Thank You for the Tomato
“Go ahead! You can eat it.”
I am in Bunny and Doug’s vegetable garden. I am 8 years old. Maybe 9. I don’t really remember.
Bunny and Doug lived behind us. But it was a world away. Not the reserved intellectual atmosphere of my household. Bunny was a beautician and ran a hair salon in her basement. Think Steel Magnolias meets Madge “You’re soaking in it!” My mother, who I do not recall ever getting her nails polished and who maybe got her hair trimmed every 3 months – too self-indulgent for a serious academic type – got her hair trimmed by Bunny on those rare occasions. It was fascinating to see my mom and the other ladies sitting under the helmet of the hair dryer. I got to help out, feeling important, sweeping up the hair. Bunny would always pay me a few dollars for the odd jobs for which she earnestly employed me.
One summer I had a “job.” Every other Friday afternoon, I would go over in the afternoon to clean Bunny’s house. I dusted. She showed me how to dust. I got to go in every room, including the bedrooms, which were already perfectly clean in their matchy matchy style of 1971 and completely different from the rooms in my house with mismatched modern pieces and real art on the walls. I would carefully spray the Lemon Pledge and polish the wood frames of the beds and wipe the silver frames of the family photos, the family Bunny adored but who was not near by. I couldn’t retain who was who, but I am pretty sure I was the surrogate granddaughter, an arrangement that worked for me, a quiet only child with no living grandmother.
After dusting, I would go visit Doug who would be in the back yard tending his pigeons. Yes, pigeons. He had a pigeon coop. This completely fascinated me, because really, who has a pigeon coop! Especially in the suburbs of 1971. He didn’t have a few birds. He had dozens. Maybe a hundred? I don’t really remember. It seemed like a lot. I suppose he must have built the coop himself in the back of the yard. It was messy. Lots of poop. Doug knew all the individual pigeons and introduced me to them. He would fly them. They would soar and swoop and dive and soar and swoop and disappear. And come back again. It was very exciting. Choreographed to the second. You could hear and feel the energy of the flock. The flock was one being as they flew home, finally separating, each settling into their individual cubby back in the coop.
Then it was dinnertime. They would let me stay for dinner and sometimes I even slept over, which made me feel very grown up. Bunny would watch all the silly game shows I loved but my parents deemed, well, silly. Out in the vegetable garden – which also fascinated me because really who has a vegetable garden in the 1971 suburbs, at least we certainly didn’t – Bunny would instruct me how to pick the corn and the beans and the tomatoes which we would eat for dinner. Bunny would cook (overcook) those beans until they melted. I never had beans like that at home. It was summer and it was hot. The tomatoes were about the size of tennis balls and red and the perfect texture. Not firm, not mushy. Not grotesquely oversized with unusual colors. Just a regular red tomato.
“Go ahead! You can eat it.” Bunny gave me, the obedient little girl, permission to eat. Biting into that warm, juicy, perfect tomato. My taste buds were amazed. Intensely tomato-y. It was the best tomato ever. I still try to replicate it with every tomato I now eat, and I eat a lot of tomatoes. But they never compare. Kind of like the first time I had pesto with the ultra sophisticated and hip friend of my mother’s as I was emerging into adulthood. Kind of like the orgasmic peach my husband and I shared at a farmstand in Southampton in 1993. It was our first summer together and we were in that cocoon of infatuation, blissfully in love. I don’t know why we didn’t each have our own peach. But that peach we shared was amazing and I have never had as good a one since. Maybe the happy and innocent conditions surrounding that tomato and that peach are what made them special, carving out this insurmountable taste memory. Maybe tomatoes and peaches really are worse, not better. That’s a whole other topic.
As I grew up, my visits to Bunny and Doug faded. I barely remember them. They moved, probably to be with their children and grandchildren. I suppose they are long gone. I suppose at the time I dutifully thanked them for their hospitality. But it would have been a young child’s token thank you. I never really hugged them, never really looked them in the eyes and told them how much I appreciated that they took me in and showed me a different world and did it with such good humor and generosity and kindness. I never told them that they were the grandparents I did not have.
Bunny and Doug, thank you for the tomato.