Canadian jam and the magic of Martha Jimenez

Quiero escribir lo que no quiero / puedo olvidar.

(Write what should not be forgotten) - Isabel Allende

The day before had been a revelation for me. I had been charmed by the picturesque little square, the Plaza del Carmen, with its robust statues of the gossiping women, bursting with life. They were clearly depictions of Afro-Cuban women with their origins in the slave transportation from the African continent; women taking a break from their daily work; women intent on the networking, the sharing of news, gossip, information and the shared culture of their lives.

Upon entering the gallery, the works of Cuban artist, Martha Jiminez spoke directly to me. They spoke of immense expanses of sea, of boats, of islands, of isolation and connection. They spoke of memory, of loss and of resilience; of generations of women and their sewing machines, of working hands and the gifts they created, the lives they formed and supported, usually without seeking any recognition.

Increasingly, since I had left Canada and England to live in Australia so many years ago, I felt the tug of connection across the vastness of the oceans.

It took a visit to Camaguey, a small town in Cuba, to tear that floodgate asunder.

The following morning, when Charlie, our Canadian host, placed the jar of jam reverently in the middle of the table, it sat glowing red as a ruby on the white tablecloth; pregnant with portent. I looked at it, trying to summon up enthusiasm. I had never liked jam. At least not for many many years; it had always given me reflux, heartburn; even just thinking of the sugary abrasiveness of it made me feel nauseous.

“I hope you like it,” he smiled beatifically, ”I made it myself. I always bring a trunkful of my own jam with me whenever I come back to Cuba.”

“I noticed you can’t find much jam here,” commented my husband, Chris.

“You’re right, there,” Charlie replied. “Most of the jam and milk goes out to the kids’ rations in this country, along with other items seen to be nutritious, so this is a real treat. My wife loves it. Here, try it, the local bread here in Camaguey isn’t bad either,” and he slid the jar across to me. I felt distinctly uncomfortable and suddenly had a perception of myself as a rather pampered foreigner. Chris gave me a querulous look; would he, or wouldn’t he say anything? Nevertheless, to stall for time, I asked Charlie, ”So, you don’t live in Cuba all the time?”

“Oh no! I can’t stand the heat or the humidity. I come down here from Canada to escape the winter, then Ana and I go back to B.C. when it gets warmer. Since she married me, even though she’s Cuban, Ana’s entitled to a passport, but its much cheaper … not to mention warmer, to live here.”

“So, you come from B.C.? Whereabouts?”

The island. Cordova Bay, actually.”

I felt my head start to spin. Cordova Bay, — the beautiful opalesque and shimmering waters of my childhood summers filled my senses. That ethereal stretch of water was bordered by dark, cool, northern forest which met the wide blue summer skies; a dream-like place where I and my siblings foraged for flowers, tracked and examined little animals, bathed along the shoreline and where we first tasted our Aunt Phyllis’ berry jams.

Suddenly, I was nine again. I looked down at small, sun-tanned sandalled feet and saw childish fingers brushing my cotton summer dress, sprinkled with lilacs. Memories flooded back, of my mother, Margaret, still in her 20s, her shoulders bent, intent on creating these treasured items for me and for my younger sister. Our mother had always made us each an identical dress; a dress we watched take shape with great anticipation until the moment when she would call us over, ”Come on girls, try them on! Let’s see how you look in these!”

I found myself standing in my Canadian Aunt Phyllis’ kitchen savouring the aroma of hot bubbling jam and freshly baked bread, as she turned to smile at me and my little sister Jenny. Aunt Phyllis made all her own jams and preserves from the fruit growing wild on their land. We thought Aunt Phyllis was the prettiest woman we had ever seen, (apart from our mother and Elizabeth Taylor), with her glossy black pixie cut and her large jade-coloured eyes. And she was the best jam-maker to boot. Our aunt was wearing a neat white blouse tied at the mid-riff and hip-hugging pedal-pusher pants.

“Sit down girls, have some breakfast,” she said in her softly rolling Canadian tones, “There’s some of my raspberry jam already on the table!” No need to ask twice, we jumped into our seats, as Phyllis called out to our little brother and our younger cousin Evelyn; the inseparable duo, who had already rushed out to play in the fresh morning air. The warm, yeasty aroma of the bread with its springy texture was an aphrodisiac to us children; pure heaven, when topped with the berry-rich jam that slid across our tongues and down our throats like cream. Our eyes shone and glazed over with pleasure, as we rolled our tongues around, absorbing every delicious drop, every morsel, sometimes scooping drips off the table with our fingers (or tongues, when no-one was looking), and then reaching for more. So absorbed were we with this adoration, that we could barely find space to utter a word until completely sated, we grinned stickily at each other, wriggled with the discomfort of our distended bellies and made moves to leave the table.

“Say ‘May I leave the table?’” our mother reminded us, as she passed each of us a wet face-cloth to wipe our hands and faces before racing off outdoors on the next quest of discovery, or perhaps to go fishing with our fathers, George and Uncle Ivor, down by the water’s edge.

We had come over from Alberta to visit our mother’s brother, Ivor for the summer holidays. Both siblings had immigrated at separate times from Britain to Canada; my mother with her English husband, George and our Uncle Ivor, who met and married a Canadian nurse, Phyllis. Both siblings had been very close as children, but adulthood had brought frictions. Frictions we children sensed and occasionally witnessed.

Margaret was firmly attached to her English ways. With her home and family scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, both she and her husband George would never dream of leaving the house without being “properly dressed and groomed,” or of lounging around at home in shorts or track suits; these were reserved for the beach or the campsite. Ivor, on the other hand, had embraced the more free and easy mores and lifestyle of North Americans and this included a love of barbecues and especially of beer, which constantly raised my mother’s hackles. With the increased ease and the affluence of Canadian life, his girth expanded significantly, much to the delight of his mischievous nieces and nephew, whom he would allow to squeeze their arms around his middle or pummel his belly whenever they got the chance. He was often clad in shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers and to his sister Margaret’s absolute horror, his young wife likewise had no qualms whatsoever about going out in public in jeans or peddle-pushers, in which, incidentally, she made a very fetching picture.

And it wasn’t just the overt physical signs that reflected Ivor’s changed life and outlook. One momentous day, it came out, that he had kept a stash of Playboy magazines under the bed in the spare room. When, with a mixture of embarrassment and prurient excitement, we children had been discovered perusing them closely, Margaret flew at Ivor. As was his way, our father, George, ushered us quietly and diplomatically out of the house just as our mother pounced on her brother as only a protective mother tigress would do. She not only berated him, but immediately castigated our aunt for her clearly slovenly Canadian home management practices.

“Really, Phyllis, it doesn’t do, to leave such magazines lying around where children might find them. Don’t you hoover under the beds regularly? How can you do that, with things like that lying around? Its not hygienic.” Margaret, having survived the bombing of Liverpool and a series of epidemics of typhoid, measles, polio and other pestilences, was incensed at such evident sloppiness, not to mention anything else.

“Actually, Margaret,” Aunt Phyllis replied in a low voice,” I think its his business, Ivor is entitled to some privacy; to some space of his own.” Not long after that, we all left our aunt and uncle’s previously happy holiday abode and it was not until some years later, that I saw them again.

Uncle Ivor and his family came to stay with us, in the middle of one of Alberta’s notoriously frigid winters; the understanding was, that it would be until he had settled into his new job in Edmonton. Almost immediately, the air was prickling with animosity because of their different domestic habits. Aunt Phyllis soon left in tears with Evelyn, the little cousin whose company we enjoyed so much and subsequently, both disappeared forever from our childhood circle. And with that departure, the lovely Aunt Phyllis’ delicious berry jam from Cordova Bay also disappeared forever. (We actually weren’t sure which we missed most: Aunt Phyllis or her jam!). Our uncle, however, stayed on for several months, alternately regaling three impressionable children with tales from his seafaring career, (whilst tracing for us exotic voyages and destinations on his maps), and another time, barking orders at us in deafening naval fashion whenever he was left to babysit the often uncooperative trio of children. That is, until he too disappeared from our lives.

And as I grew up, I forgot about the jam; we all did, it seemed. Our mother however, continued to work on her sewing machine and I would always remember her, with her head bent over her sewing machine, in her workspace in the basement; a space where she created comfort for her home and fashionable items for herself and her girls. The creations she designed and sewed often came from the fabric offcuts she frugally garnered in the fabrics section of the local department store, where she was the leading sewing advisor.

It was in such a moment, that I found myself watching my mother who was silhouetted against the halo of light above her sewing machine; she appeared to be intensely focused on creating a new red dress. Upon sensing my approach, she turned around and smiled at me.

“Oh its you, darling. Come here, I want you to try this on,” and she reached out towards me. But somehow the deep red fabric floated away out of reach, stretching off into the dark recesses of the basement, my mother’s voice becoming ever more distant.

“Mom! Mom!” I gasped, frantically reaching out.


“Maggie! Maggie! what’s wrong??” the voice I heard was strangely wrong.

“Maggie! Are you alright?” her husband, Chris was grasping her outstretched hand. The jar of jam sat mysteriously on the white cloth, gleaming directly in front of her. A gift of the past from the present.

“Oh…. oh yes,” she replied, “I think I need a glass of cold water, I feel a bit odd.”

“Agua frio, por favor,” Charlie, their host indicated to the girl who was helping out around the casa.

“Here, have a bite to eat,” he said, “then you’ll feel a bit better.”

“Yes, perhaps you’re right. I’m sure your jam will be wonderful!”

That wonderful artist, Martha Jiminez, is right, about Cuba and about women, I reflected. Cuba is like a boat and so are we all; each one of us set adrift on the sea. If we aren’t watchful we miss the moments, those moments pregnant with meaning, those moments of connection. Like Cuba, our lives are like an island surrounded by sharks, reefs, foreign ports and islands of refuge. And it has always been the women, their social networks, their sewing machines and their hands…… that connect them to their small intimate world …. and to the world outside.

Author: Maggie Morgan.