Father Knows Tomatoes

My stepfather hated packaged tomatoes, ringing telephones, and supermarket chicken. He loved me.

Raised on a farm in New Jersey, Father crossed over to Pennsylvania with his wife and children when war work lured him to the big city. My mother and I already lived there. She met Father years later (by then a divorce and a widower, respectively) on a blind date.

My parents had divorced when I was little, a much less common occurrence in the late 1940s than it is now. After the divorce, my mother, brother, and I moved to my grandparents' home and back into Mother's family dynamic. There was lots of competition among she and her sisters for their parents' attention. My unmarried aunt made sure we all knew that she worked to support her sister - who didn't. My mother flaunted her two children, especially my brother, named for her father who "only" had daughters. Into this circus, thanks to the kindness of a friend, came my father-to-be.

After their marriage, Father taught me about unconditional love as well as tomatoes and chicken.

Every summer he planted tomatoes in our backyard. Although the clay soil around our house in the suburbs seemed to struggle to produce weeds, somehow my stepfather coaxed fat, juicy tomatoes out of the garden. He crusaded for what he called "the real thing," not the stuff of the supermarket. That stuff he rejected out of hand.

I blushed at my father's disregard for modern agriculture. Why did he bother with the fuss and dusty work of growing a garden when we could get clean, neat packages of perfectly shaped tomatoes at the store? Even after he plucked a ripe tomato, carefully wiped off the dust, and handed it to me, still warm from the sun, to eat like an apple, I held fast to my opinion that what came from the store had to be superior to what was scratched out of our backyard.

He had similar problems with chicken. The pale, uniformly sized pieces of chicken from the supermarket were not for him. He went to a farmers' market and bought chickens from a specific poultry farmer with whom he had long conversations about the merits of one breed of chicken versus another. Another example of older people fighting change, I thought. Wasn't progress our most important product?

It wasn't until many years later, on a trip to California with a friend from England and our kids, that I began to see the light. One afternoon my friend asked if I had noticed the open-bed trucks of tomatoes tearing down the freeway. I nodded that I had.

"Did you notice the tomatoes bounce out?"

"I guess they don't lose many that way," I said. "If they did, they'd cover them, don't you think?"

"I don't care about that. I've never before seen a tomato bounce like that."

"What do you mean, bounce?"

"The tomatoes bounce like rubber balls. Is that some Yank thing?" She pointed out the window. "Look, there's one now."

There was. And they did. Bounce, that is. Our kids amused themselves for the rest of the trip counting how many times a tomato could bounce before it was run over by a speeding vehicle. Grocery-store tomatoes, picked unripe and trucked to a packaging plant, have never looked the same to me.

ONCE tomatoes looked different, chickens weren't far behind. And of course, cell phones and beepers have made Father's annoyance with ringing telephones easier to understand. During a movie recently, when a cell phone kept ringing (usually during bits of quiet dialogue) I found myself cursing Alexander Graham Bell just the way Father had during my teenage years when my friends would phone during dinner.

It makes me wonder what else he was right about.

But then I remember the evening in November 1972 when Father called to talk over the presidential election. He said he'd voted for Richard Nixon because he didn't think that "Watergate thing" would amount to much.

I voted for McGovern because I thought it would. It's small comfort that Watergate may be the only thing he wasn't right about.

* Sunday is Father's Day.

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