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The Abandoned Jar of Jam

by Taylor Turner

            “We can start now, Mrs. Thompson.”

            I watched the old woman settle down in her two-cushioned seat positioned to hold her back straight. I sat across from her, sinking into the pillow fort she called a couch.

            “I’m sorry, dear. I’m ready now,” she said with a strain in her voice.

            Her home was a traditional small cottage built in 1891, decorated with country-style knick-knacks and rose-covered wallpaper. Her living room was a page ripped out of a Victorian Homes Magazine. Every item was as old as she was. I reached for my cup of coffee, the mug having a hand-painted rooster on the side.

            “It’s quite all right, Mrs. Thompson. Whenever you’re ready.” I took a sip of my cold coffee.

            She paused for a moment, studying my face. “Y'know, you remind me of my husband. Have I told you about him?”

            She had talked more about her husband’s life than her own for the entirety of our sessions. She talked about his job, his talents in shoe-making and carpentry, his bravery in marrying a Korean woman during the 1940s, how they weren’t legally married until 1967, and how much I looked like him when they first met. “Yes, you have, Mrs. Thompson.”

            The old woman waved her hand dismissively and looked over to the window, staring at the giant oak tree in her front yard. “You see that oak tree? My father planted that tree the day I was born.” She pointed with her wrinkly finger. “Why, it must not have long ‘til it croaks. Like me!”

            I laughed nervously. “That’s very interesting. How old is that oak tree?”

            She scratched the whiskers on her chin and said, “Oh, about… 93 years.”

            I let out a laugh, but I covered it with a cough. It was very warm in her living room and my necktie felt like it was getting tighter. “Our last meeting, you told me you took many trips around the world. Could you tell me one of those stories?”

            “Okay,” she nodded. “There are many of them. Which one would you like to hear?”

            After many of our meetings, I learned she needed to be focused on one thing or she would ramble for many hours and my story gets nowhere. “Why don’t you start on your most famous visits? What’s the most famous place you’ve been to?”

            She reeled back in her seat. I finally got her attention. “Oh, those famous cities! They’re all glorified! Nothing but trash and crowds of people! I’ve been to Los Angeles, walked on the streets of Hollywood; it was nothing but sad, miserable people. Everyone trying to make it in the big city but come to find out they’re not that talented.

            “I’ve been to Cancún, down in Mexico. I went for the turquoise waters and the fresh air. But there was no culture there… and the beaches were crowded. You couldn’t take a stroll down the beach with a lover without stepping on a tanning stranger. I’ve been to Barcelona. The architecture was beautiful, but these tourists were blocking the streets so bad, they to put up these ‘superblocks’ so no one could get hit by cars! I’ve been to Venice for the wine and gondolas, and those rides were so unbelievably boring!

            “The biggest disappointment has to be Paris….” She trailed off, lost in thought.

             I continued. “Why was Paris so disappointing, Mrs. Thompson?”

            “Oh, the flashing lights, and the food, and the romance. It’s all bull shit–excuse my language– I didn’t get all the talk about that dump. The city is packed with tourists, making long waiting lines and fully booked attractions and hotel rooms. Not to mention the prices! My word! You couldn’t walk into any store without spending 40 dollars! Well, that was a lot back in my day. I mean, I felt like a deer trapped in a gopher hole! It was unbelievable. Everything there you’ve seen already with pictures and television. When I saw the Eiffel Tower in person for the first time, I felt I had already been there a thousand times!

               “It wasn’t until I got on the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris on a warm, noisy day.  I was aiming to go home; my mind was set for the Charles de Gaulle airport. But all the passengers were eager to board their trains for the south of France. They had images of sun-drenched seaside villages, hot beaches crowded with animated holiday-goers, and the enchanting scenery of spring, when all of nature reaches the peak of its brightness. I was elbowing my way through the stream of people queuing to buy a ticket, but for some reason… I saw the name Lyon, and my heart told me to go there. I couldn’t explain it.  From Lyon, I would go on to a small provincial town. I loved adventure, unplanned journeys and I always tried to connect with the locals, even if those moments were short-lived. I was a young woman at the time, around twenty-four. I had ‘borrowed’ some money from my wealthy father-in-law. I figured now was the time I should be travelling the world, get out of my comfort zone. I was impulsive, reckless, free roam random places!

               “The bullet train raced through the countryside like lightning! I’ve never seen a train move so fast. I was dizzy when I pressed my face to the window to watch the world go by. On the train, I was looking for some nice-looking people to strike up a conversation with. The woman sitting next to me was in her seventies and fully engrossed in a thick novel. The two people sitting opposite us were a man and his wife, or possibly his mistress. They were close to my age, about twenty or so. The woman occasionally sniffed his cheek and pursed her lips for the man to kiss. The man tried to hide his discomfort and ignored her demands for attention by pretending to read the newspaper.

                “I remember thinking at the time… ‘whether it was in the East or West, woman always wanted to be cared for by their partner, to be caressed or kissed to show your love to them.’ And apparently the reverse was true; after enjoying lots of caresses at the beginning of the relationship, men soon get bored with their wife and lose interest in pleasing her over time.

              “The woman next to set down her book and asked me, ‘You're not French, are you?’ I told her ‘no, I’m Korean,’ and I asked where she was from. ‘A small village called Hauterives.’

               I nodded my head, even though I had never heard of the village before. I wondered if I should pay it a visit. This trip was getting to be a nuisance, so I didn’t want my time to be wasted.”

              “Or your father-in-law’s money,” I interrupted.

              She tilted her head, annoyed. “Yes, or my father-in-law’s money.”

              She stared at me, judging me, her face said a thousand words. “Please continue, Mrs. Thompson.”

              “The city life wasn’t for me anyways. I preferred tranquil areas that were more remote from modern life. I intended to talk with the old woman again, but she had returned to her book. The eyes of the couple opposite us were half-closed. The woman was leaning her head on the man's shoulder. The man's head was leaning against the window, his arms folded across his chest. I remember thinking, ‘I hope I never get stuck in a relationship like theirs.’

               “I had not planned on falling asleep, but the views outside were speeding by so fast, they made me dizzy. I closed my eyes, and it wasn't until the train was pulling into the station in Lyon that I woke up. The couple in front of me had disappeared, and I saw the old woman walking to the door. That woman disappeared as fast as a squirrel! So fast that I didn't have enough time to catch up to her to say good-bye.

                “I walked down the platform to an empty bench to watch passengers running to and fro to change stations. Lyon is a rather large hub for trains coming and going to locations all over the south of France. I was leafing through her guidebook when a section introducing the village of Hauterives caught my eye. It looked like it was a small village, famous only for its ‘Palace of Postman Cheval.’ Since I had no idea where I was or a place to stay, I decided to go to the one name I recognized. On her way to the village, I saw a tiny hotel called the SunFlower Inn. I wanted to take a bath, eat some food, and then take a walk around the village before the sun set. But unfortunately, there was no vacancy. It turned out Hauterives was not such a far-flung village after all. Visitors to the Palace had filled the entire hotel.

               “That’s when I spotted the old woman from the train. She first said to me, ‘Look! It's you!’ She said something else like, ‘We meet again. I didn't know you were coming to Hauterives.’ I told her I knew no one in France and I needed a place to stay. She asked me, ‘You must be lovesick? You're traveling aimlessly, aren't you?’ She told me I could stay in her home for the night until morning. I remember hearing pity in her voice. She introduced herself. Her name was Lucienne. She lived alone but her house was quite large. Her son was her only visitor, and he only visited for Christmas.

                “Lucienne's house was tidy but rather lonely. There were no decorations to liven up the place except for a picture of Montmartre over the fireplace. I stayed in her son's room, which was furnished simply with a single bed and a washbasin. Lucienne opened the door onto another room with lots of furniture. Its window looked down onto a sunflower garden. ‘This is my husband's room,’ she said, ‘but he doesn't live here anymore.’ He had been gone for ten years. She said her son had always envied his father. And she said, ‘what a pity!’ She made it sound like he was dead! But she said no, he’s still alive. He left her for his mistress.

                “After that, Lucienne led me to the garden and told me the story. I never thought Lucienne would tell the sad story of her husband's infidelities, but all afternoon, it was ‘my husband’ this, and ‘my husband’ that. ‘My husband painted this picture of Montmartre;’ ‘My husband loved Paris; he lives there now;’ ‘My husband loved these sunflowers;’ blah blah blah. In the evening, as we ate vegetable soup, Lucienne continued, ‘My husband always said that nobody could make this soup as good as me.’ He left her after thirty years of marriage. Thirty years! Now he lives with his mistress. Lucienne was so devastated even after so long. I still remember her sad voice saying, ‘The soup was not good enough to keep him at home….’

                “I stayed in Hauterives for a week. I even changed my return ticket to South Korea to stay longer. That small sun-drenched village kept me captive. Lucienne took me on walks over the hills of fragrant lavender flowers and into the forest to pick wild fruit. On our walks, we saw herds of cows strolling back to their stables. She also visited the Palace of Postman Cheval. He was the architect who designed the structure, and visitors thought it was a palace so that’s what they called it; hence its name.

               “But what was so interesting about this woman was… Lucienne made jam every night. She arranged an array of jars of apple, apricot, and berry jams on the fireplace. I wondered who was going to eat all these jams! Was this little old lady going to eat them all? Lucienne made those jams as she continued to tell me stories about her unfaithful husband. But on my last day in Hauterives, I decided to stay at home to sit on the rocking chair and listen to the birds sing. Lucienne sat with me on the veranda and peeled potatoes. She asked me something out of the blue. ‘Are you happy with your life?’

               “I told her, ‘I don't know… but I think I know how to accept the happiness that I do have.’”

               She paused for a moment, a look of melancholy in her eyes. I earnestly offered, “Mrs. Thompson, if you’d like to take a break or not talk about it any further, we can.”

              “No, no. I’ll continue. She burst into laughter at that. ‘What interesting people the Koreans are!’ she said. ‘I am a peasant, so I think I'm a simple person, but I have thought a lot since my husband left me. Three years after my husband left me, I told myself to move on. Well, now you can see, ten years have passed, I cannot forget. I know he does not deserve my love. In our thirty years together, he deceived me time and again and had a lot of affairs.’

             “I told her, ‘I think you should have been happy when he left you.’ You know, in Korea, when their husbands betray them, Korean women always say ‘It's over. I'm finished, I don't owe him anything!' They don't feel sorry for losing such a husband!’ But she told me her problem wasn’t that she felt sorry or felt betrayed; her problem was she was still in love with him. I will never forget her words: ‘I'd rather live with an unfaithful husband than be abandoned by him.’ And those words have haunted me. Even to this day.

            “Lucienne said as she wiped away her tears, ‘I don't want to be released from pain. I don't want to be an abandoned wife.’  When it was time for me to leave, Lucienne went with me to the railway station. She told me to have a safe journey back and to call her, and that she’ll visit me one day, but we both knew it wasn’t true. Lucienne was among the crowd waving good-bye to passengers. I couldn’t help but letting out a few tears.

            “That poor, betrayed woman went to Paris every couple of months to the small apartment her husband shared with his mistress during working hours and left jars of jam on the doorstep before they returned home from work. There were always full jars kicked off to the side among the piles of broken glass and dried up, moldy jam. During our week together, Lucienne had taken the opportunity to open her heart to me. She gave me food and shelter when I had nowhere to go, she gave me laughter and anger and sadness. She was my friend.”

            “Did you ever see Lucienne again?”

            “No, dear. I went back to Korea, secretly married my husband, jumped on a plane to the U.S., and lived with him in my father-in-law’s old house–this house–pretending to be a housemaid.” She stomped the hardwood floor with her wicker sandals. “I never went back. And she never visited me. She’s long gone now. I am now older than when I first met her all those years ago. But the way I see it; Lucienne gets to live through me, through my memories. Even if her ex-husband forgot her or her son never visited her again, I will still have a part of her in my heart. And now, with your help, maybe she’ll keep living even after I’m gone. Remember those abandoned jars of jam.”

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