My Auntie Elaine was my grandma’s youngest sister; and she grew Ohio State Fair blue-ribbon prize-winning tomatoes. By the time the children of my generation came along she didn’t do much in the way of large-scale gardening they way Grandma Juanita did; but she never gave up on tomatoes; and these she grew in a long double row on the strip of land behind her garage.
I sho’ nuff wish I knew her secret, because back in the 60s and 70s, the home gardening industry had not yet saturated the market with these newfangled Fabulous Fruit and Bloom Boom 2000™ elixirs we have now. In those days, individual gardeners concocted top-secret “ancient Chinese secret” recipes in basement laboratories that were always locked against the prying eyes of the potential Arthur Slugworths of the gardening world.
Auntie Elaine’s tomatoes were enormous. No, they were gargantuan. I mean…. wait… that isn’t it either. I’ve got a pretty good vocabulary, but I can’t come up with a word sufficient to what her tomatoes were. Caps-Lock, here I come: Auntie Elaine’s tomatoes were GARGANTUAN. She supported them on the vine by growing the fruits inside of slings made out of old panty hose (there’s a straight-from-the-hip Knotty Headed Johnson Woman gardening tip, by the way).
Her tomatoes were perfectly, evenly, gorgeously red from stem to stern with nary a pest or fungal blemish. No matter the variety, nor the peculiarity of conformation, her tomatoes never developed cracks at the shoulder or on the blossom end. And delicious? Children clamored for sandwiches made from those tomatoes. Neighbors from way down the block got mighty neighborly long about July… and stayed that way til frost.
Gardeners can’t grow tomatoes like that, they can’t take blue ribbons year after year at the Ohio State Fair, without packing in thousands of gardening hours selectively saving and culling seeds, fussing over seedlings and feedings, pruning and fine-tuning, without having a passion for the project as ENORMOUS as the prize-winning tomatoes themselves. Aunt Elaine was passionate about everything she put her hand to. And fiercely competitive.
I will never forget her parties, particularly the summer barbecues. These invariably began as family get-togethers. Everybody brought a dish, the children were banished to the cool of the basement to play “red light green light” while the meat cooked, and the adults played pinochle, bid-whist, or bridge. For blood. Somehow or other, by the time the barbecue was smelling really fine, the definition of “family” had expanded to include people who were kin to us only in the most fictive sense. The telephone grape-vine invariably turned a small family gathering into a full-bore party.
One summer get-together is particularly burned into my gardener’s heart. As cars kept pulling up to the house, spilling friends, neighbors, distant cousins, and man-friends onto the lawn, parking space quickly became a problem. Aunt Elaine slipped out of the side door to move her 1958 Chevy Impala (I remember this car clearly: it was powder pink with an oxblood leather interior) into the garage to make more room in the driveway.
The party was popping: box fans whirring, plates of food on every lap, paper cups on every window-sill. Laughter and laughter, a screech of brakes, a deafening crash, the distinct crunch of wood under impact.
The sound of my Aunt’s car punching through the rear of her garage was followed by a series of sharply punctuated silences. The chugging engine coughed itself to a stall. Jaws slackened, mouths gaped, the silence stretched. It stretched and stretched, waiting to snap on a cry of comprehension, a rush to action.
Into that elongated silence, came a moaning creak. The Earth seemed to tilt slantwise beneath my feet. In reality, it was Auntie’s garage that was tilting. It moaned and tilted until WHUMP its roof succumbed to gravity atop that powder pink Chevy. On top of my beloved Aunt Elaine.
A primal scream from under rubble guillotined the silence, cutting the adults free of their immobility. People shouted, rushed to the disaster area. I think I might have died a little bit that day when my favorite Auntie, the one who never raised her voice, the one who played tea party with me on her good china, made a sound I never imagined a human voice making.
Into the chaos of shouts and running feet, a second primal scream resolved into words:
“I’VE KILLED MY GODDAMNED TOMATO PLANTS!!!”
Portrait of a knotty-headed Johnson woman.