The summer started out just like any other summer before, with lots of work in Mama’s vegetable garden--beans, tomatoes, squash, corn--all the usual garden goods that we would weed and hoe and harvest as the days and weeks progressed.
The only indication that anything might be a little different this year was that the tomato plants were just going crazy. While their height and leaf growth was about like always, the number of blooms on each plant was just amazing. Little yellow blossoms all over the place—it looked like Mama had discovered a new kind of flowering shrub instead of the same old tomato plants.
A lot of times, too many blooms will actually result in too few tomatoes or a large number of really small tomatoes. But as the days passed, it was obvious that our tomato plants were bound for gardening glory—every little bloom turned into a little red tomato, and every little red tomato turned into a full-size, or giant-size, tomato.
Now, we were just like everybody else in the community—home gardeners who raised vegetables for our own consumption. We weren’t trying to be commercial growers.
We would eat fresh vegetables as they ripened throughout the summer and Mama would can and freeze the excess to eat during the winter.
In our rural area, it wasn’t unusual to have just a tomato sandwich for summertime lunch—a big thick slice of tomato between two slices of white bread with mayonnaise and black pepper for extra taste. And I liked tomato sandwiches, too, so this was okay with me most of the time.
But as our tomato plants kicked into high gear production, I noticed Mama was starting to work fresh tomatoes onto the table at every meal—scrambled eggs and sliced tomatoes for breakfast, the above-mentioned sandwiches for lunch, and stewed, casseroled, souped, or mangled red fruits disguised in nameless dishes that all tasted a lot like—you guessed it—tomatoes.
Excess can sometimes lead to gratitude. In our case, it started leading to a somewhat subdued state of panic. We just had way too many tomatoes to eat, can, or freeze. I’m sure we had enough to feed all the starving children of the world that we'd heard so much about in Sunday school, and I believe Mama would have started the shipments right away if she just had known what address to send them to.
Instead, she came up with an idea that she felt would benefit her own impoverished family—a scheme that would put a little money in the bank instead of so many tomatoes on the table. We would sell those rampaging tomatoes. Now Mama was a hard worker and a good person, but she was not a marketing genius—it would be mighty difficult to sell something that most people already had way too much of. But she was not to be deterred, so she smiled and loaded up a pretty good-sized basket—probably about a half a bushel—and sent me down to the Good-Buy Food Mart.
Mr. Furrow knew everybody in the community since everybody shopped there, and he was always friendly to all the folks, but he sort of winced like he had just stepped on a tack when he saw me and those tomatoes come through the front door. Still, he was a kind man and a good Christian soldier so he gave me fifty cents for the whole bunch, basket included. I suspect that he viewed our business transaction as an act of charity; or maybe he just thought he had bought a pretty good reusable basket for only half a dollar.
The next week, Mama sent me back to the Good-Buy with about half as many tomatoes and Mr. Furrow gave me seventy-five cents. I believe if I’d gone back the third week with no tomatoes at all, he might have given me a dollar but I didn’t want to push it. I convinced Mama we probably couldn’t make our fortune in the tomato market and she allowed the venture to die a peaceful and natural death.
After that, she figured out that if we couldn’t make money selling tomatoes maybe we could use the red rascals to make headway toward glory in the afterlife—if we gave lots of tomatoes to the preacher, that would be almost like putting money in the collection plate, she reasoned. Preacher Finegood had to eat, too, and this would be like adding food to his table that he wouldn’t have to pay for. She ignored the fact that half the community had probably already given him more tomatoes than he could ever eat, even if he went into three-a-day mode like us.
She sent me out Friday evening just before dark with a big brown grocery bag full of salvation. Instructions were to just quietly leave the bag on the back porch and preacher Finegood would find it and view it as a gift from God rather than as what it really was—the surplus garden production that we couldn’t eat, can, freeze, sell to the Good-Buy, or ship to the starving children overseas.
Just as I was rounding the corner to the back of the preacher’s house, I came face to face with Jimmy Fenner who was stepping pretty high and fast away from the back porch. He looked me straight in the eye and never said a word; just took off down the street like a bunch of hornets was after him. Right beside the back door was a big brown grocery bag full of tomatoes. I set my bag down next to what I knew was Jimmy’s bag and followed in his tracks, hoping I wouldn’t see anybody else headed my way with another bagful of eternal life produce.
Summer bore on and so did the tomatoes. Mama seemed calmer toward the middle of August; I think she had figured out some way to dispose of the surplus without anybody knowing. I didn’t ask. We just kept on doing what we were doing—it was all just a big red blur.
Then school started. Sure, it was great to get back and see all my old pals, and I thought I finally had some relief from the red blizzard I had endured all summer. Now just guess what Mrs. McClellan had us do that first day. You guessed it—she had us write that same paper every teacher punishes kids with when school starts every year—“What I Did On My Summer Vacation.”
I pulled out my new number 2 pencil and a brand new clean sheet of 3-hole notebook paper. Thinking about it, I knew the only thing I had done all summer long was wrestle with those tomatoes. I noticed a light red stain all over my hands and especially under my fingernails as I put pencil to paper and began to write....."The summer started out just like any other summer before.........