It’s Tomato Season!

It’s Tomato season!

In this excerpt from Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New Chapter 6, author Suzanne Henley, shares how the first tomato of the season is like a prayer. http://bit.ly/2ux2n3m

Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon

Unsolicited prayers often sneak up and startle me in mid-activity.

The summer we spent in North Carolina, Jim and I stopped at one of the ubiquitous fresh-produce buildings that line the stretch of two-lane Highway 64 we traveled daily between Hendersonville and Brevard. We asked the two proprietors, North Carolina versions of PBS’s Two Fat Ladies, for their best tomatoes. One of the women laughed as she pointed to a basketful of unappealingly warped and bruise- colored tomatoes. We looked back at her, querulous. “Yep,” she said, as she chose two of those scary-looking, over-heavy growths and plopped them into our hands. “They’re Cherokee Purples, Honey. Take ’em home and try ’em. You’ll be back.”

Fixing dinner that night, I washed the tomatoes and, feeling like Abraham approaching Isaac, raised the knife rather high. They looked tough. But as the richly deep-red slices slowly fell apart from the knife, I was swept in a sensual rush to more than sixty years earlier in my grandmother’s kitchen. I remembered the sun splashing through her kitchen window on the still life of tomatoes lined up fresh from the garden, the smell of the vine still clinging, the fierceness of the reds, the beads of salt releasing the musty scent of fecund earth. Eve, still naked, bit into that forbidden fruit, its burst of juice sliding down her chin and neck. I was nine years old again.

I was even aware of the phenomenon I think we’ve all experienced, of thinking in childhood that a grandparent’s home seemed large and grand and then, years later, realizing it was only a normal-sized house. In that moment, though, my grandmother’s kitchen was a palace of linoleum, and that parted tomato contained all the assumed magic of my childhood. I think I gasped a little, trying to stop time, understanding after several years David Craig’s poem “Pentecost”:

What is this Holy Spirit?
And what is it doing in the eggplant?

Jim and I made daily visits to the Fat Ladies. Each night for the next two weeks after dinner, I cleaned up while he hunkered in the cabin’s basement methodically scraping each tomato seed from our plates onto laid-out, yellowing newspaper. We were familiar, too, having heard her in concert the year before, with Kate Campbell’s ironically joyous song “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon,” based on a sign she’d seen one day near Asheville. We sang its refrain every day on the way to or from the Fat Ladies.

I didn’t know that Jim had funneled all those dried seeds into a ziplock and carefully driven them home to his freezer, where they waited, silent and patient, or, two years later when we married, that he’d brought the ziplock of seeds from his old refrigerator to our new home. Because our own yard was torn up by construction and we had no garden, Jim presented my daughter with a handful of those seeds to plant without much expectation. She nurtured them for months like a firstborn. Her cut into that first tomato, which she presented to us with ceremony, was once again a moment of childhood magic. The Holy Spirit had been patient for three years.

And now I, and Abraham, and Eve, and my nine-year-old self wait each summer for that first Cherokee Purple from our garden, and I say, slicing into that first bite, Oh, thank you, Holy Spirit. Each year that first tomato is a prayer.

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