But of course you are wondering: What’s so special about a yellow tomato?
Nothing, really, except all the good stuff that came rolling forward in the gray cells called memory as I watched it grow from infancy to full-term before I leaned down to pick it one sweltering 90-degree morning last week.
We’re in the midst of a major heat wave in the Midwest this summer—not unlike many parts of the U.S. and I had the good fortune to pluck that juicy little ‘mater from the vine and then run back inside to our nice air-conditioned house.
But that’s not how it was when I was a child. These hot spells are nothing new to Iowa, but the roiling hot summers of my childhood were so different from what I experience today.
My folks raised a huge garden every summer, and several different varieties of apple trees and one Italian plum tree lined the north side of said garden.
Whereas I only planted 3 tomato plants and 1 green pepper plant in amongst my flower gardens this season, my folks would plant multiple rows of green beans, onions, beets, cabbage, corn—and megatons of lovely, vine-ripened, smooth-skinned, red-orange tomatoes, which my mother canned—in 90++ degree heat waves like we are currently enduring.
Canning consists of the picking, washing, scalding, peeling and stuffing of vegetables/fruits into boiling hot sterilized quart-sized canning jars, affixed with hot sterilized lids and rings which she then lowered into a pressure-canner made of heavy grade metal, adjusting its huge, rubber sealed lid and bringing the pressure up to so many prescribed pounds on the burner of our stove for so many minutes to seal the rubber-edged lids. Pressure canners can be damn dangerous if instructions aren’t followed to the “T”.
Once the pressure canner had done its work and the lid safely loosened, the jars were removed and placed on the terry-cloth-lined kitchen counters with tongs and allowed to sit and cool overnight.
My mother would count the “pops” that signaled that the lids had finished sealing as they cooled. All those jars were then carted to the fruit cellar – a dark small cave in our basement that was lined with wooden shelves on which to store the preserved goodies for winter cooking needs.
And she did this without benefit of an air-conditioned kitchen, and she did it every summer that I lived at home. And I swear to you, the casseroles and the pots of chili she made from those canned tomatoes tasted better than anything that came out of a Del Monte or Hunt’s aluminum can from the grocery store.
So—what’s the big deal about all of this, you want to know.
It’s about the tales and experiences that the tomato brought back for me.
We never did have air-conditioning in my childhood house.
We didn’t own window fans until my sister and I were in high school. We’d lay in our beds on those beastly hot nights, after having taken a bath (no showers) in our one bathroom, 3-bedroom home for our family of six, and the beads of sweat ran down our temples and along the backs of our necks dampening our sheets and pillowcases–making the bath seem pointless–as we tried to get comfortable so we could get to sleep.
Late into the night we might wake up and pull the top sheet up over ourselves—the one that smelled like sunshine because it had been flung over a clothesline to dry earlier in the week after Mom washed our bedding.
Why, you ask me, are you yammering on and on like some nostalgia-sick sentimentalist?
Some time back I tried to organize a personal stories writing group within a local collection of people who I’ve known for some time. I approached several of them to kinda’ test the waters; some nodded politely and listened, but one person in particular looked at me and said: “What would I possibly write about? I don’t have any stories about my life!”
Hmmm . . . let’s see: this person was at least 80 years old, had been married a couple of times, had raised a good number of children – and yet: ‘didn’t have any stories . . .’
I secretly prayed to the Great Ones Above to strike me down immediately with their Euthanasia Wand should I ever grow that dull or unaware of the value within my life.
The atom-splitters among us are NOT the only ones who have a story to share!
M-a-y-b-e your kids would like to know a few specifics of your earlier life. (‘Why did you try to run away from home?’)
M-a-y-b-e your siblings would yet like to understand how you felt about what went on in the growing up years at home. Maybe said siblings were feeling the same way, and might appreciate the opening to share something as well? (‘I never knew Mom wished she could have gone to college instead of getting married.’)
M-a-y-b-e it isn’t all just about us.
Can’t figure out where to start, you say?
Then start with “firsts”—like this yellow tomato. It is the ‘first’ of this season and it opened a floodgate for me . . . just by showing up.
Don’t be selfish with your little personal stories or memories. If you don’t let at least some of them out of your head, they will disappear into your bone dust one day.
If you’ve been living on this earth for any amount of time, you already have a ton of firsts from which to begin sharing something of yourself with your children, your siblings, your friends–or the rest of us–who haven’t met you. Yet.
NOTE: THE SMELL OF THE SOIL: Writing Your Stories, a recently published collection of short personal stories by author Dale Kueter offers enjoyable examples and ideas for personal story telling.