This is a story about tomatoes. But it’s not really. It’s a story about the person who loved them.
She grew up during the Depression, in a tiny town in Central Pennsylvania. Her daddy farmed, and she would eat tomatoes with him off the vine, warm from the sun. Maybe with salt. Sometimes that’s what she did when I knew her.
It’s hard to say whether her love of tomatoes came from her love of the color red, or the other way around. I asked her. She thought red.
We talked about the little ones, all the different colors I didn’t know existed until I started going to farm markets. She told me once that she’s had a lot of really nice orange tomatoes, but red ones were the best.
Red was the color of everything. Her favorite clothing, her rugs, poinsettias, the million cardinals she used to decorate her home. Christmas. She would leave her Christmas things up as long as she could, some of it all year.
She told me once that if they made tomato ice cream, she would eat it.
And she would. She wasn’t a picky eater – not at all. But if she liked something, you knew it. Tomato bisque, meatloaf (she never could accept my giving that up). I’m famous for peppermint bark: that’s all because one year I tried it as a gift for her, and she returned the tin to my mother with a note on the back (my name and “Mint bark, 2006. Delicious.”) and a strong hint that I should make it for her next Christmas. I did. That year, and every year after – same tin every year.
That was something else she did. She’s always been resourceful, and I guess the Depression made her a saver. Saving everything from family bibles to fossils to foil to cooking wine from the 1940s to my mom’s old shoes. (Exploring her basement last Christmas, we found a turquoise ice bucket, probably from the 50s, possibly never used. She let me take it home with me and I use it with pride anytime I have a party.) We teased her about it, but gently. She loved to call up the memories of things that she had. I loved to hear them. So many things had their story written on the back or bottom – and she has a whole book of pictures and stories of her teapots. When you’re a saver, love tea, and live to 86, you amass a lot of teapots.
Her obituary says she “truly treasured her family and friends.” That’s very accurate, but it doesn’t fully convey how her dearest wish was always to have all the family together at holidays, or how she singlehandedly carried a Fourth of July party for 30 to 60 people in her extended family for half a century, or the sleepovers she and her sister used to have in their eighties, or her siblings’ lunches. Or that she and my grandfather were able to meet a couple from Australia in England and form a deep friendship that lasted their entire lives, or how she put a lot of effort into finding the perfect gift for the ladies in her book club.
There are so many things that remain to show who she was. A needlepoint of the entire U.S. and its capitals and state flowers. Playbills, journals. Sheet music for piano and CDs of carols by the handbell choir. Red cookware and photo albums and walls of books. But there’s so much that can’t be captured. How she loved the “yellow carpet” of autumn leaves. That she would rather pick a turkey apart than wash dishes. The way she did her hair. Her musical voice; her mannerisms. Her humor – wry, even sharp, but without any cruelty or cynicism. Her sweetness and care for others.
This summer, when she first was sick, I surprised her with a heap of cherry tomatoes fresh from the market, and she loved them. Beat hospital tomatoes with their spongy, pink insides. This winter, when she was at home, not even the best we could find tasted right to her. I know how much she hated that. She loved tomatoes.
She was born into a house with no indoor plumbing, where they kept chickens; she leaves a world with space travel and tablets and texting and blogging – and I think she was probably amused if she saw chicken-keeping making a comeback like it was something new.
When she was that little girl, the fifth of six, eating tomatoes off the vine with her daddy, in that tiny town, in that house with no indoor plumbing, did she ever imagine the things she would do and see? What would that little girl say if she could have seen her future self traveling the world? Going to China, Europe, Australia, New Zealand? Amongst those travels, witnessing first-hand from Moscow the fall of the Soviet Union?
Forging deep bonds everywhere she went along the way? Bonds of people – friends and family, children and grandchildren – who love her and whose hearts are broken at her passing? We can never know, because that’s how it works, but I like to think it would have made that little girl feel like she could fly. For me, I miss her so much. I see her footprints everywhere, and will remember every time I see yellow leaves or cardinals, make peppermint bark, drink tea, or bite into a perfect red tomato.
Love you, Grandma.