Tomato Love

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They’re called ‘love apples’

I am lying on a bunk bed in the middle of the day when I hear my name over the intercom. The speakers are everywhere – in the middle of the girl’s camp on the hill. Down in the hollow where the boy’s cabins are clustered. At the swimming pool. Even out the dirt road leading to the barn where the horses are standing with their heads down, resting in the heat.

“Jayne Morgan, report to the Mess Hall.”

I loved every minute of being a ‘counselor-in-training’ – grooming the horses, saddling them and bridling them for the riders,  mucking out stalls, leading the campers in cleaning the cabin and the wash house, gathering my young charges at the end of a full day and marching down to dinner, all the while belting out the Motown hit, “War, huh, good God y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again!”

I hadn’t gotten in trouble for that yet. Or for the many other things that I did that summer without realizing they were controversial.

I’d been coming to camp for years, loving the beauty and wildness of the place. I’d learned archery and canoeing and gotten my lifeguard certification. I’d lain on an old mattress smelling of mildew while a college boy wrapped his arms around me and helped me aim a rifle at a paper target. I’d made more lanyards than any human being could possible use in a lifetime. Days were a blur of activity and nights were spent singing around campfires and sneaking through the darkness to wrap one of the boy’s cabin in toilet paper. It was the first place I went away to by myself and though I dutifully wrote letters home, I never experienced a moment of homesickness..

I felt so adult, working a full day and being responsible for the safety and well being of a dozen small girls in Arapaho cabin.

But now my free hour was interrupted by a summons to the Mess Hall. The assistant camp director met me on the porch and pointed toward the parking lot.

My mom was standing by our white Olds Cutlass . She waved.

At 15, I hadn’t known the loss any family members. It would be another year before four of my friends where badly injured in a car that I was supposed to be riding in. (My mother, angry at me for not completing my chores, wouldn’t let me go with them) I didn’t yet know that surprises could be anything but wonderful, or at least interesting. So her unexpected appearance was odd, but not alarming

I went to see what she wanted.

I don’t remember our greeting or the conversation, but I’m sure she grilled me on what I was doing, did I like my Senior Counselor, did I need clean clothes and I answered  her in shrugs and monosyllables. It was what she did next that I still find remarkable.

She reached in the window and pulled out a paper bag containing a dozen of her homegrown tomatoes, still warm from the car. We sat on the hood and ate the red fruit like apples, juice running down our chins. Just she and I. Licking the juice off our fingers and then eating another. As if it was something we did everyday. We ate tomatoes until we were stuffed.

A half hour later, I stood on the gravel and watched her drive away, wondering, “why did my mother drive all the way from Knoxville with a bag of tomatoes?” Parents didn’t just show up at camp in the middle of the week unless they’d been called to take a kid home due to illness or misbehavior. It made no sense to me.

That night, after lights out in the cabin as I lay in my bunk, the truth hit me. My mother missed me.  In the middle of her day, perhaps while out in her garden, she had felt the need to see me. To share with me what she had grown with her own hands. She got in the car and drove, never questioning this need. Or the offering she brought.

It’s such a small, sweet memory, but it matters. In later years, when her darkness engulfed us all, I would remember that moment. Sitting with her and eating tomatoes. It would be a touchstone, a reminder that, no matter how crazy things got, she loved me. Missed me when I was gone. That memory got me through and helped me find our connection again.

I miss her now. Every time I pluck a tomato off the bush and bite into it right there, I remember.

So here’s to mid-summer sweetness, the hot flesh of a homegrown tomato. To the hard, sometimes crazy-making task of being a mother, the vulnerability of daughters, to the gardeners and their harvest – the memories that allow us to transcend the pain and find new hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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HOW TO

I used to write for television. Mostly how-to  shows – trying to get you to believe you could wallpaper your bathroom yourself. Sorry about that.

But I enjoyed it. I’m a teacher at heart so the idea of putting together neat little segments on tools and processes was fun for me. Until I learned that how to television is not, as it happens, about learning how to anything.

The powers that be at these nameless networks know that the vast majority of people are never going to pick up a paintbrush, or a hammer, or god forbid, a circular saw. Our audiences used our wallpaper hanging video as, well, video wallpaper. They listened to us while they did other things, fascinated, apparently, by endless shots of plywood being cut. Tile being laid.  Screws being screwed. Our work was the background buzz of their lives.

I do understand this fascination with watching other people’s work. I once spent an afternoon on my front porch, sipping coffee as a guy from the city used a backhoe to carefully picked out chunks of sidewalk while leaving the tree roots intact. He was fast, accurate and by god, an artist. I was spellbound.

Then there was the time I hired a guy to remove a stump. Ever see a stump grinder at work? These machines look like prehistoric beasts, swinging their great saw-toothed heads back and forth, grazing on wood and bark. It was mesmerizing. And hysterical, when a garbage truck drove by and released a screech of air from its brakes just as the beast took a big deep bite into the earth. The operator did a cartoon run in midair, certain that he had struck a gas main and was about to be blown sky high.

I tried to learn the skill of writing how-to without really explaining anything, but it went against the grain.  It was a formula and I wanted to write something useful, interesting, entertaining. None of that was wanted. The goal was familiar. Soothingly bland. That’s why every how-to or house flipping or cooking show is basically the same. Different hosts, different cities, but the same projects, with the same lack of detail, over and over again. Other people doing things we will never attempt, but like to think we might. That’s entertainment!

I  did write for a show that broke the mold. Or rather, created a new one. It combined interior design with childbirth. (Don’t ask.) We were to build drama by suggesting that every single birth was a terrible crisis and each nursery reveal a joyous homecoming. I did my best to take the footage I was given and create entertainment…to fit the odd template the network wanted. High drama in the birthing suite. Thrilled reactions to the nursery.The trouble was, the new parents were joyous at the hospital and usually stunned and aghast at what had been done to their house in their absence.

I tried. Really, I did. But our contact at the network was never happy. She returned my first script for the show with the notes, “This sucks.”  “You’re killing the show.” And my personal favorite, “Write better!”

I called my boss in a panic. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “She always says that. About everything.”

So I kept writing. She kept finding new ways to make me feel like a failure.

She did me a favor, actually. Brutal feedback doesn’t faze me. My writer’s skin was toughened from all the abuse. I’d probably still be doing it, if the economy hadn’t tanked and put all the freelancers like me out of work.

But I’ve come to see that as a gift.

I’ve had to learn how to.  How to tell stories I love. How to write to my own specs, not someone else’s. How to carve out a living without selling my soul. How to yes, “write better”.

It’s work, you know? And sometimes very hard. But I feel a sense of accomplishment anytime I push a novel a little further toward completion, or submit a short story, or offer up something for feedback from my writer’s group. It’s my work.

And I remember the last time I heard from the woman at the network. The show about babies and nurseries had just been cancelled and she was suddenly out of work. My phone rang and it was her, sweetly greeting me as if we were the bestest friends.  Hey, Jayne,” she said. “Keep me in mind if you ever needed a producer, okay?”

Karma, huh?