Every time I see a tomato vine loaded with ripening fruit, I think of my mother. I have never forgotten the lesson she taught me after my complete destruction of our neighbor's summer Beefsteak harvest nearly 50 years ago. She created a moral bond with me that forever linked me to her strong sense of right and wrong. I don't know if she ever realized how powerfully her involvement in my punishment influenced the formation of my ethical compass.
My buddy Rick and I were 10 years old and looking for excitement under the sleepy, midday sun in southwestern Ohio. We were headed toward the woods when we came to the Schmidts' tomato patch. There, on the west side of their garage, were two dozen tall-staked vines hanging heavy with ripening tomatoes larger than baseballs. Eve had her forbidden fruit. We had tomatoes. Whatever the serpent said to us, we bought it.
We each plucked a fat, ripe, firm tomato, wound up like Nolan Ryan, and hurled fast ones. We saw them smack the wall, red bombs bursting in Sam Peckinpah slow motion. Impatient desire overwhelmed us. We ripped tomatoes from vines as fast as we could, throwing them rapid fire, the sounds and the sight like a giant fireworks finale.
No one yelled at us. No one came to stop us. It was as if the neighborhood were deserted and we had license to splatter. We became so consumed with explosions of juice and pulp and seed, the sounds of skin popping and meat squishing, in shouting and laughing the primitive pleasure in our rampage, that we didn't think of the trouble we'd be in if we were caught until there were no whole tomatoes left.
Rather than guilt, we felt empty when there was nothing left to throw. Then we sprinted for the woods and spent the afternoon swinging on vines over the creek.
When I got home, my mother flatly stated, "The Schmidts called." Clearly, the neighborhood had not been deserted. My face, red as the fruit of my crime, became my confession.
Shortly, I found myself retracing my steps of earlier in the day, this time carrying a bucket with sponges and brushes while my mother carried detergent and a step ladder. While we could not repair the vines, we were going to wash the garage. Rick's mother had told the Schmidts that he would be punished, but that she would not submit herself to the public humiliation of scrubbing the building down.
The Midwest's hot summer afternoon sun had baked the side of the garage into a surreal pattern of pulp, seed, and drippings. Using garden produce, Rick and I had done a fair imitation of Jackson Pollack.
The Schmidts met us, spoke to my mother and went up to their house. They spared my mother their standing there while she paid for my action. We worked side by side hosing, scrubbing, and sponging until every sign of devastation was gone from the garage. In truth, my mother did most of the work. I was better at destroying than at restoring order. We worked in silence.
Lashing silence. Tormenting silence. Throbbing silence.
I was not happy that my mother agreed to my public punishment, even though she shared it with me, while Rick got probation. Long after, I admitted to myself that her decision and action had kept me out of a lot of, though not all, future trouble. My mind was a jumble of hot thoughts and my soul a whirl of conflicting emotions as we scrubbed away the marks of my tomato tantrum. But even then, I knew that I had not only let her down but brought her down.
Over time, my confusion cleared, and my awe of my mother's decision that day grew. She took my transgression upon herself. By her choice, she took my punishment as her own, subjected herself to my shame in the neighborhood. She absolved me at the same time she taught me the impact of my behavior. In helping me take responsibility for my misdeed, she gave me responsibility for my future. She did not punish me; she gave me an indelible lesson. She stood in the stocks with me that day in the public square of our neighborhood alley just as she would applaud me in my moments of achievement. She has passed away. But to this day, she informs my conscience.
This Mother's Day, don't forget to tell your mom how much her example means to you.
• John Dreyer is a writer and communications consultant in Southern California. He is the former head of corporate communications for The Walt Disney Company.