|My grandfather, John Hertzel, and some of his Missouri bounty.|
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.|
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|
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.