Jars with Well-Fitting Lids

Seeing loss more clearly

Catherine Lacey
Illustration by Katrien de Blauwer

Objects of Desire is a new column in which we invite a writer to meditate on an everyday item that haunts them.

My stepsister, Mary Gardiner, used to wear a T-shirt printed with a cartoon jar wearing a label that read, “labels are for jars.” I thought about this shirt often when we were kids, wondering whether I understood it or not—was it mundane or radical? She was only two years older than me, but she seemed to live at the very peak of teenage intrigue and nonconformity. Brash when she should have been docile, pissed off when she should have been compliant, performing hugely in a southern society that wanted her to be small—no one had ever been as particularly sixteen as she was at sixteen, though perhaps that’s a label she would have rejected, too.

This was the nineties, though, long before the seemingly infinite ways to describe our sexualities and genders and other identities emerged into the mainstream, hundreds of labels to which you might happily affix yourself. The T-shirt was retired or outgrown long before Mary Gardiner went off to college, and well before we set off toward very different adulthoods, but for some reason the memory of it lingered in me. The drawing was puny. The shirt was pastel pink.

When I was thirty-one and in the midst of a necessary but excruciating demolishment of my personal life, I noticed that my previously sane appreciation of glass jars with well-fitting lids had taken on a vexing emotional sheen. Absolutely no jars were surrendered to the trash. I cleaned and kept them all regardless of whether they yet had a use. Peripatetic and perpetually broke, I’d never owned or held onto much, but that year I became a jar hoarder. Years later, believing myself to be writing fiction, I described this habit exactly:

Certain glass jars, for instance—simple things that reasonable people would have thrown into the recycling once the mustard or pickles were gone—a few of these glass jars that she had scrubbed clean and used for years had taken on so much significance that they seemed to be talismans that connected her to a sense of an ongoing and somewhat predictable future.

The sentence was so true I had to cut it from the story, and though I often played my jar habit for laughs, underneath the self-parody I still feel a profound sense of security when amassing and tending to a wide assortment of variously shaped jars. Some are ideal for storing dry goods. Some are better for holding nails, bobby pins, cotton swabs. Pickle jars find new life as water glasses, and though my jar habit did begin around the same time that Brooklyn-y restaurants began to serve everything in Mason jars, I eschew the Mason, the Ball, or any other jar with brand names imprinted into the glass. I need the glass to be smooth and nearly anonymous. I need these jars to enter my life while I’m doing something else—buying mustard or burning a candle or confiscating a sealed single serving of jam from a hotel breakfast.

Does it go without saying that I’ve labeled almost all of these jars? Black lentils, smoked paprika, ½-inch screws, and, on the flaky salt, “Avoid making plans with this salt.” Deep in the serotonin-rich task of removing the original labels by soaking the jars in hot water or oiling the old paper and glue away before affixing them with new labels, I’ve frequently found myself thinking blankly about the cartoon jar’s assertion on the “labels are for jars” shirt. Where did she even get that shirt? What did it mean to her? Where did it go?

The fourth winter after Mary Gardiner died, I didn’t go back to Mississippi for the holidays. I tried to bake sourdough (rye flour, bread flour, starter) and failed. I drank my jar of water near boiling in the morning. I discovered a hatred of Chicago winter, preferring to stay inside all day to manically organize the pantry. Indeed, I was trying my damnedest to feel “connected to a sense of an ongoing and somewhat predictable future.” It was the first winter I had been divorced, a label that seems mundane from this distance but felt apocalyptic back then. It was the first winter I was living with a man who had a way of defining me more exactly than I felt I could, and though his definitions of me were usually superior to the ones I’d given myself, accepting them also meant giving him the power to label me, to know what I was better than I could ever say. It is not lost on me that this was the winter I began writing a novel about a person who truly had no labels—no gender, no race, no age, no memory—a person who could not exist, of course, except in the mind.

Labels are for jars. The implication being that labels shouldn’t be for people or at least are not for the person who wears this shirt, as it’s impossible to label her, as she resists categorization, as she resists containment, refuses limits, refuses to even be a stable presence within her own life.

I noticed that my previously sane appreciation of glass jars with well-fitting lids had taken on a vexing emotional sheen.

After Mary Gardiner died, I could not help but label myself; I was a sister who was missing one of her sisters. Labels exist for other losses—orphan, widow, widower—but there is no word for losing a sibling or a child. I began to feel that no one could understand me except other people missing a brother or a sister (the man who could define me so well had lost his brother), and I clung to my label-less label, made huge choices under the semiconscious assumption that it explained me entirely.

At one point, Mary Gardiner was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the classically inadequate diagnosis for patients who don’t neatly hold other labels. Her mind was sharp, her creativity burning, then it was too sharp, too burning, then she was a grown woman under the kitchen table refusing medicine, as a child might. Then she was drinking on her meds, then secretly drinking on her meds, then she needed a liver transplant, then she couldn’t stop drinking, then her kidney went out, then her whole body went out. For a while I needed to know whether I could label this suicide or not.

But when opening the cabinet and surveying a collection of clear glass jars with well-fitting lids and neatly handwritten labels, I know precisely what I see—jars, ordinary mass-manufactured crucibles that have survived beyond their original use, jars that have been spared the uncertain future beyond the recycling bin, jars that can contain and define and control the loose matter of life, the things that get used once or ingested and are never seen again. You might think, looking at a jar of almonds labeled “Almonds” despite the almonds being visible through the glass, that the label serves no real purpose, but you would be wrong to think that. The label isn’t put there for the jar that’s full. The label is there so that when the jar falls empty, you know exactly what’s missing.

Catherine Lacey is the author of five books of fiction: Biography of X, Certain American States, Pew, The Answers, and Nobody Is Ever Missing. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library.
Originally published:
February 14, 2024


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