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.