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True love at first bite

First loves are hard to forget.
I was 7 the summer my grandmother took my hand to lead me out to her garden.
I counted the steps from the porch to the yard. My legs were short. She had to stop on each step and wait for me, but she didn’t seem to mind.
I remember the rustle of her starched skirt, the warmth of her hand and the sound of her humming a happy little tune.
It wasn’t really a song, she said, just the music that played in her heart. She always hummed going to the garden.
We took a shortcut through the basement, a place I feared. It was dark and damp, smelled of kerosene and mold, and it was filled with shadows where monsters lay in wait, hoping for a chance to eat me.
I never mentioned monsters to my grandmother. She wasn’t scared of anything, not even snakes, and I wanted to be just like her. So I held my breath, prayed for God’s deliverance and walked a little faster. And the next thing I knew, we’d be stepping into sunshine.

It was a lesson well learned. I’ve walked through a lot of scary basements. Sooner or later, they always lead to light.
The garden was planted in a patch of black earth and fenced with chicken wire to ward off rabbits and deer, creatures not easily warded off.
I can close my eyes and see it still, my grandmother’s garden, a beautiful mess of leaves and stems, stalks and tendrils, caterpillars and earthworms, corn and beans, squash and okra, marigolds and morning glories all reaching for heaven like the Garden of Eden.
On that perfect summer day, I picked my first ripe tomato.
“There,” my grandmother said, pointing. “Take that one.”
I took it. Plucked it off the vine and held it in my hand.
“Take a bite,” she said.

I did. I bit into the skin, dirt and all, filled my mouth with its sweet, buttery flesh and let the juice trickle down my chin.
I looked at my grandmother. We laughed and that was it. I’d never be the same. Once you’ve tasted tomatoes fresh off the vine, there is no turning back.
Then I grew up, left the South and lived a life with little time or space for gardening.
I make no excuse. The truth is, some of us are gardeners; the rest of us just like to eat. I am of the latter.

Every time I go into a grocery store, I miss my grandmother’s tomatoes. I also miss the ones my mother and stepfather grew in their garden, and the ones my sister grows in barrels on her back porch in South Carolina.
My family and friends know how I feel about tomatoes. They use it to lure me to visit.
My sister called last week to tempt me. “My tomatoes are coming in,” she said. “Too bad you aren’t here to eat them.”
Then Martha, her neighbor and my friend since second grade, emailed to say that her garden is “booming,” too. She’s even making salsa with her crazy brother John.
I know John, love him dearly. I wouldn’t go near his salsa. Martha added, “You need to come home for good tomatoes.”
Now my daughter is growing tomatoes on the foggy coast of California. “You should see them, Mom, they’re beautiful.”
Yes, I should. And would, if I could. I’d visit my daughter, my sister, my friend Martha — and you, if you had a garden. We’d talk, laugh, eat tomatoes off the vine, let the juice trickle down our chins and have a really good time. But we would not touch John’s salsa.
I’m hoping to go to the South this fall, maybe. Tomato season runs late some years. And corn might be ripe for picking …
Real monsters in life don’t eat people; they just gobble time.

Contact Sharon Randall at www.sharonrandall.com.

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