Summer Tomato

I saw the most amazing thing last week, amazing and delightful, and even now, I am not convinced what I saw and experienced actually occurred..think it may have been a phantasm or a hallucination, or at the very least overactive wishful thinking.

I saw a tomato.

A ruby ripe tomato, slightly smaller than a softball, the top neatly sliced off and reminding me of my grandmother’s kitchen in summer, where she prepared such tomatoes for our lunch.

But I wasn’t in my grandmother’s kitchen, wasn’t standing in the middle of a Kentucky summer, but rather, passing by the lunch table in our break room at work.
My colleague, Matt, was sitting there, enjoying his lunch—he eats well—entire meals left over from Sunday dinners—and at his elbow was the tomato. He had been delicately slicing himself pieces, one at a time, as he ate his lunch.

Stopped me in my tracks, did that tomato. Stopped my buddy, Al, too, and we gathered around the tomato, and Matt, with reverence and awe. Someone might have knelt. I’m not sure.

Matt is a wonderful fellow, and generous, and he offered us some, carved off two slices with a beatific glow, for he knew what he possessed was not of this wintry world, knew it was to be shared, knew other, more ethereal forces were at work here.

We took our offerings in trembling hands, sat down, eyes closed, and took our time—no greedy slurping and inattention, but rather a savoring, and when we were done, Al and I wore beatific smiles, too.

Because this was a summer tomato. A perfectly formed, low acidic, delicious orb of a fruit, as authentic as any of its summer brethren, worthy of a place in a roadside stand, nestled under a handwritten cardboard sign reading “home grown.”

Where, or where, did he get it?

His father gave it to him.

Now here, as in most miracle stories, the details get sketchy but I will do my best to recreate it for you. Matt’s dad lives in Union County, of this much I am sure, and he purchased the tomatoes from the Amish, or the Mennonites—of this I am less sure—somewhere in the countryside, Matt wasn’t clear.

I remember him saying something about a fund-raiser, but that doesn’t exactly square up when you think about it, and he said they were expensive. For some reason the figure of twelve tomatoes for thirty dollars sticks in my mind—quick math and that brings us to $2.50 a piece.

I envisioned the tomatoes snug in heavy cardboard boxes, some wrapped in tissue paper, some wrapped in thin gold foil, like those specialty pears we send at Christmas. I envisioned a rendezvous under the cloak of darkness, a buggy on some overgrown backroad, a kerosene lantern blinking out code, and tomato hunters inching their cars—lights off—toward the golden glow, dodging muddy potholes and low-hanging branches.

I envisioned a small child appearing from the shadows, dressed in somber clothing, a poke in one hand, the other an outstretched palm, reaching to receive the cash, horses whinnying and pawing the damp earth. I envisioned a hot house—say it isn’t so!—a hot house, where a sea of tomatoes are chugging along, under water or manure, ripening and ripening, and ripening all winter.

This is what I thought about as I ate my tomato, I don’t know about the others. Each of us sat in communal silence, thinking our own thoughts, contemplating the miracles of the universe, perhaps, and what forces of nature or fate or simple good luck brought us to this tomato.

Matt offered us more—there was still half a tomato left—but Al and I demurred, knowing, I think, that we had been given a rare and precious gift, and it doesn’t do to be greedy.

There is a poem, one I admire but can’t find, that speaks of eating fruit in its season. That there is no better joy. The poem is a cautionary tale reminding us to do things in their proper time, reminds us of the value of waiting, the wisdom of patience.

I embrace the sentiment of that and work to be patient and wise and proportional in my life, living the seasons as they present themselves to us, standing still in the moment, with joy and faith.

But oh, my, that tomato. Summer in a twinkling, and just like that, gone.

Pure rapture.

February Blues

 

Ah, the end of February, the drowned rat of the calendar year.  We have just about floated away, with endless rain for days upon days.  But we might just have easily had snow and sleet for the month, or days as gray as dishwater for weeks on end, all likely possibilities for this, the shortest month, and thank goodness that it is only twenty-eight days long.

It’s sad, really, how tough this month is on most of us.  We even have two holidays, Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, and you think this would ease the pain, but no. When

I was a child, we had three holidays, because Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Washington each had their own special day, although everyone worked and went to school, and mail was delivered.

There were stories of log cabins and splitting wood, and that other axe, the one that cut down the cherry tree, even though, honestly, no child ever believed deep-down that little George ever uttered the phrase, “I cannot tell a lie.”

  A very small child might confess, all sobbing and hiccuppy at getting caught, but no child big enough to wield an axe and do that kiind of damage would ever cop to it, no child you would want to be friends with, at any rate. To support my point, an example.

To this day no one has confessed to eating the last piece of pumpkin pie at my house, the Thanksgiving I was eight.  Even though the culprit left behind irrefutable evidence in the pie—a perfectly formed and precise impression of the culprit’s teeth.  The culprit must have been disturbed during the event, had heard someone coming and scampered down from the chair that allowed him or her to reach the pie in the first place, up there on top of the refrigerator. 

No one confessed, even when the father lined all the children up and placed the half-eaten piece up to four innocent mouths and one guilty one, even when the culprit was thus discovered. 

The mouth that held the teeth that matched the pie twisted in a grimace of indignation, and through protestations,  he or she wept in a slobbering fit of uncontrollable rage at the audacity and injustice of not being believed. Stomped around the house, escalating, until the rest of the family grew bored of laughing at him or her and ignored the culprit completely.

So, no, I don’t believe George Washington confessed, and, in fact, I came to doubt the whole cherry tree story in its totality.

We put up with this Washington silliness at Longfellow Elementary because there were cupcakes the last half hour of school and some sort of cherry cobbler in the school cafeteria for lunch.

February tries us, but it does some things for us, too. It brings us slowly lengthening days, seed catalogs, stacks of rakes in the racks that once held snow shovels, and gas grills and lawn mowers making their slow march from storeroom to showroom.

February gives us a reason to binge-watch TV, read big books, work complicated jigsaw puzzles, or do nothing much at all.  February helps us get ambitious in spring by making us good and bored in late winter. February teases us, or reassures us, with a few warm days here and there, spring-like afternoons with showers and puddles and gusts of wind.  February reminds us there are only a few more weeks when we might reasonably expect snow.

Then March, the lion or the lamb, bringing us crocus, daffodils, hyacinth, the first curled fingers of hostas breaking the ground.  The buzz of activity in greenhouses, and we stop by, even though the geraniums and herbs aren’t ready yet, stop by just to smell the loamy, peaty composty aroma that signifies new life about to burst from jute pods the size of Dixie cups.

February, we love to hate ya, but you do serve a purpose.  We will try to remember that, a year from now, when you roll back in.

 

Decorum

My pal, Alice, was rummaging through some boxes, or drawers, or scrapbooks, and came across her wedding announcement, which she promptly shared with us in a text. The announcement looks like it was set in Times New Roman typeface and spanned three columns.

We now know that the wedding “took place at the Fordsville Christian Church, at 4 o’clock, Saturday, November 19.”

And this:
“Given in marriage by her father, the bride wore a floor length gown of satin fashioned with a scooped neckline, a fitted bodice and a soft pleated skirt. Lace flower appliqués of roses encircled the neck and adorned the skirt’s hemline and long pointed sleeves.”

We are a writerly bunch, and one of our pals  was particularly struck by this little detail: “The candlelighted altar was embanked with white gladioli.”

He admires the imagery and the writing—which is lovely—but he admires something else. The decorum on display.

Decorum.

Remember that? 
 Invitations arriving by post, timely RSVP’s and regrets, handwritten thank yous on thick cream paper. Phone manners,—the “McDonough residence,” “may I take a message?” and the “whom may I say is calling?”– these relics from a distant past.

A while back I dined with these same friends at an old established restaurant in Lexington, where we had gathered to celebrate one among us. The lighting was subdued and the carpet plush. Our waiter greeted each of us formally and shook hands.

No chatty prattle, no overfamiliar joshing, just quiet, competent, attentive service. The food was exceptional, but was not the main event.

Our entrees were presented attractively and well, but nothing was set afire at table, there was no convoluted stacking of food to create an irksome game of Jenga just to get at a piece of shrimp. Wine lists were discreetly placed at our elbows, not flourished in front of our faces like a matador’s cape.

We were the main event. The candles, the flowers, the wine, the quiet attention of the staff enhanced our experience, made pleasant our time together, but never once competed with it.

The restaurant, then, had decorum in spades.

Dictionaries define decorum as behaviors in keeping with good taste or propriety.

I think decorum is taking serious things seriously.

Take the wedding or party invitation, fun events for most people. Yet, consider the issues involved —whom to invite, what to serve to eat and drink, seating, expenses, the weather, what is our own heart’s desire for the day.

So, treat that invitation with respect, and the RSVP, too. Someone wants you with them at this thing they are about to spend a great deal of effort and money on. Let them know early if you will be attending. In my callow youth, I wasn’t always so good about this. I am ashamed of myself now, when I think of it.

Wedding announcements from decades ago took themselves seriously—perhaps because weddings were taken so seriously—and as such, the events were lovingly recorded. It may be quaint to read that Alice’s mother wore a blue suit with matching hat and accessories, but everyone knows that the choice of the mother of the bride outfit is fraught with peril and has a protocol all its own.

An aunt sewed the wedding dress with its fitted bodice and appliquéd roses at neck and hem. Imagine the selection of fabric, the fittings, the stress of all that. The ballerina length veil of illusion was fretted over and carefully chosen, as was this, my favorite example of decorum in the announcement — that the bride’s “only ornament was a strand of pearls and she carried a rosebud bouquet.”

We know who ushered, who stood up with the couple, the location of the reception — the bride’s parents’ home—and the names of the young cousins who “assisted with the hospitalities.”

Guests, you must know, attended from Louisville, Owensboro, Lexington, Murray, Glasgow, Hartford, Beaver Dam and McHenry.

Decorum is such a fusty old word, but now reminded of it, I can’t get it out of my head.
I despair of the coarseness of the world, and I fear I have grown coarser, too. I don’t even recognize myself sometimes. I think I will try returning, every chance I get, to the rules of decorum I grew up with. Thank you notes and RSVP’s. Phone manners. Party manners. Good manners. To be, in a jumble of gaudy costume jewelry, a single strand of pearls.

 

 

The Great Idleness

There are those of you how are traveling now, on your way to family and friends, or perhaps  you are heading out west, or to Vermont, for ski slopes and sleigh rides and hot chocolate by a fire. 

Maybe you are knee-deep into a house project, one of those projects that you came up with this time last year, sketched out on graph paper over the President’s Day weekend, ignored in the heat of summer, and are shamed into it, finally, now that you have a yawning break between Christmas and New Year’s, motivated as you are, to draw a line through the task before the calendar turns on Monday.

I don’t know you people.

I am not like you.

For this is the idlest of weeks in my year.  The curtain closes on Christmas Day long about 3:00 p.m. for my family.  Alway has.  The tradition is rooted deep in our childhood, when the five of us, fueled by too much sugar and anticipation, and deprived of sleep and a control of our emotions, would crash and burn and dissolve into tears or pouts or fisticuffs mid afternoon on Christmas Day. 

Often the ending of the holiday was punctuated by a trip to the alley to sort through the trash of ripped wrapping paper in search of a part, or instructions or some other vital thing accidentally tossed out in the mayhem of the morning.

Flashlights were involved. 

Failure usually, sometimes success, but after you have had your head in a trashcan for half an hour, the magic of the holiday season is truly and finally over.

Then the Great Idleness began. For the next five days we barely got out of our pajamas, we ran around the house, played with our toys, stacked and re-stacked our presents in front of the tree.  Counted them, took naps with them, played and played, and wondered how the holiday had come and passed so quickly.  We discussed how long it would be until next Christmas, the agony of that, the letdown that this one came and went so soon.

So, the week between the holidays hasn’t changed much for me.  I sleep late, turn on the lights of the tree, and think…about nothing much at all.  I flip through my Netflix list, looking for something to watch, but fall asleep before the opening credits.  I read books, or rather, I think about reading them. Spend whole afternoon mapping my walks on an app on my phone.

These are walks I intend to take, not walks I have any intention of taking.  I might wander over to my sister’s, but her boys are home and they will have eaten all the good stuff.  I will go to the grocery and  bring home something healthful and cosy, a chicken to roast, or soup. 

I will prepare these things, but I will eat Chex Mix  and cheese balls instead.

Winter has always been a time of conserving.  Our must-do tasks boil down to only a few essential things—keeping warm, keeping fed, keeping our minds occupied.  So, maybe this is the week we make our first preparations for surviving the rest of winter, the dreary days, the cold.

Yes, let’s say that.  I am not slothful or idle.  I am preparing, mentally and physically, to conserve my strength and mental outlook for the bleak days ahead.  Me, this here chicken, some chocolate and Chex Mix.

Of Dark and Light

 

I was sneaking around last week, trimming some branches overhanging a sidewalk, branches of the evergreen variety, which I planned to take home and drape artistically across my mantel.

That I was driving around with my pruners on the front seat of the car is, frankly, no one’s business.  That it was dark, just after dusk, is a happy coincidence that, even so, hindered me in performing this civic service to the walking public.

Perhaps my eyes have not adjusted yet to early nightfall, my rods and cones still scanning the environment for the crisp light of autumn.  Or, maybe it is coming for me, that old age thing that descends like velvet across a window as I approach the time I can no longer see at night, at least not well enough to drive.

For I was having trouble.  I ran a few errands along streets I have known all my life, but in the gathering darkness I felt a bit off-kilter.  The shadows sooty black, headlights too bright, neon signs along Frederica strobing and blinking and making me a little sick.

Or, maybe my rods and cones haven’t seen total darkness in years, if ever, and they were just searching for the best possible reading, not unlike a camera searching, searching, in and out, for the proper exposure in difficult light.

My head felt a little like that, buzzing and catching, and I came home and had to sit down for a minute.

Even at night, in our beds, we do not drift off in complete darkness. We are instructed to turn off our TV’s, leave our phones in other rooms, keep the blinking and beeping of computers and gadgets to a minimum in our sleeping chambers.  There are eye shades and blackout curtains if all else fails. 

There are those who chase the light—pilgrims from overcast countries who dream of the sunny seaside, or t adventurers in parkas who travel far into the frozen tundra to glimpse, if conditions are right, the aurora borealis.

And then there are those who seek the dark. Total dark, without street lamps, the glare on the horizon of a city afire with neon and halogen.  A place so dark the stars come out—all of them—and the moon illuminates the landscape, at once familiar and foreign, lit, as it is, from the sun, once removed.

Total darkness exists, but it is harder to find.  It can’t be found on the continent of Europe, or in the eastern half of the United States.  But cross over into the prairie and into the plains,  and you can find it. The northern tier states have it, and in the mountain ranges of the West.  Parts of Maine, too.  Almost anywhere in Greenland, Mongolia, the western reaches of China.  Most of Kazakstan, the great midsection of Africa, the Australian outback.

On the eve of the longest night of the year, I think of the great darkness and the way it captured the imaginations of human beings, back when real darkness meant something.  I would have burned a yule log, too, would have kept vigil, done all sorts of things to ensure the returning of the light, this light made more precious for the long hours without it.

I would like to see the world, as it once was, as it rarely is now, pitched in utter darkness. 

Would the wind blow differently, would sound carry in odd ways, would I feel a change, a shift, would I still know who I am, what to do, with nothing but the light of the stars to fix my place? 

Would my eyes adjust?

The winter solstice arrives and we build fires, light candles, fill our homes with tinsel and glitter and shiny things. We do this for Christmas, for Hanukkah, for comfort and reassurance.  We gather our loved ones close, for they light our way, too.  We sing, boisterous or sweet, with abandon, or reverence, or joy.

We take a bit more time in our greetings, are pleased by chance meetings with old acquaintances in shops and on the street, happy in the encounter.  This, too, is a kind of light.  A reminder of who was once important to us, and who is important still.

We hunker down in December. Count our blessings like gaily wrapped gifts.  Watch for star shine in our loved ones’ faces.  Thank the dark for helping us see it, just there. And there. And there.

PAR AVION

A month or so back, I received a long blue envelope in the mail, and inside was an irregular-shaped post card sent to me from my friend, Beth, who is living in Bordeaux with her husband, Kris.

The postcard was lovely, and contained greetings from Beth and Jason, our pal who was visiting her for a few days.  They met up in Paris and sent the card, of what, I can’t say just now, perhaps a panorama view  of the Seine—something outsized and requiring special wrapping for its overseas journey.

What I was most taken with was the envelope. Baby blue and impossibly thin, I hadn’t seen such a thing in years. Hadn’t seen it since the Seventies, probably, when I wrote my brother in the Navy when he was posted abroad.  In those days envelopes had to be stamped “AIR MAIL” if it had any hope of arriving in a timely manner. Mail, so marked, was bundled and loaded onto cargo planes bound for Europe, or Japan, other  exotic locales.

The rest of it got dumped into the hold of some slow boat to China, or Athens, or Hamburg, and arrived, oh, really, who can say? A lot can happen to a canvas bag heaved onto docks and flopping around the damp of a cargo hold, and who knows how much of it gets where it is going.

All mail is air mail now, of course, or mostly all of it.  But back then, air mail was expensive and postage was assessed by weight, and thus, the thin blue stationery.

I would drive my grandmother to the post office and we would pick pads of note paper and envelopes, the same blue color, onion-skin thin, so we could write my brother. The post office sold pre-stamped sheets of air mail stationery—and we filled up the blank backside of the paper,  and then spent a minute or so performing arts and crafts as we folded along dotted lines and made flaps from the odd triangular wings until we had a self-contained letter and envelope, all in one.

The business side of the envelope was pre-stamped with proper postage, and the words  “par avion”  and “air mail” jumped off the page. I mean, really, does it get any more cosmopolitan than that?

Beth has been in Bordeaux for almost a year now, and she and I chat on occasion through Facebook.  We make plans to Skype or FaceTime  but somehow that never quite happens. I think, well, I will write her a long newsy letter, but that never happens, either. 

But something about that thin blue envelope made my hands itch, made me tear off her return address in France—a physical address—and save it. Something in the familiar feel of it sent me to the office supply store and the post office in search of air mail letters.  

No one seemed to know what I was asking for,  although the older clerk at the post office remembered  that  “foldy paper” people used to buy.  I returned home discouraged and rummaged through my stationery drawer looking for any old thing.  

Still, the idea of writing Beth in France on short fat note paper left me completely and utterly cold.

It lacks cache.

I eventually had luck on-line, and found  air mail envelopes, the colorful ones with the red, white and blue checked borders, sporting a round crest with “air mail” in three languages.  The ultra-thin paper is on its way, but it must be in some back corner of a warehouse somewhere, because it has been a couple of weeks and still no sign.

I think Beth needs real mail.  I think I need to write her real letters.  I think those letters need to look like something.  Something to remind me that this piece of paper is traveling a great distance, and it is of some import, even if it is full of nothing more than the gossipy goings-on of our friends.

I will write small, and neatly, like I did on those winged pieces of paper long ago.  I will admire  the blue ink on the blue paper, and think it pretty, those shades of blue. I will take my time to write, then post the delicate envelopes, making a special trip.  I will go inside.

It doesn’t matter what Beth does with my letters once she gets them.  It only matters that she gets them, from me, and that they go par avion.

Thanksgiving, now

A year ago I sat in my quiet house, admired the clean and uncluttered surfaces of my kitchen and pouted a little, even so, because I wasn’t in charge of Thanksgiving, wasn’t roasting the bird, wasn’t making the dressing or the elaborate and time-consuming cranberry salad.

For the first time since college I was spending Thanksgiving off, traveling to Louisville to be a guest of my niece and her fella, spending a couple of days with them, my brother and sister-in-law, my nephew, Dillion, and the dog.

Alex was solicitous when she showed me to my room that Wednesday.  Did I have enough covers?  Was the lamp bright enough to read by?  And, look.  Dan ran out and got a nightlight for the hall, the steps being steep and the light switch hard to find.

After morning coffee there wasn’t much for me to do.  She settled me into the sofa and turned on Netflix to a show she thought I might  enjoy.  It was a little like being a toddler. 

The day went without a hitch.  The food was great, Dan’s family delightful, and really, except for the dog dragging the turkey carcass into the living room after dessert, all  was perfect.

I had to admit, it was nice being a guest, getting fussed over a little, and contributing next to nothing but doing the dishes.  And even that was less about being helpful than it was about avoiding  the traditional Thanksgiving hike Dan’s family seemed so enamored of.

I was invited to return to Louisville this year but I will stay put, back in the business of roasting the bird and doing the dressing.  I’ll celebrate with my sister and her family, a smaller gathering than in years past, but one I am pleased about, one I am looking forward to.

It has been a year of change and adjustment, a year of fits and starts, with connections and separations that come to all families as children grow up, parents and grandparents leave you, and work and life rub blisters here, create opportunities there.  Everything in flux, up in the air, eventually falling back to earth in configurations you don’t always recognize or understand.

But this is nothing new. Life moves.  And we move with it.   It expands and contracts and veers off to the left, and here we go, eyes wide open or squeezed shut, but at least one hand still wrapped around the reins.  The stirrups may be flapping wildly, our hats have come off, but we don’t let go.

I’ve sent Alex the family dressing and egg nog recipes as she has asked.  But I called her, too, because I need to explain things, make sure I tell her what Granny Opal told me when she guided my hands all those Thanksgivings ago.  There is the recipe and there is the process. This is what I tell myself Alex needs to know.

How  fine to chop the onions, how many eggs to loaves of stale bread.  Time and temperature. The production that is making egg nog, whisking whites, long enough but not too long, how to judge when to stop. She can look all of this up, of course, can find better recipes on-line, perhaps, find more sophisticated ways of doing things.  But that is to miss the point.

What I mean is this. I want to instruct her as I was instructed, standing in my grandmother’s kitchen.   I want Alex to be there, too. I want her to have more than just a spattered index card.  I want her dressing in Louisville to join in concentric circles my dressing in Owensboro, and Granny Opal’s from 1948.  I want her Thanksgiving table to join with ours, and the tables of our grandmothers, and their mothers’ tables, ones laid in distant dining rooms we would not recognize, but belonging to us, all the same.

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