Uncle Johnny And The Secret Of Strawberry Jam
Published: October 25, 2012
I will never dip a spoon into a jar of strawberry jam without remembering him. He was a bit on the stout side with chocolate-brown eyes and a big easy grin.
He was my Uncle Johnny—married to my mom’s youngest sister—and he was the first man to pay any real attention to me.
As a toddler I was plump and shy and already showing signs of the anxious temperament that would stalk me forever. Still, he took a liking to me, and one day when I wandered into my aunt’s kitchen, he showed me the secret to strawberry jam.
First he took a phone book and placed it on a chair at the table, and perched me on top of it. Then he began the demonstration.
It had to do with selecting the nice whole strawberries out of the mushy part, he explained. And then, while I sat there, ecstatic that he cared enough to teach me this wonderful thing, he dipped a spoon into the jar, extracted a sweet, plump berry and popped it into my mouth.
I’ll always remember that moment, which was repeated whenever I went into the kitchen at breakfast time and he happened to be there.
When I was 6, he died of a heart attack, and this was my first, very bitter experience of death. How I grieved for my big handsome uncle who played the accordion and had such a tender love for little children! I wept for the two babies he left behind—my cousins—who were only 2½ and 9 months old when he died.
I also did what any good Catholic girl would do, pulled out my rosary beads and prayed for him.
I prayed that he would get out of purgatory soon and be allowed into heaven. I prayed so hard for him over the years that I nearly wore the shine off those beads.
He was so special, you see. It wasn’t that other men ignored me. It was just that my father and the other uncles were busy with grown-up stuff, and they rarely had time for the kids.
They did what was necessary, bringing home paychecks and repairing cars—but coloring in a book with a child, reading a story—or revealing the secret of strawberry jam—well, there just wasn’t time for that.
I prayed for Uncle Johnny for many years, right until college days when I gave up my faith in Catholicism, put away the beads and stopped going to Mass.
When I was in my 40s, a series of mysterious incidents drew me back to my childhood faith. Soon the beads were out again and the prayers started—not just for Uncle Johnny, but for the ever-growing list of the dead, which by then included my mom and dad and other relatives.
Mortality was stalking me: There was no denying it. And although at times I mourned the fact of death and raged against it, I was grateful that my Catholic beliefs gave me something to do for those who had gone ahead of me.
A few years ago, Uncle Johnny’s son—my cousin John—told me that he had a cache of letters that Uncle Johnny had written during World War II. In these letters to his sister, Uncle Johnny asked her to pray the rosary for him—and ask others to pray as well—in the event of his death.
I had no idea as a child that my uncle had made this request. And yet, in my own simple way, I had been fulfilling it for many years.
This memory always comes back to me on All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, when Catholics pray for the dead.
Praying for the faithful departed is a part of Christian tradition, coming from our Jewish ancestors, and mentioned in the Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament: “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin.”
Uncle Johnny’s name is still on my list of the dearly departed, and will be forever. His name is still deeply written on my heart.
After all, he taught me about much more than strawberry preserves. He was the first man to let me know that he loved me.
And that’s why I pray for him, especially on All Souls’ Day. It’s another way of saying, in an ancient sort of way beyond the bounds of reason: I loved you on earth, Uncle Johnny, and I love you still, now and forever.
Artwork by Jef Murray. Readers may email the Murrays at email@example.com.