“Four cups?” I stared at the recipe on the kitchen counter. Four cups of sugar? And under no circumstances were you to mess with the four cups. It said so, in big letters. Don’t fuck with the sugar. Well, it actually said to measure carefully, but this was my first time making strawberry jelly. I had six jam jars out, washed and ready, and I was not going to fuck with the sugar.

I stirred the sugar into two cups of mashed strawberries in a large bowl and watched as it dissolved, turning bright red, almost as if it were hiding itself, as though even the sugar was embarrassed it was so excessive.

“How’s it going?” my husband asked, walking into the kitchen dressed in running shorts and with Airpods stuck in his ears.

I pulled a face and kept stirring. “I don’t know. I think I stir this for like a million minutes, and then I add the pectin and hope it sets after I pour it into jars.”

“What’s pectin?”

“It’s…” I realized I didn’t know. “It’s the stuff that makes it set.” Somewhere in my mind, from far back in the childhood parts, I felt like someone had told me it was made from bones. No. That was gelatin.

“Well,” he said as he headed to the door. “Good luck.”


I’d been eating this jelly since I was old enough to have toast. My mother and grandmother made it together every year. Then, my grandmother died, so my mother and I would go to the U-Pick and pick plastic beach buckets full of strawberries. My mother would make jar after jar the next day and line them up on our tiny trailer kitchen table.

One year, I walked into the kitchen the morning after jelly making and found my mom, her head face down in her arms on the table, crying. When she heard me, she looked up and said, “It didn’t set, baby. The jelly didn’t set.” I walked over to the table and picked up one of the jars, tilting it slightly, watching the red goo slip down one side.

“Can you fix it?” I asked.

She didn’t look up. “No, baby. I can’t fix it. I can’t fix it anything.”

The unset jelly jars sat on that table for a week while she stayed in her bed. I was young enough to think only the failed jelly had caused her depression. If I could make her forget it, she might get up. So I took the jars into the backyard and drained them one by one on the grass. I watched the ants discover it all, watched the wasps and the bees hover over it, wondering.

It was the only time I remember her jelly not setting, and the first time she stayed in her bed for that long.

“Okay,” I said out loud to myself. “Time for the pectin.” Pectin was different these days. I’d bought a gel. It squeezed out of the foil packet into the strawberry mixture like fancy boxed macaroni and cheese. I stirred again. “There,” I said when it was done.

I poured the jelly into the jars, spilling a little down the sides, and wiped them with a dishcloth. It only filled five and a half jars and seemed runny. I wondered if I’d done something wrong. I stuck my pinky into a jar. It tasted right, so I screwed the caps on tight.

Set, I commanded. Set.

The recipe said to leave it out for 24 hours before putting it in the freezer. But I remembered how my mom just left it out overnight, and then she’d wake up in the morning and go straight to the kitchen and tip the jar, and smile her once-in-a-year jelly smile. Because it meant we’d have her best jelly all year round for sandwiches and crackers and toast. We had it every year, all but that one time.

I can’t fix anything.

I wondered for a long time what else she’d wanted to fix but couldn’t.

I never made jelly with my mother before she died. I saw what the jelly had done to her. I got older and worried that if a small disappointment like unset jelly could cause her dark moods, maybe it could do the same to me. Maybe I was like her. So I left her. Moved away. If my jelly didn’t set overnight, I wouldn’t blame it. How could strawberries and sugar and pectin respect a woman who never took time to make jelly with her own mother?

I slept poorly that night, as though the jars needed protecting and I had one eye on them. And when morning came, I walked down the stairs to the kitchen like I was walking the plank. I picked up the half-filled jar, thinking it would be the easiest to tip and see any movement. I held the jar at eye level. The whole thing felt like a divination. If the jelly set, it was a sign that my mom wasn’t mad at me. A sign that she forgave me for moving away. For never making jelly with her. That she was okay. That I was. A sign I needed now, if I were going to be a mother.

I was afraid to tilt the jar. But I did.

“It set,” I whispered. I grabbed each jar then, frenzied, lightly tipping them one after the other. “Jesus,” I said, falling back onto a stool and exhaling. “They all set.” I smiled, probably like my mom had smiled.

“How is it?” my husband asked, walking up behind me wrapped in his ratty bathrobe, only half awake.

I tilted a jar at him. “It set.”

He nodded. “Looks great. Congrats.”

“Yeah,” I said. I could make her jelly every year from then on, and I would still never make it with her. It would never be my jelly. But now, at least, it could be ours.