A Family Tradition

by Carol Rogers


Joe marched out of the house in a temper. "Sometimes there's just no pleasing you, Nancy!"

            His wife called after him, "You know very well that over-ripe fruit makes useless jam - it never sets properly. And you've forgotten your Primus stove, you silly old fool!"

            Joe pretended not to have heard. He threw his fishing gear into the back of the car and took his bad mood to the river. 'Plums. Cherries. Blackcurrants. So what?' he thought, irritably. 'All she ever thinks about is stupid fruit for her silly jam-making. So what if I bought over-ripe plums? Plums are plums. And jam-making is hardly rocket science..."

            But he knew that it was important to Nancy. It was something of a family tradition. She had learned all about making jam and preserving pickles as a youngster, helping her mother in the kitchen.

            In fact, it was one of Nancy's youthful pickle-making stints that had witnessed the birth of their own tradition - the jars.

            It was back in the December of 1952, when they'd been neighbours, living down by the Docks in London's Rotherhithe, south of the Thames. It was the time of the great London fogs - the pea-soupers as they were known. You could hardly see in front of you; the sulphurous, yellow-grey murk was so intense. Thousands died that winter.

            By then, Joe and Nancy had been dating for nearly a year. He was working north of the river, learning his trade as an apprentice cabinet maker. Nancy worked locally as a trainee book-keeper. He was twenty. She was eighteen.

            Joe had promised to call in at her house for a bit of supper on his way home from work. It was gone eight o'clock and he'd been due there by seven. He was stuck on a bus, which was hardly moving along streets choked with crawling traffic. Pedestrians shuffled along like nervous shadows through the fog.

            Joe was anxious, not for himself but for Nancy. He knew she'd be worried, and there was no phone in her house so he couldn't jump off the bus and call her from a phone box. Though, in the end, he did jump off after deciding that it would be quicker to walk the last two miles. It was more difficult than he expected; the fog was even thicker down by the river, as if the Thames itself had been drawn into this dense misery.

            With utter relief he finally turned into her street. When Nancy answered his knock on the door, tears were streaming down her flushed cheeks. "Oh Joe! Thank God you're safe. We've been listening to the news. People in accidents all over the place. I was so worried in case you'd been knocked down..."

            Joe kissed her tears and lifted her off the ground: "You don't get rid of me that easily - Mrs Flynn."

            "Mrs Flynn? Are you... does that mean...?" she faltered.

            He put her down and asked her, more soberly; "Will you marry me, Nancy?"

            "Yes!" She didn't need time to think about it.

            They rushed into the kitchen to tell her mother who was filling jars with sliced red cabbage, ready for pickling.

            Soon, Nancy's father joined them and raised a toast to Nancy and Joe with a bottle of his best sweet sherry, which he'd been keeping for Christmas Day.

            Then, on an impulse, Joe grabbed one of her mother's empty jars, rushed outside to the street and filled it with the fog. Returning, he pushed the lid back on and wrote on the label with her mother's fountain pen: Our Engagement Day. Rotherhithe, London. 4th December 1952. (Pea-souper.)

            "What are you doing?" Nancy watched him in bewilderment.

            "Capturing the day."

            She peered through the clear glass and laughed. "There's nothing in there!"

            "There's everything of today that's special in there," he said, proudly.

            "Pickled Engagement days! Whatever next!" Nancy's mother chuckled. "I think you've started something now, Joe. Next you'll have to preserve your wedding day in a jar."

            And so he did. And labelled it too - Our Wedding Day. Bromley, Kent. 16th August 1954. (Hot and sunny.)

            Over the years since, their collection of assorted jars had grown; filled with special days, birthdays and anniversaries. They kept the jars stored in an old wardrobe in the box room of the house they now owned in the Kent countryside. They never opened them. They both felt that, somehow, the magic might be lost if they did.

            Of course, there had been dark days too. Especially in those first ten years when Nancy had suffered four miscarriages. While, around them, friends and relations had all had children, Nancy had become worn down with her own endless cycle of hope and despair. Until, finally, at the age of thirty, her efforts to put on a brave face had broken her and she had suffered a nervous breakdown.

            When, after two months, she came home from hospital, having accepted that they would never have children, there was a new edge to her. Though Joe never said so, he knew that her sharp comments had become her defence against life. But he took comfort in the way she cared for him and the house and garden. He felt that her many kind actions spoke louder than any number of barbed words.

            He was never that bothered about having a family; to him, children seemed rather a mixed blessing. He was only really concerned for Nancy's sake.

            Life had settled down and she had gradually returned to her former, more cheerful self, as she helped him to manage his growing furniture-making business.

            However, now that he'd retired, he felt he was getting under her feet. Her sharp comments had returned and, whereas once he'd made allowances, now he rose to them. He didn't like to admit that it was age, and not Nancy, that had chipped away at his tolerance and good humour.

            So here he was sitting alone by the river, fishing, but only managing to catch eels, which he hated, and desperate for a cup of tea, which he couldn't have because he'd been too stubborn to go back for his little camping stove.

            Well I hope Nancy feels guilty while she's making her jam, he thought. I hope when she sits down for a cup of afternoon tea, she looks across at my Primus and thinks of me sitting here sipping cold water like a convict whose only crime was to buy over-ripe plums at Bertie's useless greengrocers.

            Soon he caught another horrible eel. Grumpily, he removed it from his hook and tossed it back into the river. One thing was certain about today - he wouldn't be capturing it in a jar.


Nancy stood at the cooker, resigned to making a batch of lemon curd instead of plum jam for the Women's Guild bring-and-buy-sale. She decided to make a pie with some of the plums instead. It was her way of saying sorry to Joe for snapping at him earlier. It was hardly his fault that Bertie's fruit had gone downhill lately.

            It was as she was stirring the lemon curd mix that she first felt the pain grip her chest and shoot down her right arm.

            In shock, she turned off the gas, then slumped at the kitchen table. "Joe..." she muttered, as the pain came again.

            She knew he wouldn't be home for hours. If only he had a mobile phone. But he was stubborn about getting one. 'They're making anxious babies of people,' he would argue whenever she talked about it.

            She waited, hoping for the pain to ease. But it only got worse. Finally, she forced herself to stand up and move across to the phone on the wall.

            While waiting for the ambulance, she scribbled a note on the pad she normally used for shopping lists. Her hand was shaking badly as she wrote;


            Dear Joe,

            please forgive me for shouting at you. Silly to get in

            such a huff. You'd think I'd know better at my age. I've

            had a little scare - a bit of chest pain. Nothing serious

            but I called an ambulance just in case. Don't get

            yourself all worried. Just come to the hospital when

            you're ready. Have some tea and something to eat

            first. Nothing to panic about, honestly.




She dropped the pencil when another pain burned through her chest and down her arm. This time it was so intense that she could hardly breathe. Her last thought before she passed out was, Please, let me have the chance to say sorry...


Joe rushed to the hospital the moment he found Nancy's note. The nursing staff did their best to calm him. They said that she was stable, comfortable. A mild heart attack, they said. It didn't look mild to Joe; the way Nancy was connected to heart monitoring equipment and an oxygen supply, and with a drip in her arm. She'd recovered consciousness in the ambulance. She was sleeping now, heavy with sedation.

            'Comfortable, she's comfortable and she's in good hands,' Joe kept reassuring himself. Well, her face certainly seemed peaceful, almost serene. Yet, she looked so pale and fragile. It made him feel so helpless - all he could do was hope and wait.

            He stayed until the early hours, then the staff told him to go home; they'd call him if there was any change. He needed rest too. No point in two people becoming unwell.

            At home, Joe lay in the big, cold bed, clutching the heavy, old-fashioned jar from 1952. Our Engagement Day. His face was wet from crying.  

            At last, towards dawn, he fell into an exhausted sleep, still clutching the jar.

            When he woke it was daylight and the phone was ringing.

            He hurried down the stairs to answer it; his heart leaping with dread.


            "Joe?" Nancy's voice sounded distant and somewhat shaky; one of the nurses was holding the handset for her.

            "Nancy! Oh thank God! H-how are you feeling?"

            "Like an idiot," she said. "That'll teach me to get in a huff about a load of silly plums."

            "I thought... Nancy, I really thought I'd lost you."

            "You don't get rid of me that easily, Mr Flynn," she said. He could hear the smile in her voice when she added, "Plenty more jars for us yet... eh?"

            "Yes..." he said, smiling through his tears of relief, "...plenty..."   


©2010 Carol Rogers

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