My family has an ancestral home, a place that’s been owned by our family ever since it was built in 1910. It’s a large, elegant, three-story brick house on the main street of a pleasant town in Ohio. My maternal grandmother grew up there, and although she itched to leave that town because of the stifling social climate, she enjoyed coming back to visit. Her sister inherited the house and passed it on to her children. My cousin-once-removed lives there alone now but cheerfully welcomes all of the extended family to big gatherings for special occasions and smaller visits whenever we’re in the area.
I was there for a medium-sized gathering in 1997. My mother and her Japanese storytelling colleague were passing through Ohio on a tour and spending a weekend at the ancestral home, so my uncle and his two daughters came over from Indiana, and I took a bus from Pittsburgh.
My great-aunt and great-uncle were still alive at that time. They were the kind of people who like to save things. In the room where I was sleeping, issues of National Geographic were stacked around the perimeter–it appeared that Aunt Henrietta had every issue published in her lifetime. However, they were doing pretty well at preventing clutter from taking over the public rooms downstairs…except for the back porch. (I know how that is!)
The back porch is enclosed so that it can function as the laundry room, and it also houses a large freezer. Over dinner, Aunt Henrietta told us that they had recently replaced the upright freezer that had belonged to my great-grandparents, when it stopped working, with a new chest freezer (the kind whose door is on top and opens upward), but they’d found that they simply couldn’t live with a chest freezer because they would put things on that convenient surface and then find themselves unable to open the freezer when needed because there was too much stuff in the way. So they had donated that one to the local Girl Scout camp and purchased a new upright freezer.
The following afternoon, my ten-year-old cousin Madeline asked if Aunt Henrietta had any juice to drink. Her reply was, “Well, we used up the orange juice at breakfast, but seems to me I saw some juice when we moved things into the new freezer….” She went out to the back porch and returned peering at a can of frozen grape juice concentrate, wondering how old it was. Several of us huddled together inspecting the label and finally noted that the coupon printed on it had expired in 1964. It must have been purchased and placed in the freezer by my great-grandmother and waited there ever since.
Madeline was excited by the prospect of trying antique grape juice! Would it still be good, or would it have turned into wine or vinegar? Aunt Henrietta opened the can, and everyone present sniffed it and agreed that it seemed all right. She mixed it up with water in a pitcher, poured a glass for Madeline, and stood by with an air of scientific observation.
Madeline sipped cautiously, then with more enthusiasm, and concluded that it tasted “like grape juice with a little bit of old snow and cardboard.” I got a glass, too. She was right: It was slightly stale but quite drinkable.
Madeline and I sat in the spring sunshine on the steps of our ancestral home, drinking grape juice our great-grandmother bought before either of us was even conceived, preserved for us by the loving care and/or distracted inertia of our family. It was a good day.