Twenty-two years ago my father claimed an acre. My parents designed a house to stand on it and express the kind of life they hoped to live. In one corner of that acre they planted a garden, and a solid third of that garden was devoted to tomatoes because Dad said so. As someone for whom "tomato" essentially meant "abhorrent," I never understood why three different types of tomato were necessary or even existed. I have vivid memories of walking begrudgingly across the yard on a summer Saturday morning to pick and bag all the tomatoes that were ripe. This had to be done before I would be allowed to go play. The tomatoes were warm from the morning sun. They were unpleasantly soft; shivers of disgust tingled through my fingers and up my arms. There were bugs crawling on the thin red skin. This tomato love affair was something I could not begin to understand.
Potatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, and green beans also wrestled their way out of that tough earth, despite the fact that all the good topsoil had been removed when the old farmland was parceled out years before. The pumpkins were downright unruly, reaching their vines beyond the border of the garden and weaving themselves through the fence, finally settling to the ground so the actual squashes grew in the neighbor's plot. The potatoes were my favorite; my Aunt Dianne would come to visit from Philadelphia and would teach us how to make really good potato salad from scratch. She was a classy broad, a city woman who had spent years traveling the world as a buyer for department stores -- but she was at heart still a mid-westerner, the descendant of emigrants and farmers who had a fierce work ethic and good, simple, straightforward tastes borne of earning survival. That potato salad was good because we made it ourselves.
Our neighbors to the right, the Bakers, would mow their lawn every week or so and then, per an agreement with my dad, would empty the lawn mower bag over the fence into our yard. We would then haul the grass clippings across the yard and down to the back left corner of the wildflower field, where Dad had designated a compost pile. The grass was warm and steaming. It smelled -- oh, it reeked -- but this was a thing that would help our garden grow, and this was one way Dad could teach us that work and routine are a part of flourishing, even if the work is smelly and delays play time and mostly produces tomatoes.
The older I get, the more I think about the fact that someone broke ground and tilled earth and planted and watered and waited and prayed in order for my life to be possible. Someone made the decision to leave home (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Germany, France) and be the stranger, to struggle through the humiliating process of learning a second language, and to decide where his descendants would be born. A lot of daily labor and daily uncertainty -- work, routine, and risk -- formed the basis of what is possible for me. By no means have I inherited my father's partiality toward tomatoes, but may I grow more willing to work in a way that is infused with hope, patience, and borderline-obsessive delight in their result.