Sunday, June 10, 2012

Singing the Tomato Blues...


     When I was about 10, my parents divorced. My Mother moved out and I stayed at home with my Dad, visiting Mom at her apartment on the weekends. Not a very common arrangement for the 1970's...  My mother was a nurse at the county hospital's emergency room, a bit of a feminist, and very handy with a gun. She was a bit ahead of her time. She was a good seamstress, and creative. But not a huge gardener in this stage of life.

     But we never gardened until my Dad remarried. My stepmom was, whether she likes to admit it or not; "from good country stock". Her Mother became my Grandmother and took me in like I had always been there. I had new little brother to boot and scores of cousins. My stepmom brought with her, into this new relationship a myriad of skills that I had never learned, one being cleaning, but that's another post. I suppose I should tell you her name; it's Lawanna. And Lawanna was a force to be reckoned with. When she moved in, my world changed forever, and I have to say; for the better. No kid wants their parents to divorce of course, but I suppose I'm an optimist? We had our struggles and sometimes still do, but what she taught me I'm eternally grateful for. She taught me to work.  

     Of course at 12, I balked. I bawled, I threw every fit I could imagine, but nothing seemed to work. Lawanna persevered. She got me out of bed, dressed me in my grubbiest clothes (because they are just going to get grubbier,) and set me to work doing the hardest thing I had every heard of a kid doing: working a garden. I couldn't see the point in it? We turned the Saint Augustine grass over without the aid of a tiller. We combed the grass out and picked rocks for weeks. My new little brother "Clark" was not an exception to work, just because he was 5 years younger. We both moaned and complained but it did us no good. However Lawanna had mercy in her- she would stop us in the heat of the day, bring us in the shade for Kool-Aid and then let us run through the water sprinkler. Then back to work.

    When the last rock had been pulled out and the rows were made nice and neat, Lawanna and Daddy planted the little plants they'd made from seed in the early, cold, spring. I thought the deal was done and I was free from my labor camp experience? No, I just had a reprieve. Soon I was *weeding* with a hoe before I could go out and play. The plants grew and before long we brought in bushels of green tomatoes. They lined the kitchen counters and we ate fried green tomatoes while we waited for the green to turn pink, then orange, then red.

Suddenly- there were more red tomatoes than we could possibly eat! We canned a bunch, but Lawanna was, if nothing else; enterprising. She sacked up the tomatoes, loaded my little red wagon full and sent me and Clark knocking door to door in our neighborhood selling "garden fresh tomatoes". At first I was shy and overwhelmed with the thought of talking to strangers. But Lawanna struck a deal with me: For every bag we sell for .50 cents, Clark and I get to keep HALF! Ok, keep in mind this is 1974. I got .25 cents allowance weekly which was immediately wasted on penny-candy at the 7-11 up the street. Did I mention we lived in the city and no one had gardens in the city in 1974??? We had a HOT commodity and it took off like gangbusters. Overnight, Lawanna got my respect as me and Clark looked forward to selling another wagon load of tomatoes and seeing what we could buy? Lawanna's a genius!!!

    My new found fortune began paying off. Clark was a saver, and I was a spender. Like every young girl, I wanted cosmetic items, a manicure set, and Breck Shampoo. I believe I sent off for *Sea Monkeys* from the back of Tiger Beat Magazine, and was, like every pre-teen I knew, sorely disappointed? Never saw anything other than something greenish growing in that fishbowl. Nothing like the sales ad suggested, not even remotely close. But apparently, this is part of the nostalgia of the 70's, so I guess not all is lost? I just thought I'd have a *pet*?? Sea Monkeys are something that every kid in my era was fascinated with. After all, we had one-line rotary phones, and no internet. We had paper books and magazines with uber-cool ads that never live up to their promises. Such was the 70's... Oh well, live and learn. I bought yarn to crotchet with, and fabric to make pillows for my bed, and my first tube of "Charlie" colonge, that smelled more like turpentine, than perfume. I got a Madame Alexander Doll from Cox's, some lures for my rod and reel, and my stash of penny-candy grew to be the envy of every 7-th grader in my school! Remember; a quarter bought you 24 pieces of wrapped candy. I'm sure I was on a year long sugar high... Daddy, if your reading this- that may explain a lot?

   But the best memories are of just walking through our neighborhood, in the hot July heat, and trying to give each neighbor that doe-eyed innocent look that will twist their heart into a knot and make them buy a bag of tomatoes. I haven't lost that touch, by the way. What's funny to me all these years later is; I suppose my doe-eyed look didn't carry as much weight as I thought? Now at 50, I realize how hard it is to grow your own good tomatoes, and how much better they taste than those bought in a store. The tomatoes were selling themselves, but God Bless Lawanna, she taught us a lesson in going out there and getting the job done! It only helped my self esteem to think *I* was doing any selling? It helped me develop a work ethic that I'm proud of. And it helped me realize I can make do or do without?

   As I weed my garden and glance around at my counter full of tomatoes forty years later... I wonder;.. how much would a bag go for today? It's a thought, and don't think I wouldn't do it again just for grins? Thanks Lawanna. You planted a lot in me, and I'm better person for it.

In picture above: Kelly holding *Wrinkles*, Clark, (Rest In Peace little brother) Daddy, and Lawanna. Circa 1974.