Sometimes when we harvest a garden, we take down more than fruits and vegetables. Commentator Linda Tatelbaum tells her story of the memories that are tied up in her crops.
CURWOOD: The late days of summer mean lots of ripe tomatoes down Maine. Commentator Linda Tatelbaum has been spending a lot of time in her garden at her home in Rockland, and finding it can add up to a lot more than cooking and canning.
TATELBAUM: Today I'm taking down my tomato plants. It's not as simple as it sounds, because with them I'm taking down the shredded evidence of my past. The plants have been staked to my past all summer, festooned with strips of torn cloth. Here is the flannel ripped from one of many plaid shirts I've given my husband for his birthday. Here's the pink flowered nightgown that comforted me when I was a student, freezing in Paris. I stuff the scraps into a bag. The empty plants flop to the ground.
I kneel to loosen a knot from the old crib sheet. It's dotted with Disney characters; not the garish ones that march across a lunch box or a video screen today, but the modest, 1950's version. The sheet was already a hand-me-down when my little boy landed on it in October, 1979. Now here it is October again, the row of maples turning red as when he was born. After all these decades, this threadbare piece of Mickey Mouse has done its time. I toss it into the compost heap along with the uprooted Big Boy tomato plant it held aloft.
All things go down to dirt in the end, but there is still more wear left in the strips of a lilac T-shirt my husband bought for me at the Rochester Airport in the early eighties. It says, "I'd rather be in Rochester" which isn't exactly true, and never was. But that day, I was a sad young mother leaving my parents’ help with the baby. I wanted to raise my son in the country, but I was crying at the daunting prospect of my return with a baby on my back, to the toil of our Maine homestead – tending vegetables, carrying water, cooking on a wood stove.
I shove a T-shirt scrap into the bag, and yank the tomato plant from the soil. Maybe it's I who am anchored to the stake, tied to tomatoes, believing that nothing changes. I tend the same vigorous plants year after year. We don't say they're aging, but ripening. We don't call it death but harvest, as they pass into our mouth, our blood, our thoughts.
Next fall the same fruits will stream into the basket and onto the table, under the knife and into the jars. I do not mourn for passing vegetables. This perpetual abundance deceives me, though. Here I am, still myself, and my same husband too. But my mother lives in a nursing home. My father is dead. My son is a man. Every year the pine trees on these acres grow taller. How many hints will it take?
I reach back into the bag and pull the scrap out again. I run the faded strip through my hand. This lilac ribbon connects me to Mom, recalling how much a young mother needs a mother, and how much an old mother needs a daughter. In all the days between my need and hers, face it, we are ripening. The ripening of tomatoes ends in the joy of eating. Soon it will be winter, then spring again. Mom will not be here forever. But as long as I am here, hanging out with tomatoes, dragging my scraps around in a bag, I'll be tethered to her.
CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum lives in Maine, and is author of “Writer on the Rocks – Moving the Impossible.” You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.
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