Grandma’s Wisdom and Cherry Tomatoes

In catechism class we learned that God created the universe. But we knew in summer that Grandma created cherry tomatoes.

She grew them by the bushel. We’d snatch them out of the buckets and tubs and pans and old coffee cans sitting on her porch and eat them then and there.

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In honor of Grandma Wenzl, my wife and I grow cherry tomatoes in our community garden plot.

They’d feel warm from the summer sun. We rubbed the black Kansas dirt off before we poked them into our mouths. When we bit down, they burst like sour-sweet balloons, splattering seeds and juice on our shirts. No matter. Our shirts needed washing anyway.

I went to see her, sometimes every summer day, from the time I was a boy, to when I was a teen disking fields outside of town. During my first two years in college, I stopped in every weekend to load up a supply of homemade potato salad and cookies fresh from her oven.

I would sit on her porch and eat tomatoes or oatmeal raisin cookies, and I would watch her water her flowers. Man, this is good, I’d say. And she’d shrug and say that it was impossible to make a bad oatmeal raisin cookie.

She grew the tomatoes in the garden in back of her house, along with spuds and sweet potatoes and squash and raspberries and cherries and pears, all surrounded by peony bushes and rose bushes and more than an acre of irises and phlox and tulips and geraniums. All her pathways winding among the flower beds were covered with clover and thick green grass, and in the grass the robins stabbed their beaks at worms.

It’s all gone to grass now.

We sold her house after she died. Sometimes when I walk past, I see a rogue flower that escaped the lawn mowers poking blossoms through the grass.

She’d lived in town, two miles from our farm. My dad was her son. Dad and Mom had five sons. And our five names when Mom or Grandma called us in to supper amounted to six words shouted as one: RoyGaryLarryTomandRick!

I hated Kansas summers.

There are parts I miss, distanced now 30-some years. But I hated them then. There were days we worked 16 hours and went home greasy with sweaty dust. We knew what it was to be covered with grain dust, and that milo dust itches like poison if you scratch it. Blow your nose, and the Kleenex turns black.

It wasn’t all like that. Little things stand out, and we talk about them still.

Finding wild strawberries in the pastures. Waking up on a steamy morning to see coyote pups playing by the creek. Watching a full rising moon blaze up so magnificently red that you could mistake it for a prairie fire. Nearly falling down in shock when quail coveys exploded at our feet. Smelling rain just before it caught us in the open and turned the dust in our hair into mud.

We’d go fishing on a rare Sunday afternoon off. Mom told us fishing poles cost too much, but I’d found a hook and line in the garage somewhere, left over from Grandpa’s days, and we’d fish for bullheads in the pond. We’d wrap the line around one finger and yank fish out of water. We’d bait our hook with grasshoppers and jerk green sunfish out of the creek.

But most of the time, we worked – at plowing and disking, haying. Wheat harvest came at the same time of the first cuttings of hay.

Larry liked the summers.

He’s still living on the family farm with his wife and three kids. We talk about it sometimes, how we’d work dawn to past dark and be too tired even to watch TV after work. The walls of the bathroom shower would be black with grime, and we’d fall asleep on the floor, too numb from heat and bucking bales to remember what it was like to think, or to feel anything but dirt and dust and sunburn.

But we had no worries then, Larry said.

From the moment we woke up in the morning, we knew what we’d be doing all that day, which was stacking bales in the barn until our sweaty backs nudged right into the rafters where the hundreds of hornets made nests as big as frying pans.

We had no mortgages, he said. No car payments, no kids needing orthodon tics, no schoolwork. We had absolutely no knowledge that Dad and Mom were almost broke. We had no idea that farming might be killing our Dad.

“All we had to worry about was Dad yelling at us and cussing at us and pushing us out the door,” Larry said. “But even if he got really ticked off at us, what was he gonna do if we dragged our butts too slow to suit him? He wasn’t going to throw us out of the family. Not in summer.

“He needed us.”

We pushed all day, and we pushed hard. One day we almost lost Tom to a machine that tried to wrap his body like string around a turning shaft. We cut corners all the time, got run over by Angus steers, carried gasoline in leaky containers in the floorboards of smoking trucks because we always hurried. We ran and seemed to get nowhere.

We envied the city cousins sleeping until noon, sipping malts, watching movies, swimming in pools.

Dad ran us hard, ran himself hard – from one tractor to another in August, stacking bales and driving himself through back pain that eventually began to twist his spine. He yelled when we dawdled; Dad would catch us reading National Geographic or “The Lord of the Rings” over a noon hour, and he’d boot us out the door.

It had not always been this way. When he was younger, he used to drive slow at summer sundowns, with those red Kansas sunsets blazing pink all over the prairie, sunlight so thick with dust that you could see the bars of pink light stabbing through the green of trees. He’d roll us through the tallgrass, counting calves and telling stories.

He had time.

But as we grew from boys into men in the early ’70s, Dad was racing against time. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: He was frantic.

The farm economy was failing us, and failing nearly everyone else. The story of what happened to our family during those summers is the story of what happened all across Kansas in the past 30 years. When we were young, wearing bell-bottomed jeans, nearly every farmstead sitting along the road from Greenleaf to Wichita had a family living in it. Now, many of those farmsteads stand empty – windows broken, barn roofs falling in.

We watched as the Dad who used to take us hunting arrowheads and fossils on summer Sundays worked from dawn to beyond dark, seven days a week, trying not just to get us to college but to keep us in shoes.

I’d sneak off sometimes to sit on Grandma’s porch. It was a refuge, and the cherry tomatoes were plentiful. I’d watch the bumblebees crawl inside the cups of her flowers.

Why does he yell at us so? I’d ask her.

“You wait,” she’d say. “You’ll learn what work is when it’s all on you, when it’s all your load to carry, when everyone depends on you.”

Did he yell at people when he was your little boy?

“He was always cheerful,” she said. “He loved music, and he liked to hunt. He read books every chance he got.”

You never yell at us like he does.

“I’d yell like the dickens if it was my farm and I caught you loafing in summer,” she said.

It’s not fair, I said.

She glared.

“Neither is the weather on some days.”

Originally published in The Wichita Eagle, Aug. 11, 2001

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