A FEW months ago I wrote a column about Fowlers Vacola bottling kits, and a week later, I received a letter, via The Age. It is my all-time favourite letter. The writer had cut out the header of my article from the newspaper and adhered it to the sheet.
The handwriting was cursive like my grandma’s. “Dear Sir,” it began. “Last week you wrote a very interesting article on fruit bottling. I have the complete works, several dozen bottles and instructions. I would like to find someone interested as I am now retired and no longer do any bottling…”
Margaret included her number, and when I phoned, she called me “Mr Green”. We spoke a few times, and finally, a week ago, I drove to her house.
She was waiting by the door when I arrived. I guessed she was in her late 80s, but her physical presence had not yet diminished. She gave the impression of height. Her husband had recently passed away and she had been sorting through their effects. Over the past weeks, she retrieved the Fowlers bottles from the garage, washed them and stacked them for my arrival. There were rows and rows of them – too many to transport at once – as well as the big electric boiler and boxes of lids, seals and paraphernalia.
Margaret told me that she and her husband had both worked full time. In late summer and autumn, they would arrive home at six o’clock and begin bottling. They bought cheap boxes of fruit and stored enough to last through the year.
When she told me about her husband, she spoke slowly and looked away, towards where the wall and floor met. She had no next of kin, she said. It was a lot to do, to organise and discard their possessions, but there was no one else. She was glad the bottles, at least, would go to someone who wanted them.
We stacked the jars in the car and I arranged to visit again in a couple of weeks, for the dozens remaining. It was a grey Sunday afternoon, windy, and the jars rattled as I passed back through the suburbs.
A couple of days later, I rode to my friends Helen and Sam’s house with half a dozen jars in my bag. They had a box of apples ready, some gleaned from a tree in their street, others from a neighbour’s sister’s yard. In a small production line, we peeled and cut them, and packed the jars. Helen made syrup, three parts water to one part raw sugar. We clipped on the seals and lids, brought the water to 94 degrees, and held it there for 45 minutes. We nattered and joked and listened to music; we were productive and joyful.
I’ll take Margaret a jar or two, and a story to preserve, when I return.
I’d like to bottle some more fruit, over Easter. I’d especially like it if I could use fruit that would otherwise go to waste – so if you know of any overburdened trees, please let me know!