America’s favorite flavor? According to data based on the U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey (NHCS), 163.97 million Americans consumed strawberry jams, jellies and preserves in 2019. So strawberry jam was on our list to try.

Nearly 128 million consumed grape jams or jellies. Raspberry, blackberry, and apricot round out the top five flavors, though considerably farther behind (50; 38; and 33 million). So we bought fresh strawberries from the market and a gallon jug of Welch’s grape juice to make strawberry jam and grape jelly. 

If you haven’t tried your hand at home made preserves, it’s surprising how much time is involved in preparing utensils, boiling water, sterilizing bottles and lids, cutting up fruit, measuring sugar and many other little tasks. While I got our little production underway, Cadence cut up the strawberries we had purchased.

Our assembly line worked pretty smoothly, the kitchen was filled with the smell of ripe strawberries, and the introduction to an element of frontier living went better than I could have hoped. We’ve got enough bottled preserves to last us through the winter, and though we never did make the pickles I had promised her, there is still time to try this summer.

While searching online for recipes and where to purchase mason jars, I was really surprised to see the many creative uses for mason jars that people have been inspired to share. The website freshpreserving in particular, had a lot of fun DIY projects for jars. The locking ring and lid are particular features of the mason jar. However, the website masonjars marketplace has an array of accessories to replace the traditional lid with pour spout lids, dispensor pumps, or spray tops to make reusable glass storage ware.

The wedding industry doesn’t seem to have slowed down in their love of rustic, DIY presentation and the mason jar has a proud position at the table as well as in lighting and other creative uses. And whatever your style, Etsy has it covered with over 51,000 entries alone for “mason jar decor.” That’s a pretty good heritage for John Mason and his glass container patent for the “Improvement In Screw-Neck Bottles.” It was the first hermetically re-sealable glass jar (US 22186A). His improvements, coupled with a rubber washer, transformed the capabilities of the home canning industry and solidified Mason’s place in history. (masonjars.com/history)

Mason jar wine glasses, a little bit country.
Wedding decor with firefly lighting and themed drink ware.
Rustic mason jar bird feeder.

Smells Like Home

Recently we remodeled the guest bathroom. It started out as quick fix to a leaking faucet, but as so often happens, the project expanded a bit in scope. Mission creep that ended up with new tile, vanity and bathroom fixtures. But I digress.

The new bathroom design took a decided turn towards modern farmhouse, but it did allow us to feature a couple of letterpress prints we had purchased years before on a vacation out west. Dutch Door printers had created an American states series, “Birds and Blooms of the 50 States”. Each print featured that state’s bird surrounded by the state flower. We purchased both a print of Virginia and of Nevada (my home state) but hadn’t displayed them before. The completed guest bath was perfect: lots of black, grey and white were the perfect backdrop for Virginia’s state bird—the cardinal, and dogwood blossoms.

Nevada was a bit harder to incorporate in our decor. How to feature the mountain bluebird and artemisia, known commonly as sagebrush? But when my niece sent me a cutting of sagebrush from Reno, we had everything we needed. When I opened the box, the aroma of desert sage was incredible.

There are other smells, scents that immediately remind me of home. The sharp aroma of pine trees or wood smoke draws me back to summer evenings and fire crackling in the wood stove in our cabin at Lake Tahoe. A newly mown lawn invariably reminds me of fields of alfalfa; my cousins and I are riding on a flatbed trailer wrestling with bales of hay. 

With all of their bittersweet memories, I suppose there is nothing to compare with the smell of morning coffee and the heavy presence of bacon frying, filling the house with the promise of fried eggs, toast and coffee for breakfast. My Dad always rose early, always made the coffee first, and loved his San Francisco sourdough bread. 

I suppose one could make an argument for fresh-from-the-oven apple pie, or even the sweet scent of chocolate chip cookies baking. The aromas of baking are captivating and stay with us for a lifetime. But for me they hardly compare with some of the pungent flavors of the desert. Even after years of living in another state, stepping off a plane after we had landed in Reno and walking across the tarmac to the main terminal (long before the modern passenger boarding bridge), the hot, dry wind always carried with it the smell of sagebrush. Home again. 

Summer Projects

As any parent knows, the summer vacation time between the end of school and the Labor Day weekend can be a challenge. For students who are experiencing a breath of freedom (no more teachers, no more books!) the summer weeks stretch out ahead in full, unscheduled promise. For parents however, each day brings the challenge of organizing activities, educational or entertaining, and making the most of each opportunity. But this year, summer camps and weekend outings, trips to the zoo or King’s Dominion, have all been changed. 

As grandparents of a tween (twelve going on twenty) this summer has brought even greater challenges than usual. Our vacation plans for Florida were canceled early in the aftermath of Covid-19 shutdowns. Still, we have been blessed with great weather and outdoor venues are beginning to return to a degree of normalcy, even if that means 50% occupancy and social distancing. 

Yet each day stands before us demanding answers, hours to be filled, adventures to be planned whether large or small.

And that is what brought us to painting rocks for the neighborhood. The past several weeks we have spotted painted rocks hidden among the tree trunks and leaves along our walking path. Well, we have smooth river rocks in the garden; a wide assortment of acrylic paints in my studio; plenty of time to add our own creations to the neighborhood collection. Let’s do this.

The best outcome of all? The project took a couple of days to complete. We had to first paint our rocks with white, then a background color. Then decide on patterns and designs. Our project culminated in a walk thru the woods to distribute our creations. It’s a small act of charity, the opportunity to serve others in a creative way; I’m hoping that these little seeds will slowly take root and flourish. 

Our summer vacation plans may have been changed in unexpected ways. But the endless possibilities still remain.

Dear Younger Me

Me at 26, posing with one of my acrylic paintings.

The group Mercy Me had a song back in 2014 titled “Dear Younger Me.” Reflecting on the distance between our present and the possibilities of our past, the second verse goes like this:

Dear younger me
I cannot decide
Do I give some speech about how to get the most out of your life
Or do I go deep
And try to change
The choices that you’ll make cuz they’re choices that made me

I’m 26 at the time, had graduated from college four years before and then moved to Southern California. I had originally intended on attending graduate school in San Diego. I got a job, found an apartment, changed jobs a couple of times. It was several years later that I realized I had given up on the idea of graduate school and ever pursuing a career in art. A fork in the road I never saw coming.

Thirteen years out of high school I joined the Army. Enlisting at 31 was a challenge I was physically up for, but one I wasn’t really mentally prepared to take on. Nearly everyone I served with was younger than me, including the lieutenant in charge of our platoon. I settled in to my job as a cartographer, relished my time in Germany, but decided that a career in the military was not for me. I got out of the service and decided to stay in the Washington, D.C. area. Another fork in the road, though this time I thought I knew where it would lead. I was hoping for a job at the Smithsonian: that never happened and I settled back into a career in graphic art production.

I’ve lived in Virginia over thirty years now and looking back at some of those early decisions, I’ve often wondered what would have happened differently? Had I stayed in Nevada; had I gone on to graduate school and not moved to California; had I not joined the Army; had I moved back to the west coast and stayed there?

The Old Testament Book of Jeremiah has a verse that many people have committed to memory. “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.” Jeremiah 29:11

It seems we’ve gotten so good at looking at out GPS maps on our phones, planning out the way we should go to get to our destinations, always looking forward, that we’ve lost a desire to turn around and look back from where we’ve come. A verse like Jeremiah’s begins to make sense when we take the time to look back and nod, “Oh yes, now I see how that turn in the road led to this decision. How that move opened up the door to this experience, which lead me here today. How even in the small decisions, God was guiding me to Him.”

Do I go deep and try to change the choices that you’ll make cuz they’re choices that made me?” No, but I wish I could tell Younger Me how to get the most out of our life. To enjoy the hills and valleys, sharp turns and mountain views, knowing that God really does have a hope and a future prepared for us. I know it would take some of the anxiety out of life, just knowing that He’s got this, that it’s going to be OK.

Dear Younger You: Trust Me. It really is going to be OK. I’ve got this.” God.

Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us.” Psalm 40:5

Listen to the full music video from Mercy Me here

Painting Goals

Still life
Still life with oranges, lemons, and limes.

For much of my elementary school years I was known as the boy who liked to draw. I was also known as the boy who needed glasses, but that’s another story. As far back as I can remember, I would be drawing, usually skies full of clouds, eagles flying over mountains, or dead trees in the desert. And quite often I would be one of the students chosen to help the teacher decorate the classroom bulletin board. From about second grade on, all I wanted to do was Art.

So it seems strange to me looking back that I don’t remember having taken any art classes during those years. Yet once I got to middle school and art was an elective, I took as many classes as allowed. The same in high school. In college my major was studio art. My entire life I had expected that I would eventually be a professional artist, or at least have a career in the arts. And for the most part I did, having spent more than 25 years in the graphic arts and art production fields. 

However, at no time had I ever taken an art education class. In fact, as much as I endorse the arts in school, it’s been a mystery to me how teachers actually encourage and develop any child’s interest in art. Walking thru school hallways decorated with student artwork, I had no idea what it takes to get a nine year-old to settle down and actually paint, with a brush and paints, a still life in front of them. 

Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon giving “art lessons” to my young niece and nephew. They arrived with paints, brushes, and canvases ready to create. For my part, I had snacks for the kids and a bowl full of fruit we set up as a still life. For two hours we worked at seeing the subject in front of us; drawing the outline of oranges, lemons, and limes in a bowl; mixing paints and getting used to the effects of different-sized brushes. It was a grand experiment in finding out how little I know about actually teaching others. 

When their Mom came and retrieved them later that day, I experienced a sense of relief mixed with fatigue. I can’t imagine what school teachers go thru to prepare lessons and keep the attention of a room full of children, even when it’s something they like to do. I had my hands full keeping one nine year old boy focused on not getting paint all over himself and his sister while working on a project they could take home. 

Imagine my surprise then to learn from their Mom how they thought the afternoon had gone. A few days later she had texted me this report: “The whole car ride home was all about how amazing it was and how much they learned – especially about using water and mixing the paints!”

And I’m OK with that. I learned that you have to tailor your goals to the age of the participant (dolt! Of course). And if all we did that day was learn how to mix a nice lime green, then that’s OK too. Next time I’ll be ready: more snacks and bigger brushes. Smaller goals and time spent encouraging young people to learn as they go can be very satisfying at any age.

“Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.” Exodus 35:30-34

Fear of Falling

46 years ago I walked across the grass to receive my college diploma with a degree in Fine Arts. After four years of drawing, painting, and sculpting nearly every day, I was anxious to explore a career in making art. And then one job lead to another, and time passed. I’ve since retired from a career in communications (my minor in English helped with that) and graphic arts. 

painting outdoors
My granddaughter enjoying a little painting time outdoors.

But somewhere through those years I put my brushes and paints down. Except for a few years as a scenic painter for our church’s Easter productions, I haven’t painted on canvas at all. Scenic painting lead to decorative painting, but still nothing with the same scale and intent as what I had set out to accomplish 40 something years earlier. 

This week, with the closing of AC Moore crafts stores, I picked up a few canvases at 40% off. The shelves had been picked clean of their paints so I had to stock up elsewhere. Random thought: prices on acrylics have risen ALOT in 40 years. But now I’m ready to start again.

A friend online posted a bit of encouragement. I responded that I was hoping to “catch it again.” Nature or nurture? Training or talent? If you let the lightning out of the bottle, can you catch it again? I suppose that uncertainty has partially been the reason I haven’t been more prolific as an artist. At some point though, you have to overcome your (very real) fear of falling if you want to walk again, let alone create. My granddaughter has admonished me several times, “ You have to face your fears, Papa.”

Challenge accepted.

Painting with jar of paintbrushes
Something old, something new. It’s time to create.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18