Summer in the tomato field

It wasn't the vacation she was hoping for, but it's one she has remembered for a long time.

There is no choice; when tomatoes come into season, they must be picked. They especially had to be picked that summer because customers were stopping at Daddy's roadside stand to buy them. Everybody big enough had to help.

We three older children routinely harvested lettuce, carrots, peas, strawberries, string beans the cat had half chewed off the plants, and potatoes Daddy gently tined up out of the soil for us to pick up.

But the year Daddy ambitiously planted 700 tomato plants, picking tomatoes came to outrank everything else.

Tomato picking even followed me into eighth grade in September, creating an unexpected beginning to a new school year.

There are few satisfactions in the world that compare with eating a sun-warmed tomato that has turned the perfect red and is just barely pliant to the touch: plucked, wiped on the inside of your shirt, and bitten into right there in the garden, seeds slurping down your chin so you have to lean over to keep your shirt clean.

But my sister, brother, and I didn't think of eating tomatoes. We were pickers in the field, with no wiggle room for not being finished when Daddy returned from his milk delivery route for Elton Dairy.

The first picks, the easily seen red tomatoes, were sometimes gouged and messy, because birds had seen them easily, too, and pecked out their breakfasts before we even thought about our cornflakes or shredded wheat.

So we turned the vines to find ripe tomatoes that were hidden. We left the stems on because spoilage is faster once the stem is broken away, but, since good specimens were headed for the roadside stand, we placed each fruit into our baskets carefully so that no stem would puncture another tomato.

As we picked, we kept our eyes peeled for tomato worms to be disposed of: three-inch segmented and horned beauties that were a lime-green color that I couldn't relate to the natural world and never saw anywhere else until the fashions of the 1970s.

Sun beat on our backs. Humidity built. Fuzzy stuff on the stems and backs of tomato leaves stuck to our skin.

The raw, insistent smell of the tomato plants, so unlike the sweet taste of their fruit, seemed to implant fuzz in our noses. Smell and fuzz lingered no matter how long the shower at the end of the day.

Sometimes respite came; I was allowed to sort tomatoes for sale, carefully removing stems, finding four or five good fruits of uniform size and color and placing them upside down in wooden quart baskets. Daddy prided himself on three things about his produce: presentation, uniformity of quality all the way through the basket, and growing nearly everything organically, long before it became fashionable.

After carrying my properly prepared baskets out to the stand and placing them in front of the honor-system cash box, I surreptitiously watched from the house, to see if some person was stopping to buy "my" tomatoes.

We ate tomatoes every night – sliced and put on the table to be sprinkled with sugar – along with meat, potatoes, and other fresh vegetables of the day. We ate lunches of tomato and lettuce sandwiches with mayonnaise on homemade white bread. Our live-in grandpa ate tomatoes cut up in a bowl, with milk and sugar.

I didn't – and don't – dislike tomatoes, but they were so ever present that year that never to eat another would still not feel like a loss.

When I started eighth grade that fall, it was a relief not to be asked in English class to write about "What I did on my summer vacation." But in art class, Mr. P. passed out white sheets of 11-by-17-inch schoolroom art paper and boxes of crayons and asked us to draw what we did on our summer vacation.


My mind flashed to my two siblings and me scattered among plants in the hot sun, partially filled baskets of tomatoes nearby.

What had I done in the summer? Read under the big oak tree at the end of our lot? Explored in the undeveloped town forest at the end of our dead-end street? Ridden my bike up and down the hill? Played falling-down-laughing badminton in the road with multiple birdies, no net, no score, and no light when we kept on after sunset? Picked tomatoes?

While other students busy with crayons depicted what I imagined were fancy adventures, considering the "rich" town we lived in, I was feeling the sweaty itch and "tasting" the smell of pawing over tomato plants.

Mr. P. walked around the room. Time was running out.

Finally, I took a brown crayon and made streaks for soil. With green I made row after row of little branchy marks.

I colored tiny red blotches on the green. With black, I made tiny stick figures standing in the brown, leaning over the red and green.

I was so late finishing that I had to walk my picture up to Mr. P. He held it, looking at it. Seconds – which seemed like minutes – ticked by on the big wall clock. I thought I might be shrinking, my heart sinking further and further into my ever-more-tiny self.

Finally, he said, without looking up, "I like what you've done. It's honest."

My breath caught. If he had touched my shoulder, I would have fallen over.

Over the years I've learned that Mr. P. was stating an important quality in art. Standing before him on that day in eighth grade, though, what I heard him saying to me was: "It is perfectly OK that on your summer vacation you picked tomatoes."

And so it was.

We picked plenty more tomatoes before we grew up and left home, but the sweetest were the ones I drew after the summer of Daddy's 700 tomato plants.

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