This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
To call Jackson home sometimes feels like a betrayal of the place that taught me the meaning of that word. Two hours east on I-40, home is a small white farmhouse on top of a hill with a porch swing and a bed of roses that welcome you to the front door. At home, the sound of that swing’s rusty metal creaking still steadies me like I imagine the ticking of a metronome does for a novice musician. There are days when I ache for the rhythm of home, just as we gasp for air when deprived of breath. Of course, I don’t so much ache for a swing as I do the endless welcome and comfort offered there throughout my life.
This Labor Day weekend, I found myself planted in Jackson with my car broken down and frustrated by failed attempts to get home. It didn’t matter how badly I wanted to get out of town, I’d already planned to interview Nancy and David Thomas about canning. Growing up, walking barefoot into the garden and gathering beans into a basket was a tradition that marked the summer days. I’d await the chance to string them with my grandfather, snapping them into small pieces to be canned and distributed to friends and family.
The Thomas family welcomed me into their home to document a tradition that comes with the same rhythm as most of their family traditions do—the end of summer signaling the chance for Nancy to stock up on the last of the green tomatoes from the farmers’ market and can her mother-in-law’s recipe for pickle relish. Before we sat down to begin, Nancy put on a pot of hot water, and David offered me a slice of freshly baked bread.
“He grinds his own flour,” Nancy interjects, and I’m already amazed at the richness in which they seem to live their lives.
We sat down to work, Nancy decisively cutting the vegetables into the right size chunks that David methodically ground into a bowl using an old-fashioned meat grinder. A food processor is speedier and more convenient, but the old grinder has stood the test of time. The red, yellow, orange, and green chunks are placed in a pot where they soak in saltwater overnight.
David and Nancy settle into the same sort of pattern I remember finding sitting alongside my grandfather. Side by side, we carefully peeled the string from top to bottom, snapping the tender pods into small pieces. In the same way, David and Nancy knew their method and proceeded with ease. As we worked, I discovered that Nancy and David are transplants to this city, too, and moved away from extended family in Ohio when David got a job at Union University. Nancy recalled a “rhythm of expectation and predictability” while raising her children, from dinner at the same time every night to the expectation that Labor Day weekend means canning pickle relish, the fourth of July is homemade ice cream, and Christmastime means homemade candy for friends and family.
The ease at which hospitality flows in their home was enough for me to realize that the beauty of traditions like canning is the connection they give us to each other, to time, and to place. The Thomases are twenty years into their lives here in Jackson, and I am surprised that they recognize what I’ve begun to see in merely six years here. Despite the days when I ache for home and family, it seems like the people here are standouts.
“Community here is very special,” Nancy says to me, and I don’t need her to explain what she means. A stranger two hours before, she welcomed me warmly into her home, and to my homesick disposition she offered the welcome and warmth of tradition. We left the vegetables to soak in a pot overnight, and twenty-four hours later we drained and rinsed the mixture three times, placed it into the jars, and sunk them down into the boiling water to cook and seal them. As the steam rose up from the pot, we imagined our grandmothers canning in the lingering summer heat without air conditioning.
She studied the recipe card, dotted with drips and stains and covered in notes, and measured the relish into the jars prepared to be dipped into the pot of boiling water to seal. After ten minutes they were placed on shelves to be distributed to friends and family. It’s funny that I’m only now seeing that simple tradition I shared with my grandfather was the same tradition that brought green beans to the table as our family gathered for holidays throughout the rest of the year.
If there’s anything tradition offers us, it is the chance to open up our homes and tables and build
a sense of belonging to one another. Traditions carve out a sense of home wherever it is we put ourselves to living and breathing. They create the rhythm we need to feel at home.
When I look back on the sense of belonging I have experienced, I know that it is built on the sharing of tradition with my neighbors. It’s been built over six years of showing up on Sunday afternoon at City Fellowship Baptist Church, over countless Sunday night dinners after church, over cups of coffee and Saturday morning trips to the farmers’ market. It’s been accepting the tempo of friends coming and going, loosening my grip on the people I hold dear to let new friendships form. We don’t get to grasp our neighbors with an iron hold; we only get to share the days we’ve been given alongside them as fully and richly as possible. It’s been learning when to seek solitude and when to press into community. I used to expect that a sense of home would come just as easily as passing time, but I learn more and more each day that it is something that is built gradually and with much intention.
So to call Jackson home means to put my hands to work at forming new traditions and sharing in stories that open up that same, endless welcome I experienced as a child to those around me. To work at finding a rhythm for life here, when it might be easier to settle into independence and self-sufficiency. To find that the steady, swaying swing will always move me to find home wherever it is I land my feet.
Be on the lookout this winter for Nan's Toffee at the West Tennessee Farmers' Market.
Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. She currently works as a graphic design specialist at Union while continuing to make paper goods on the side via her business Fine Company. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.
Photography by Courtney Searcy.
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, Courtney Searcy, Labor Day, Our Jackson Home: The Magazine, Vol. 1 Issue 2, home, holiday, Nancy Thomas, Nan Thomas, David Thomas, recipe, food, relish, vegetables, family, pickle, Ohio, Union University, homemade, cooking, Nan's Toffee, hospitality, canning, tradition, summer, City Fellowship Baptist Church, church, Farmers' Market, friends, Women's History Month