My parents made a lot of sacrifices to give me a fun childhood: Driving hours to watch me run up and down a dusty soccer field on blistering summer days and spending money on private piano lessons for which I was always woefully under-practiced, that kind of thing. But there are also memories that remind me that parents are also just people. People with flaws, opinions, dreams, and bad habits, and, sometimes, ideas that are pretty hare-brained and not at all fun. For me, on such epiphany happened due to my parents’ half-baked plan to make their own maple syrup.
I remember feeling excited when my parents asked us if we wanted to help them make real maple syrup, even though I had probably never tasted real maple syrup before in my life. I had the palette of a ’90s child raised on fruit snacks and toaster strudels. We went to the hardware store and bought little metal spigots that we drilled into the handful of maple trees in our one-acre backyard. We saved plastic gallon milk jugs, rinsed them clean and fitted them onto the little metal spigots. It was March and still bitterly cold most days in Maine, but we were out in the yard, tromping through the snow, braving the elements and making something. It was exciting!
Then, it was boring. So, so boring. Did you know that it takes 40 gallons of sweet and sticky tree water to make one gallon of syrup? The process of making syrup, we learned, involved a lot of waiting. As far as fun projects for kids go, this one quickly lost its appeal.
To make it more exciting, my parents explained to us the science behind how the early spring climate would get the sap flowing: on days where the nights were cold but the days were above freezing, the temperature fluctuations would create pressure in the trees that would cause the sap to flow freely. We would get home from school in the afternoons and look out through the glass door that led into our backyard to see how much sap had collected in the milk jugs while we had been gone. Needless to say, it didn’t offer the same level of anticipatory delight as Christmas eve.
The collecting of the sap, while the most engaging step in the process, was possibly the worst part. Once a milk jug was filled to the brim with sap, we’d need to go dump the sap into a big bucket in our cellar and restore the jug beneath the tree to continue collecting. Self-serious child that I was, I felt terribly nervous about spilling any of the precious liquid on my trek from the tree to the cellar. My siblings and I, bundled in fleece, would trace our way through the little snow paths we had carved out to the trees and retrieve the buckets, doing our best to work as quickly as possible without dropping any of the sap. I’m guessing my three siblings didn’t take their jobs quite as seriously as I did, but if there’s one thing that brought us all together it’s that we were quitters. As the weeks wore on, our interest waned and my parents had to shoulder more and more of the daily sap collection. Their tiny army of children had not yet learned the value of hard work.
Our efforts quite literally boiled down to one day. This was the main event, for which we installed a burner and pot on our deck and slowly began to boil our sap down into liquid gold. Even this part of the process was something us kids couldn’t truly partake in, since it involved keeping watch over a massive vat of hot liquid. Perhaps it’s the rose-tinted lens of sentimentality, but the fondest memory I have of the syrup-making process is periodically coming out onto the deck, leaning my face over the pot, and breathing in deep the steam that rolled off the frothy top of the amber stew. Ah, the fruits of my labor, I probably thought, forgetting the resistance and boredom with which I had approached the project for the previous weeks.
The final product of our grand experiment was dozens of syrup-filled mason jars that we gave away to friends and family that spring. My mother put little stickers on each of them, labelling them proudly with our last name. We did it, I thought. But really, I had given up on the process long ago. We saved some of the syrup for ourselves and had a celebratory breakfast one morning during which we slathered fluffy pancakes with our own syrup. And just as I was perhaps too young to appreciate the value of seeing a difficult and toilsome project through to the end, the purity of our maple syrup was lost on me, too. In the end, I found myself sheepishly reaching for the bottle of Aunt Jemima.