One remarkable summer day of 1967, Uncle Tab said, “Come help tie up toma’das.”
An unemployed high school graduate on a visit to Kentucky relatives, I gladly followed. For time alone with my youngest uncle meant a diversion from discouragement. I could count on his stories about kinfolk and our birthplace to lift my spirit.
A previous year, I’d helped Uncle Tab string pole beans in an outbuilding. Might’ve been the farm’s disused smokehouse. There I first observed the dance of his large hands stringing and snapping beans.
“I like my beans full,” Uncle Tab had said, meaning he preferred large kernels. “Your mommy likes hers small.”
After his day’s work in the coal mines, he led me behind the farmhouse to his large tomato patch. He held long strips of old, white bed sheets, the sway in his shoulders steady and sure. I admired his confidence.
“Tie ’em like this before the stems get too heavy,” he said, looped the cloth under a stem with yellow blossoms and developing fruit. He then knotted the tie to a stake.
Row after row, we rescued his harvest from rotting on the ground. “Now, that’s too tight,” he’d say. Or, “That’s just right.” And, “I like my toma’das big, and so does Alma Leigh.”
A marvelous cook, immaculate housekeeper, and incomparable clotheshorse, Aunt Alma Leigh loathed dirt and perspiration. She therefore left all garden chores to her husband.
As if he’d reserved his most significant revelation for the last tie, Uncle Tab smiled and whispered, “After seven years, our mines finally made some good money.”
Fifty-one years later, upon our last meal with Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh in Lexington, he took my husband and me for a drive in his golf cart. He stopped by a row of tomato plants five-feet tall and laughed like a boy.
“Mel, pull some toma’das for dinner. Get the biggest, ripest ones.”
That night, Uncle Tab served us chicken and dumplings and sliced tomatoes-the largest, meatiest, juiciest, tastiest tomatoes we’ve had the pleasure to consume.
This summer, Mel completed his second year gardening for varieties to equal Uncle Tab’s. It’s not that I dislike dirt and perspiration. On the contrary! I still plant garlic cloves in October and pull the bulbs in July or August.
Truth is, I think something genetic is awry with common red tomato varieties. For four summers now they’ve refused to ripen, hogging valuable real estate, time, compost, and fertilizer.
“Let’s give them one more summer. I’ll grow more yellow varieties next spring,” Mel reasoned last year. Because Uncle Tab exampled patience and appreciated a fine tomato, I complied only to throw up my hands this week. “Feed those pathetic red tomatoes to the hens! I’m not canning another jar!”
Dear Reader, all is not lost. Aside from one misshaped into a heart, our yellow tomatoes resemble the size and flavor of Uncle Tab’s reds.
“Next year, I’m planting more yellow tomato plants,” Mel vowed.
The toma’da will tell.
Contact Iris at email@example.com.