Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tomatoes, with love

My grandfather, John Hertzel, and some of his Missouri bounty.
In the summer, Guv spent as much time as he could outside. He read in the backyard, no sunglasses, the white light of the July sun bouncing off the white page. He worked in the yard in a white t-shirt and knee-length, cut-off pale-blue jeans, planting, trimming, nurturing with a tenderness he rarely showed his children. He drove down to Park Point and read on a towel stretched out in the sand. He walked the neighborhood in the evenings, carrying a stick to ward off dogs.

He was from Missouri, and he loved heat and light. That burning sun that turned my face bright pink and made me languorous only made him stronger.

The back yard belonged to him, and we mostly stayed out. We kids had the run of the front yard; we set up little wire wickets for croquet, which was never a genteel game with us, but a cutthroat one, with the little click of wooden balls hitting always followed by the loud crack of one player sending another's ball halfway down the block. There were no boundaries. You had to play it all the way back, wait your turn, plot your revenge. If it rolled down the hill to the street, you were in big trouble and arguments ensued. Once, in the heat of the moment, I hit my brother Tommy in the head with my mallet and we are all very lucky that the worst that came of it was a bruise.

Between our yard and the Wunderlichs' house, where there had once been a mountain ash tree, was a permanent dirt spot that was perfectly positioned as home plate for games of kickball. We set up a volleyball net by the porch; we hauled out woven webbed collapsing lawn chairs where we slathered coconut-scented tanning lotion on our legs and dozed; Tommy had a little garden of irises on either side of the front steps; my mother planted a clematis, which climbed up our porch every summer, a deep purple and green.

This was all in the front yard. The back yard belonged to Guv. He lay on his back on a flat wooden chaise longue, holding the book over his head to read. He pushed the zone as much as he could, planting rhododendrons, forsythia and asparagus. But he did not plant tomatoes. He knew that there was no way in Duluth's cold climate he could come close to the steeped-in-sun tomatoes he had grown up on in Missouri. And besides, there was always John: His father, our grandfather, grew the world's best tomatoes, and every summer, more than once, he would wrap several dozen in pages torn from the St. Joseph News-Press, pack them carefully in a big cardboard box, and ship them to our house.

I don't know if he wrote ahead to let us know a box was arriving; I only remember the excitement as my mother unpacked the carton in the kitchen, pulling away the crumpled newspaper, washing the tomatoes gently under the running water at the sink, slicing them with a serrated knife and letting them lie in their red and beautiful juice on a blue plate. Did I like tomatoes? How could I not, when they arrived with such celebration?

Tart and juicy and firm red tomatoes, and sweeter, milder yellow tomatoes--first one was my favorite, then the other. We ate them plain, with salt, for dinner, for lunch on toast with bacon and lettuce; we ate them fast because tomatoes don't last and you never know when you're getting another box.

One summer my little sister, still in a high chair, refused to eat anything else, and my parents, normally sticklers for the three-bite rule, indulged her for one dinner, allowing her as many tomato slices as she could eat.

My grandfather at 18, a dandy.
John grew up in the city, never a farm boy, but he took to gardening with a passion. Every year, he started right after Christmas, poring over the Burpee catalog and ordering seeds. Seeds, always seeds, which he planted by the dozen in empty milk cartons. No bedding plants for him.

In February, he began to work the ground--February, when in Duluth we were still waddling around in parkas and shoe-boots through tunnels carved from mountains of snow.

He had farmer friends who saved manure for him over the winter. He preferred cow manure but would use horse manure in a pinch. While we were shoveling the sidewalks in Duluth, John was driving his red Chevy Impala out into the country, shoveling shit in Missouri, shit that he worked into the soil for his lettuce, radishes, spinach, beans, peas, cucumbers and tomatoes.

The summer we lived in St. Joe, the summer before my memories begin, my older siblings were allowed to pile tomatoes in their little wagon and pull it down the street; they came home with an empty wagon and a pocketful of money. There were so many tomatoes that even with all of us living there we couldn't eat them all.

John, Gramma and Guv
Over their years together, John and Gramma fought, they argued, she baited him, he might have hit her. But they had a ritual: When John brought the first basket of produce in from the garden--the garden that took up more and more of the yard every year--he presented it to Gramma, who always ooed and ahhed. Those beans! So crisp! That lettuce! So tender! And those tomatoes--oh, those magnificent tomatoes.

The week Gramma died, I was out of town, out of phone reach, on a camping trip with a friend. I missed her funeral, missed the reunion of cousins, missed the excitement and the sadness of going back to Missouri. A few days later, my aunt told me, John brought the first bounty of green beans into the house. He sat at the kitchen table in his battered straw hat and his wife-beater shirt, snapping the beans, one by one, and the tears slid down his face. Out in the yard, a hundred tomatoes slowly turned red in the hot Missouri sun.


Naperville Now said...

raw and beautiful and tender; how I look forward to your posts.

Irene said...

Yes, we get used to our spouses, for better or worse. They are old habits that are hard to give up. Who praised him next for all that wonderful produce?

Eulalia Benejam Cobb said...

Another gem.

Funny how I can see your grandfather's face in yours....

Deborah said...

My dad was the gardener in our family, too. Funny that he almost never ate what he grew. I think he planted mostly for the fun of it, and for the bragging rights, of course.

Erin said...

Beautiful, Laurie. I live in southern Missouri and you have renewed my interested in growing a tomato. I'd be happy with just one juicy red tomato from my very own vine. And when I eat it, I'll think of John and his first basket of produce for the year.

laurie said...

thank you, Erin!

Flea said...

Oh. Oh. Oh my. I hate tomatoes. We grow them every year. I keep them alive through the heat of Oklahoma summer, watering them from the duck pond, nursing them along when it's 115 degrees. I use the chicken poo compost. And I get it, the nurturing of a fruit which grows so readily, bears so heartily. But I won't eat them. Your stories - they are moving in the oddest way.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Interesting recalls.. no family is perfect. I did feel sorry for your Grandma..women back then had so few choices. I would have never survived back them..too opinionated.
You didn't get to say goodbye to your Grandmother..that is sad.
Hope you have some spring..and send it north:)

Along These Lines ... said...

Ha! Cute title! What happens if you get another?

Indigo Bunting said...

What a turn. Wonderfully written.

Dog Breed said...

Excellent article. Thanks with regard to giving.