Uncle Everett’s Tomatoes

In his retirement, my Uncle Everett got into gardening in the little house across the street from where I am now, where I spent my summers as a kid.

As with all his interests, once he got into it he got all the way into it, with his family (sometimes reluctantly, and with great urging) helping to sustain the hobby. When he took up photography, a room in the house was sacrificed to be his darkroom. When he took up gardening, backyard picnic tables and bike lanes were displaced for a greenhouse. When he was into flowers, every house in the neighborhood was lit up with the pinks, whites, magentas of his flowerboxes full of the impatiens he grew from hand-sorted seeds, whether it went with their landscaping or not, because his singlemindedness was impossible to fight, and his passion and generosity was too good to want to resist, anyway.

And when he started growing vegetables, the stars of his garden were the tomatoes. We would hear about them all summer, his children and grandchildren taking turns with the watering, and maintaining their soils, instead of grabbing those extra minutes on the beach or that sweet cool morning time in bed, before the day got too hot to mess with the dirt.

He was in the thick of the tomato hobby during my adult years when I lived in New Orleans, and would come home for a couple weeks of family and to escape the heat. So I would hear about the garden, and see it as a mystery maze of green vines and pale little orbs, but was not around for harvest, to see the fruits at peak, so I really didn’t think much about it.

The summer just before he died, when I came home we had a conversation on the porch in the morning, before the rest of the house started coming alive. This was something we would do, occasionally, for as long as I could remember, when I stayed there. I’d be up early, he’d be up early, and he’d be on the porch, drinking coffee, and he’d ask me questions about my life, and I’d answer them, colorfully, animatedly, full of the wisdom I imagined I had. He’d call me Bridges, and we’d drink our coffee and witness the morning, and then someone would come downstairs and we’d be be back in the flow of many people, and that would be that.

Uncle Everett had some stubborn ways, and that summer, there was a whole flock of family that was worried about how these illnesses that were taking him would be affected by any of the favorite activities he was restricted from. Every where he turned around, he wasn’t supposed to have something, and you could see, as he insisted that he could, he kind of knew he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, and would try to do it anyway.

The one morning I had with him — I don’t remember if he was allowed to have coffee any more — we were talking again — mostly me, as usual. He told me about his garden and that the tomatoes would be getting ripe soon. He told me that as long as he could remember, every year, when the tomatoes are finally ripe, he would make a bologna sandwich with mayo and a nice thick slice of his first tomato, and that’s that best thing you could ever eat, and he planned to do that anyway, no matter what people think he should do.

I went back to New Orleans shortly after that. It was maybe a month later, after he took a trip to hospital, then a rehab facility, that I finally got the call that he had died, but since I had only just come home for a family wedding, everyone understood that I wouldn’t make it home for his funeral. It was hard for me to be away, because we all want some closure. But I realized that since I knew, from the biography of his life — his successful career, family, impact on his neighbors and community, that I didn’t need the closure that comes from the words that are said at funerals. I just wanted to know if he had his sandwich, and I knew the only one who could answer that would be him.

So it’s been several years, and Beth and Renee have been planting and tending to his garden across the street from my house. This is my third end of summer in my little cottage. It’s hard to admit, but somehow, I haven’t really paid much attention to the tomatoes, since I’ve been here. They always seem tied to Beth and Renee and the processes they are going through as they learn to live without a father and grandfather. And I’m not a garden person, so it always seems like it’s not for me.

But this summer, Beth invited me to take what I needed, as she’d be away during some of the peak time, but hopefully be back to eat some of the tomatoes before they all dropped and the weather turned cold.

So these sunny weekend days, I’ve been picking, and plucking and collecting these little ruby gems, some hidden under a latticework of green leaves, some basking in the sun, all of them with bright, shiny skin and a sweet fragrance of earth, saltwater air and patience.

Now that I’ve been in the vines, silently stepping gingerly on the soil, delighting when I move a cluster of leaves to find a bright cache of delicate reds, I realize that I’m finally letting Uncle Everett speak to me, just to me, with his garden, as he used to in the mornings.

He’s telling me that one morning, before anyone was awake to fuss at him, he found a way out to his garden, managed his way back into the kitchen, pulled out the bologna, the mayo, the white bread, took his knife and sliced his tomato, salted it a bit, went out to the porch, and ate his sandwich.

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