Canning Memories…The Richest Gift of All

Dear Reader:

When I look at these homemade canned tomato jars…my memories quickly settle on Dee Dee…my mother-in-law. I remember that receiving a jar of canned tomatoes from her was far better than any other type of birthday present or Christmas gift I could get.

Homemade vegetables soups and homemade spaghetti were never the same when I had to resort to using canned tomato paste or sauce from the store. Oh…it was still good…but just not rich like fresh canned tomatoes.

Actually these two cans, in the photo above, didn’t belong to Dee Dee but were Christmas gifts from Honey back in 2014. I went crazy…when she handed them to me….the best Christmas presents I got that year. Every time I had a spoonful of vegetable soup or a forkful of spaghetti during that cold month of January…I thought of Dee-Dee…and Honey. My favorite canned memories.

And it was within those memories that the story of “Iva Mae” popped back up. The time was the Great Depression and one event was so powerful in one little first grader’s memory that, when she later became an author, she re-told the amazing story of a mother whose strength of character resided in the hearts and memories of twelve little first graders for life… When the poorest little girl in the class became the richest in the eyes of her classmates.

“Iva Mae’s Birthday”

The year is 1936 and Iva Mae Maples has never had a birthday…but this year, in the first grade, she is determined to do so. She has walked around and invited all her classmates (orally) to her birthday party which would fall on the third Friday of September.

It is deep in the Great Depression, all the children are wearing scraps on pants legs and dresses as they would grow taller throughout the year… but at least they all had shoes. Not so with Iva Mae…very quickly the children understood that she was the poorest girl in the first grade class.

Her feet could be seen through the holes in her mother’s shoes. They were too big and kept falling off her feet. She even wore her mother’s cardigan sweater as a coat…even though the sleeves fell down to her knees.

But no matter…Iva Mae was the most popular girl in the first grade…she was funny and giggled all the time tucking zinnias into her pigtails. She would belch and then glare at the poor student sitting next to her saying, “Well. I never, I sure hope you feel better now.”

Iva Mae brought the most wonderful lunches to school. Her mother canned day and night to keep food on the table and the results were wonderful to the other classmates who watched her eat homemade vegetable soup with a big square of buttered cornbread…as their mouths watered…staring down at their peanut butter sandwich.

When the bell rang at three everyone grabbed his/her present and began to follow Iva Mae. But she was suddenly acting strangely….the closer we got to her home…the quieter she became and now her eyes looked bigger than saucers….filled with terror.

Everyone soon discovered why. When the dozen students trouped into Mrs. Maple’s two room house…she looked confused and dazed. Bewildered she stared down at Iva Mae… waiting for an explanation.

In the quietest voice we had ever heard  …while twitching this way and that…we listened to her say: “I just decided to have me a birthday party, and I didn’t think you’d mind. I plumb forgot to tell you and …” She was now staring down at her feet sticking out of her mama’s shoes.

You could have heard a pin drop. Poor Mrs. Maples didn’t know about the party…oh no…no ice cream, no cake!

Mrs. Maples clutched at her throat saying repetitively…”Oh my…oh my.”

We could all feel the indecision as she looked down into Iva Mae’s pleading eyes. Then, suddenly, she started to laugh while tears flowed down her face. She went over and hugged Iva Mae. “You’re right…it’s party time.”

For the first time the whole class began looking around at all the shelves in both rooms of the house. Every shelf was jammed with home-canned produce from her garden. It actually was a beautiful sight of plenty…the different colored jars were catching the mid-afternoon’s sun rays and sparkling like they knew they should be decorative for the party.

Mrs. Maples grabbed four quarts of soup from one shelf and began to warm it up. She then told the girls to go pick fourteen pears from the garden and a bunch of zinnias to decorate the table.

Out in the garden one girl asked Iva Mae why her mother gave so much room to the zinnias when she could grow more produce if she made it smaller. Iva replied that her mother said: “Oh the zinnias are the food for our souls.”

The zinnias were beautiful…every color imaginable!

While snacking on soup and crackers…we soon forgot all about the ice cream and cake. Mrs. Maples arranged the 14 pears on a big platter and right in the middle placed a candle which she lit and we sang Happy Birthday to Iva Mae.

Everyone munched on his/her delicious pear… as Iva Mae opened all twelve presents: paper doll books, coloring books, hair ribbons, lotion, scarves, Old Maid cards, puzzles, yo yo’s and even a kaleidoscope. Iva Mae’s face was pink with delirious happiness.

And Mrs. Maples? She glowed also to see the happiness on her daughter’s face.

Before everyone left mother and daughter gathered zinnia seeds and gave them as a thank you gift…placing them in each child’s palm. Mrs. Maples said, ” Plant these next spring, and remember me when you see them bloom.”

The author concludes it has been 65 years since she was in that little first grade class with Iva Mae and she still remembers the courage of that poor mother surprised with twelve children… expecting a birthday party.

“I remember her good humor, her sweetness, her creativity, her courage in making do during a hard period in their lives. I remember her showing me that you don’t need ice cream and cake to have a great party, and that no gardener is ever too poor not to have something to share with others.”

“Perhaps most of all, I remember how I no longer felt that Iva Mae was the poorest girl in our first grade class…in fact, she was the richest.”

Resource: Nita Waxelman: Chicken Soup for the Gardener’s Soul.

So until tomorrow….”Hard times reveal one’s character… Circumstances don’t make a person- instead they reveal a person.”

“Today is my favorite day” Winnie the Pooh

In these last dog days of August…the selection of flowers have dwindled considerably since early spring…but there is one flower I can always count on...zinnias. I especially love how Iva Mae’s mother decorated with zinnias and gave each child at the party…the gift of life…with the seeds of colorful zinnias for them. What a thoughtful, creative mother! Here are my zinnias! And Iva Mae’s mother was right…”Zinnias are the food of our souls.”



About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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8 Responses to Canning Memories…The Richest Gift of All

  1. Honey Burrell says:

    Beautiful story! Iva Mae’s mom was a pretty amazing lady. What a great world we would have if “all” would share what they have. Your blog today has me thinking it must be canning time. I always enjoy reaping the benefits of my work. But, it is a little work. If I step up to the plate, I’ll share! Have a beautiful day! 😘❤️😘


    • Becky Dingle says:

      Canned tomatoes in my opinion is the very best gift of all…outside your pottery my talented friend…it brings back so many memories. All wonderful!


  2. I agree that canned goods are great. I appreciate the personal touch when I receive jams and jellies from my sister-in-law who gives them as gifts. I can remember picking blackberries as a child and my aunt turning them into blackberry jam. Those mason jars were amazing for keeping everything fresh. Yes, those were special days, rich memeories they evoke. Wonderful post.


    • Becky Dingle says:

      I believe it is the knowledge of how much hard work went into making the canned goods gifts that make us appreciate it even more. And it is so delicious and such a rare treat these days that just thinking about it makes my mouth water.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachel Edwards says:

    ♥️♥️♥️ this story. I am going to send it to Suzy because she could do this any day at anytine…even the zinnias…she has hundreds of them…and this will cheer her up because she had a MRI with contrast today. She became jaundice again last week again for the 4th time. She went to Charlotte and had another procedure that they thought resolved the issue but it didn’t…🤔🥺😥…this will cheer her up. Glad that you got the soup…it had Suzy’s home grown tomato sauce in it…


    • Becky Dingle says:

      That was it…the soup was so delicious…just hit the spot. My thoughts and prayers are with Suzy…how terribly frustrating to continue to feel badly…with no palpable or positive responses to all those awful tests…ruling out what it isn’t but don’t know what it is????.


  4. Lynn Gamache says:

    Awesome story! Thanks for sharing, Becky. I can almost taste those home-canned tomatoes. And right about now our tomatoes here are beginning to ripen on the vine. (and this just got me thinking about the little saying: “As we age let’s make sure we are ripening with love and not rotting on the vine.”)
    ALSO, the photo of the jars of canned fruit reminded me of a little object lesson I like to use when teaching Sunday School or speaking to women’s groups…The question: “What would you wish to be if you could choose…a Ming Vase or a Mason Jar?”
    I wonder what you would answer as you consider this simple question. For me, as a child of God, I would choose to be a Mason Jar….clean, sterilized and purified….ready and willing to be filled with His love and then poured out for His honour and glory, to bless others around me with all the wonder and goodness of His glory and grace…for ever. Yes, love that song that begins…”Emptied and spilled out….” And once spilled out, then He can use us again and again to bless, restore, and encourage others. We are more than a Ming Vase that is beautiful but sits on the shelf to be admired but not really so useful in helping others along the pathway of life.


    • Becky Dingle says:

      I am one of those weird people who isn’t into beautiful jewelry and accessories…so I have no secret longing nor would I appreciate its exquisite priceless beauty in the form of a vase….perhaps trading it in for money 🙂 but not the vase itself. Canned tomato girl….love them above all else.


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