“Put a hat on that baby!” Those words in my grandmother’s voice haunt my earliest memories. I was a toddler in her care during the long spring and summer days when my mother was at work, and I would be dressed in a two piece bathing suit, flip flops (not the thong kind) and, as soon as she captured either me, or my grandfather’s attention, whatever floppy hat would fit on my small, blonde head without covering my eyes.
Thus attired, I would follow my grandfather out into the back yard, which was no larger than any other back yard in their New Jersey suburb, but seemed infinitely expansive to my young eyes. After all, there was the raspberry patch, the compost pile from which sunflowers grew, the honeysuckle growing on the back fence, the tall tree that would eventually lend a branch to supporting my tire swing, and the garden, from whence came the juiciest of New Jersey tomatoes and the plumpest of strawberries.
My grandfather, career Army officer, newly retired and playing at being a gentleman farmer, taught me to embrace the presence of earthworms, celebrate the arrival of every ladybug, and inhales the damp, dark scent of newly turned earth. His hands were big enough that when I was a newborn he could hold me in the palm of one. His fingertips were always nicked and calloused from gardening, baking, and tinkering with electronic paraphernalia, but they also offered fruit with infinite tenderness, or surrounded my own, smaller hands, with tender care.
“If my grandfather taught me to appreciate those things that spring forth from the earth, my grandmother taught me how to serve them up in style.”
If my grandfather taught me to appreciate those things that spring forth from the earth, my grandmother taught me how to serve them up in style. While we would eat lunch from paper plates (paper dishes, as she called them, though that phrasing always seemed odd to my ears), dinner always involved a properly set table, with cloth napkins, pretty silverware, and the right serving piece for every dish.
I remember her everyday dishes: pink and white checkerboard with a flower crossing the grid. They always seemed sturdily cheerful, and I suspected that if the house was ever burgled one of them would be heavy enough to knock out the perpetrator and not leave a mark on head or plate. When I close my eyes, I see those dishes not used as ersatz weaponry, but loaded with food: hamburgers from the grill, baked potatoes, in or out of foil depending on one’s preference, and slices of those so-sweet tomatoes. Sometimes she would marinate them (with avocado) in an oregano-laced vinaigrette, but more often than not they would simply be sliced, and each of us would sprinkle a bit of salt over them, and eat them straight off the plate that way.
I have never had a vegetable garden as an adult, though I do keep flower beds alive fairly well, but as I get older the call of the earth gets louder, and I think I should mark out a section of the yard and plant tomatoes. I don’t know if they’ll grow terribly well in clay-y Texas soil, but even if all I accomplish is sniffing the air to find that deeply green, slightly pungent scent that tomato vines exude, I would consider it a success.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard my grandmother’s voice reminding me to put a hat on when I went outside, either.