To appreciate a fine tomato

Mel's delicious, yellow tomatoes

One remarkable summer day of 1967, Uncle Tab said, “Come help tie up toma’das.”

An unemployed high school graduate on a visit to Kentucky relatives, I gladly followed. For time alone with my youngest uncle meant a diversion from discouragement. I could count on his stories about kinfolk and our birthplace to lift my spirit.

                A previous year, I’d helped Uncle Tab string pole beans in an outbuilding. Might’ve been the farm’s disused smokehouse. There I first observed the dance of his large hands stringing and snapping beans.

“I like my beans full,” Uncle Tab had said, meaning he preferred large kernels. “Your mommy likes hers small.”

After his day’s work in the coal mines, he led me behind the farmhouse to his large tomato patch. He held long strips of old, white bed sheets, the sway in his shoulders steady and sure. I admired his confidence.

“Tie ‘em like this before the stems get too heavy,” he said, looped the cloth under a stem with yellow blossoms and developing fruit. He then knotted the tie to a stake.

Row after row, we rescued his harvest from rotting on the ground. “Now, that’s too tight,” he’d say. Or, “That’s just right.” And, “I like my toma’das big, and so does Alma Leigh.”

A marvelous cook, immaculate housekeeper, and incomparable clotheshorse, Aunt Alma Leigh loathed dirt and perspiration. She therefore left all garden chores to her husband.

As if he’d reserved his most significant revelation for the last tie, Uncle Tab smiled and whispered, “After seven years, our mines finally made some good money.”

Fifty-one years later, upon our last meal with Uncle Tab and Aunt Alma Leigh in Lexington, he took my husband and me for a drive in his golf cart. He stopped by a row of tomato plants five-feet tall and laughed like a boy.

“Mel, pull some toma’das for dinner. Get the biggest, ripest ones.”

That night, Uncle Tab served us chicken and dumplings and sliced tomatoes—the largest, meatiest, juiciest, tastiest tomatoes we’ve had the pleasure to consume.

This summer, Mel completed his second year gardening for varieties to equal Uncle Tab’s. It’s not that I dislike dirt and perspiration. On the contrary! I still plant garlic cloves in October and pull the bulbs in July or August.

Truth is, I think something genetic is awry with common red tomato varieties. For four summers now they’ve refused to ripen, hogging valuable real estate, time, compost, and fertilizer.

“Let’s give them one more summer. I’ll grow more yellow varieties next spring,” Mel reasoned last year.

Because Uncle Tab exampled patience and appreciated a fine tomato, I complied only to throw up my hands this week. “Feed those pathetic red tomatoes to the hens! I’m not canning another jar!”

Dear Reader, all is not lost. Aside from one misshaped into a heart, our yellow tomatoes resemble the size and flavor of Uncle Tab’s reds.  

“Next year, I’m planting more yellow tomato plants,” Mel vowed. 

The toma’da will tell.

Picnic Memories

Children feed our hens during the church picnic

I knew Mom and my Kentucky relatives planned another picnic when she boiled eggs and potatoes on a Saturday. That provoked mixed feelings as a child.

                A day at Wildwood Park meant loading up Mom’s potato salad, fried chicken, chocolate cake, and sweet tea bright and early Sunday morning. After a long drive from Warren to Holly, my sisters and I splashed and played on the beach with our cousins. Then Mom hollered for us to come and eat. Then we played and ate again until the cake disappeared.

A picnic also meant I’d miss Mrs. Urban’s Sunday school class and reciting my memory verse. That meant missing another star by my name on the teacher’s chart.

But Dad and many uncles worked Saturdays, so we picnicked on Sundays with what seemed most of Michigan’s population.

Without a doubt, those glorious, sunburned days running back and forth from the beach to Mom’s chocolate cake redeemed the lessons lost in Sunday school.

For Sabbath mornings with fellow classmates and the Holy Scriptures far outnumbered the Saturday mornings my mother hand-blended potato salad in her white metal dishpan rimmed in red.

My favorite memory verse Mrs. Urban assigned my class remains Romans 8:28. Therefore, I knew God would work out a family picnic for my good because I loved Him and was called according to His purpose. Whatever that purpose might be.

This knowledge, one portion of my inheritance as a believer in God’s Word, granted confidence in the revelation of His purpose. Meanwhile, family picnics and reunions fell by the wayside as relatives passed or moved out of state.

I grew eager to plow my hands through a gigantic bowl of sliced hardboiled eggs, boiled potatoes, celery and olives, chopped carrots and onion blended with Hellman’s mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk. Finished with Morton’s Nature’s Seasons.

In the perfect dispensation of opportunity to fulfill my heart’s desire, our pastor’s wife announced several months ago, “We’re planning to resume our potluck picnic this summer. We’ll keep you posted on the date and location.”

I turned to my husband with absolute assurance in our purpose. “We have the location.”

After months of planning and preparation for 50-60 guests, this past Saturday I carried a punch bowl filled with Mom’s potato salad downhill to our pavilion.

Megan Schwetz of Living Grace Church packs up goodies to take home

In good time and humor, the pastor’s wife, daughter, and two other women arranged the bounty of food on four tables. I recalled reunions and picnics of my childhood: fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, greasy beans with onion, new potatoes and gravy, blackberry cobbler, and jugs of sweet iced tea, for instance.

The pastor’s wife rang the dinner bell I’d fastened to the wall fourteen years ago. Sixty-one guests fell silent to the unexpected clatter.

Dear Reader, a year ago I had no vision of the blessed moment when Pastor Tom asked the Lord’s blessing upon our feast.

Our home is no Wildwood Park, yet childhood laughter while feeding hens and running in sprays of our lopsided sprinkler provoked no less joy.

When the cicadas sing


At last, the solitary hibiscus blooms in my perennial island

I heard the cicada’s mating song last Saturday. Afterward, I read about the red-eyed menace interrupting golf games, delaying air travel, and creating cloudy spots on radar.

Sure, you can’t believe everything you hear and read, and Michigan’s cicada population isn’t what it is further south. Nonetheless, I prayed, “Oh Lord, not here, please.”

The following day, a solitary grasshopper showed up on the vintage setee I bought in Almont years ago. I stopped. Looked up. And listened for bugs.

For I’ve fought the good fight this summer digging up invasive species that blew in from Heaven knows where. I’ve applied a foliar spray on all perennials, aiming at aphids and larvae.

As Richardson Wright says in his Gardener’s Bed-Book for August 14, “Slay that foe, and the others you can take care of with your left hand.”

True. My left hand held the two gallon RL Flomaster while my writing hand held a wand spraying a recipe of water, Neem Oil, Castile Soap, Liquid Fish, and Kelp. I laid down the wand and handpicked Japanese Beetles from hibiscus leaves. Due to deer nibbles again, this pink shrub flowers late this summer.

For as a healthy human body fights disease and injury with better results than one malnourished, a well-fed plant better overcomes deer abuse, aphids, molds, and mildews to produce beautiful blooms.

Take the red drift rose for instance. For the first time in a decade, her canes claim new territory with leaves and miniature blossoms in testimony to persistent TLC.

Matter of fact, every rose bush on this hill flourishes again except one. And Flo and I plan to visit this blushing favorite later for a little chat and smelly bath. 

The primary garden concerns, however, are mildew and black spot rapidly spreading amongst the peonies. Not just any peonies, mind. My mother donated several roots of her light pink variety from her Kentucky home when we first moved here thirty-two years ago. The peonies grew like wildlings, bloomed without a care in the world.

Now, from what I’ve read, this lovely paeonia family needs both right and left hand for their cure. And a strong, patient heart.

Oh, and a stock of the recipe’s ingredients.

Will these efforts and cash save Mom’s favorite spring cultivar from destruction? Some experts I’ve consulted think not.

Well, hope prevails. You see, two springs past I filled Flo with the recipe’s nutrients and exterminated the worm produced by the common columbine sawfly. Not one worm showed itself on a leaf this spring.

And to my pleasant surprise, the columbine’s companions sprouted taller and bloomed more abundantly than any season in the garden’s history. The feverfew reached three feet like thick shrubs while clusters of wild geraniums bloomed in succession at its feet.

Thus I conclude, dear Reader, if I’m a faithful sprayer, the peonies will drink Flo’s stinky tonic like good medicine. I hope they follow the columbine and red drift rose’s example.

We’ll know next spring before the cicadas sing.

The power of peach season


Red Haven peach harvest at Yule Love It Farm

In August 1970, in the peak of peach season, my father-in-law helped my husband and I move our few belongings from Bay City to my mother’s basement in Warren. My childhood storehouse of memories.

The second of Mom’s five daughters, at nine-years old I ran to the furthest corner in the basement and cried when our dog Ginger died. Years later, overlooking the washtub, washing machine and dryer, I observed Mom’s meticulous methods with her Sunbeam iron and Brother sewing machine.

Another unforgettable marker of my generation, I first heard the Beatles sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while my eighth-grade cheerleading squad practiced our cheers on the basement’s unfinished floor. Before my Sweet Sixteen birthday party, Dad installed tile. A home improvement Mom, my sisters, and I appreciated.

My temporary return to my childhood home at six months pregnant, however, did not meet my expectations of independence and marital bliss.

Typical of the times, many young men eligible for the draft found themselves unemployed, college degree or not. Therefore, Mel’s father suggested his son pursue work in the Detroit area and offered to help us move. Mom offered the sofa-bed in her basement.

Unbeknownst to me, the day prior, my older sister and her husband transfered their furniture from Mom’s basement into their first home, weeks before my sister’s due date with Mom’s first grandchild.

When my father-in-law, husband, and I arrived at my mother’s home, she served her delicious spaghetti dinner with peach shortcake for dessert. My first taste of ripe peaches, cake, and whipping cream instantly created a craving for the flavor.

Her daughter who ate to live, Mom said, “Why Iris, you must be eating for the baby.”

By the end of peach season and a month’s imposition upon Mom’s hospitality, she declared, “I won’t be a bit surprised if your baby is born with a peach on its nose.”

Today, eight household relocations and fifty-one years of marriage behind, I climbed my ladder and harvested four baskets heavy with blushing fruit—more than enough for fresh peach shortcake, a shelf-full of peach preserves, and frozen peaches for winter crisps and cobblers served with ice cream.

Oh, and enough to share a basket with our youngest daughter, our one and only child close by to pass on our bounty.

For as my father said when he delivered the Red Haven peach tree we left in the backyard of our home in Detroit, “This is the sweetest and hardiest variety. Water it good and it will bear more than you can eat.”

Dear Reader, yesterday I craved peach shortcake, so I baked scones, peeled ripe peaches and whipped heavy cream blended with cream cheese, confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla. After Mel and I finished the last bite of our first peach dessert of the season, we peeled and sliced eight quarts of fruit for the freezer and a bowlful for preserves.

Then I carried God’s abundant blessing to the basement. My maternal storehouse of memories.

Andy's potting table


Andy's potting table 

In 2004, township officials approved my business plan to operate a small lavender farm on our property. A year later, my Michigan State University agriculture agent said, “Here’s Andy Meinhard’s phone number. He can build anything.”

                Andy showed up unannounced with a smile, introduced himself, and asked, “What do you need?”

I swept a hand toward the prairie. “I need what it takes to develop my vision of visitors harvesting rows of blooming lavender on this land.”

Andy nodded. “What else do you need?”

“A large, sturdy potting table. I’m presently using a card table to pot plants. Come summer, I’ll need a pavilion with a gift shop and storage room for drying lavender bundles and serving food.”

Andy shook his head. “I’m sorry, I no longer have a construction crew, but I can make your potting table and whatever else one handyman can do.”

Also a family farmer, Andy owned every machine necessary to transform a portion of our rolling vistas into my dream, and every tool necessary to build small structures and furniture.

“First, let’s talk about the potting table,” I said.

Andy followed me into the garage where I stored decorative ceiling tin I’d purchased from an antique shop in Staffordsville, Kentucky.

“I’d like you to include this fleur de lis tin into the table some way,” I said.

With a clip in his step, Andy carried my treasure to his truck, slid it in the back with his tools, and drove off. 

True to form, he returned the following week with his mammoth masterpiece. He’d inserted the fleur de lis tin like a mirror attached to a dresser, two drawers beneath the table, and a large storage shelf beneath the drawers. He’d sanded the rusted tin and painted it baby blue.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I love it. I could never have imagined something so magnificent yet practical.”

An enthusiastic expert when envisioning ideas and building them, Andy later assembled a children’s structure with ash saplings hewn from his property. I named the vine-covered hide-away Sweet Spot for its birds’ eye view overlooking the pavilion and blooming fields.

My farm hand also constructed steps descending Sweet Spot’s pinnacle, about thirty signs, our hen house, and thirteen barn wood tables and twenty six benches.

This week, several summers after Andy passed, I sanded and painted his potting table the color lupine. In the slow, meditative strokes of the paintbrush and roller, I recalled him say, “We’re goin’ up to the River this weekend.”

I miss the sight of Andy walking downhill to the pavilion. A fellow chocoholic, he’d lift a small bag of chocolate chip cookies before me. We’d sit and talk about deer hunting, fishing, and the peaceful living on his River with family and friends.

Dear Reader, Andy Meinhard could build anything, including the friendship of a loving brother. Nothing fulfilled him more than to work wholeheartedly on a project and rest well afterward with something chocolate in hand.

A business partnership made in Heaven.