It is a cool and damp morning on this day late in September, after a night of hard rain and blustery winds that flipped over my wooden wheelbarrow, tossed around the flower pots like an Old Testament God, and knocked down the tomato plants on the back porch. The plant that used to call the wheelbarrow home, broken and decapitated by the storm, looks like a goner; but the tomatoes, thick and bushy due to my wife’s tender loving care, are as good as ever and will survive.
Growing tomatoes is something new this year for my wife. I think she picked it up because of Frank, her father, who died not long ago and who grew the sweetest, reddest, plumpest, juiciest tomatoes in the history of western civilization. I think it was a labor of love for him. All year long, he would collect the used coffee grounds, banana and orange peels, bread crusts, and food scraped off the dinner plates in a plastic milk carton in the kitchen sink. When that filled, he dumped it into big white buckets in his garage. Then, each spring, he would get down on his hands and knees and mulch this rich and earthy mixture into the ground. He kneaded it with his bare hands around the roots of the rose bushes that lined his driveway and the tomato plants that edged his back yard.
Whatever it was, it worked. The roses blossomed into rounded globes of reds, oranges, and whites, as saturated in color as those tended by professional landscapers in formal gardens; and the tomatoes were always sweet and tart and unlike any I have tasted before or since. It was amazing how many friends, relatives, and acquaintances just happened to be in the neighborhood during peak growing season. Every one of them left with a brown bag of tomatoes hovering on the verge of perfection and a few fresh-cut roses for the kitchen table. I think it made Frank feel good to know that his tomatoes were sprinkled around the city, sitting on window sills waiting to erupt into all their red glory, and his roses resting in vases bathed in the morning light pouring through the kitchen window.
My father-in-law was a humble man and would never have been so bold as to suggest to others how to live their lives. In his own quiet way, though, I think he served as a role model for us, showing us what is important in life. Those tomatoes and roses were his legacy, little pieces of his character left behind for us to savor. Every time I bite into a sweet tomato, I taste a bit of who Frank was. Every time I walk past a garden erupting into color, I see his face in there somewhere. They are testimonies to the sacredness of ordinary things, to the power and glory of small tasks done well. To this day, it fills me with wonder how deeply fulfillment can blossom from the cultivated ground of simple things done with reverence and respect. As far as legacies go, this one isn’t too shabby and pound for pound matches up nicely with those of kings and queens, titans of industry, and rulers of our financial institutions. If I am lucky enough to leave one half as good as Frank’s, I won’t complain.