Sonya set her hat, upside down, like a basket, on the table. It was full of blackberries.
“Oh, that’ll stain!” I said.
“There are so many berries!” she replied. “Out by the edge of the woods? All growing wild. So, so many! Why, it took me only fifteen minutes to pick these!”
I poured them into a colander and rinsed them.
“Your hat, though!” I laughed. “It’ll take some scrubbing to get the juice out!”
“You think I mind a sweet-smelling purple hat? You forget I’m country?”
We laughed. I dished us each up a bowl of berries and poured coffee. We sat at the kitchen table.
“We could sell berries,” she said. “At the market. They’re ripe now.”
“Or jam. Why, my grandma made the best jam! They got anybody selling jam at the farmers’ market? I didn’t notice anyone.”
I hadn’t either, not this year. Last year, and for years before, Mira Simpleton sold raspberry and blackberry jam. But she moved to the mainland this past winter, to live in an independent living center, since she was getting on in years and the isolation of island living was becoming a hardship for her. Her doctors were on the mainland.
That meant no one was selling jams and jellies.
“How much you think we could get? Per jar?”
“Oh,” I thought back to last year’s prices, remembering as best I could, “I’d say five dollars for a small jar, and ten for a large?”
“That adds up!” she said. “There’s enough berries for hundreds of jars. Green berries, too, and even flowers, too! There’ll be berries through to Labor Day!”
“And huckleberries. I saw a huckleberry bush growing out of a stump. You ever had huckleberry jam?”
I had. It was like no other–sweet, tart, bright red. My grandmother used to make that, in this very kitchen. Grandpa would spend all day picking huckleberries. They aren’t like blackberries, growing thick all over the edges of woods. They’re forest plants, and the berries are tiny. To get enough for a batch of jam, you’ve got to know where they grow, and you’ve got to be willing to walk through the woods to find every old stump that might nurture a bush.
“You could charge a lot for huckleberry jam,” I said. “It’s such a delicacy.”
“I think I’ll go start picking!” she said. Then she stopped. “It’s all right to sell, right? It doesn’t take any kind of special permit? Since it’s home-made?”
I didn’t know. We headed over to the computer. Five minutes later, we were looking through the state regulations for Cottage Foods.
“I need a food handlers permit,” Sonya said. We read a little more, and she nodded. “That’s OK. I can get that online.”
“Here’s the list of permitted foods,” I said. “Look, jams!”
“And pies! And breads! We can bake scones, for sampling the jam!”
“We need a permit,” she said. “And there’s a kitchen inspection.”
“We should use your kitchen,” I said. “We’ll keep the dogs out of your place. And we can sterilize everything. Really clean it up well.” I felt a little nervous about the state of the kitchen in the place next door. The appliances were old and the sink was splotched with hard water stains. But I had faith in lemon, vinegar, baking soda, and bleach.
“Look at those fees,” she said. “Well. There goes that. It was a nice dream, while it lasted.”
She turned from the computer. Processing fee, application-review fee, inspection fee–it totaled $255.00.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she said. “Then there’s the mason jars, the paraffin, the sugar. I don’t know what I was thinking. I should not let myself dream. It’s that simple.”
“I’ll front the expenses,” I said. She darted a glance at me. “I’m serious! Look. We’re already partners with the veggies and flowers. And they aren’t near the money-makers jam is! This is a good plan. We do OK, and you’ll pay me back after the first day! Or two. Then, everything after that is profit.”
She sat quietly, looking out the window past the meadows and out towards the bay. “It’s not in me to accept help,” she said. “It goes against everything I’ve taught myself about being strong and resilient and independent. But there’s time a person needs it. Tough times make us change our codes, I guess.”
She said that more to herself than to me. I sat quietly, too, also gazing out the window. Sometimes you can be with a person, and you don’t have to look at them to connect. You can just sit together, in the same space, breathing the same air. It’s like feelings rolled off of her and into my skin.
I’d made a decision early, that first night that she and the kids showed up, that I wouldn’t ask questions. It wasn’t right. I knew there was a power differential between us: I was the landlady. I had resources. I held the bank account that had the deposit her husband had made for the summer house, and I was the one who’d received the rent. It wasn’t up to me to ask. It was up to me to listen.
I listened with my skin, with my eyes, with the way my gut felt, with my shoulders. Right now, when I listened, I felt a stinging pressure behind my eyes. There was a wide ocean of pain waiting for the tide to crest. And there was that worry. And around my shoulders, I felt the sense of something crumbling–big stones were falling off of walls in rubble all around me. This was what it was like to be Sonya.
She stiffened and shook her head.
“All right,” she said. “My pride’s got nothing left to hold onto. I will accept your offer. Thank you.”
She reached out and shook my hand.
I chuckled, surprised at the formality. And then she laughed. She laughed and said, “I will become the best jam-seller this island has ever seen! And I’ve got the purple hat to prove it! We’ll have people lining up, wanting to invest in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams, and I will just shake my head at them and tell them all that you beat them to it.”
And that was how I became a partner in Sonya Minor’s Famous Jams.