Titan in Moderation

Titan in Moderation

A Story by Annette Jay Sweeney
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I got this story from a one line prompt that read, "Grape jelly was my mother's favorite".

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Titan in Moderation

            “Grape Jelly was my mother’s favorite,” I said.

            Jerry and I stood in front of the pantry, the door swinging open to reveal rows of jars. They all had the same label on them, Titan brand’s “Grape Galore”. Most were washed out, with the label carefully kept in prime condition. My trembling hands reached up for one to examine. I brought it down to eye level, probing the outside. There wasn’t a tear on the label, nor a scuff mark in any spot. It looked as if it had come straight from the manufacturer. After I set it back I walked a couple more steps along. Jerry adjusted the boxes he carried under one arm, his hands full of packing tape. At the end of the room I found more of them, full to the brim, unopened, with royal purple jelly sleeping inside.

            “I ate that when I was a kid. Didn’t they quit making it?” My husband asked as he set down the packing supplies.

            “Yep. Ten years ago in fact.”

 

            Mother put grape jelly on everything. Not only did she put it on sandwiches or toast, but also bagels instead of cream cheese, pancakes instead of syrup and rolls instead of butter. She started having me taste it as a toddler. Of course she claimed I loved it, but what child could hate jelly? Every time I opened the fridge at least one of them held the prime spot on the side rack. I tried to ask her throughout the years if there was some reason she liked it so much and why she didn’t get sick of it. .

She replied, with a giggle as if I was being silly, “It’s just the best! And it’s healthy honey. It keeps your digestive system going.”

Even with her jelly obsession she was like every other mom. When I came home from school we sat down while I read to her, she checked my math work, she taught me how to bake cookies and we made snowmen in the winter. She was able to do these things like anyone else, but always had her jelly snacks moments later.

The surfaces in our house glinted for visitors with much elbow grease and cleaning supplies to make it shine. Her cooking was such that she had many suggest she open a restaurant and her marriage to my father was better than most parents. She was a beautiful woman with her dark hair and light eyes. She seemed to come out of the shower already in perfect presentation. Her hair fell into soft waves, her lips full and red. When I read Dick and Jane posters in my school library, seeing the white house, the happy family, I thought this was my family. A family with the simple moments of mothers cooking and fathers running off to work with their briefcases. With wagons and days spent outside together. Picnics… yes, picnics with jars sitting on a blanket.

 

A few days after elementary school started I learned the trick of trading lunches or sandwiches. I sat with my new friend Cindy, whose marker stained hands shook a turkey sandwich in my direction.

“Come on Julie! I love P.B. and J.”

“It’s grape…” I said. An image of the classroom sucker bowl came to my mind; full of grape suckers after all of the kids chose things like green apple, watermelon, strawberry and cherry.

“Ew. Who eats grape? You poor or something?”

“No! My mom says grape is best.” I said, crossing my arms across my paper lunch sack with a loud barrage of crinkles.

“Your mom’s dumb. I bet she thinks grape juice and soda are the best, too.” A hyena smiled out of her face.

 

Dave is home with Julie. I can see them from outside. What are they talking about?  Julie’s face is red after only a few days of school. Did she get in a fight? She has friends. I know she does. We made sure of that. Why else would I put myself through communicating with some of the women who have kids her age?

Grabbing the groceries I make sure to leave a couple jars of Titan under my seat. Dave won’t see them there. Yeah, he always thought it was a splendid joke that I loved the damn stuff. Who wouldn’t? But when Jules came along, he started acting like I should be nice enough to get her something different. What else would I get? Subject her to some bullshit strawberry jam? Ew. And with the amount of beer he consumes when Jules is off at a spend-the-night, how can he judge me for eating a couple jars of jelly? It’s nothing to worry about. It’s jelly for christ’s sake.

When I get inside Dave pulls me aside in the kitchen. His brow was furrowed in classic concern, like a bookworm frowning over a page. He begins to tell me some bullshit story about Jules getting teased for having grape jelly. I exclaim that it’s some stupid b***h’s rotten kid being ridiculous, and he agrees in loftier tones. But he also suggests I let her decide on her jelly. Or send her with poptarts. Other jelly is just stupid. My daughter likes it. Of course I choose to give her poptarts. That’s what the cool kids eat after all.

 

            Around age ten I started not to care that mom ate jelly instead of any other condiments on bread and the like, it started getting weird. Dad had passed away from heart failure the year before. Things changed, but whose life doesn’t after that? Sure, mom kept a lot more jelly around. But it was the lack of cleanliness that weirded me out. Dishes piled, scraped clean of purple remnants. Garbage bags became rank before I finally took them out for her. The Titan jar that sat in our fridge at all times, but the contents seemed to deplete much faster. I had grown sick of the taste years before and didn’t eat it when I could help it.  I knew it was only her. Before dad died, I thought he ate it, too. Was it really just her this whole time?

I started finding traces of jelly in almost every meal. At first it was creative. I would bite into jelly-filled cupcakes, have jelly spread across my birthday cake or have it as a topping on my ice cream. At this point grape had become too encoded onto my tongue. It became undetected in the way some people can ignore the metallic taste of tap water. It was only when jelly started appearing on dishes where it didn’t mesh that I worried.

“Does this casserole have jelly in it?” I asked over one such dinner.

“Is that blue hair dye in your hair?” She didn’t have to tell me to shut up. Following my question with a question was classic. Deflection. Like putting a mirror up in a fight so you can only see yourself.  I stroked the blue streak I had recently clipped in, a strip you can buy at Hot Topic. The binding part was hidden under my bangs, making it look real, but it was cheap stuff. She couldn’t even tell it was fake.

These fights were so common I had nothing to say. You couldn’t argue with a woman who liked her jelly.

 

The day some poor cashier told my mother the Titan Grape Jelly was discontinued was the worst I have ever seen her. I can still imagine the scene in the grocery story. The clerks and management must have stood around with bewildered looks on their faces as my mother raged about her jelly.  I entered the house, expecting her to be sitting on the couch watching soap operas. When I walked past the living room she wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what to think. That was when I heard a keening in the kitchen.

“Mom?”

She was sitting at the table. An empty jar of jelly sat in front of her like a grave dug, but not yet filled.

“This is it. They cancelled it. Something happened to the factory and the b******s cancelled it!”

“Mom, it’s not a big deal. Why don’t you just try a different brand? Or another flavor?”

Her face turned towards me. Her brown hair was in shambles. The bun she had held it tightly in was falling out in places. Her face went from rosy to the red of an alcoholic unable to keep their drinking in moderation.  

“Don’t you get it? The texture is just right! It congealed in just the right way. No matter how long it sat in the fridge or in the cupboard it tasted like fresh squeezed grapes. Try another brand my a*s.”

She turned away as if this was a dismissal. My shoulders tightened, drawing inwards in turtle-like fashion.

“Your a*s? Your a*s? It’s f*****g grape jelly! If you love it so damn much contact the manufacturer or go buy whatever is left at the other stores.” My heels swiveled and I made my way towards my room. I thanked myself for putting a lock on the door.

 

“Honey, open the door.”

My mother had been knocking for about ten minutes. She never came up to my room. It was as if the five feet between the bathroom and my room ran the length of the Saharan Desert. I knew if I kept her knocking she would lose her temper all over the door and storm off like in a bad TV show.

She kept tapping a short, soft rap, four times each time. Who did she think she was? A neighbor asking for a cup of sugar?

“I’m sorry about earlier. You were right. I didn’t need the damn jelly. I went out and bought a new brand! It’s even cheaper. And I got you raspberry.”

My legs swung off my bed and socked feet carried me to the door. My hand turned the knob, unlocking it in the process with a swift click.

“You bought me raspberry?”

“Yeah, I thought we could use a change.”

“You bought raspberry?”

On any other day this repetition would have set her off. Her face remained set in a mask of cool, collected focus.

“Yes. I guess I just don’t like change. I have been eating grape jelly for as long as I can remember. It became a comfort to me. I’ll be okay.”

She seemed to be saying the last bit more to herself than to me. Before she left, she told me she loved me. Those words hadn’t entered our household in months.

 

Mother started having stomach problems after I went off to college. I came home to surprise her once and heard her in the bathroom. After having had my fair share of hung-over mornings, I knew she was having a rough time in there. An allegro paced orchestra sounded out her pain in pops, splashes, and groans. I could just imagine the painting she was leaving on the porcelain.

When she came out I was prepared to play the part of doting daughter. I even felt like I was that daughter. But as I raised my arms to give her a welcoming hug, I was stricken by the sight of her. Her hair was slicked with sweat causing curls around the edges of her temples. She appeared sunken, not only in posture but in her skin. It was as if someone had hooked up a vacuum and sucked the water out of her.

“Oh my God! What’s going on? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just had a little too much Mexican last night.”

I stepped closer, my hand falling and touching her arm. “You probably have food poisoning. Severe food poisoning.”

“No. I don’t.”

“Mom, how can you act as if you’re okay?”

She jerked her arm away. There was something about her refusing my touch that I didn’t like. Normally she clung to it like a child starved for affection. Affection I was rarely crazy enough to give.

“If you were just going to come here and tell me how to live my life you might as well leave.”

 

The trunk is finally full. Sweat from running to so many stores never felt so good. It pours down my back in streams. Being the kind of mom that likes to Christmas shop for the “best deal,” I’m shocked to find this is even better. I beat them. They may have tried to make me quit�"cut me off. They would never be able to do it. The doctor might think that this diarrhea can do long-term damage, but I have a simple medication:  Over the counter anti-diarrheals. If I can just help my digestive system take the time to digest, and eat my jelly on heavier foods I’ll be okay. But I have to use less so I don’t run out. None of this eating a whole jar of jelly with a spoon. It can last me. There’s the pantry. I’ll just have to empty it out. And the spare freezer. I haven’t used it since Dave passed. I can fill it.  

The jelly comes out thick on my knife. The color it makes on different foods is like a spectrum. Each shade something different�"A different taste and a different mixture of properties. It’s perfect. It will always be perfect. Even if the bottle sits out it ends up giving it more flavor. When the mold grows, I can just scrape off the small bits of fuzz. Whatever is underneath will have even more taste. And when it ferments I won’t have to buy wine. I’ll just keep the right stock of what I need to make it better, make my body able to handle it.

 

“Where did she find it?” Jerry said.

The full jar I held in my hands had no expiration date on it. Of course, most companies put expiration dates more for insurance purposes on things like this; either that or quality purposes. It had never occurred to me that she would love the stuff enough to eat it once the quality had been compromised. My mind returned, imagining me telling her to buy out the stores and when I first saw her all sallow skinned. Wondering what her diarrhea looked like when I visited and she was splashing grape remnants around the toilet. Each one was a subtle hint towards something lurking. Even when the doctor’s told me she had dementia the other day. She had been sick, off for a long time. It ran in our family, so I didn’t think much of the fact that they couldn’t find a sure cause for it. Since when was there a cause for dementia anyways? But there was evidence that she had been dehydrated for a prolonged period of time. It was a long shot, but dehydration could have exasperated it. Like many older women who seemed to have underlying psychotic issues, she just wasn’t taking care of herself. I had known something was wrong with her a long time ago, though when I can’t be sure. It was only when she started falling to pieces years after dad died, instead of the moment she should have, that I wondered what went on in her head.

“She bought as much as she could find. She hoarded it.” I said.

“But how? You said it had been ten years.”

“Yup. She must have done it back then.”

He raised an eyebrow, the action that had first attracted me to him.  “Forget it honey. Let’s just pack this up. We have five more rooms to go through before we can bring in the realtor.”

 

Strange people come into this room. It’s softly lit, with things from my home. But it’s not my home. There are other people my age (How old am I?) passing by in the hall. I can’t seem to remember exactly what home looked like or who I lived with, but my pillow is indented with familiarity. There’s a jacket that smells like some perfume… was it mine?

“Excuse me, but where is my jelly? Didn’t I pack it?”

It doesn’t matter where I am. My hands are shaking, triggered by my gut crying for its treats. A small headache scratches at the back of my eyes. I’m not a coffee drinker, I think, so it must be the jelly. When I look back, when I try to remember, the only image I see is the jelly. The jar with Titan written in bright letters could have been sitting right before me. I think I hear the pop of release from a jar opening, then the swiveling turn of the top coming off, and an aroma rising as the small covering is removed. Saliva pulverizes my teeth in a torrent, but when I ask where my jelly is, the nurse rolls her eyes. I swear she said, “Not the damn jelly again,” but no one will believe me. 

© 2012 Annette Jay Sweeney


Author's Note

Annette Jay Sweeney
I wanted to explore a complicated mother-daughter relationship and do somewhat of a satire on addiction. I did look up what prolonged use of something that can be as dehydrating as jelly can do, and with a leap, it could cause dementia. Craziness.

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Added on April 26, 2012
Last Updated on April 26, 2012
Tags: addiction, mental illness, dementia, mother daughter relationships

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Annette Jay Sweeney
Annette Jay Sweeney

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Reading and writing have always provided a loving escape for me, but both are now taking on a more serious level. I thrive on reading others' work and helping them to improve, while also depicting my .. more..

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