Say what you will about my father, but the man knows how to grow a mean tomato. Every year, during what New Englanders can still quaintly call “harvest time”, that time when we race the calendar to make the most of what we have tended to all summer, the porch at my parents’ house fills with tomatoes of all shades, and any visit is the occasion for a goody bag of the juicy and misshapen fruit of the earth.
For a few days after receiving a portion of the harvest I fill up on pasta sauces, soups, roasted tomatoes and caprese salads. This weekend I finished the last tomato of the season, placing it on ciabatta with mozzarella and avocado for an indulgent and filling sandwich.
Tomatoes are consolation as the days turn shorter and my thoughts turn to “grieving over Goldengrove unleaving”. At times I think perhaps the melancholy won’t come on this year: as the past few years have found me falling deeply in love with the man I will marry in the spring, a man who makes me laugh during arguments and who likes spending time with my father, I have thought perhaps his presence would keep me from sadness.
Companionship may stave off gloom on the earliest weekends of autumn, but when the first frost descends and the days are noticeably shorter I succumb. This weekend we had to be apart, still a commuter couple with busy schedules, and I had the tomatoes all to myself.
As the skin of the last tomato gave way under my knife’s blade, my stomach turned over and an invisible cloud settled over my head and slumping shoulders. The tomatoes would soon be gone.
How many years do I have of trudging up the slate steps to the enclosed porch to see bounty spread across the picnic table? Of watching my father’s hands, shaped like mine, pick up each red orb and examine it before placing it in a plastic bag for me? What time have I wasted not being with the people I love? What will change between now and next year’s harvest?
This is the price I pay for being sensitive, for loving people, for looking out the window and being realistic about what I see. This sensitivity has dotted the timeline of my life. It is part of who I am, an indispensable trait as ingrained as my ambition and devotion.
Equally ingrained is my messiness, which causes the tomatoes to slide all over my sandwich when the time comes to remove it from the oven and place the two sides together. Avocado comes leaping out of the bread and I pop pieces in my mouth. I navigate each bite alone at the kitchen table, doing my best to keep the fixins between the slices. When things fall apart – and I knew they would, for how could they not, things being as they are, my sandwich so full and each tomato slice so slitheringly perfect – I let the juice run onto my hands as I savor this beautiful, transient mess.
Karen Seay says
What a perfect commentary on fall, loss, aging, change… I have never thought of the slip-sliding of a tomato sandwich as a metaphor for all of the above, but it is so apt. Do you know the Rainer Maria Rilke poem “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day)? The translation you find can make all the difference (Kinnell/Liebmann is the one I like best), but it too is an aching, beautiful statement about the feelings associated with coming to the end of summer, facing winter and all that such transition implies in human lifetimes.
I have the last three or four tomatoes from our vines sitting in a basket on the counter. Your post will make eating them much more meaningful. Thank you.
Margaret Felice says
Thanks! I love Rilke and agree that the translation is everything with his work. Enjoy your tomatoes!
Margaret, this is beyond lovely. Well done, you.
Margaret Felice says
Mark Allman says
A tomato sandwich is one of my most loved foods. It is one reason I look forward to the season when they are ripe. I fix mine pretty simple. Two slices of toasted white bread; mayonnaise, tomato, salt and pepper and I enjoy it supremely. Most of the time one will not do and I must have two.
Margaret Felice says
You’re making me hungry with your talk of mayonnaise! Now I’m thinking about the farmers’ market open around the corner this afternoon, and the loaf of bread on the counter at home.
I lot has changed since you wrote this but the tomatoes are still the greatest