It was a sad day when the giant cottonwood collapsed in our backyard last spring. A real whopper of a tree. You could find our house from the window of an airplane by looking for its canopy.
"We can finally plant tomatoes now," Peggy said, scrunching her eyes up toward a newly revealed sky. This revelation took the edge off the loss. I'm a tomato eater from way back.
There are over 7,500 varieties of tomatoes. For those who still get confused about it, a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable. That's as it should be. Vegetables are seedless, soulless essentials hatched from a plant's most barren places. They come from the leaf, stem or root.
Tomatoes are developed from the ovary in the base of the plant's flower. Sexy and soulful. They grow up to be brazen, fertile things, round and red, seductive and sweet.
My father was a tomato-growing savant. The only thing he loved more than growing them was eating them, which he did morning, noon and night during peak season. He called them "tah-MAY-dahs," and his Kentucky growing season started in late April. By June, webbed wooden baskets of them started appearing right next to the golf clubs and rakes in a cool corner of our basement garage.
My father tried canning once or twice, but he took no pleasure from it. Why hassle with eating them later when you could eat them now? What we didn't eat - and we ate them by the kilo - Dad gave to neighbors. Giving tomatoes away provided him great satisfaction, which amused my sister and me because, by God, if he was down to his last basket of the year, he'd hold those same neighbors off with a gun.
I'm surprised by the number of people who don't salt and pepper their slicers in Wisconsin. We never ate them any other way. Sliced and served. My father's tomatoes rarely found their way into side dishes or relishes. He never made salsa with them. It killed him to cut 'em up and put them in a salad. That was like dumping a 2006 Colgin Estate Red into a pitcher of sangria.
Peggy got the jump on me after the cottonwood tree was cleared away. She had tomatoes potted and neatly placed against the south wall of the house at the first sign of decent weather. Not long after that, I bought three hearty beefsteak plants at ShopKo. I planted and caged them side by side along the back fence line.
They died two weeks later. This was a blow. One morning I went out and there they were; flat against the ground in an obscene fetal position, all the chlorophyll bled out. Like they were victims of a knife fight.
This never would have happened to my old man, for whom tomatoes grew like weeds. He was the Patron Saint of Tomatoes, heirlooms bursting forth from his very footsteps.
Meanwhile, Peggy's tomatoes were overflowing from their pots. "You can transplant them to your plot if you want," she offered.
But this was still in June. I returned to Shopko. By now they were practically giving tomato plants away. I brought home three scruffy specimens, more gray than green. They were stiff, too, like balsa wood cutouts.
But all gardeners know joy comes from fortunes wrought by faith. I dug the holes deeper this time and filled them in with store-bought soil as dark and velvety as chocolate cake.
By July in my childhood we were swimming in tomatoes. Rainbows, Brandywines, Early Girls and Moneymakers. Cherry tomatoes, too, although Dad saw those as a silly sideshow. He snacked on them as he watered the others. He hardly bothered bringing any cherries into the house.
Deep into the last hours of the growing season, green tomatoes were stored in the basement under leaves of newspaper. Getting down to the greenies affected my father's spirit. We still ate them, sliced and fried, but the appearance of the under-ripes was a harbinger, like putting the lawn mower away for the last time each year.
The wooden planks I planted my second try this summer stand in exactly the same shape and height as the day they went in. I can only conclude that they must indeed be made of balsa. Either that, or proof positive that green thumbs skip a generation. I quit watering them and plan to take up Peggy's generous offer of transplanting her beauties, which now overflow their homes of orange clay pots.
A Facebook friend recently posted a provocative question. "What is the one thing you would steal without compunction?" I knew the answer in a second because I've done it before. But, thanks to Peggy's pots, this summer I won't have to steal from the garden by the bike path.