Sugaring Time

A friend told me some years ago that February is the sunniest month of the year. Since then I’ve taken notice and she is right about that. So far I’ve seen the sun every day this month, and sometimes for the whole day long. I love that the days are lengthening, and that we get promises of the spring that is to come. My thoughts always travel back in time in February and March to the little farmette where I grew up, where we tapped the trees and made maple syrup each spring. I’ve written an account of what sugaring was like, and I will use the first “installment” of that for my post today.

One afternoon in February when we came home from school, Mom was working in the basement in a cloud of steam. She had heated water in the big iron pot for washing sap buckets. The iron pot sat on a steel jacket that had a door so we could build a fire inside it under the pot and a stovepipe that connected this jacket to the chimney. We called the whole thing a “cooker,” which we used it to heat water for washing clothes and once a year for washing sap buckets.

Most people just washed their sap buckets after they finished using them, in late spring. Datt washed them twice. While they were still hanging on the trees at the end of the season, he scrubbed them with a brush, rinsing them with the last of the sap still in them. Then we emptied the buckets, turned them upside down on the ground, gathered them, and finally stacked them in the sugarhouse. Then next year, before we used them, we washed them with a brush and hot water. Datt believed the syrup would be lighter that way, and he took pride in producing the lightest syrup in the area.

The tops of the stacks of buckets were lost in a cloud of steam when I got to the basement. Dad said we had over nine hundred buckets to wash.

He separated them carefully. When two stuck together, he held them in one hand and tapped the rim of the bottom bucket with a hammer until they came apart. My sisters and I took turns washing and rinsing, then we carried and stacked the clean buckets.

I liked building pyramids of buckets in rows all along the cellar wall. We first made a line of upside down buckets, then placed the next row on top of that, resting one bucket on top of two underneath. I’d build each pyramid as high as the ceiling, then begin another one in front of the first one.

As I counted and stacked, I heard Datt’s tap, tap, tapping on the bucket rims, then the hollow bang as the bucket hit the cement floor. I heard the grating of the buckets against the tub and the swish, swishing of Lizzie’s brush. I hummed a tune and the sound vibrated around the rims of the buckets. I left room for a path through the middle of the basement and filled up the rest with pyramids. I walked the buckets, two at a time, into the bigger part of the basement, and when it was getting full I said,” Only room for one more row.”

“How many are there so far?” Dad asked.

“Four hundred and seventy,” I said. We would have to wash the rest the next night.

When the last row was stacked, we emptied the tubs by pulling the plugs, and then we swept the water toward the drain in the floor. When we were finished, Dad and my older sister, Lizzie went upstairs.

My two younger sisters, Sarah and Susie, and I stood in the path between the pyramids and called out vowel sounds, then listened to the sounds bounce around each bucket rim in turn, before fading into nowhere. We called out “OOOO, EEEE, AAAA!” and waited for the echo.

Sarah and Susie went upstairs when they were tired of playing. I listened to my echo by myself, and then I sat on the basement steps and looked at the faint light coming through the little windows over the tops of the pyramids. I thought of all the other years when we created an echo chamber with the sap buckets. I felt as though I was a little girl again, even though I was ten. I wondered if in another year I would think I was too old, as Lizzie had.

I was sitting in the dark when I got a whiff of Mom’s supper and I realized how hungry I was. When I walked into the kitchen, I blinked in the bright lantern light. Mom was pulling baked beans out of the oven, with rows of sizzling bacon on top of the pan. She placed it on hot pads in the middle of the table next to slices of bread and a big bowl of applesauce. After our silent prayer, we all ate heartily.

After the dishes were done and the floor swept, and everyone was reading, sewing, or playing games, I felt what the Amish call sot, the way one feels after having eaten a satisfying meal. I liked that word, and there isn’t one like it in the English language, because you can feel full without feeling satisfied. Sot was that feeling of being nourished with a really good meal after working hard.

In my next post, I will continue my account of what sugaring was like for my family. Please feel free to send me questions or comments. I promise to respond, if not right away, then eventually.


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