Sap Moon and the Mother

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The March full moon, the last full moon of winter, is known in some parts as the Sap Moon when evidence of life below the frozen surface begins to trickle forth sweetly.  Sugar season.  This year’s Sap Moon coincided with a trip home to Vermont to visit my mother who recently fell and broke four ribs.

Along the dirt road leading to her house, there are veal and dairy farms, Holsteins with swollen udders standing on a muddy riverbank, and a spooky old farmhouse framed by sugar maples hung with galvanized sap buckets.

This weather-beaten landmark was once home to the Gross brothers, Hugh and David.  They lived here together perhaps their whole lives; I do not know.  They kept to themselves.  For that matter, so did we.  They could have been benign characters in the Deliverance movie.  Their overalls and graying thermal underwear, Onesie long johns, hung from a line on the front porch. Their sugarhouse, for boiling off sap, is just across the road. Forty gallons of sap to a gallon of syrup. Any Vermonter can tell you the ratio.

Although there were many local producers to choose from, we favored their maple syrup.  About ten years ago my brother and I—like anthropologists or visitors to a curiosity shop–went on a procurement run.  Hugh was there in a plaid flannel shirt and denim overalls, eyeing us from behind the just cracked front door.  My brother, who’d been here before, introduced me.  Hugh opened the door wider to let us into the kitchen.  I felt a sudden thrill; we were in.  Upon the heels of this fleeting triumph came the shame of being an obvious voyeur with hungry eyes.

Perhaps this is why I can recall so little but an overall impression of drabness, grayness, everything bled of paint and color as if we’d stepped into a Depression-era black and white photo so that a box of Fruit Loops on the kitchen table jumps forth now as the most striking detail.  That and a galvanized washtub; there was no proper sink.  And Hugh’s surprising hospitality, “Don’t you wanna try it?”

From a newish refrigerator, he took a Mason jar of syrup, dipped a spoon in, sampled it himself with lip-smacking satisfaction, then dipped it in again and offered a taste first to me, then to my brother. It would have been rude to refuse his kindness.

Liquid gold. I’ve been known to lick my plate clean after pancakes so as not to miss a single drop.  It’s said to be the healthiest sweetener, with beneficial minerals, even antioxidants.  Maybe because of this, maple business in Vermont is booming, and the woods are laced now with plastic tubing that carries the sap efficiently from trees to holding tanks, mostly eliminating the whole bucket business which was standard practice back in my childhood days, galvanized buckets brimming with faintly sweet water.

In the ancient Indian science of life known as Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga, it’s said we’re nourished by six tastes:  sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent.  A balanced meal offers a bit of each flavor; you need all of them to experience a feeling of post-meal satisfaction.

My mother was a good cook, especially famous for her pies. She could whip up a pie as quick as a cat could blink his eye, as the song goes, with a flaky crust you’d actually want to eat.  This lightness was earned with the secret ingredient of lard.  She doesn’t cook anymore, and in the morning when I go to check on her, convalescing in a makeshift bed near the wood stove, she looks at me, wide-eyed, and says, “Who are you?”

Each phase of the moon, that ancient symbol of the feminine, the mother, has its prescribed purposes—waxing, waning, working, resting.  New moons are for initiating projects, planting seeds of intention, while the full moon sheds light on things; it initiates and supports the process of letting go.  It’s said the power of the full moon is behind you if you want to declutter or release old habits that no longer serve your higher purpose.

No matter the moon phase, my visits back home are always for working, cleaning, and putting things in order.  My mother’s bedroom is a tossed salad; nothing makes sense.  Drawers my sister has labeled Shirts—Sweaters—Underwear have dinner napkins, junk mail, a single knitting needle, and, in a far back corner, a half-eaten maple waffle cookie tucked in a wad of tissue.

This time last year I took on the pantry.  My mother, a Depression-era child, hovered close by.  She likes to hang on to things, imagining their future utility, but also she wanted to be helpful, so I sent her to find boxes and the vacuum.  I gave my daughter Emily, a more reluctant helper, the job of cleaning out a cut crystal decanter, one-half of the oil and vinegar pair I remember from the dinner table growing up.  It seemed an easy enough starter job, a rinse detail, a simple case of vinegar turned India ink.  She was still at it half an hour later, wrestling with some dense mass that could not be dislodged through the neck of the decanter, even though she’d been stabbing at it with a steak knife, trying to reduce it to passable chunks.  It commanded her miserable attention for over an hour.  Finally, I said, “Just forget it,” and she left it on the butcher block counter above the trash.

During this time I’d amassed three full boxes of Mason and jam jars, chipped china, mugs, and plates; several garbage bags of moldering foodstuffs, old picnic plates and plastic ware, stumps of candles in baskets, loose recipes from a sagging shelf of food-splattered cookbooks.  I’d married spices, and chucked tins I remembered from baking as a child—cinnamon and ginger for molasses cookies, cream of tartar for English toffee, unmarked Baggies of spices so old they no longer carried a signature.  I held them under my brother’s nose.  “Smells like dust,” he said and tossed them in the trash.

I left my mother a whole shelf of extra large, dishwasher clean Mason jars so that she wouldn’t be too rattled by the bareness of her cupboard.  The grains were now safe from rodents and mealy worms in labeled ½ gallon jars.  I tried to organize things in a way that would make sense even to an octogenarian with failing executive function—baking dishes here, grains there, spices roughly divided into savory and sweet.

Back in the darkest corner, I came upon an enormous jar of truly ancient pickled matter the color of military camouflage gear, a jumble of olive green and black topped by a yellow cottage cheesy culture.  Like a haunted house still life, it stood in a loose veil of spider webs.  I took the jar over to show Emily, who was still doing battle with the decanter.

“What,” Mom said.  “What are you girls laughing about?”

I showed her the jar.  This one was beyond even her defense “Oh dear,” she said, fluttering a hand in the air, all beyond her ability to keep track.  But a few minutes later, when I was back at work in the pantry, I heard her in the kitchen. “It’s still good!  I just scooped off the top!”  She came in holding out a silver teaspoon bearing pickled matter in juice.  She raised it to her lips.

“Mom,” I said sharply, “Be careful.”

She took a delicate sip, then held it out to me.  “Mmmm… try it!”

She did not sample anymore after that first enthusiastic taste, nor did it appear that night on the dinner table in a sterling silver condiment dish, providing a necessary balance of bitter, sour, or possibly astringent.

Later, we showed my brother the sparkling pantry and the treasures of the hunt—that vile jar of pickles, and the crystal decanter, our most stunning exhibit, with the tough, rubbery, bloated genie in its belly.

“What do you think it is?” Emily said, full of wonder.

He picked up the bottle and peered inside.  He did not have to think about it.  “It’s the mother,” he said.  He opened the trash drawer and in it went.  Too bad about the crystal decanter, I thought, but there was no budging her, the mother, those active cultures in cider vinegar that had swollen to fill the vessel.

March, like the moon, like everything, has its symbolic meaning.  It takes its name from the god and, presumably, the planet Mars.  It’s the time for action, assertion, making space, starting anew.  We march out of winter, propelled by forces we cannot see, a spring in our steps, new sap in our veins.  We digest our experience, boiling off that which we no longer need and storing the rest away in our memory banks, those curious pantries.  Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent, and pungent—just a bit of each flavor.

Lindsay Fleming
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  1. Beautiful. Sad. Funny. As someone who can barely accept one-day-old leftovers, the “pickled matter” had me gasping!

  2. My mother’s house is no tossed salad but every time I excavate something from a pantry/drawer/cupboard and ask what it is or where it came from, the answer is the same: ” oh, I’ve never seen that”

  3. Beautiful, Lindsay! Very satisfying the way you tie everything together. Right down to the “mother” in the vinegar, the sap, the syrup, and the moon. You make it look easy — and I know it isn’t. Bravo!

  4. Brings back so many memories of cleaning out Grandpa Gerry’s pantry… many little white moths flew out every time I opened a box. So much saved….. rubber bands, jelly jars, foil rolls, plastic clam shells. You write so well I feel like I was right there with you on this full moon adventure. Thank you.

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