In the foggy ground between lucidity and sleep, it occurred to me that human life echoes the growing and harvesting of garden tomatoes.Â It was an idea that twisted in my head and gave exposure to mounting grief as my father lies, with a grave prognosis, in the VA hospital.
In the spring gardeners set out tomato plants and carefully nurture them through late rogue frosts, nippy winds, and over-enthusiastic tending.Â The tomato stalks are gangly, the leaves droop easily until the roots establish, and the gardenerâ€™s patience is tested.Â The winter was long, and the need to push seeds and life into the ground is urgent.
Nature understands.Â If conditions are right the tomato plants establish and soon delicate, almost shy, yellow blooms appear seemingly overnight.Â Bees investigate, and before long small green tomatoes form from the blossoms like a necklace of edible pearls. The once wispy plants, pregnant with possibility, thicken and grow to support their gems.
Some gardeners try to rush the process in their eagerness to taste the first ripe bite. They over-protect by placing barriers all around, warm the ground with special matting, and fertilize with the latest and greatest food.Â But others show their love by allowing the plant to mature in its own time and give free reign to natureâ€™s wisdom. Â Either way, with luck, the green baby tomatoes soon plump and blush.Â As if ready to test the future, they peek beneath the shielding cover of leaves and vines in search of sunshine and warmth.
The gardener almost dances when the first tomato reaches maturity.Â It is a brilliant red, and feels tight and weighty in its readiness.Â Held gently in hand the tomato is delivered to the kitchen with the celebration and appreciation it deserves.Â Ambient window light glints off the knife as it slices through the tender tomato skin and juice floods the carving board.Â Whether consumed on a salad, a sandwich, or sliced into wedges and sprinkled with a touch of salt, the flavorâ€¦oh the flavorâ€¦is incomparable.Â Each bite of tomato tingles, each burst of life lingers on the tongue, and the gardener smiles. The wait is over.
But then the tipping point arrives.Â Those first precious tomato moments get lost in the bounty that follows.Â The height of summer, with its heat and humidity and seasonal clock clanging, push the plants to produce at a feverish pitch.Â Baskets and boxes and pails of tomatoes challenge the gardenerâ€™s recipe books.Â Friends and neighbors start hiding to avoid the overflow gifting, and cases of slightly mineral stained mason jars cover the kitchen counter. Canning season has arrived. Â Steam clouds compete with sweat equity as quarts of freshly prepared tomato sauce line the table and cupboards.Â â€œI donâ€™t think I can deal with another tomato,â€ the once giddy gardener confesses. â€œThey are too much work!Â I donâ€™t even taste them anymore.â€
Again the seasonal clock chimes.Â The television meteorologist mutters the first horrific warningâ€¦a frost is forecast.Â Cover the tomatoes!Â Gardeners drag out old bed sheets, blankets, and tarps.Â Anything to save the tomato plants still laden with green late-bloomers.
What was too much and too ordinary now seems sacred once again.Â How much time is left to taste homegrown tomatoes before winter sets in? Â What can be salvaged and preserved before it is too late? But the effort is for naught.
The first snowflakes fall to the ground in lazy swirls.Â The killing frost has come and gone.Â The tomato plants, once so strong they seemed almost invasive, withered to thin brown stalks and were discarded in death.
The gardener looks at the frozen ground and remembers what was taken for granted only a short while ago.Â Like photographs stacked in a cupboard, the mason jars of tomato sauce are good, but they are just placeholders of what was.
I love you Dad.