The Life of a Tomato
My dad’s best friend Jerry was the guy I new growing up who grew his own tomatoes. My dad had never gotten into vegetable gardening, but at Jerry’s house, wine-making in his basement and practically year-round gardening in New Jersey kept their Italian traditions alive. I remember him bringing some of his tomatoes to my family one August. The fruit, wrapped in newspaper, was as red, tender and juicy as could be.
This past winter, I started growing my first tomato plant. I was randomly given tomato seeds from a box full of annual seed packets in a gardening class. I tended for the seedlings as if they were little children, taking them away with me if I went out of town and carefully transporting them from Brooklyn to my class in the Bronx. My teacher showed me the trick of replanting a tomato deeper into the soil to benefit from its adventitious roots, its ability to grow roots from parts of its stem. My teacher said that this plant would have three times the roots and therefore three times the fruit. He said, “It would be the best tomato plant in the land.”
It was true! I joined a community garden for the first time and my large tomato plant took up half of my entire 8 ft.² plot. The tomatoes were big, beautiful and delicious. Tasting the fruit that I grew from seed myself made it taste even sweeter.
I thought of my dad’s friend Jerry all summer. I thought of him when I tended my garden, I thought of him when when I did a poor job of carrying my tomatoes home and they burst open in my bag (I should’ve used his newspaper trick, but who has newspaper these days?) I thought of him when I sat down and enjoyed fresh tomatoes as part of my meal just as he must’ve done thousands of times with his wife over the years. I thought of him as my gardening inspiration but I also thought of him because he was not well. Jerry’s health with failing because of cancer and as tough, healthy and strong as he was, he wasn’t winning the battle.
Sometime in August my tomato plant got infected. I thought I had made some rookie mistake, but it turned out that the problem had affected all of the tomato plants in my section of the garden. We could try cutting off the infected leaves and letting the existing tomatoes grow, but for most of the plants it was just a matter of time. Even if they had not gotten infected, the growing season would soon be over and we would be done producing our own tomatoes for the year.
As an annual plant that only lasts one growing season, the life of a tomato plant is always limited. When we plant the seed, we know we will only be able to enjoy our tomatoes for a few glorious months before the seasons change and we’re left dreaming about a summer harvest.
What I have learned from Jerry over the years is that taking time to care for something, even if won’t last forever, is a worthwhile experience. I’ve learned that life can be very meaningful when you honor life cycles and traditions, especially if you have the opportunity to share them with others.
This year I’m trying to save some tomato seeds to have them ready to plant again next winter. I’ll do so in honor of the plant’s short but beautiful life and in honor of the earth and its ever-changing rhythms. I’ll also do it in honor of a very old Italian tradition that I’m proud to feel connected to. Now I can’t help but attach even more meaning to this ritual. I’ll always remember my first garden plot and the tomato plant that got it started. I’ll always remember my times with Jerry and his insistence to honor family and traditions. I’ll always think of Jerry when I garden, when I cook and when I travel to Italy. He loved people, he loved life, he loved Italy, he loved food and he loved me. I’ll garden in honor of Jerry.