Suzy Conaway’s birthday is at the end of summer, and every year she gets jars and jars of jam. Theoretically, as long as she has bread, Suzy will never go hungry because of the cellars she can fill with jam. I swear she gets more jars each year than the one before. All summer long, my mom, Suzy’s mom, Mrs. Hammond (who’s 79 and lives across the street) and all of Mrs. Hammond’s knitting group spend every weekend making jam. They do all the expected flavors of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and blackberry: and then they do all the fruits that shouldn’t be made into jam, like peaches, plums, pineapple, and even watermelon—don’t ask me how they accomplish that peculiar mix.
While the women of our town love to get together to make every boy pick buckets of fruit through the summer so they don’t have as much time to wreak havoc, and while they love the chatting they get to do during hours of jam making, what they love the most is gifting all the jars of jam to Suzy for her birthday. Honestly, I don’t know what makes Suzy so special as to get to be the focus of the town’s summer holiday, and I really don’t care.
I want to know where it’s all going. Because Suzy doesn’t have seven cellars of jams. And I don’t care if she has toast three times a day—there’s no way she’s eaten all that jam.
This year, I’m going to figure it out.
Yesterday was Suzy’s fourteenth birthday. I’ve been in the tree between our houses since 7:00 a.m., and I’m not leaving until Suzy does.
Finally, as I finish my breakfast granola bar, Suzy casually walks out her front door, dragging a suitcase behind her, like she has nothing to hide. Once she turns left at the end of the street, I put on my backpack of supplies and slip out of the tree to follow.
I wait with her at the bus station and then board the nine o’clock bus to Davis, the city an hour and a half away with the closest high school that both Suzy, and I will start attending this fall.
I pull out my book, casually pretending to read while watching Suzy strike up a conversation with the lady next to her. Probably another one of Mrs. Hammond’s friends who helped make Suzy’s birthday presents. I bet this lady made the pineapple jam.
We get off by the grocery store Mom gets my favorite chips from, but Suzy starts walking down a street I’ve never seen before. Garden Lane. Figures.
Our walk is at least fifteen minutes, and I’m debating getting out my lunch granola bar when Suzy turns into a building.
The Davis Soup Kitchen?
Okay, I admit it. I hesitate. But then I peek in to see Suzy laughing with a woman in her early thirties wearing an apron. I follow after her trying to get close enough to hear the conversation.
“—be here as always, Carly,” Suzy was saying. “And, I hope you don’t mind, but I brought a friend, too.”
I quickly turn to look at the suitcase, but it doesn’t look like a body is stuffed inside. When I glance up, I realize Suzy and the lady, Carly, are looking at me. So much for being sneaky.
“This is Eliza,” Suzy introduces me when I don’t say anything, still hoping they can pretend I’m not here if I don’t acknowledge I’ve been caught.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Eliza,” Carly says with a smile that seems genuine. “More hands are always welcome here, especially for the lunch rush on August third.”
Somehow, without saying a word, I end up with Suzy in the kitchen, taking orders from a gruff old guy who might be Carly’s cousin or grandfather. Pots bigger than me are filled with chili, and pans of cornbread the size of extra-large pizzas come out of the mysterious ovens that are hidden somewhere. Every time I try to follow Suzy to fetch more fresh cornbread, Mr. Gruff snags me to dice more tomatoes for the vat of chili he’s stirring.
And then a bell sounds to get the kitchen’s attention. Carly, the holder of said bell, says something about it being time to open the doors and gives out lunch assignments.
“And Suzy and Eliza will be on jam duty,” she finishes.
I look over at Suzy on my right. She’s beaming and gestures for me to follow her. We are at the end of the lunch line. Suzy starts pulling carefully packed jam jars out of her suitcase.
“I like to organize them alphabetically,” Suzy says, handing me the first jar. “This is apple, so put it to the far left. We have three of each flavor, except raspberry. We have five jars of raspberry, and every last drop is needed.”
Following her direction, I line up all the jars and finish just in time.
Carly opens the door and a bunch of people who need new clothes come in with smiles. They thank Carly as they pass her, and then they thank the boy giving out trays, and Mr. Gruff for filling their bowls with chili, and the tall lady for giving them a small plate of salad, and the short lady for a slice of cornbread, and then they come to us. While each person had been polite up to our point of the line, everyone smiles with genuine friendship as they reach Suzy and pick a flavor of jam for us to spoon onto their cornbread.
I can’t believe this is the big mystery. Suzy Conaway gives her birthday jam to the homeless?
After countless slices of cornbread, we are nearly out of jam when Carly closes the door at 1:30 p.m. Suzy was right, we had needed to scrape all five jars of raspberry jam.
Everyone who served lunch dishes up the meal for each other. I choose blackberry jam for my cornbread, but Suzy doesn’t even take a drop of jam for hers.
We sit across from each other at a table, and conversations rise around us.
“How was your first time at the soup kitchen?” Suzy asks expectantly.
I stare at her in confusion. Finally, disregarding her question, I address the elephant in the room that she’s ignoring. “Why didn’t you put any jam on your cornbread?” Suzy doesn’t say anything for a moment, so I remind her, “You love jam.”
Suzy smiles abashedly. “Actually, I love marmalade. I’m not a big fan of jam.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Well, jam can be made from cutting up any fruit, but marmalade is made from citrus fruit because you have to use the fruit, the juice, and the rind.”
I stare at her in disbelief for at least five minutes.
“Let me get this straight,” I say, trying to process the new information. “You’ve received hundreds of jars of jam for your birthday, and you come here every year to give most of it away because you don’t even like it? Why not tell everyone that you don’t like jam? Wouldn’t you rather get something you like for your birthday?”
Suzy laughs. “It does sound a little ridiculous when you put it like that.” She takes another bite of jam-less cornbread. “But the ladies in town love to make the jam and the folks here love to eat it. If my supposed love for jam facilitates all that, then I’m happy to spend my birthday this way.”
My plan worked. I finally solved the jam mystery.
I also learned why everyone in town loves Suzy so much.