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It is, at long last, tomato season in New England. For me, few pleasures equal those of the pungent aroma of tomato blossoms and leaves, and the vision and taste of those shimmering red circles and oblates on a white plate.
Except that I can no longer appreciate the tomato in quite this simple, sensuous way. I suffer from tomato trauma, the result of years of transporting the unruly plants over state lines.
I cannot, even now, forget the years of plants in cars...Tomato plants wobbling on the floor. Vines trailing over the dashboard, dangling and tangling in the gear shift. On seats, the pots secured with seat belts. Plants poking out of the tied-open trunk and the hatch.
I can still see the curving vines crammed into my car — wagging and listing and wilting as I drove thousands of miles, worried they would die in the heat, or the cold, or in my care.
The etiology of my anxiety? The Tomato Mishigas, which I long blamed my mother, Blanche, for, though I now recognize that I was her enabler.
My strict German father was exacting on the subject of homegrown tomatoes –- their selection as plants (stocky, never spindly); their cultivation (fertilized to encourage fruit, not leaves); and unfussy presentation (dressed with onion, salt and pepper). Still, he was at relative ease when coming in from his gardens — one in the small back yard in Queens, N. Y., and the other, more extensive, at the family summer place in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I do not remember seeing my father happy in any other setting.
When he died at the age of 62, he left my mother a young widow, in her early fifties. He had for so long dominated her notions of domesticity and much else that she continued the keeping of the tomato tradition, insisting on growing them in both New York and New Hampshire, in spite of the logistical problems. One concern was getting the plants into the ground in New Hampshire in time for them to thrive during the short summer growing season. Another was taking care of them before my mother arrived.
“All you have to do is buy the plants, and I’ll put them in,” she directed me, her elder daughter.
“But Mom, I live in Massachusetts, and you live in New York, and you spend the summer in New Hampshire, three hours from where I live. How can I water tomatoes in New Hampshire before you get there?”
“Don’t be so analytical,” said Blanche. “Just buy the plants [in Massachusetts], and bring them here [New York], and when they’re bigger, and I go up [to New Hampshire], you can bring them.”
“And your sister will take care of them in New York.” This concept referenced my Manhattan sister, who avoided the outer boroughs.
“But why do you need tomato plants in Queens when you’re not there?”
“Daddy always planted tomatoes in the yard,” said Blanche, huffily, adding that she would visit them when she traveled back to New York over the summer and fall.
“Mom, that’s only twice,” I said, also pointing out that my sister would not want to travel from Manhattan to Queens every weekend for five months to move the garden hose from plant to plant, slowly soaking from the bottom, because of course you never wet the leaves.
“She’ll love doing it,” said Blanche. “It will be fun for her.”
Soon, I was transporting tomatoes in cars. On Mother’s Day, I drove the stocky baby plants I bought in Cambridge and Somerville to Queens. A month later, I moved the by-then substantial plants from Queens back to Cambridge to nurture until Blanche decided when she would be ready to go to New Hampshire. She could not possibly drive them herself, because her station wagon was stuffed with five months of clothing and household items. Many nights, at home in my condo, I could not sleep, worried that the massive tomatoes I had by then transplanted into bushel baskets and moved near the edges of city sidewalks would be stolen. In July, I drove the tomato-shrubs to New Hampshire.
Home in my kitchen, I will wash them, cradling each tomato in my hand, remembering the years of traveling with plants back and forth across state lines, the exasperation, annoyance and hilarity of it, and my mother Blanche’s appreciation of the plants, her decades-long mishigas, in memory of my father.
The routine became even more elaborate in subsequent years as Blanche aged, and I had to pack her and her car and drive to her summer place, leaving her car for her to use. First, I delivered the tomatoes to New Hampshire in my car. Then, I drove back to Cambridge and took the T, the bus and the subway to Queens. From there, I drove Blanche in her car to New Hampshire and returned to Cambridge on the Trailways bus and the T.
I cannot, even now, forget the years of plants in cars. The ancient, red-faded-to-pink Toyota. The Subaru that stalled. The beloved silver Honda Civic Hatch, overflowing with vines and bobbing green fruit. Tomato plants wobbling on the floor. Vines trailing over the dashboard, dangling and tangling in the gear shift. On seats, the pots secured with seat belts. Plants poking out of the tied-open trunk and the hatch.
Decades passed. My mother, almost 90, no longer cares for tomatoes. But this afternoon, as every week in August, I will go to my local farmer’s market to buy ripe field tomatoes. Other buyers, those with more normal lives, will see them arrayed on tables, quickly select a few pounds, take them home, and slice them to serve.
I will approach the tables warily, laden with memories. I will pass over the fancy heirloom tomatoes and select the Queens-style backyard beefsteak varieties my parents grew. Home in my kitchen, I will wash them, cradling each tomato in my hand, remembering the years of traveling with plants back and forth across state lines, the exasperation, annoyance and hilarity of it, and my mother Blanche’s appreciation of the plants, her decades-long mishigas, in memory of my father.
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